The Core of Liberty Is Economic Liberty

By Deirdre McCloskey

Since the rise during the late 1800s of socialism, New Liberalism, and Progressivism it has been conventional to scorn economic liberty as vulgar and optional—something only fat cats care about. But the original liberalism during the 1700s of Voltaire, Adam Smith, Tom Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft recommended an economic liberty for rich and poor understood as not messing with other peoples’ stuff.

Indeed, economic liberty is the liberty about which most ordinary people care. 

Adam Smith spoke of “the liberal plan of [social] equality, [economic] liberty, and [legal] justice.” It was a good idea, new in 1776. And in the next two centuries, the liberal idea proved to be astonishingly productive of good and rich people, formerly desperate and poor. Let’s not lose it.Well into the 1800s most thinking people, such as Henry David Thoreau, were economic liberals. Thoreau around 1840 invented procedures for his father’s little factory making pencils, which elevated Thoreau and Son for a decade or so to the leading maker of pencils in America. He was a businessman as much as an environmentalist and civil disobeyer. When imports of high-quality pencils finally overtook the head start, Thoreau and Son graciously gave way, turning instead to making graphite for the printing of engravings.

That’s the economic liberal deal. You get to offer in the first act a betterment to customers, but you don’t get to arrange for protection later from competitors. After making your bundle in the first act, you suffer from competition in the second. Too bad.

In On Liberty (1859) the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill declared that “society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit—namely, fraud or treachery, and force.” No protectionism. No economic nationalism. The customers, prominent among them the poor, are enabled in the first through third acts to buy better and cheaper pencils.

Economic liberty, that is, is part of liberty. Of course.

Mussolini and Hitler won elections and were popular, while vigorously abridging liberties.

Indeed, economic liberty is the liberty about which most ordinary people care. True, liberty of speech, the press, assembly, petitioning the government, and voting for a new government are in the long run essential protections for all liberty, including the economic right to buy and sell. But the lofty liberties are cherished mainly by an educated minority. Most people—in the long run foolishly, true—don’t give a fig about liberty of speech, so long as they can open a shop when they want and drive to a job paying decent wages. A majority of Turks voted in favor of the rapid slide of Turkey after 2013 into neo-fascism under Erdoğan. Mussolini and Hitler won elections and were popular, while vigorously abridging liberties. Even a few communist governments have been elected—witness Venezuela under Chavez.The protagonist of Forever Flowing by Vasily Grossman (1905–1964), the only example of a successful Stalinist writer who converted wholly to anti-communism, declares that “I used to think liberty was liberty of speech, liberty of the press, liberty of conscience. Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; . . . to work as you wish and not as they order you.”

The blessed Adam Smith was outraged by interferences in 1700s Britain in the right of workingmen to move freely to find profitable work. “The property which every man has in his own labor, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. To hinder him from employing this . . . in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbor, is a plain violation of this most sacred property.” Not as they order you.

And economic liberty, surprisingly, has massively enriched the world in goods and services. How much? In 1800 the income per person of a country like Sweden or Japan, expressed in 2018 prices, was about $3 a day. Now it is over $100 day, a 3,200 percent increase. Not one hundred percent or even two hundred percent, but thirty-two hundred percent. The enrichment was not a factor of two, as had been routine from time to time in earlier spurts, such as the glory of Greece or the prosperity of Song China, to fall back to $3 a day. It was a factor of thirty-three. No starvation. Taller people. Doubled life expectancy. Bigger houses. Faster transport. Higher education. If you doubt it, see the late Hans Rosling’s startling videos at Gapminder.

We became rich by giving ordinary people their economic liberty.

