Saturday, July 03, 2004


Several people assumed that I'm a socialist (at least) because I work at UW-Madison. Perhaps I should declare myself.

Quite a number of bloggers are libertarian/laissez-faire capitalists. I'm not. Think about the reality, not the theory.

  • In the real world, extreme concentrations of wealth distort economies. It is easy to say: "Let the chips fall where they may," but some firms become so big that if they go bankrupt so does almost everyone else. Wealth can be created, but it can also disappear. Somebody else's screwup can make your money go away. Did you have Enron in your investment portfolio?
  • In the real world, extreme concentrations of wealth distort politics. Bribes are the old reliable standby, but Bill Gates doesn't have to use such crude methods. And think how many ball teams threaten to move out of town if they don't get juicy concessions. Point taken?
  • In the real world we find real commons: things not ownable, shared; like air or water. You can find many lucid descriptions of the 'tragedy of the commons:' suffice it to say that when people or companies abuse the commons everyone suffers and the common goods are usually ruined. Without some societal or legal protection, human selfishness will eventually destroy whatever is "nobody's property."
  • In the real world people without exceptional skills are often helpless. Unions don't help the unskilled all that much.
  • In the real world people often cheerfully lie cheat and steal when they think they can get away with it for long enough. Maybe people will eventually discover that you've been adulterating the antibiotics you sell, but in the meantime you'll have made a nice killing and skipped out.
And so on. None of these are solvable from within the framework of laissez-faire capitalism.

But . . .

OK, make the strongest case you can for socialism. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Done? OK, now replace every instance of "the people" or "the government" in your argument with "some random bureaucrat." That's the real world implementation of all the high-sounding phrases. The argument doesn't sound quite so attractive anymore, does it?

In the real world socialism has a strong tendency to multiply entitlements without limit and micromanage nearly every aspect of society--but not necessarily bring political liberty (remember that the fascists and nazis had socialist platforms, however much they decried communism). This is unstable, and not a good program for a good future.

So what does that make me?

I suppose you can best describe me as a Murphocrat, or a Heisenburgian. Nothing is going to work perfectly, and anything you do to fix things is going to have unintended consequences. Some things you have to try to fix, but you can never be sure that your fix is permanent. You may have to withdraw the fix, or fix the fix; and ten years later fix that fix. Seemingly little things turn out to have major consequences.

Sometimes the consequences are very good: Read The Mystery of Capital by Hernando deSoto if you haven't already. If the state lets people own their own homes and spends the boring time and effort to register and keep track of this ownership it provides a startling amount of capital that the common man can use to try to start a business or improve his life.

So my prescription is fairly simple: Dink around as little as you can, keep your eyes open for problems that crop up, and have the humility to revisit your old laws from time to time to see what needs maintenance.

Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, bethink you that you may be mistaken."

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