Sunday, September 18, 2011

Liberty versus Stimulus

Tibor R. Machan

Despite all the bad blood and heated rhetoric--name calling, besmirching, hyperbole and other polemics--involved in our current political-economic controversies, there really is a substantive point of considerable difference at issue. Put bluntly, the Obama team is convinced that unless people get a push from the state, or some kind of prompters, they will not move; whereas many in the Tea Party and their allies believe that people will move on their own once they are free to do so.

Free market champions tend, in the main, to believe that what is needed for economic growth--including the ensuing surge in productivity, sales, investments and employment--is for the government to stop butting into people’s economic lives. Once that happens, the bulk of libertarians and free marketeers think, there will be plenty of action, generated by the people who will then be free to exercise their initiative. Freedom of enterprise is the main issue for these folks. They aren’t mean, they do not lack compassion, they just have greater confidence in human beings picking themselves up by their own bootstraps then in others beating them into action, stimulating them to move out, etc. As to those who need help, this too is best left to private initiative than to state action which is fraught with corruption.

In the most general way the Keynesians who are advising and cheering on President Obama consider this free enterprise doctrine primitive, something for which the philosophical and scientific basis has been thoroughly discredited. The grandfather of the American system, John Locke, often spoke as if people did have free will--basically they are all free and independent, he held. Similarly Adam Smith believed that a regime of liberty will unleash the kind of energy that gets people to seek to prosper--that is the gist of the invisible hand idea. Governments may need to help with keeping the peace since there will always be some miscreants who want to cheat their way to prosperity on the backs of their fellows but in the main those are exceptions, The bulk of the population in a society can get on with the job of earning a living, of creativity and productivity, without government meddling and prodding and waiving around all sorts of artificial inducements for people to get to work.

That has been, roughly, the outlook of modern free market political economists, although that’s not to say that all of its champions have been in full agreement about the basic ideas. Free will, for example, isn’t what all champions of economic and political liberty accept but even those who do not hold to the idea that there is some kind of inner drive--some call it self-interest, some the profit motive, some the instinct for survival--that will be unleashed in a free system.

In contrast, the sort of view of human nature found in Keynes and among his followers comes to the idea that to get moving from their natural and preferred state of rest, people have to be pushed or stimulated. Only if policies that exhibit these features are implemented will there be economic activity. (Even the free market champions embrace some of this when they claim, as a lot of them do, that what gets people to work is “demand.” The famous supply and demand idea suggests this, although there are free marketeers who are what used to be called supply-siders, which is to say that they believe the way the economy gets going is with people thinking up stuff to produce and taking it to market which will then generate purchases, etc. So the issue isn’t neatly describable.)

So, the crux of the debate is between those who expect economic growth to come from personal initiative that is usually thwarted by governments and those who believe some super agency needs to spur us all into action--via thousands of regulations and the planning of the economy in ways the state agents think important but the economic actors do not have in mind.

Thus the stimulus that Mr. Obama & Co. advocate comes with state generated public works that are supposed to beef up the infrastructure, create demand for what they think would be important to produce, etc. The free market people, in contrast, leave the economic growth to the multitude of interactions among free economic agents who aren’t told to do this or that, to build roads or bridges or paint or write or whatever (which is what planners usually count on for getting economic activity going). No, the free market champions leave it to the people and their creative and productive initiative to generate economic activity, with results that aren’t predictable and that cannot be planned out by politicians and bureaucrats.

So, the bottom line is that the big dispute is indeed a substantive one, between those who have confidence in freedom and those who trust manipulation--out right force or substantial nudging.