The usual explanations of the Great Enrichment from economists and historians don’t compute. Accumulation of capital or the extractions of empire were not the causes. Ingenuity was, and the ingenuity was caused in turn by a new liberty after 1800. The liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice made masses of people bold–first the free and wealthy men, then poor men, then former slaves, then women, then gays, then handicapped, then, then, then. Make everyone free, it turned out (the experiment had never been tried before on such a scale), and you get masses and masses of people inspired and enabled to have a go. “I contain multitudes,” sang the poet of the new liberty. And he did. He and his friends had a go at steam engines and research universities and railways and public schools and electric lights and corporations and open source engineering and containerization and the internet. We became rich by giving ordinary people their economic liberty.And now the “we” has extended far beyond its heartland in northwestern Europe. China after 1978 and India after 1991 began to abandon the illiberal European theory of socialism, devised in the middle of the 1800s and exported by the 1970s to a third of the globe. The result of turning towards economic liberalism was that the annual growth of goods and services per person available to the poorest in China and India rose from its socialist level of 1 percent a year, and sometimes negative, to 7 to 12 percent per year. At such rates, it will take only two or three generations for both countries to have European standards of living. Such a prospect for this four in ten of humans is no pipe dream. Similar enrichments were achieved over a similar span in Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, with other startling success stories for new liberalism and a reasonably honest government in Ireland and Botswana.

An economically illiberal government can, of course, borrow from countries honoring liberty. The USSR did from 1917–1989, for example, and for a long time even many economists in the West believed its fairy tale that Central Planning Worked. When communism fell in 1989 we discovered decisively that planning did not work, not for the economy or the environment or for other liberties. Singapore is sometimes cited as an example of intelligent tyranny. And so is China, dominated still by an elite of communist party members. Both, however, practice substantial economic liberty, despite their lamentable practice of jailing political opponents.

And enrichment, in the end, leads to demands for all liberties, political as much as the economic liberties, as it did in Taiwan and South Korea. Enriched people will not long put up with serfdom. And anyway the average record of tyrannies is economically disastrous, such as in Zimbabwe, next door to prosperous Botswana, or for that matter in the long and dismal history of illiberalism worldwide from the invention of agriculture down to 1800.

The ethical habits of commerce are expressed daily in the way an American shopkeeper greets his customer: “How can I help you?”

The Christian gospel says properly, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” The claim against economic liberty has always been that even if we gain the world in goods, we lose our souls. We are told from the radical left that free exchange is intrinsically evil. Any extension will merely extend the evil. From the radical right, we are told that free exchange is ignoble compared with the glories of rank and war. But the radical left and right, and also the middle complaining about “consumerism,” are mistaken. The evidence is that economic liberty does not corrupt us, but rather makes us rather virtuous as well as very rich. It enriches in both senses, material and spiritual.For one thing, mutually advantageous exchange is not the worst ethical school. It is better than the violent pride of aristocrats or the violent insolence of bureaucrats. And in economic liberalism, the human desire to excel is provided millions of honorable paths, from model railway building to show business, as against in illiberal societies the narrow path to eminence at the court or politburo or army. We do not lose our souls in commerce, but cultivate them. The military, admired nowadays even in liberal societies, is commended daily for its “service.” But every economic act among consenting adults is service. The ethical habits of commerce are expressed daily in the way an American shopkeeper greets his customer: “How can I help you?”

The upshot? The concert halls and museums of well-to-do countries are full, the universities are flourishing, and the seeking of the transcendent, if not in the established churches, is expanding. One cannot attend much to the transcendent of art or science or baseball or family or God when bent over in a paddy field from dawn to dusk.

Protection of existing jobs has created worldwide a massive and politically explosive unemployment of youths.

The best way to make people bad and poor is the illiberality of communism and fascism, and even the slow if sweet socialism of over-regulation. Women among the theocratic despots of Saudi Arabia are quartered at home, unable to flourish so much as driving an automobile. The economic nationalism of the new Alt-Right is impoverishing, and anyway closes us to ideas from the wide world. If betterment is slowing in the United States—a widely held if doubtful claim—we need the betterment coming from newly enriching countries such as China or India, not cutting ourselves off to “protect jobs” at home. Protectionist logic would have us make everything in Illinois or Chicago or our local street. Breakfast cereal. Accordions. Computers. It is childishly silly as economics, though stirring as nationalism.At the heart of communism and fascism, and the regulating impulse from the middle of the spectrum of governmental compulsion, is massively messing with other people’s stuff. In the United States, over one thousand occupations require licenses from the government. Opening a new hospital requires the existing hospitals to grant a certificate of need. In Tennessee, if you wish to open a new furniture moving company—two men and a truck—you are required by law to ask permission of the existing moving companies. Protection of existing jobs has created worldwide a massive and politically explosive unemployment of youths. One-quarter of French people under 25 and out of schooling are unemployed. It’s worse in South Africa.

