The Beautiful Language of Prices

Prices are a language.

The beauty of this reality hit me while on a walk.  I had my phone so I recorded my thoughts in the moment of delight.  I’m often overcome by how beautiful markets are.  It’s almost a spiritual experience when you ponder long enough.


Why I Love Las Vegas

I don’t play slots or gamble outside of house card games with a few buddies.  I don’t really enjoy the nightlife party and drinking scene.  I don’t do strip clubs.  I’m not a fan of musicals and shows.  Yet I love Vegas.

The first time I visited Las Vegas for a conference I was blown away by how much I loved the atmosphere.  Yes, it’s cheesy and ridiculous and lewd and in your face.  But it has in extreme measure that thing you find more in most American cities than just about any country in the world: customer service.  America has a deep and strong culture of entrepreneurship, hard work, and (partially) free-markets.  This results in a relentless drive and competition to please customers.  “The customer is always right” is a powerful adage that drives business, whether the owners like it or not.

Ludwig von Mises described the situation of producers in a capitalist economy well:

“Descriptive terms which people use are often quite misleading. In talking about modern captains of industry and leaders of big business, for instance, they call a man a “chocolate king” or a “cotton king” or an “automobile king.” Their use of such terminology implies that they see practically no difference between the modern heads of industry and those feudal kings, dukes or lords of earlier days. But the difference is in fact very great, for a chocolate king does not rule at all; he serves. He does not reign over conquered territory, independent of the market, independent of his customers. The chocolate king — or the steel king or the automobile king or any other king of modern industry — depends on the industry he operates and on the customers he serves. This “king” must stay in the good graces of his subjects, the consumers; he loses his “kingdom” as soon as he is no longer in a position to give his customers better service and provide it at lower cost than others with whom he must compete.”

In other words, the customer is not only right, the customer is king.  The businesses are the subjects, always vying the for approval and happiness of their Kings and Queens.  The truth, of course, is that the producers are also themselves consumers.  Those who work in the hotel, or mall, or diner, or factory are also consumers who patronize businesses.  We’re all serving each other.

In the case of Vegas, the notion of customer service reaches new heights.  It borders on customer worship.  From the minute you step out of the concourse your eyes are dazzled with light, sound, and a flurry of activity intended to delight and amaze.  Every square inch of the famous strip is covered with people and signs and sights begging to make you happy.  The chubby middle-aged guy from the Midwest wearing a cheap Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt is courted and complimented by beauty and talent all around.  The question that seems to be always on the mind of the businesses there is, “What can we do to make you happy?  How can we exhilarate you?”

You may call it tacky, but there are few places in the world where the commonest of people are treated like royalty 24/7.  There is something magical about it.  That’s what I love about Vegas.

Bad Arguments Against Immigration

Originally posted here.

The Economic Argument
Arguments against immigration on economic grounds basically boil down to “They took our jobs!”. Some feel that allowing people to freely cross borders will result in a flood of low-wage labor that will “steal” jobs from natural born citizens. Labor is a factor of production, just like raw materials or financial capital. Restricting the flow of capital and labor will always decrease economic prosperity. Access to more resources – human or otherwise – always increases wealth and opportunity. If this does not make sense to you, I recommend Frederic Bastiat’s “What is Seen and What is Unseen”, chapter 7, as well as his brilliantly satirical “Candle Maker’s Petition

The Culture Argument
Others argue that immigration must be restricted in order to protect the nation’s unique cultural heritage. I submit to you that any culture which must be maintained by force is not an authentic culture and is probably a bad one. Cultures freely arise because they provide benefits to those who participate in them. Cultures are always changing. Getting government in the business of protecting culture is dangerous and counter-productive. First, who gets to define what constitutes culture? Bureaucrats don’t have the best track record in such matters. Second, do we really want to live in a culture that is forced upon us by government prohibitions, restrictions and mandates?

The Welfare Argument
Advocates of limited government sometimes argue against immigration on the grounds that immigrants make use of the welfare state and increase the cost of government. State-sponsored welfare programs are a problem. Stopping immigration because immigrants might use welfare programs treats one tiny symptom, not the problem itself. If you routinely tossed open cans of tuna on your front lawn and found the neighbor’s cats hanging around your property, would you try to ban cats or would you clean the up the fish?

