APA 2014-1: The moral basis of capitalism, or something

atlas-picby Massimo Pigliucci

As I have done at the previous incarnation of Scientia Salon, the Rationally Speaking blog [1], from time to time I will report on this webzine on interesting conferences or workshops in which I participate. After all, the chief point of Scientia Salon is for academics to engage in discussions with a broader public about what they do.

My first report from this year’s meeting of the American Philosophical Association, being held in Philadelphia, will be a bit strange, as it covers a session off the main program, sponsored by none other than the Ayn Rand Society, and entitled “The moral basis of capitalism.”

Now, Randians, or Objectivists as they prefer to be called, are nowhere near the mainstream of academic philosophy, being pretty much ignored by any moral or political philosopher I know. Still, there are some professional philosophers in the group, and they do get together at the APA, if for nothing else but to put up their (usually pretty much entirely unvisited) book exhibit during the meeting.

At the 2014 APA-Eastern, the Randian session was chaired by James G. Lennox (University of Pittsburgh), and the speakers were James Otteson (Wake Forest University), Peter Boettke (George Mason University), and Yaron Brook (Ayn Rand Institute). Here is the gist of what they said, with my most certainly not neutral commentary.

James Otteson (Wake Forest University) got things started with a talk on Adam Smith’s theory of freedom as discernible from his The Theory of Moral Sentiments [2] and other writings. Smith, if anything, was even more anti-metaphysical than Hume, if possible, and therefore not particularly prone to elaborate on formal theories of this kind. Still, of course that doesn’t mean he did not at the least implicitly have a theory of human freedom, which is what Otteson is after.

According to the latter, Smith considers self-command to be a virtue, and one that requires deliberation and conscious intentionality. Smith thought that we naturally seek the pleasure of approval from others, which affects our judgment, sometimes in a negative fashion. Self-command, then, is what allows us to distance our judgments from what we would be delivering if we were simply seeking sympathy from others, moving us toward more of an impartial observer’s point of view.

Because we are social animals, we are subject to conditional imperatives that regulate our behavior toward others, of the kind “if you want to be happy / survive / have relationships etc. then do X.” Our default mode of operation is to comport with others’ expectations because we are social animals, but we can also choose not to comply with such expectations, if morally necessary. Smith says – possibly following Aristotle – that it takes practice to achieve self-command in the pursuit of virtuous choices.

Smith’s approach in moving us toward a more virtuous society, according to Otteson, amounts to a more palatable (to the Objectivist) version of what nowadays is called “libertarian paternalism.” In The Wealth of Nations [3] Smith concludes that governments should play a limited role in our lives, including maintaining security and public works such as infrastructures that facilitate commerce, primary schooling and so forth. Also, every citizen should be required – according to Smith – to acquire minimal educational skills (reading, doing arithmetic).

Comparing Smith’s with modern libertarian paternalism, as presented in the recent book Nudge [4], the main difference is that Smith talked about virtue arising locally, from decentralized sources; the authors of Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein, instead propose a centralized source for the proper “nudges,” involving the deployment of expertise by a small number of individuals (the experts in whatever the specific subject matter happens to be). Needless to say, Otteson thinks that Smith’s system is “morally beautiful,” while Thaler and Sunstein’s is reprehensible.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the above. I am no expert on Adam Smith, though what I read of him (and of his close friend, David Hume) definitely makes him come across as much more concerned with the human condition and much more skeptical of the intrinsic power of free markets than he is usually portrayed to be by the likes of Otteson.