Yet true and humane liberals are not anarchists (Greek an-archos, no ruler). One can admit that it can be good to abridge economic liberty a little to the extent of taxing the well-to-do to give a hand up to the poor, such as publicly financed education. No serious argument there—Smith and Mill and even Thoreau agreed. (True, big government routinely gives also a hand up to the rich and powerful, such as protections for farmers in the U.S. and the Common Market. Big governments follow the nasty version of the Golden Rule, namely, those who have the gold, rule.) And one can admit that if the Canadians invade the United States, economic liberty might usefully be abridged for the duration, if prudent for defense. No argument there, either. (Yet big governments routinely break the peace for glorious conquests. Fear those Canadians.)

Better keep the government leashed.

The solution, liberals believe, is to restrict the power of government, even when the government is popular. Fascism often and communism sometimes, unhappily, are popular. Moderate versions of both, in nationalism and socialism, are very popular, until they go wrong. People favor for the nonce the alleged glory of governmental aggressions against foreigners (see Europe in August 1914) and the alleged free lunches of governmental control of the economy (see Venezuela in August 2017).Better keep the government leashed. Of the 190 or so governments in the world ranked in honesty from New Zealand at the top to North Korea at the bottom one might generously take the top 30 as adequately honest for the task. Spain is the marginal case. Britain and the United States qualify. Italy, ranked 75th, just above Vietnam, does not. But the top 30 moderately honest governments serve merely 13 percent of the world’s population. That is to say, 87 percent of the world is governed corruptly and incompetently, by a relaxed standard of goodness. The calculation shows why the optimism among amiable people on the left and among not so amiable people on the right about extending the illiberal powers of government is naïve. Thoreau wrote, in true liberal style, “I heartily accept the motto,—‘That government is best which governs least,’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”

Yes, with a few modest exceptions.

This essay will appear in a volume for the Renew Democracy Initiative. 

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The Regulatory State Is the Enemy of Economic Mobility

By David Boaz

Why are Americans less likely to move to better opportunities than they used to be? The Wall Street Journal reports:

When opportunity dwindles, a natural response—the traditional American instinct—is to strike out for greener pastures. Migrations of the young, ambitious and able-bodied prompted the Dust Bowl exodus to California in the 1930s and the reverse migration of blacks from Northern cities to the South starting in the 1980s.

Yet the overall mobility of the U.S. population is at its lowest level since measurements were first taken at the end of World War II, falling by almost half since its most recent peak in 1985.

In rural America, which is coping with the onset of socioeconomic problems that were once reserved for inner cities, the rate of people who moved across a county line in 2015 was just 4.1%, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. That’s down from 7.7% in the late 1970s.

One particular problem with today’s immobility is that people find themselves in areas where jobs are dwindling and pay tends to be lower. Why don’t they move to where the jobs are? This comprehensive article for the Journal by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg points to a few factors:

For many rural residents across the country with low incomes, government aid programs such as Medicaid, which has benefits that vary by state, can provide a disincentive to leave. One in 10 West Branch [Mich.] residents lives in low-income housing, which was virtually nonexistent a generation ago.

And then there are regulations that discourage mobility:

While small-town home prices have only modestly recovered from the housing market meltdown, years of restrictive land-use regulations have driven up prices in metropolitan areas to the point where it is difficult for all but the most highly educated professionals to move….

Another obstacle to mobility is the growth of state-level job-licensing requirements, which now cover a range of professions from bartenders and florists to turtle farmers and scrap-metal recyclers. A 2015 White House report found that more than one-quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs, with the share licensed at the state level rising fivefold since the 1950s.