Though I think the vast majority of immigrants immigrate for jobs, freedom and opportunity, I’m sure some come and make use of government handouts (though less than U.S. Citizens, and likely less than they pay in taxes). The handouts are an attractive nuisance and should be addressed on their own merits, not by attempting to ban the free movement of people.

The Safety Argument
Some argue that allowing easy immigration will bring bands of criminals into their country and make them less safe. First, if something is a crime it is already, by definition, illegal. Threats to life and property are already supposed to be addressed via the existing police and justice system. Putting up a wall and stopping anyone from crossing it on the grounds that some of them may be criminals is ludicrous. By this logic, governments should perpetually engage in random home searches because they might discover criminal activity.

Closed borders probably don’t stop criminals, but let’s pretend that they could; if we could keep foreign criminals out by keeping out anyone foreign, what would we gain? We’d have spent tons of resources keeping out foreigners, most of whom aren’t criminals, and we’d have that many fewer resources to fight domestic crime. Banning people from movement because some of them may be criminals is even dumber than banning gun ownership because some people may use them for crime.

A Better Argument
Freedom to immigrate can be defended from several angles, but I believe the most important argument is based on rights. Imagine you and I have pieces of property that share a border. You wish to traverse my property and I wish to let you, but lawmakers prohibit it. What business do they have dictating whether we can make decisions about our own property? Sure, they were democratically elected, but what business do others have of voting to determine how you and I peacefully use our property?

What if government issued a decree that business owners were prohibited from hiring anyone born on a Tuesday? It’s no different when they prohibit hiring anyone born in another country. Shouldn’t the business owner be free to hire whom he wishes? If an individual wishes to travel, work, buy, or sell peacefully and all other parties involved agree, why should government prohibit it?

When you think up other arguments against immigration, ask yourself why they should not also be applied in state to state immigration? City to city? Home to home?

At bottom, I think much anti-immigration sentiment comes from a fear of people unlike us. I support anyone’s right to be prejudiced, or to associate only with those of like culture. But putting that attitude into public policy not only hampers wealth and progress, it violates my right to associate peacefully with whom I choose.

Obey the Law (of Demand)

The fact that walls and violence are needed to slow the flow of immigrants into this country is proof that more immigrants are economically beneficial.

If immigrants did not create wealth, they would have little incentive to come here.  In a market of voluntary exchanges, both parties benefit from trade.  For every immigrant who can command a higher wage in the US than elsewhere, there is an employer on the other side of that transaction, who benefits more from hiring the worker than not.  Wealth is created.

How much wealth is being left on the table by restricting immigration?  The evidence suggests quite a lot.  If immigrants consider it worthwhile to spend days sneaking through the dessert to avoid border patrol agents and face the very real threat of dehydration and death, the potential payout must be pretty significant.  That means a lot of value for both parties to the exchange.  Despite all the policies and restrictions passed, markets continually push towards equilibrium.

What’s odd about all of this is how revealing it is of our capacity for self-deception.  Americans push for laws that restrict immigration.  Many say that their preference is for fewer.  Yet when they take action in the market place, they reveal that what they really find valuable is just the opposite.  While the laws of the land say fewer immigrants, the laws of economics, reflecting preferences, beg for more through the price signalling mechanism.  Imagine a robot fluent in both English and the price “language” of economics, programmed to interpret the desires of Americans.  Americans would be screaming, “Don’t come here” with words, and begging, “Give me your tired!” with dollars.  I think we’re more honest in the face of trade-offs.  I’d program it to obey actions, not words.

We see the same double-mindedness with bans on box stores, import restrictions, drug prohibition, and a slew of other regulations.  Black markets are evidence of what people value.  If you have to use force to stop something, it’s because people really like that something and opportunities for mutual gain exist.  The more force required, the bigger the potential win-win being squelched.

If you want to know what people value, not just what they claim to value, the law of demand is a better indicator than the law of the land.  Those who follow this law, despite what the rules say, are listening to the true desires of consumers and taking on huge entrepreneurial risk to satisfy them.  How much wealthier we would be if we’d get the state out of the way and let these win-wins occur unencumbered.

Capitalism is Beautiful

Part eight in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

Beauty is not often on lists with virtues like peace, honesty and humility. But true beauty is a virtue—it is awe-inspiring, praise-evoking and brings the kind of joy that humans seek for fulfillment. When I think of life’s best moments, beauty is involved; a sunset over Lake Michigan, my wife’s smile, a moving piece of music, my kids laughing, a good cigar. These experiences are sensory, emotional and, each in a different way, beautiful.