I don’t doubt (though I stand to be corrected by any actual expert on Smith) that he advocated a limited role of government, which of course Otteson stressed over and over during his presentation. But there are two obvious considerations that ought to seriously temper any attempt at claiming Smith for the Randian camp: first, and most obvious, since it isn’t denied even by Otteson, Smith did see a role for government not just in providing security (the only role allowed by Rand herself), but also in building infrastructures and providing education. Second, yes, Smith talked explicitly only of elementary education and of what by modern standards would have been somewhat limited kinds of public infrastructure. But that was the 18th century, people! Who knows, perhaps a modern-day Smith would be fine with the Eisenhower highway system, or with free public education up to high school included. Things scale up during the course of the centuries, after all. And this, of course, without considering the obvious objection: okay, that’s what Smith thought. Too bad for what Smith thought…

On to the second speaker, Peter Boettke (George Mason University), who spoke on the relationship between the ideas of economist Ludwig von Mises [5] and those of Ayn Rand. According to Boettke the defining ideologies of the 20th century were decidedly anti-libertarian, namely, socialism, national-socialism, communism, environmentalism, feminism and other types of collectivism (yes, I know, environmentalism and feminism on the same level as the others? Wait, it gets worse). They were together responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths (I told you it was going to get worse! Environmentalism and feminism responsible for countless deaths? When?).

Ayn Rand was – according to the author – arguably one of the chief critics of collectivism (notice that from now on there is no distinction within the talk between the different types of collectivism, which are all subsumed under “socialism”; after all, they are all deadly). Rand approached the issue “from the heart” (his words, I ain’t kidding), while von Mises’ approached it “from the head.” The suggestion is that one needs both: a scientific (head) and a moral (heart) critique of collectivism.

Why, asked Boettke echoing Rand, is it so easy for socialist ideologies to penetrate young minds, why are they so appealing to idealist young people, despite the evidence of endless destruction brought about by socialism and other collectivisms?

This is puzzling to libertarians, particularly because socialism did not fail because of the shortcomings of humanity, as its defenders often maintain, but because it does not take into account the nature of humanity. (On this I actually agree, though of course I think that libertarianism suffers from precisely the same problem, just on the polar opposite of the economic-moral spectrum.)

von Mises apparently did not present a moral critique of collectivism – indeed, he committed the unpardonable sin (for the Objectivist) of granting its moral appeal. The economist focused instead on the economic irrationality of collectivism, on what he regarded as strictly “scientific” grounds (which are actually highly debatable, as macroeconomics is not a science in the desired sense of the term, like physics or biology, in my mind [6]). Of course von Mises was deeply committed to the ideal of a value-free economic science (which, I would argue, is simply bizarre), and since for him capitalism, but not socialism, can solve the problem of economic calculation (i.e., figuring out what is the best way to run the economic system), socialism is therefore doomed regardless of how morally appealing it may be, it is an unachievable utopia.

Enter Ayn Rand, the strongest critic of collectivism from a philosophical and artistic perspective – according to Boettke – by way of her novels and short stories, and then eventually her non fictional essays.

Rand agreed with von Mises’ economic analysis (of course), but strongly disagreed with his moral one: for her individual rights are the means to submit society to the moral law, and anything that goes against that precept is simply evil.

Rand, said Boettke, realized that economic literacy is needed in society, but that it is difficult to achieve for most people, so she saw her novels as a way to teach economics (as well as philosophy) to the masses. At this point I had to call on all my Stoic self-control not to audibly grunt in the middle of the small room. I am happy to report that I succeeded.

So back to Rand: collectivism is a false ideal in part because it works via taxation, which in her mind amounted to theft and to the fostering of a culture of parasitism. Rand’s protagonists in her novels are men (yes, usually men) of achievement who demonstrate what would happen to society if the real producers of innovation and wealth, “shrugged,” to recall the title of one of her most famous works of fiction.

At this point Boettke launched into a rant against the ideas of Paul Samuelson, a leading economist of the ’50s and ’60s (and hence contemporary to the von Mises-Rand debate), who was a strong critic of laissez-faire capitalism, and therefore a major target of Rand. “The social responsibility of businesses is to earn profits, nothing more, nothing less,” stated Boettke rather categorically, arguing that it was a “culture of moochers and looters” that leads to the ruin of humankind. That is what Rand was rebelling against in her famous discussion of Robin Hood, for her a symbol of the idea that need, and not achievement, is the source of rights in collectivist societies. (The fact that the overwhelming majority of people think of Robin Hood as a moral individual, given the circumstances of the story, was completely glossed over and left unaccounted. No need to argue with the moochers and their supporters.)