Brink Lindsey wrote about both land-use regulations and occupational licensing as examples of “regressive regulation”—regulatory barriers to entry and competition that work to redistribute income and wealth up the socioeconomic scale—in his Cato White Paper, “Low-Hanging Fruit Guarded by Dragons: Reforming Regressive Regulation to Boost U.S. Economic Growth.”

The Journal notes that:

The lack of mobility has become a drag on the entire U.S. economy.

“We’re locking people out from the most productive cities,” says Peter Ganong, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago who studies migration. “This is a force that widens the urban-rural divide.”

Ganong made similar points in a Cato Research Brief, “Why Has Regional Income Convergence in the U.S. Declined?

Declining mobility hurts U.S. innovation and economic growth and widens the rural-income culture gap. Government regulation plays a major role in declining mobility. But as Lindsey noted, those regulations are “guarded by dragons”—”the powerful interest groups that benefit from the status quo, all of which can be counted upon to defend their privileges tenaciously.” Despite the potential for agreement by right, left, and libertarian policy analysts on the problems with regressive regulation, all those wonks together may be no match for organized dentists, barbers, massage therapists, and homeowners who perceive that they benefit from keeping others out.


Reprinted from FEE.

David Boaz

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and the author of The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedomand the editor of The Libertarian Reader.

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George Ayittey in TED: Dead Aid

Culled from TED Blog

Economist George Ayittey gave a blistering talk at TEDGlobal 2007, laying out his case that not only has Western aid not helped in most African countries — it’s actually hurting.

We asked Ayittey for his thoughts on the new book Dead Aid, which has lately been burning up the talk shows and opinion columns with a message similar to Ayittey’s. Author Dambisa Moyo says that aid is killing the very countries it’s supposed to help. She singles out for criticism the celebrity crusades to “save Africa,” and the skewing view they present of African life.

(You can also download the unedited notes for this interview, including reading list, sources and more.)

Dambisa Moyo’s new book is drawing new attention to the question of aid in Africa, and her thesis is quite like yours, but aimed at a mass-market audience (as she said on Charlie Rose). Do you think it is risky to sensationalize the issue?

I don’t think Dambisa is sensationalizing the issue strong enough. Americans were justifiably outraged when AIG, which received billions in U.S. taxpayer money in bailouts, paid out hefty bonuses to its executives. So where is the outrage when African leaders, who receive U.S. taxpayers’ money in foreign aid, build palaces for themselves while their people wallow in abject poverty?

More important, the presumption that Africans don’t know what is good for them and that Americans or other foreigners know what is best for Africans is extremely offensive. If you want to help American farmers, you ask them what sort of help they need and whether such assistance is working. Why don’t Americans ask Africans what type of aid they need and whether the aid Americans have provided is working? So what is wrong with an African, Dambisa, telling Americans that the foreign aid they are providing isn’t working and it is “Dead Aid”?

It’s clear that Moyo’s thesis draws from your work. How would you respond to those who assert that her views and yours are idealistic and ideological?

Our critics have not been paying attention to the literature on foreign aid. Our views are neither idealistic nor ideological but rather factual. There are three types of foreign aid: humanitarian relief aid, given to victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones and floods; military aid; and economic development assistance. We have no qualms with humanitarian aid, and I am sure our critics would agree that military aid to tyrannical regimes in Africa is the least desirable. Much confusion, however, surrounds the third, also known as official development assistance or ODA. Contrary to popular misconceptions, ODA is not “free.” It is essentially a “soft loan,” or loan granted on extremely generous or “concessionary” terms.

The consensus that emerged decades ago was that foreign aid had not been effective in reversing Africa’s economic decline. Dambisa and I are simply restating a fact. And it is not just Africa. That foreign aid has failed to accelerate economic development in the Third World generally was also accepted. In 1999, the United Nations declared that 70 countries — aid recipients all — are now poorer than they were in 1980. An incredible 43 were worse off than in 1970. “Chaos, slaughter, poverty and ruin stalked Third World states, irrespective of how much foreign assistance they received,” wrote the Washington Post, on Nov. 25, 1999. Except for Haiti, all of the 13 foreign aid failures cited — Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Chad, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zaire, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sudan — were in Sub-Saharan Africa. The African countries that received the most aid — Somalia, Liberia and Zaire — slid into virtual anarchy.