Odd as it may sound, I also feel a sense of awe when I walk in to a retail store and ponder the myriad products in front of me. Perhaps I’m a little crazy, but the more I think about it, the more beautiful capitalism is. There are times when I actually get choked up at the operations of the free market!

Consider, as Leonard Read famously did, the production of a simple pencil:

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The wonder only grows as technology progresses. Consider, “I, Smartphone.”

The products we consume for our survival and enjoyment are not produced by you, me or any of us. Yet they are produced by all of us. How does this happen? How can the provision of the most basic necessities of life be beyond the ability and comprehension of any of the individuals who need those necessities? There is profound beauty in this mystery of human cooperation.

If you’ve ever been moved by the observance of a stranger coming to the aid of another, nothing should move you more than the operations of the market. A group of volunteers cleaning up and rebuilding homes after a disaster is beautiful. But consider that the same disaster, if markets are allowed to operate, will cause millions of people living thousands of miles away to reduce their consumption of needed water, plywood, generators and flashlights so that those in the affected areas can get enough. It will induce complete strangers, some of whom don’t even know of the disaster, to channel their energies toward the production and distribution of goods to the victims of the storm. The market is so powerful, in fact, that it will induce even those who dislike the victims and would wish ill upon them to alter their behavior in ways that alleviate the sufferers.

There is daily innovation in a capitalist economy. Entrepreneurs are in relentless pursuit of ways to make their fellow man happier and better off. The cornucopia of products from around the world available to us in a moment’s notice is truly a miraculous exception to the experience of humans throughout history, and it is human creativity unleashed by free-market capitalism that has made it possible. Free and open exchange is one of the most awe-inspiring, community-enhancing, peace-loving, relationship-building, cooperative and coordinating things humans can engage in.

The fact that the prosperity of a capitalist economy is the result of the laws of nature and facts of human nature, rather than anyone’s conscious design, makes it all the more inspiring. Consider the unlikely way in which bees are the keepers of flowers; as they seek only their own survival they pollinate the flowers and produce a dazzling garden.

Likewise, it is utterly amazing that billions of individuals seeking to better their condition do more to promote the welfare of their fellow man than any direct effort to do so ever could. I don’t want to confuse by saying that capitalism does this, because capitalism, or markets, can’t do anything; they represent the interrelated actions of individuals. It is the action of individuals that make this complex mosaic of harmonious interests and outcomes. But make no mistake; capitalism is the only canvas on which such a work of art can be created.

That, to me, is enough to stand in awe of a genius creator who put things in place to allow for this; or, for the non-religious, a spellbinding universe that is like a benevolent conspiracy of good. Capitalism is what occurs absent the use of coercion in human relationships, where spontaneous order emerges. Capitalism is beautiful.

Capitalism or What?

Part seven in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

When analyzing any social or economic system, the three most important words are: “Compared to what?”

Capitalism has its shortcomings. It has shortcomings because life has shortcomings in our own subjective evaluations. That is, we can always imagine a state of affairs better than the one we experience. It is exactly this kind of imagination that has been the driver of human progress. However, when progress has been made it has been by a combination of imagination and an understanding of causal relationships that are unchangeable. The desire to fly, coupled with an understanding of physics, motivated people to create amazing contraptions from airplanes to rockets to parachutes. The desire to fly coupled with a denial of the force of gravity would lead to a much different experience.

When we feel frustrated with the morality of the free market, we should always ask what a better alternative might be. When you get down to it, there are few options. As explained in an earlier post, all government intervention is backed by the threat of violence. This is important to keep in mind when considering alternatives to capitalism.

If you think the price of a good is immoral, for example, ask yourself what you would do to address the problem. Price controls mean threatening violence to anyone who wants to sell above a certain price. Imagine storming to your neighbor’s garage sale with an armed thug and yelling, “Lower your prices or else!” Does that seem more moral than your neighbor peacefully putting an asking price on her old bowling shoes?

From a moral standpoint, since the alternatives to free markets mean coercion (whether partial intervention or complete control), it’s hard to imagine addressing the imperfections that can occur under capitalism with government action. Not to mention the fact that the interventionsdon’t work at achieving the desired results.

