by Jason Kuznicki. Inspired by this.
For some time now the presidential race has focused on the place of the market in our society. The nomination of Paul Ryan for Vice President only sharpens that focus. I’m happy about that, whatever my other reservations might be about Mr. Ryan. Many of the left’s assumptions on economics deserve to be criticized, and I do hope you give the Obama administration the well-deserved hell it has coming.
You, my friends on the right, are entirely correct when you condemn Obama’s facile “you didn’t build that”-ism. Yes, we are all to some degree the products of our communities. As conservatives, you already know this. But “community” doesn’t equal “federal government,” and giving back to the community certainly doesn’t mean that the government gets to grow indefinitely. Particularly not when spending and debt are already at or near record levels.
You also affirm something the left goes out of its way to deny: The freedom of the marketplace is fundamental. Markets matter not just because they supply consumers’ needs better than any other arrangement yet devised — although they do. Markets matter because what we do in the market is an expression of who we are, both in our consumer preferences and in where and how we earn our livings. Markets are never perfect, never fully free, never fully efficient. But they are the theaters of our aspirations, our goals, and our deepest values. When liberals snobbishly put down workers’ or consumers’ choices in the market, this is what they are denigrating.
As the philosopher John Tomasi put it:
A society that denies people the chance to take up questions of long-term financial planning for themselves, or that restricts the ways in which individuals and families can respond to such questions, thereby diminishes the capacity of citizens to become fully responsible and independent agents. So too a society that limits the freedom of individuals to negotiate the specific terms of their employment, or that makes their ownership of productive property subject to calculations about social expediency, no matter how benevolent their intentions in doing so, thereby creates social conditions in which the moral powers of citizens can be exercised and developed only in a stunted way. (Free Market Fairness, pp 80-81)
Self-fashioning is the reason that market freedom matters, far beyond giving us full bellies, clean clothes, or shiny electronic toys. It’s the reason you can forgive Ayn Rand her atheism: She understood that markets are valuable for moral reasons. And so do you.
But so much for the easy part. My friends on the right, I find that you have failed in two ways.
The first is that you have mistaken mere wealth for market process. You praise the industrialist and the banker. Very well. Often they deserve it. But have you looked closely at the industrialists and the bankers just lately?
Among Ayn Rand’s villains, I don’t believe that a single one was poor. Every one of them was a member of the elite, and almost all of them were rich. They were people much like we know today, who maybe once upon a time set themselves apart through their own efforts. But at some point they committed a cardinal sin — they reached for the state to keep themselves on top. They made bad bets, then pleaded that they were too big to fail.
You’ve heard these things before: “You have to make certain sacrifices to the public welfare… We cannot permit the ruin of an establishment as vast as [GM, or Chrysler, or Citigroup, or Fannie Mae, or Morgan Stanley]… The country’s economy would not be able to stand a major dislocation at the present moment.”
That’s not from the recent financial crisis. It’s on page 902 of Atlas Shrugged. And really it’s everywhere in the book. Always in the mouths of the villains.
Often the biggest enemies of the market properly understood are precisely those who have made large fortunes—and who now want the government to shield them from all further risk. They are also trying their best this election cycle to portray themselves as your friends, and as friends of the market. You’ve spent way too much time listening to them and doing their bidding.
A politician who loves the market as a moral institution would be the very last one to do any favors for individual market actors. And I do mean any favors. I mean subsidies, tax breaks, eminent domain, no-bid contracts, and all forms of regulation that keep honest competition out. I mean our intellectual property system, which if conservatives had any tactical sense they’d already be attacking—cheap entertainment for the consumer, less cash for liberal Hollywood elites. What’s not to like?
Scrutinize your own side too. Take a hard look at cushy “privatization” deals that really just funnel power and money directly into private corporations’ hands. As a certain liberal recently observed, the way to privatize a prison isn’t to give imprisonment power to a corporation. It’s to stop imprisoning so many people, then sell off the property. About which more below.
And now for your second failing: The market has moral value because it is an arena of self-fashioning. But there are other arenas. They have value too, and they should be free for exactly the same reasons.
Everyone loves low taxes, even people on the left. I am almost convinced that you, my friends on the right, love low taxes for the right reasons. Taxes are always an imposition on our liberty; they always limit our self-fashioning. Taxes on consumption limit our ability to consume in ways that might otherwise define who we are. Taxes on investment limit our ability to plan for the future, to supply ourselves with order, security, and dignity — and in the process, to supply the same to others. Trace them far enough, and all taxes are restrictions on individual self-authorship.
But other restrictions exist. Many of them bite even harder.
Consider immigrants. In particular, if our free market is so great, why do you work so hard to exclude immigrants from it? Is the immigrant laborer less a moral self-fashioner than the Wall Street banker? I wouldn’t say so. He’s clearly at least as motivated. If the immigrant wants to make a life in America — why not let him?
Mr. Ryan recently proclaimed that the United States is the only nation founded on an idea. It’s a common conservative theme, and even if it’s not 100% accurate, I’m certainly sympathetic to it. But we are founded on an idea if and only if our borders remain open to all who share that idea. The moment we start checking for purity of blood, we become a tribalist nation-state just like so many others. Not founded on an idea, but on accidents of birth—and in fact standing squarely against the idea that all people should be the authors of their own lives.
Consider our surveillance state. Mass secret data collection has grown almost unchecked over the course of the last two administrations. What chance is there for dignity, for autonomy, for self-fashioning when the government may well be spying on almost everything we do? Are you really comfortable with the fact that the NSA keeps dossiers on virtually every American? If you balk at the imposition of taxes, should you not protest even more at having to live your life in a panopticon? That’s where we are headed, my friends. But you could change it—if only you wanted it as badly as you want low taxes.
Consider the Drug War. In the final analysis, it’s a war on the market process, at least for some goods. But it also appears purposefully designed to wreck individual lives and to make a mockery of the kind of self-fashioning that we so value in our defense of the market. Nothing kills self-authorship like being thrown into prison. Not business regulations, not high taxes, not even the demon weed itself.
Radley Balko’s blog chronicles the damage the Drug War is doing to our homes, families, communities, and law enforcement agencies. What do we have to show for it? Hundreds of thousands of arrests per year and an incarceration rate that is the envy of the unfree world. Tens of thousands murdered. Billions of dollars poured down the drain.
There is no good reason for the Drug War to keep happening, and it may soon be in your power to stop it. Please do, because Obama certainly won’t. You could own this issue if you wanted, and with it, the votes of the next generation.
My conservative friends, the very reasons why you love free markets and low taxes should bring you to love liberty in many other areas. That’s all I’m here to say, ultimately. I’m leaving aside issues where I don’t think you’re persuadable (foreign policy), or where I don’t think libertarianism has much to offer (abortion). I understand that some things just aren’t going to change, and I can live with that.
I also know that you have an election to win. I don’t expect you to turn against the candidates you’re about to nominate. You’re not going to drop everything and start reading Robert Nozick or Murray Rothbard. But a little Milton Friedman wouldn’t kill you, would it?
To lay out my own agenda — I would like to change the terms of the American political conversation. On the right. On the left. Everywhere. It’s thinkable, after all, that both left and right could become a little bit more libertarian. From where I sit, it seems like you on the right have no good reason not to, and I’ve tried my best here to say why, using terms that you have already made your own.
So what do you think?