Is there a fundamental place where you diverge from Moyo?

Though we are both on point regarding the failure of aid programs in Africa, we diverge in two respects.

First, Dambisa wants all aid to Africa stopped in five years, which won’t happen. Over the decades, various African civic groups and persons, including myself, have called for a cutoff of aid to Africa. In a report drafted during a five-day forum hosted by UNESCO in Paris in 1995, more than 500 African political and civic leaders urged donor nations to cut off funds to African dictatorships and called for free elections in such nations within two years. If the West could impose sanctions against Libya and South Africa, then Africans could also call for sanctions against their own illegal regimes.

Second, I believe that the foreign aid resources Africa desperately needs to launch into self-sustaining growth and prosperity can be found in Africa itself, not in China as Dambisa believes.

Moyo’s work speaks to that deep urge among Westerners to “do something” — even something that may be deeply unproductive. What’s a more productive way to “do something”?

I think Westerners should resist that urge to “do something,” because the worst type of help one can receive is that which doesn’t solve your problem but compounds it. If Westerners want to help, they must carefully scrutinize and reform current aid policies to make them more effective. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations tried to but failed. Business as usual is no longer an option, which is what both Dambisa and I are against.

Foreign aid should be tied not on promises of African leaders but to the establishment of a few critical institutions:

+ An independent central bank: to assure monetary and economic stability, as well as stanch capital flight out of Africa. If possible, governors of central banks in a region, say West Africa, may be rotated to achieve such independence. The importance of this institution resides in the fact that the ruling bandits not only plunder the central bank but also use its facilities to transfer the loot abroad.

+ An independent judiciary — essential for the rule of law. Supreme Court judges may also be rotated within a region.

+ A free and independent media to ensure free flow of information. The first step is solving a social problem is to expose it, which is the business of news practitioners. The state-controlled or state-owned media would not expose corruption, repression, human rights violations and other crimes against humanity. In fact, it is far easier to plunder and repress people when they are kept in the dark. The media needs to be taken out of the hands of government.

+ An independent Electoral Commission to avoid situations where African despots write electoral rules, appoint a fawning coterie of sycophants as electoral commissioners, throw opposition leaders in jail and hold coconut elections to return themselves to power.

+ An efficient and professional civil service, which will deliver essential social services to the people on the basis of need and not on the basis of ethnicity or political affiliation.

+ The establishment of a neutral and professional armed and security forces.

The establishment of these institutions would empower Africans to instigate change from within. For example, the two great antidotes against corruption are an independent media and an independent judiciary. But only 8 African countries have a free media in 2003, according Freedom House. These institutions cannot be established by the leaders or the ruling elites (conflict of interest); they must be established by civil society. Each professional body has a “code of ethics,” which should be re-written by the members themselves to eschew politics and uphold professionalism. Start with the “military code,” and then the “bar code,” the “civil service code” and so on. These reforms, in turn, will help establish in Africa an environment conductive to investment and economic activity. But the leadership is not interested. Period.

Effective foreign aid programs are those that are “institution-based.” Give Africa the above 6 critical institutions and the people will do the rest of the job.

Africa is poor because it is not free.

George Ayittey responded to emailed questions from TEDAfrica Director Emeka Okafor and editor Emily McManus. Download the unedited notes from this interview, an 11-page PDF with reading lists, noted sources, and much more. TED intern Mischa Nachtigal prepared this edited blog post.

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Voltaire Philosophical Letters: On Commerce

Voltaire (real name François-Marie Arouet) (1694 – 1778) was a Frenchphilosopher and writer of the Age of Enlightenment. His intelligence, wit and style made him one of France’s greatest writers and philosophers, despite the controversy he attracted.

