Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Methods Versus Intentions

     Beware the man who claims that his intentions constitute an authorization to control your methods. Not all such persons are Democrats, though they do constitute an unhealthy majority thereof. Some are Republicans who, like former (or ersatz) Republican Michael Bloomberg, simply think you’re an ignoramus who doesn’t know what’s best for you.

     Much of the defamation aimed at the free market arises from such persons. Unfortunately, many of them are smart enough, and accomplished enough in their chosen occupations, to command more respect for their political opinions than is good for us. I have an example here:

     Conservative intellectuals launch a new group to challenge free-market ‘fundamentalism’ on the right

     Oren Cass believes conservatives have blundered by outsourcing GOP economic policymaking to libertarian “fundamentalists” who see the free market as an end unto itself, rather than as a means for improving quality of life to strengthen families and communities. The former domestic policy director on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign quit his job as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute to launch a new group called American Compass that aims to reorient the right...

     Markets are good, Cass explained, but life is about so much more than markets. He said American conservatism historically had a richer conception of the role of government beyond maximizing returns, such as strengthening domestic industry. He lamented the growing concentration of wealth, geographically on the coasts and in the big cities, as well as in a handful of industries, which has accelerated income inequality...

     I’ve seen emissions like this many times. They tend to come from self-styled “ur-conservatives” who seek to return to pre-Cobden mercantilism and the strong protectionist measures it featured. It’s a thinly veiled form of collectivism that implicitly promotes the writer’s notions about what’s best over the freedom of others to produce and trade as they please. Note in particular the phrase “a richer conception of the role of government” in the above. Reflect on what that “role” could – and would – embrace.

     I’m not here to argue about “what’s best.” Plenty of opinion-mongers past and present have done so, with little agreement to be found among them. On the anti-free-market side they tend to lament the dwindling of what they often call “human values,” a trend they attribute to the free market and “commercialism.” The late Robert Nisbet, prominent among them, became well known for his opinion that America’s markets – hardly free at the time – might be “too efficient.” By what standard would Nisbet judge them “too efficient?” He was concerned, he said, with how they impede “life on a human scale.” It’s what R. A. Lafferty called “a good round thumping phrase,” eminently suitable for stump speeches. However, objectively speaking it means nothing.

     The resurgence of such thinking in the Right is more disturbing than most persons would imagine.

     At this time, President Trump is employing tariffs to correct for an aberration in international commerce. Specifically, he has targeted other countries’ governments’ use of subsidies and tariff barriers: the former to give chosen industries an edge in international trade; the latter to prevent American goods from competing with industries domestic to those countries. By using tariffs as a measure by which to compensate for such anticompetitive behavior, Trump has put our trading partners on notice: What you can do to us, we can do to you – and we will. It’s an important component of his successful strategy for correcting America’s loss of manufacturing jobs and its international trade balances.

     Yes, it’s a seeming departure from free-market absolutism. However, when one’s partners have already tilted the ice, there’s no corrective but to force it back to level by such a countermeasure. In some cases a tariff war can “run away.” That happened in the Thirties, with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and the responses of our trading partners to it. But when Trump has achieved the results he sought, he’s lifted the relevant tariff, though always with the sotto voce message that a return to bad behavior by the targeted nation would see it swiftly restored.

     Trump understands free markets. He’s spoken in favor of them many times. He understands full well that a market in which one participant has coercive power on his side, helping to fuel his efforts and retard those of his competitors, is not free.

     More to the point of this tirade, the “free market” is a shorthand phrase for an aspect of freedom itself: the right to trade one’s products and services (including one’s labor) with consenting others, without interference from a government. It is a method by which free people pursue what they think is best.

     And here we come to the nub of the thing: What commentators such as Robert Nisbet and Oren Cass think is best might differ from what you think is best, and dramatically at that. That does not authorize them to rule your preferences wrong and demand that you accept theirs.

     I could go on about this, but I believe the point is made. We each have our methods for pursuing and defending our visions of what’s best. When someone else tells you that his vision of what’s best entitles him to limit your freedom – i.e., to constrain or condition your methods for pursuing your contrasting vision – reject that person. He wants to control you, and no matter how benign he seems that’s something you must not tolerate.

     Maintain your vigilance. You know what depends on it.

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