Boettke concluded by bringing the debate up to date: socialism, he suggested, is still an animating ideology, as seen with the recent Occupy movement (despite the fact that Occupy actually had a highly heterogeneous ideological matrix, but let’s not get ugly facts get in the way of a beautiful theory…). The socialist debate is not a dead horse, he said, it is a live one, and it is for each generation of political and moral philosophers to continuously engage it, just like Ayn Rand did. (Groan.)

Finally, the evening concluded with Yaron Brook (Ayn Rand Institute), who talked more directly about Ayn Rand’s moral basis for capitalism, the topic that, after all, gave the title to the entire session. Rand objected to reliance on the common defense of capitalism (a la von Mises), the idea that it maximizes some economically defined utility function. For her the idea of the common good is undefinable and simply an excuse for collectivists to take over. (To be fair, as far as I can muster, Rand had some seriously justified issues with the “collectivism” she and her family experienced in the Soviet Union, but of course Stalin was no Marxist, nor was he an environmentalist or feminist…)

The moral justification of capitalism, rather, is that it is the only system consonant with man’s nature as a rational being. Reason is assumed to be the key to all man’s successes, the instrument by which all human values are attained (please notice that the continuous use of the terms “man” and “mankind,” rather than human beings and humankind, are the author’s not mine). Moreover,and crucially for Rand, reason is the attribute of an individual, not a group property (she acknowledged that people can correct each other’s thinking, but cannot think for one another – this, of course, represents an extremely naive view of human epistemology, to say the least [7]).

The goal of man is flourishing, “the survival of man qua man,” as Rand put it, apparently unfazed by the fact that to define “flourishing” is just as challenging as defining the common good. She rejected any value that puts the emphasis on the group, and emphasized that we don’t know what is good for us, we discover it through our use of reason. (This sounds superficially, but only superficially, like Aristotle, the only philosopher who Rand acknowledged as an influence on her thinking.)

Rand stated the obvious when she claimed that you cannot put a gun to an engineer and tell him that from now on 2+2=5. A little less obvious is the similarity she draws between that case and the idea that one cannot put a (governmental) committee in charge of telling a company the value or appropriateness of a new drug. The metaphorical gun in the latter case, of course, is the regulatory force of government, and for Rand it is far more devastating than the one pointed to the head of our unfortunate engineer.

So, collectivism (in all its forms, environmentalism and feminism included) for Rand restricts the ability of man to flourish, destroying both the possibility for innovation and the motivation to innovate. The kind of strong individual rights favored by Objectivists, then, become the necessary bridge concept between human (individual) reason and the workings of society. Rights mean freedom from coercion, and the only real right is the right of the individual to pursuit his own goals and flourishing, however he sees fit. Property rights – so dear to libertarians (for whom Rand had little sympathy) are a derivative of individual rights, since property is necessary for the flourishing of the individual.

Capitalism, according to this logic, is the system that protects all of us because it recognizes individual (and property) rights. Notice, incidentally, that all property, in Rand’s view, ought to be privately owned, there should be no such thing as public land or buildings, and that the sole job of government is the protection of individual rights, i.e. the protection from physical force by others (contra Adam Smith, see above). Rand’s capitalism is a “leave me alone” capitalism, none of this “mixed” system so fashionable today, concluded Brook.

The author went so far as to state that the essence of the idea of justice is the idea of trade: the individual’s ability to offer value for value. Capitalism rewards reason and innovation, and irrationality is penalized. Capitalism is a morally just system, because you get what you deserve via your ability to trade. (Double groan, if you permit me.)