He was an outspoken supporter of social reform (including the des, freedom of religion and free trade), despite the strict censorship lawsand harsh penalties of the period, and made use of his satirical works to criticize Catholic dogma and the French institutions of his day. Along with John LockeThomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his works and ideas influenced important thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions.

Commerce, which has brought wealth to the citizenry of England, has helped to make them free, and freedom has developed commerce in its turn. By means of it the nation has grown great; it is commerce that little by little has strengthened the naval forces that make the English the masters of the seas. At present they have nearly two hundred warships.%3have nearly two hundred warships.

 Posterity may learn with some surprise that a little island with nothing of its own but a bit of lead, tin, fuller’s earth, and coarse wool, became, by means of its commerce, powerful enough by 1723 to send three fleets at one time to three different ends of the earth – one to guard Gibraltar, conquered and kept by its arms; another to Portobello to dispossess the King of Spain of the treasures of the Indies; and the third to the Baltic Sea to prevent the Northern Powers from fighting.   

When Louis XIV was shaking Italy, and his armies, already in possession of Savoy and Piedmont, were ready to capture Turin, it was up to Prince Eugene to march from the depths of Germany to aid the duke of Savoy. He had no money at all, a thing without which towns are neither taken nor defended. He appealed to some English merchants. In half an hour he had a loan of fifty million; whereupon he delivered Turin, beat the French, and wrote this little note to those who had loaned him that sum: “Gentlemen, I have received your money, and I flatter myself that I have employed it to your satisfaction.”  

All this makes an English merchant justly proud, and allows him boldly to compare himself, not without some reason, to a Roman citizen; moreover, the younger brother of a peer of the realm does not scorn to enter into trade. Lord Townshend, Minister of State, has a brother who is content to be a merchant in the City. When Lord Oxford was governing England, his younger brother was a factor at Aleppo; he did not want to return home, and died there. 

This custom, which unfortunately is beginning to go out of fashion, appears monstrous to Germans infatuated with their quarterings. They are unable to imagine how the son of a peer of England could be only a rich and powerful bourgeois, whereas Germany is all Prince: there have been at one time as many as thirty Highnesses of the same name, with nothing to show for it but their pride and a coat of arms.   

In France anybody who wants to can be a marquis; and whoever arrives in Paris from the remotest part of some province with money to spend and an ac or an ille at the end of his name, may indulge in such phrases as “a man of my sort,” “a man of my rank and quality,” and with sovereign eye look down upon a wholesaler. The merchant himself so often hears his profession spoken of disdainfully that he is fool enough to blush.

Yet I don’t know which is the more useful to a state, a wellpowdered lord who knows precisely what time the king gets up in the morning and what time he goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur while playing the role of slave in a minister’s antechamber, or a great merchant who enriches his country, send order from his office to Surat and to Cairo, and contributes to the wellbeing of the world.  

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Friedrich Hayek: The Use of Knowledge in Society (II)

It will at once be evident that on this point the position will be different with respect to different kinds of knowledge; and the answer to our question will therefore largely turn on the relative importance of the different kinds of knowledge; those more likely to be at the disposal of particular individuals and those which we should with greater confidence expect to find in the possession of an authority made up of suitably chosen experts.

 If it is today so widely assumed that the latter will be in a better position, this is because one kind of knowledge, namely, scientific knowledge, occupies now so prominent a place in public imagination that we tend to forget that it is not the only kind that is relevant. It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available—though this is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting the experts. What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider problem.

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.

We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances. To know of and put to use a machine not fully employed, or somebody’s skill which could be better utilized, or to be aware of a surplus stock which can be drawn upon during an interruption of supplies, is socially quite as useful as the knowledge of better alternative techniques.

And the shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.

It is a curious fact that this sort of knowledge should today be generally regarded with a kind of contempt and that anyone who by such knowledge gains an advantage over somebody better equipped with theoretical or technical knowledge is thought to have acted almost disreputably. To gain an advantage from better knowledge of facilities of communication or transport is sometimes regarded as almost dishonest, although it is quite as important that society make use of the best opportunities in this respect as in using the latest scientific discoveries.