Most of the alternatives imagined by critics of capitalism either overlook the coercive nature of the state or rely on a superhuman, all-knowing, all-good state. But if people aren’t good enough to act justly in a market, how could they be good enough to wield government power over others? Sound social theory and historical evidence confirm that indeed, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The difference between the power of a business tycoon in the market (assuming it’s a truly free market and he’s not in bed with government regulators) and the power of a government agent or politician is that the former can only woo while the latter can compel. Much as you mightn’t like the perceived power that people can get in the market, state power is far more dangerous. Businesspeople don’t conscript customers into war or kicked-down doors, except when in cahoots with the state.

There is a philosophical term for the tendency to compare one system to an imagined utopia, rather than to other possible alternatives. It’s called the Nirvana Fallacy. This is a prevalent form of argument against markets. A common example is, “Capitalism hurts the poor.” But compared to what? Look at the evidence of free economies vs. less free economies.

Minimum wage is example of how this fallacy can lead to bad outcomes for the intended beneficiaries. It is a result of the notion that some people don’t make enough money. But compared to what? What alternative is there to free-market wages that can improve the lot of the poor? Minimum wage laws only price the poor out of the labor market.

If we’re honest and use some economic thinking, it becomes clear that even the things we don’t like in a market system are better than the alternatives. (Of course, this is not true for the elites who have mastered the art of gaining political power and favors. For them, markets are worse than corporatism. But aren’t these just the kind of people we would like to see face the rigors of competition and put in an honest day’s work?)

It’s not a very fun argument nor is it the most compelling, but the worst that can be said of capitalism is that it is the “least bad” economic system.

Many accusations against capitalism turn out to be accusations against reality itself. We want to eat our cake and have it, too. We don’t like scarcity, which means trade-offs and choices. We don’t like that some people have no taste for high art (which is why Creed sold more records than Jimi Hendrix!), or that sometimes we enjoy cheap imported goods, or that fossil fuel allows us to do things that we find fulfilling. Capitalism is the wrong target in these cases; we’re frustrated at other people for being different, or ourselves for not being the way we wish we were, or at nature for the materials it yields. We’re upset at cause and effect. Certainly we are justified in feeling unease at failings of those around us or the difficulties nature presents, but we need to look for solutions in reality, not fantasy.

It might seem great if everyone in the world could have twice as much of everything right now. But that’s not possible, and capitalism shouldn’t take the blame for that any more than cement should take the blame for the fact that falling on cement can produce a skinned knee. We should continue to envision a better world and strive to create it, but we shouldn’t pursue a world that’s not possible. Let’s make progress through the peaceful coordination of the market, not the false hopes of a “new man” or the eradication of economic laws created by state centralization and coercion.

(I should add that it is extremely difficult in this country to know whether it is a fact of life or some government policy behind many of the problems we confront. This should make us especially cautious of blaming capitalism, since so often it is a lack of capitalism that makes reality seem harsher than it is. There are innumerable difficulties, both big and small, that entrepreneurs have solved but regulators have perpetuated.)

Capitalism is Not…

Part six in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

Capitalism gets saddled with a lot of baggage that doesn’t properly belong to it. Some of this is the result of ignorance of basic economics, some of it a poor reading of history, but most of it is due to a bad definition of capitalism. In the first post in this series I defined what I mean by the term:

[A] system where individuals are free to keep, trade, use, or give away property that was peacefully acquired. This is merely a negation of the use of force in the use and exchange of goods. I do not mean a system that is pro-capitalist, or pro-business, or pro anything but freedom for the individual.

This definition does away with many of the accusations made against capitalism. They may be true of our current system, but not of a genuinely free market. Still, there are a number of claims about capitalism that remain, and I wish to clear up at least a few of the common errors.

Capitalism is not a zero-sum game. For someone to win, it does not require someone else to lose. It is easy to observe a person who has done well and assume that there must be persons elsewhere who had to lose something in order for this person to have gained. That is true of every political system and many simulated scenarios like sporting events, but nothing could be further from the truth in a market.

When exchange takes place in a free market, both parties trade something they want less for something they want more. Of course, either may change their mind later and regret the decision, but at the time of the trade both parties valued what they got more than what they gave, otherwise they would not have traded. It is easy to see how value is created on both sides (because economic value is subjective), and how there was no “loser.” Beyond this simple illustration, over the long run the wealth generation of capitalist trade grows the overall pool of valuable resources and increases choice for all involved. This means the potential for more and bigger “wins” as time goes on and specialization and trade increase. Wealth is created, not distributed.