Why, then, is socialism so appealing to people? (This seemed to be a recurring question that really bugged all speakers at the session.) Because, according to Rand, people believe in altruism as a paragon of moral behavior, and socialism is an altruistic system, despite its practical failures. The idea of service to others is a moral ideal for many, which is why people are willing to evade the horrific consequences of socialism and the obvious successes of capitalism. Needless to say, this is entirely mistaken, and it is selfishness that is truly moral, in Rand’s universe.

I hope the absurdity of the Objectivist notions discussed at the session is evident enough [8], perhaps nudged a bit by my interspersed comments (except for the groaning, that’s not an argument, just an emotional relief valve). The interesting thing for me was that – this being, after all, a professional meeting of philosophers – I learned precisely nothing new about Rand, Objectivism, capitalism or collectivism. All I was exposed to was dogma – both economic and moral-political – devoid of supporting argument. I’m sure this was entirely satisfactory to most of the people in attendance, being already part of the Objectivist club, but it was astonishing how the session actually made it onto the program of the APA (albeit as a special one, outside the main set of events). Fortunately, there was a nice dinner and a significant amount of wine waiting for me to conclude the evening…

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] See, for instance: Metaethical antirealism, evolution and genetic determinism, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 28 December 2012.
[2] The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Wiki entry.
[3] The Wealth of Nations, Wiki entry.
[4] Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein, Penguin Books, 2009.
[5] Ludwig von Mises, Wiki entry.
[6] Rationally Speaking podcast, episode 51: Joseph Heath on Economics Without Illusions.
[7] Social Epistemology, by Alvin Goldman, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[8] If not, I invite you to read my four-part series on Objectivist “philosophy,” published at Rationally Speaking: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Politics.


Categories: commentary

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70 replies

  1. ej,

    it is funny how people insert talk of rights in economic discourse without realizing that they are now talking about ethics. Which is of course why it was so important to Rand to argue that capitalism isn’t just economically efficient, but moral too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. [Capitalism, when it works, maximizes economic efficiency, but has intrinsically nothing to do with maximizing things like justice and fairness.]

    I’m sure we disagree on what is “just” and “fair” and the way in which these could possibly be “maximized”. For instance, some of us would say that Individuals are inviolable; the Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; individuals may not be used for the achieving of other ends without their consent.

    Some of us also see that there is an intimate connection between economics and politics, that only certain combinations of political and economic arrangements are possible, and that in particular, a society which is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom.

    Re: Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick


  3. Ouch. This is a devastating quote. I wonder how the audience reacted to the notion? It frightens me that future military leaders may have been nodding their heads in agreement.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo, thanks for the thought-provoking essay. I can remember an 18-year old me closing the cover of Atlas Shrugged and feeling transformed. I drank the proverbial Kool Aid! Then I stood up, walked out into the real world and forgot all that nonsense.

    Following up on several of the comments here, I believe that it is important to go back to seminal texts, such as Wealth of a Nation, to spot check our beliefs and compare them to current events. My original take on Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia has benefitted from from a 2nd and 3rd reading, moving me farther toward Nozick and sliding away from Rawls point-of-view. Is this a common experience?


  5. DeepKarma,

    I believe it is a common experience with philosophical texts. They should be read over and over, possibly while discussing them with others. As I tell my students, philosophy is not a spectator sport…


  6. Jake,
    Keep in mind that the value of money is based on public debt and so it behooves the capitalist system to create as much public debt as possible. As such, the system is designed to do so, by the legislature putting together these enormous bills and then adding whatever it takes to get sufficient votes to pass them. Which the President can only pass or veto in whole.
    Now if there were truly a movement to control public spending and not just direct it to one’s favorite sectors, then possibly they could break these bills into their individual items and have every legislator assign a percentage value to each item and then the president could draw the line at what would be funded.
    It is quite likely the result would significantly curtail the creation of dollars and local communities would likely have to start issuing their own forms of currency, or start voucher systems etc, not to mention how international trade would have to adjust. Would you be in favor of that, or do you have some other agenda, that you would like to present?