This prejudice has in a considerable measure affected the attitude toward commerce in general compared with that toward production. Even economists who regard themselves as definitely immune to the crude materialist fallacies of the past constantly commit the same mistake where activities directed toward the acquisition of such practical knowledge are concerned—apparently because in their scheme of things all such knowledge is supposed to be “given.” The common idea now seems to be that all such knowledge should as a matter of course be readily at the command of everybody, and the reproach of irrationality leveled against the existing economic order is frequently based on the fact that it is not so available. This view disregards the fact that the method by which such knowledge can be made as widely available as possible is precisely the problem to which we have to find an answer.

If it is fashionable today to minimize the importance of the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place, this is closely connected with the smaller importance which is now attached to change as such. Indeed, there are few points on which the assumptions made (usually only implicitly) by the “planners” differ from those of their opponents as much as with regard to the significance and frequency of changes which will make substantial alterations of production plans necessary. Of course, if detailed economic plans could be laid down for fairly long periods in advance and then closely adhered to, so that no further economic decisions of importance would be required, the task of drawing up a comprehensive plan governing all economic activity would be much less formidable.

It is, perhaps, worth stressing that economic problems arise always and only in consequence of change. So long as things continue as before, or at least as they were expected to, there arise no new problems requiring a decision, no need to form a new plan. The belief that changes, or at least day-to-day adjustments, have become less important in modern times implies the contention that economic problems also have become less important. This belief in the decreasing importance of change is, for that reason, usually held by the same people who argue that the importance of economic considerations has been driven into the background by the growing importance of technological knowledge.

Is it true that, with the elaborate apparatus of modern production, economic decisions are required only at long intervals, as when a new factory is to be erected or a new process to be introduced? Is it true that, once a plant has been built, the rest is all more or less mechanical, determined by the character of the plant, and leaving little to be changed in adapting to the ever-changing circumstances of the moment?

The fairly widespread belief in the affirmative is not, as far as I can ascertain, borne out by the practical experience of the businessman. In a competitive industry at any rate—and such an industry alone can serve as a test—the task of keeping cost from rising requires constant struggle, absorbing a great part of the energy of the manager. How easy it is for an inefficient manager to dissipate the differentials on which profitability rests, and that it is possible, with the same technical facilities, to produce with a great variety of costs, are among the commonplaces of business experience which do not seem to be equally familiar in the study of the economist. The very strength of the desire, constantly voiced by producers and engineers, to be allowed to proceed untrammeled by considerations of money costs, is eloquent testimony to the extent to which these factors enter into their daily work.

One reason why economists are increasingly apt to forget about the constant small changes which make up the whole economic picture is probably their growing preoccupation with statistical aggregates, which show a very much greater stability than the movements of the detail. The comparative stability of the aggregates cannot, however, be accounted for—as the statisticians occasionally seem to be inclined to do—by the “law of large numbers” or the mutual compensation of random changes. The number of elements with which we have to deal is not large enough for such accidental forces to produce stability.

The continuous flow of goods and services is maintained by constant deliberate adjustments, by new dispositions made every day in the light of circumstances not known the day before, by B stepping in at once when A fails to deliver. Even the large and highly mechanized plant keeps going largely because of an environment upon which it can draw for all sorts of unexpected needs; tiles for its roof, stationery for its forms, and all the thousand and one kinds of equipment in which it cannot be self-contained and which the plans for the operation of the plant require to be readily available in the market.

This is, perhaps, also the point where I should briefly mention the fact that the sort of knowledge with which I have been concerned is knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form. The statistics which such a central authority would have to use would have to be arrived at precisely by abstracting from minor differences between the things, by lumping together, as resources of one kind, items which differ as regards location, quality, and other particulars, in a way which may be very significant for the specific decision. It follows from this that central planning based on statistical information by its nature cannot take direct account of these circumstances of time and place and that the central planner will have to find some way or other in which the decisions depending on them can be left to the “man on the spot.”