Capitalism is not for the rich. If there’s any class or group that benefits more from capitalism than any other, it’s not the rich, but the consumer. Of course all of us, rich and poor alike, play the part of the consumer at various times. But it is an inescapable fact that in order to succeed in a market, you must create value for consumers. Ludwig von Mises sums this up nicely:

“The riches of the rich are not the cause of the poverty of anybody; the process that makes some people rich is, on the contrary, the corollary of the process that improves many peoples want satisfaction. The entrepreneurs, the capitalists and the technologists prosper as far as they succeed in best supplying the consumers.”

The rich do not live at the expense of the poor, nor do the rich feel particularly secure in a free market; they often seek government intervention to protect them from competition. But any gains to the rich not only are the result of creating value for the consuming public, they often lead to direct benefits for the poor over time by way of lower prices and access to new technologies.

Even the most selfish, peasant-hating rich person wants to buy fancy new luxuries. Whether they like it or not, being early adopters of such goods helps fund the continual production, research and development of new technology and can bring the cost of production down over time. There is not a modern convenience in existence that did not begin as a plaything of the super-wealthy. TVs, cars, washing machines, cell phones, etc., ad nauseam. If there were no wealthy customers around to purchase these impractical items, it would have been nearly impossible for producers to continue to refine them and lower the cost of production. Rich and poor can certainly dislike each other in a free market, but they cannot avoid helping each other.

Capitalism doesn’t concentrate power. Capitalism disperses power. If you look at the list of Fortune 500 companies 50 years ago vs. today’s list, you’ll notice some familiar names. You’ll also notice that the majority of top players 50 years ago don’t make the list today, and a great many of them don’t even exist. There was a time when Sears threatened to dominate the entire retail industry through its innovative catalog approach. The previous big players in the retail scene, themselves viewed by some as invincible, were put under by Sears. Is Sears a retail hegemon today? Neither will Wal-Mart be tomorrow.

Capitalism is relentless, and consumers want value. They may have brand loyalties, but those only go so far. At the end of the day, the dynamic process of creation, imitation and destruction constantly wreak havoc on the best predictions of who will control the market into the future. Were it not for massive government interventions—including things like anti-trust, which is purported to break-up vested interests but typically does the opposite—we would see even more dynamism and less concentrated power.

It may be a bit disconcerting to realize how dynamic the free market is. The good news is while corporations and products and methods of production are created and destroyed all the time, the human and material resources in the economy are redeployed. It may cause temporary dislocation, but the transition from buggies to Fords was very good for market participants, even though it killed some buggy companies.

Capitalism isn’t about taking advantage of people. In fact, it’s about people taking advantage of the opportunity it provides. I used the example in a previous post of price gouging. Higher prices after a disaster are sometimes seen as an example of people being fleeced by the market when they are the most vulnerable. But when we understand what’s actually happening when prices rise—those less desperate are encouraged to conserve so those who need resources most can get them; suppliers are signaled to deliver more goods to the affected area, etc.—we see that the market is doing more than any other system could to provide for those who need it most.

I’ve heard people talk about the way that businesses take advantage of employees and force them into subpar working conditions. Of course we all have to make choices, and we all wish our options were better than they are (which is why we work to improve them). But is it true that capitalism allows companies to take advantage of people’s needs? Possibly, but no more than people take advantage of companies’ needs.

If you’ve ever shopped at Wal-Mart, supposedly one of the worst offenders when it comes to taking advantage of employees, you’ve noticed that most of the employees are not very helpful. I once waited for 30 minutes to pick up something ordered online. The store was not busy and four or five employees saw me there and did nothing. A few said they were going on break and someone else would help me soon. Some said nothing and just walked past, even when I tried to get their attention. When someone did arrive she was discourteous and messed up the check-out several times. I am far less likely to order from Wal-Mart after this experience.

If Wal-Mart is so good at exploiting employees, why were they unable to make them shorten their break to help me, or treat me with basic kindness, or master the proper checkout procedure? The answer is that Wal-Mart is not any better at getting what they want out of employees than employees are getting what they want out of Wal-Mart. The ease and regularity with which employees quit in the retail business is staggering, and employers often have to tolerate a lot of behavior that is detrimental to their profits to keep needed workers.

