31 October 2009

To Big to Fail is a Dumb Idea

The essential dynamic of the market economy is that good businesses succeed and bad ones do not. There is a sense in which the bankruptcy of Lehman was a triumph of capitalism, not a failure. It was badly run, it employed greedy and overpaid individuals, and the services it provided were of marginal social value at best. It took risks that did not come off and went bust. That is how the market economy works.
John Kay at the Financial Times on Too big to Fail is too Dumb an Idea to Keep.

24 October 2009

Capitalism does not Need Greed

Adam Smith never argued that the more selfish we are, the better a market works. His point, rather, is that in a free market, each of us can pursue ends within our narrow sphere of competence and concern—our “self-interest”—and yet an order will emerge that vastly exceeds anyone’s deliberations.

Finally, and most importantly, Smith argued that capitalism channels greed. He recognized that human beings are not as virtuous as we ought to be. While many of us may live modestly virtuous lives under the right conditions, it is the rare individual who ever achieves heroic virtue. Given that reality, we should want a social order that channels proper self-interest as well as selfishness into socially desirable outcomes. Any system this side of heaven that can’t channel human selfishness is doomed to failure. That’s the genius of the market economy.

And that’s the problem with socialism and all sorts of nanny-state regulatory prescriptions: They don’t fit the human condition. They concentrate enormous power in the hands of a few political leaders and expect them to remain uncorrupted by the power. Then through aggressive wealth redistribution and hyper-regulation, they discourage the productive pursuit of self-interest, through hard work and enterprise. Instead, they encourage people to pursue their self-interest in unproductive ways such as hoarding, lobbying, or getting the government to steal for them.

In contrast, capitalism is fit for real, fallen human beings. “In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity,” Smith wrote, business people “are led by an invisible hand ... and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.” Notice he says “in spite of.” His point isn’t that the butcher should be selfish, or even that the butcher’s selfishness particularly helps. Rather, he argues that even if the butcher is selfish, he can’t make you buy his meat. He has to offer you meat at a price you’ll willingly buy. He has to look for ways to set up a win-win exchange. Surely that’s good.

So a free market can channel the greed of a butcher. But that’s not the only thing it can channel. It can just as easily channel a butcher’s noble desire for excellence of craft, or his desire to serve his customers well because he likes his neighbors, or his desire to build a successful business that will allow his brilliant daughter to attend better schools and fully develop her gifts. Capitalism doesn’t need greed. What capitalism does need is human creativity and initiative.
Jay Richards explains why Greed is not Good and It is not Capitalism.

19 October 2009

Diagnostics and Therapeutics

Since the Great Depression, the American public has generally approved of an active, interventionist federal government. In a perceived crisis, most people want the government to “do something.” Of course, most politicians and government functionaries, for perfectly understandable self-serving reasons, are quite pleased to respond to such public demands for action ― after all, taking such action promises to butter their bread more thickly.

Franklin D. Roosevelt enthusiastically supported an approach whereby the government would “take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Likewise, more recently, despite the great confusion that prevailed about the current recession’s causes and about the best means of moderating or reversing it, Barack Obama, soon after taking office, declared, “The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.” In both instances the president was presuming that successful therapy can be administered without a sound diagnosis. This presumption is foolish, however, if one’s interest lies not in mollifying a bewildered electorate, but in implementing a genuine remedy for the perceived problem...

Yet, one thing we do know: Many Americans now believe many things about their government that are false, and they expect much from the government that the rulers cannot provide. The public at large embraces myths about what the government can do, what it actually does, and how it goes about doing it...
Robert Higgs on Diagnostics and Therapeutics in Political Economy.

15 October 2009

Fool's Game for the Masses

I go through life constantly bemused by all the weight that people put on partisan political loyalties and on adherence to the normative demarcations the parties promote. Henry Adams observed that “politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” This marshalling of hatreds is not the whole of politics, to be sure, but it is an essential element. Thus, Democrats encourage people to hate big corporations, and Republicans encourage people to hate welfare recipients.

Of course, it’s all a fraud, designed to distract people from the overriding reality of political life, which is that the state and its principal supporters are constantly screwing the rest of us, regardless of which party happens to control the presidency and the Congress. Amid all the partisan sound and fury, hardly anybody notices that political reality boils down to two “parties”:
  1. those who, in one way or another, use state power to bully and live at the expense of others; and
  2. those unfortunate others.
Robert Higgs on Partisan Politics.