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John Stuart Mill: On Liberty (1869)

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the precocious child of the Philosophical Radical and Benthamite James Mill. Taught Greek, Latin, and political economy at an early age, He spent his youth in the company of the Philosophic Radicals, Benthamites and utilitarians who gathered around his father James. J.S. Mill went on to become a journalist, Member of Parliament, and philosopher and is regarded as one of the most significant English classical liberals of the 19th century.

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do other wise.

To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign… The objections to government interference, when it is not such as to involve infringement of liberty, may be of three kinds.

The first is, when the thing to be done is likely to be better done by individuals than by the government. Speaking generally, there is no one so fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it. This principle condemns the interferences, once so common, of the legislature, or the officers of government, with the ordinary processes of industry. But this part of the subject has been sufficiently enlarged upon by political economists, and is not particularly related to the principles of this Essay.
The second objection is more nearly allied to our subject. In many cases, though individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education — a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal.

This is a principal, though not the sole, recommendation of jury trial (incases not political); of free and popular local and municipal institutions; of the conduct of industrial and philanthropic enterprises by voluntary associations. These are not questions of liberty, and are connected with that subject only by remote tendencies; but they are questions of development. It belongs to a different occasion from the present to dwell on these things as parts of national education; as being, in truth, the peculiar training of a citizen, the practical part of the political education of a free people, taking them out of the narrow circle of personal and family selfishness, and accustoming them to the comprehension of joint interests, the management of joint concerns — habituating them to act from public or semi-public motives, and guide their conduct by aims which unite instead of isolating them from one another.

Without these habitsvand powers, a free constitution can neither be worked nor preserved, as is exemplified by the too often transitory nature of political freedom in countries where it does not rest upon a sufficient basis of local liberties. The management of purely local business by the localities, and of the great enterprises of industry by the union of those who voluntarily supply the pecuniary means, is further recommended by all the advantages which have been set forth in this Essay as belonging to individuality of development, and diversity of modes of action. Government operations tend to be everywhere alike. With individuals and voluntary associations, on the contrary, there are varied experiments, and endless diversity of experience. What the State can usefully do, is to make itself a central depository, and active circulator and diffuser, of the experience resulting from many trials. Its business is to enable each experimentalist to benefit by the experiments of others, instead of tolerating no experiments but its own. 

The third, and most cogent reason for restricting the interference of government, is the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power. Every function superadded to those already exercised by the government, causes its influence over hopes and fears to be more widely diffused, and converts, more and more, the active and ambitious part of the public into hangers-on of the government, or of some party which aims at becoming the government. If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employés of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.

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Frederic Bastiat: The Candlemakers’ Petition (Part I)

As described by Andrew Beattie, The “Candle Maker’s Petition” is a satire of protectionist tariffs written the by great French economist, Frederic Bastiat. In many ways, it expanded on the free market argument against mercantilism set forth by Adam Smith, but Bastiat’s target was government tariffs that were levied to protect domestic industries from competition. In Bastiat’s “Candle Maker’s Petition”, all the people involved in the French lighting industry, including “the manufacturers of candles, tapers, lanterns, sticks, street lamps, snuffers and extinguishers, and from producers of tallow, oil, resin, alcohol, and generally of everything connected with lighting” call upon the French government to take protective action against the unfair competition of the sun.

They argue that forcing people to close “all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds – in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses” will lead to a higher consumption of candles and related products. In turn, they reason, the industries that those in the lighting industry depend on for materials will have greater sales, as will their dependent suppliers, and so on until everyone is better off without the sun.

From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Candlesticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from the Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting. To the Honorable Members of the Chamber of Deputies. Gentlemen:

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity for applying your—what shall we call it? Your theory? No, nothing is more deceptive than theory. Your doctrine? Your system? Your principle? But you dislike doctrines, you have a horror of systems, and, as for principles, you deny that there are any in political economy; therefore we shall call it your practice—your practice without theory and without principle.

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly that we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.

We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds—in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

Be good enough, honorable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.
First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged? If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.
Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion.

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honor of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc. But what shall we say of the specialties of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.


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