  7. Massimo, I don’t understand your objection. What does the maximization of justice and fairness have to do with voluntary exchange?

    And what empirical evidence are you talking about? You must be using a different notion of accountability. If we’re talking about fiscal accountability, the private sector is obviously more accountable. Competition forces firms to improve product quality and drive down prices. What do you mean by accountability?


  8. Jake, no the private sector isn’t obviously more accountable at all. There are government programs that are well run, and private programs that are very wasteful.

    As for justice and fairness, that’s what interest me more than the efficiency of economic exchanges. I’m willing to scarify some of the latter in order to improve on the former.


  9. Various thoughts for this comment:

    Aravis Exactly! Bankruptcy protects debtors who often were previously creditors. That’s exactly my point on how that’s a flip-side benefit of a modern progressive state.

    And, what Coel said on elections. Actually, I’d prefer to mix a first-past-the-post for America’s current 435 House members, then elect about 200 more nationally off a proportional national list, BUT … with a German-style baseline. (In the US, I’m OK with 3 percent, not 5 percent, but you get the idea.)

    Given that America’s “founding fathers” wanted to ignore parties (they didn’t have to look far to “foresee” them, since the Mother Country was already divided into the Home Party and the Country Party, and, 500 years earlier, Guelphs and Ghibbelines dominated the Italy of Massimo, or the Blues and Greens of Byzantium, they knew about factions. They just mixed idealism and naivete in presuming that Novus Ordo Seclorum wouldn’t have them.

    But, “American exceptionalism,” etc. and our Constitution is Holy Writ! (sigh)

    Frank Williams Piketty wins the “Most Overrated Book of the Year” award in my ledger. How any theoretically liberal Frenchman can almost entirely avoid discussing labor unions is beyond me, unless it’s the seeming reality that he’s actually a neoliberal.

    More here: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/09/thomas-piketty-allergic-to-word-union.html And here: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/05/piketty-liberal-frenchman-ignorant-of.html

    EJ Nice take on Branden as well as Rand. I think his tool of sentence-completion journaling is of some psychological value for bringing some subconscious ideas to the light of consciousness, but other than that, I’ll pass.

    Jake Zielsdorf Anybody who thinks the US private sector is “efficient” is ignoring something like US health insurance.

    And, no, competition doesn’t force anything like that. It can also “force” monopoly-forming buyouts and other things. Or cartels. Or the organized bribery of politicians called lobbying. Or short-term vs. long-term views on what counts as “efficient” or as “profitable.”

    All: Various versions of conservative macroeconomics strike me as a field that’s often rife with various “no true Scotsman” arguments, especially when elected American conservative political figures are involved.

    It should also be noted, of course, that many libertarians aren’t Randians.

    It should also be noted that some US libertarians even support single-payer national health care, and can articulate libertarian grounds for so doing.

    Oh, and I missed this Existentialist Comic yesterday, more relevant than any other. It’s Rand and Rawls! And Hobbes and Marx. And, Rawls gets called a hypocrite in the process while Rand gets called not a real philosopher. http://existentialcomics.com/comic/37

    And, that’s probably the best place to end. I, like many others, see no coherence in the thought of her or her acolytes. I do see Randianism as a cult inside larger libertarian philosophy. And, of course, cults aren’t known for their rationality.

    They are, though, as EJ pointed out, known for their slavish devotion to their founder, including high-cost loyalty tests.

    Eventually, Randianism will break into Trotskyist, Stalinist and Maoist factions.


  10. Jake: “If there is competition and good regulation, corporations are more accountable than government.

    My Take: If good regulation and anti monopoly measures (because competition breaks down) are alright with you, then I’m a bit confused about where you stand

    Jake: I get the feeling that you don’t understand the different incentives facing government and the private sector. … People have more incentive to be rational about their purchases because it affects them personally, whereas the likelihood of someone’s vote deciding an election is infinitesimal, so there is virtually no incentive to be informed.

