Freedom Is Not Compatible with Government’s Initiation of Force against Innocent People
ECONOMICS, 31 Jan 2011
In yesterday’s [25 Jan 2011] New York Times appears an op-ed article by Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard. Glaeser’s article is remarkable because arguments in favor of freedom, insisting that economic analysis implicitly rests on a moral presumption that individual freedom has fundamental value, do not appear every day—or every month—in “the newspaper of record.” So, I am glad to give two cheers to Glaeser, one for his theme and another for his courage in placing the argument in such a hostile outlet.
I cannot give Glaeser a third cheer, however, because toward the end of the article he inserts a concession that I find wholly inconsistent with the rest of the argument. He writes:
Economists’ fondness for freedom rarely implies any particular policy program. A fondness for freedom is perfectly compatible with favoring redistribution, which can be seen as increasing one person’s choices at the expense of the choices of another, or with Keynesianism and its emphasis on anticyclical public spending.
Many regulations can even be seen as force for freedom, like financial rules that help give all investors the freedom to invest in stocks by trying to level the playing field.
To be sure, many mainstream economists do think about policy just as Glaeser says they do. But in doing so, they are mistaken. I find it difficult to believe that a man of Glaeser’s intelligence has really given much thought to what he is saying in these passages.
In fact, a presumption in favor of freedom rules out virtually everything that modern governments do, certainly nearly everything they do in interfering in economic affairs. Redistribution of income, for example, requires that the government rob Peter in order to benefit Paul (and its own functionaries, who serve as middlemen in this transfer). This action is not freedom; it is a crime against Peter, a raw violation of his right to his own legitimate property. Keynesian countercyclical spending requires the government to spend borrowed money whose acquisition is premised on future taxation (that is, robbery) of taxpayers in order to service the debt and repay the principal. Again, innocent persons have their rights violated. How can anyone fail to see that robbery is incompatible with freedom? Finally, the financial rules that Glaeser finds compatible with freedom entail threats of violence against financial transactors who do not follow arbitrary government rules—often extremely foolish and even destructive rules—in making their transactions, notwithstanding the fact that the parties to the transaction may be perfectly willing to proceed without such regulatory compliance. Such regulation is the very opposite of freedom; it is instead the sheer imposition of outside force, intruding on willing transactors, and thereby discouraging them to some extent, if not entirely, with consequent loss of the wealth that such transactions would have created, in addition to the loss of liberty.
Perhaps it is unseemly for someone such as I to make a recommendation to a Harvard professor, yet I cannot resist the urge to suggest that Glaeser read, say, Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market. Expositions of that sort would help him to gain a clearer vision of the distinction between individual freedom and state domination in economic affairs. Glaeser quotes Milton Friedman to good effect in his article, but Friedman’s writings ought to be the beginning, rather than the end of wisdom in this area. In regard to freedom, Friedman’s arguments were good as far as they went, but they did not go nearly far enough. Like Glaser, Friedman was prepared to make many concessions to state power, and his focus on utilitarian arguments, as opposed to moral principles, diminished the intellectual force of his laudable efforts to enlarge the scope of liberty in economic affairs.
Robert Higgs is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.
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