Free-Market Thinkers Have Stopped Thinking
March 27, 2018
By Mencken's Ghost
Anthropologists say that humans became human about 200,000 years ago. Evolutionists say this was the result of a million years or so of evolution. Creationists say it was the result of creation. For purposes of this commentary, it doesn't matter who is right.
What matters is that modern capitalism and the Industrial Revolution didn't begin until a few centuries ago and thus have only existed for about .15% of human history. Adam Smith was born in 1723, or about 199,700 years after hominoids stood upright and entered the African savannah. Karl Marx was born 95 years later, in 1818.
There hasn't been a big idea in economics since these two thinkers and their respective economic systems. There's been progressivism, the social-welfare state, Keynes, compassionate conservatism, and most recently, Trumpian populism. But these are variants of the two big ideas and not grand unifying theories that tie together sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science.
Behavioral economics is relatively new, but that's nothing more than the recognition that humans don't always make rational economic decisions. Public-choice economic theory is also relatively new, but that simply says that politicians act in their own best interest. One doesn't need a PhD to realize this.
Modern capitalism and its opposite of Marxism came on the world scene a minute ago in evolutionary time. That makes them embryonic ideas. Yet free-market capitalists and their think tanks seem to believe that history is over, at least for economics. Capitalism prevailed over socialism and has resulted in billions of people escaping poverty. End of story.
This thinking is reminiscent of the 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama, who demonstrates that brilliance is not synonymous with wisdom and prescience. To simplify, his thesis was that liberal democracy has proved so successful that other political systems and ideologies would fall by the wayside. Tell that to 1.3 billion Chinese.
Fukuyama overlooked the significance of the ratio, 190,000:10,000. The first number is the years that humans lived as hunter-gatherers in small tribes and clans, with a socioeconomic system of egalitarianism and a political system akin to libertarianism. The second number is the years since the advent of agriculture and fixed settlements—years that have seen the development of kingdoms, empires, city states, and nation states, along with continual advancements in science, technology, communications, transportation, and warfare.
At best, it's naïve to think that the 190,000 years don't affect human behavior today—that only the last 10,000 years and especially the last 300 years do. If one believes in evolution, it's even more naive to think that a million years of evolution don't affect human behavior today.
Does anyone really believe that everything is settled and we are not still learning how to live together on this blue planet?
As a free-market capitalist and libertarian (aka classical liberal), I wish it were otherwise—I wish that my beliefs and experiences were the ultimate answer. But, alas, they are not.
The cold reality is that not everyone has benefited as much as I have from free-market capitalism and its associated creative destruction, globalism, and immigration. One would have had to live in a cocoon or the echo chamber of a free-market think tank in Washington, DC, to not have seen the social and economic carnage in towns across the heartland from the loss of millions of well-paid industrial jobs—and to not have foreseen that this would have political implications, most notably in the popularity of Bernie Sanders and the election of Donald Trump. It's not as if this hasn't happened before in American history. Earlier economic upheavals produced prairie populism, the Progressive movement, and the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
Or maybe the occupants of free-market think tanks saw it and didn't give a damn. Maybe they are coldhearted dogmatists and ideologues.
They certainly come across that way. Their constant refrain is that free markets, globalism, immigration, and creative destruction are good for society, er, the collective. Therefore, individuals harmed by these forces should shut up and get used to being collateral damage.
They come across this way because they see economics as a binary choice; that is, a choice between socialism and capitalism. Socialism has lost, so capitalism is a winner. It doesn't seem to enter their impressive intellects that there might be a third way, a new big idea or grand unifying theory that builds on the best elements of free-market capitalism and discards the bad elements. If they think otherwise, there is little evidence of it.
Is my assessment too harsh? Perhaps. But as someone who has donated to free-market think tanks and read their publications for years, I can't remember much concern from them for those left behind or much soul-searching about their core beliefs.
They now risk becoming as predictable, unoriginal, and boring as socialists.
If you dare to ask them why a vibrant market economy relies on constant growth, mass consumerism, and workers having to emulate rats on a treadmill, they write you off as a clone of Ralph Nader and thus anti-business. If you dare to ask them about the environmental damage and killing off of species from constant growth, they write you off as a clone of Paul Ehrlich and preach to you about communism being bad for the environment and capitalism being good for it. If you dare to ask them about the concentration of wealth at the top of society from financial capitalism, they write you off as a clone of Thomas Piketty and thus a believer in redistribution through highly progressive taxes and confiscatory estate taxes.
And if you dare to ask them what they think of Trump, they express concern over his authoritarianism but don't see their own role in getting him elected by ignoring the travails of the working class.
In short, after only a blink of evolutionary time, they have stopped thinking.