    My Take: The powerful, including corporate powers have always had a problem with rational actors.
    E.g. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
    “Let me have men about me that are fat;
    Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights.
    Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
    He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”

    Today we have a new twist — the thinking class behind those who want to maximize a certain power (private wealth) telling us that everyone is a rational actor — with the tendency to create a system that works for the very very rational, where rationality is defined economically as “best at maximizing wealth”. Those raised by people who have “gotten along” in good economic times as wage-earners tend to think in terms of going out and getting a good job. Meanwhile, the extremely popular “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” series says repeatedly: Getting a job is for suckers. Work and save long enough (if you didn’t inherit money) to get some wealth, and that wealth will generate more wealth, and eventually you get rich while not working very hard.

    Without necessarily having analyzed the situation, those who use money to get money have to sell, and participate piecemeal (generally without overall design), in turning people into “fish” as the gamblers say. Advertising and the whole popular culture promotes most people being happy-go-lucky and wanting to buy stuff and not at all tending to minimize their expenditures so they can amass some capital.

    Democracy and the state as a res public (public thing, or commons – the origin of “republican”) is the only thing capable of protecting freedom and dignity, as Thomas Jefferson knew well, and he strongly advocated good public education to raise up intelligent voters. If the incentives don’t support wide participation by an aware public in democracy, it is broken & we need to fix it, not dream that all will be fine if we make government “weak enough to drown in a bathtub” (Weimar Germany was weak enough to drown in a bathtub and it was drowned in a bathtub and we know how that turned out).

    Lastly it is naive to imagine all ones interactions with corporations take the form of voluntary exchange. This will be more and more true as we move into the age of drones and “Armies in a box”.


  11. Jasen Tenney,

    I have no idea where you get the idea from that democracy is about personal economic freedom. As commonly understood, the concept means the rule of (all) the people, and it is thus perfectly compatible with the people deciding by majority vote about all aspects of economic activity. (How well that would work in practice is a separate question.)

    So I agree with you that there is an “intimate connection between economics and politics, that only certain combinations of political and economic arrangements are possible”, but to me it is the other way around: If the most important factor that decides about our individual survival and prospering, that is the means of production and material wealth in general, are for the greatest part controlled only by a small minority then we do not actually have democracy but instead an oligarchy. Again, that is what those words mean.


  12. Massimo, you said there was empirical evidence that government is more accountable than corporations…

    Sure, you can find cases of private sector inefficiency and government efficiency but the incentives are aligned such that government will be systematically less efficient than the private sector, save the areas where government provides public goods. And even in cases like the provision of roads the government lacks incentives to economize. Boondoggles are ubiquitous.

    As for justice and fairness, voluntary transactions have moral import. People engage in the exchange of goods and services because it benefits them. It’s not simply about efficiency. It’s also about freedom. I assume you agree liberty is a virtue. This isn’t to preclude redistribution. I think redistribution is necessary. You can be concerned with the preservation of individual liberty and the efficiency of the free market while also being in favor of redistribution. I’m not an extremist libertarian by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I consider myself a centrist.

    Gadfly, of course you pick the one industry that is infused with government. Health care is subsidized by Medicare, Medicaid, and tax exemptions for employer provided insurance. There are mandates for insurance companies to cover certain things that aren’t necessary and should be left up to the consumer to choose. This raises the price of course. Consumers of health insurance have less options because they are limited to their state approved companies. This means less competition than there would be in a national market. These interventions compound the inefficiencies because they take away the price mechanism that would allow for consumers to make informed decisions about what health procedures would have benefits that exceed costs. Instead people overconsume health care because they are insulated from the costs.

    And I believe I said good regulation is necessary for markets. You also allude to rent-seeking, which is a huge problem and a booming industry. This is a problem of capitalism/government interaction however, not the private sector per se. I hope the right and left come together to focus on the rampant rent-seeking in America.


  13. Socratic, Coel, et al.

    Sorry, but I am out of replies. I appreciate your comments.


