The Power of Freedom
Tibor R. Machan
At this time when most people are clamoring, or at least hoping for, economic revival, the major debate centers around how it could be achieved. One side, mainly the current administration and its supporters in the academy, believe in some variety of stimulus initiated by the federal government--funneling funds (taken from taxes and borrowed from future generations and foreign governments) to the various state governments that are to use them to pay for public work projects, improving infrastructure, etc. The other side, mainly more or less consistent free market champions, believe that removing government regulations, heavy taxes, and government management or regimentation will more readily help the economy get back into shape.
To attach names here is a bit testy since few are always direct about their proposals but let’s just say Princeton University’s and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is among those urging the former approach, while George Mason University’s Professor Don Boudreaux among the latter. Both are public intellectuals and voice their views in various prominent forums, so one can easily check what they believe.
Let me explain why I believe the alternative promoted by Professor Boudreaux is fundamentally sound, while Krugman’s approach wrong. I do not imagine for a moment that Dr. Boudreaux fully agrees with my reasoning--his may be different. But here is what seems to me to give substantial support to those who advocate government getting out of the way, at least at the most fundamental level of analysis.
As best as I understand human nature, for people to live and live successfully, they need to have the opportunity to take the initiative in their lives, on every front but especially when it comes to aiming to prosper economically. In the fields of economics and business this is often referred to as the entrepreneurial spirit or attitude. Adult men and women make it through their lives more or less successfully depending on how intensely they face up to the challenge of coping and progressing in all their various tasks. Carpe diem, is one way to summarize the point--grab the day--although the sentiment didn’t initially pertain to taking the initiative but to focusing just on today! (That is not what makes the economy hum, not what gets one to prosper.)
What the anti-statists are confident about is that people will normally actively, consciously pay attention to the world and make the most of the opportunities it contains for advancing one’s lot. There is no guarantee that this will in fact always happen but those who have confidence in the power of freedom see it as the only option. For even those who advocate government programs as substitutes for the initiative and entrepreneurship of the citizenry admit, implicitly, that it all depends on at least some folks getting pro-active, moving things ahead. The pro-liberty people rely, implicitly at least, on this being the best general approach and a likely one because human beings are naturally self-starters. This is what makes them different in the world, their capacity to initiate the actions and institutions needed to flourish.
Those who are in favor of the governmental approach, via stimuli and such, basically believe, even if they don’t make this explicit, that most people cannot get going on their own, that we are like invalids or infants and need to be pushed around to get going. And once we are pushed around the push needs to be continued because otherwise inertia sets in. And in one limited respect they have a point--once the institutions of society have acclimated the citizenry to dependence on governmental boosts, they may form the bad habit of relying on it so as to make useful moves in their lives. The more this policy spreads, the more it is likely that fewer and fewer will take the initiative on their own.
At this point it is possible that for the entrepreneurial spirit to once again awaken, it will be necessary for the people to experience the cost of having abandoned it, of having it stymied by the entitlement mentality and the public policies which have encouraged it.
But there is an even more fundamental obstacle to a recovery, which is that the intellectual elite in many modern societies holds a view of human nature that denies human initiative and affirms, instead, the idea that we are all moving only when something moves us from the outside (or from some hard wiring in our make-up). This view of human nature, as essentially passive and not equipped to start moving ahead without prompters, invites the paradoxical approach to public policy of those who advocate the use of stimulus: only they have the capacity to get things moving, the rest of us do not!
Unless it is widely, prominently recognized that economic growth, including employment, investment, research, etc., must acknowledge that human beings are initiators and not passive, potted plants, the economy isn’t going to get going. Only if men and women are fully free will the power of freedom, namely, their own initiative, restart their engine of progress and prosperity.