  14. Jake,
    You seem to have missed my prior point, that the basis of the monetary system is public debt and so minimizing it would in fact strangle capitalism, as we know it.
    Corporations function as organisms in the ecosystem which stable governments provide and unless some reasonable equilibrium is maintained between private and public sector functions, the economy and the society built on it, would crumble.
    Yes, by the bottom line standards of basic business philosophy, government isn’t always terribly efficient, but then its purpose is the well being of its citizens, or at least sufficient numbers of them to give it necessary support. If the circle gets drawn too tight, the tide eventually turns and those pushed to the outside find they have more power then those inside and that is not healthy for the system.
    I’m not necessarily supporting one side or the other, just pointing out there are two sides to every coin and ignoring or demonizing the other side of the equation doesn’t get you where you think you want to go.


  15. Brodix, if you mean by “the basis of the monetary system is public debt” that debt can be good and is essential to capitalism, then I agree. This is basic economics. It’s all about the margins.

    All the leftists in this thread seem to be attributing to me this naive sort of anarchist view that government should get their hands out of everything. I have a more nuanced opinion. I agree that government is extremely important for stable markets. That’s why much of Africa isn’t doing well. I don’t demonize government. In fact, I’m often annoyed by the right when they talk of the government in dogmatic, moral terms. What I do recognize is the incentive differences inherent to government and the private sector. I don’t think enough people appreciate the difference. There’s a tendency on the left to romanticize government. In a world of scarce resources, justice and fairness entails allowing the market to satisfy economic preferences. That’s all I’m saying. Recognize the power of incentives.


  16. Jake,

    “There’s a tendency on the left to romanticize government.”

    Without a doubt. Perhaps also an equally unwarranted tendency on the right to demonize it?


  17. The easy read on the relationship between economics and politics is Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom”, http://amzn.com/0226264211

    A short read really and aligns with Nozick quite well.


  18. Jake,
    Having spent my life working in a family business, my labor oriented views developed in an overly incestuous situation, where the other side of the situation was in close proximity.
    Humanity has functioned in a forward focused, object oriented view from the dawn of time, from hunter gathering, to; “Go forth and multiply,” to; “Go west, young man.” The problem is when those incentives are not well thought out and we periodically go rushing off cliffs. Money functions as just such a collective incentive and it serves both government and the financial industry for the majority of humanity to accept its acquisition as a goal, without considering the larger costs and consequences. Much like we are seeing the issues of social control and manipulation as the dark side of information and communications technology, the fact is that capitalism is similarly two faced as well and is a far more insidious system of large scale control. Yes, it provides us with creature comforts and much of the advantages of an advanced society, but to think it is synonymous with personal freedom really is just blatant propaganda.
    The deeper issue I keep trying to push in these conversations is that inherent dichotomy of reality and how one side of an issue invariably balances out the other side. Now that humanity is reaching the limits of, or at least the low hanging fruits of growth, we are going to have to transition from that basic forward momentum, to learning how to balance all the various factors. To a certain extent, it is like going from youth to maturity. As kids, everything seems direct and obvious and we just know to push onto that goal, but as we get older and have made a fair number of goals and missed a fair number as well, we get a better sense of that bigger circle and how what goes round, comes round. Like the seasons, we push out in the spring and pull back in the fall. It seems the youth of society is naturally pushing forward, while age and the civil structure is pulling inward and if we don’t want to get stuck on one side or the other, we have to step back and appreciate the bigger picture.
    What I’m getting at there, is the more basic forms of liberalism tend to be about social goals and growth, while the more structured forms of conservatism tend to be of civil order and maintaining the status quo. Yet even these delineations have been turned around and gotten mixed up. Now we have neo-conservatives, who seem some form of armchair conquistadors and neo-liberals, who seem like old school capitalists, with updated mannerisms.
    Starting to ramble here, but use your ability to see how the various sides work off each other to network, not polarize.


  19. Jake,
    Using my last post to say I mis-posted my response, so it is up thread.


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