I don’t like to moralize about who’s exploiting who, but if we’re going to play that game we ought to consider the many ways in which employees, consumers and shareholders take advantage of managers, investors and corporations. It happens in both directions, but in a free market both are difficult to sustain in the long run. You have to serve other market participants, not cheat or exploit them. It’s not perfect, but capitalism does a better job of generating cooperation and limiting exploitation than any other system.

Capitalism doesn’t corrode our souls. Sure, free markets give us more choice and make us wealthier, but don’t they also make us crude, materialistic and shallow? It is true; in a more abundant market with lower costs, a person can more easily indulge their materialistic impulses. It is also true that countries where few go hungry also have more obesity. The cure is not to restrict the food supply.

A free market forces us to become people of character or suffer the consequences. We have more choices, which means the option of choosing things that are bad for us. But being deprived of choice altogether does not make us better people, just weaker people.

A person who has never lied because their tongue is cut out is not what we hope to become when we strive for honesty. Capitalism cannot corrode your soul, but it can provide you more modes of cultivating and expressing what’s in your soul—good or bad. You can’t escape ultimate responsibility for your choices under any system. Capitalism is up front about that.

Capitalism is Responsible

Part five in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

“All things are subject to the law of cause and effect.”

The opening sentence in Carl Menger’s 1871 “Principles of Economics seems at first glance little more than a truism, but it is an idea so foundational and so often ignored that it deserves great attention. It applies not only to economic activities, but to all human endeavors. If we seek to live moral lives and promote what is morally good, we ought to heed these words.

What often passes for praiseworthy is any action, or cause, whatsoever that is taken with a sincere desire to achieve a noble effect. The relationship between cause and effect is wholly ignored. But is it moral to take uninformed action that has no causal relationship to the ends sought?

To whom much is given

If I told you that one sick child would get well for every window you smashed, would you be a person of high moral character if you spent the night naively smashing windows with a sincere belief you were doing good? While your heart may be pure as the driven snow, doing good requires at least a genuine effort to understand the world and the likely effects of your actions. As C.S. Lewis said of moral busybodies, “They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

None of us has perfect knowledge, but to the extent that we are able, we are responsible for using sound judgment. In the age of the Internet it would be hard to claim you didn’t know better for taking actions that hinder rather than help the target of your good deeds. A valiant self-education effort is possible in almost every field. To whom much is given, much is required.

Capitalism works

Once we accept the fact that genuine moral good requires more than intentions, it becomes immediately apparent that capitalism has a leg up on every other economic system when it comes to the noble goals of poverty alleviation, peace and health.

The desire to help the poor is nearly universal. But when it comes to actual efforts to do so, there is a spectrum of outcomes ranging from absolute oppression to life-changing relief. We need to consider the outcome before we advocate a course of action. Capitalism is the most powerful force for the material betterment of humanity in the world. State interventions like minimum wages, price caps, foreign aid, immigration restrictions, and professional licensing and regulations do unspeakable harm to those of limited means.

Economic theory predicts better outcomes from markets than governments. Observation backs the prediction. The evidence is abundantly clear that economic freedom does more than government interventions (and private charity) for improving living conditions by every measure. This video gives a brief overview of some of the data.

Many people base their arguments for economic freedom entirely on the fact that it produces better material outcomes. But don’t let that fool you into thinking capitalism “delivers the goods” and ignores morality. I’ve addressed just a few of the ways in which capitalism promotes moral values in previous posts, but let’s not overlook the moral component of an improved quality of life for the least of these. If helping the poor is good, and if good intentions must be coupled with results, a free economy is in excellent moral standing.

Individual responsibility

In addition to achieving the ends of poverty reduction, capitalism also promotes responsibility in individuals. Since it is a negative system in which we can’t force people to do what we want, we must learn patience and peaceful persuasion. We have to be ready to accept the consequences of our decisions and learn to act prudently. Freedom allows us to become responsible.

Poet and theologian John Milton famously argued for free speech by saying that without it, the ability to become a morally responsible individual would cease. Milton said that without the freedom to choose wrongly what books to read or doctrines to believe, there would be no concept of choosing rightly. People would not become moral, but would be of a weaker character and less able to resist evil when they encountered it. There is no righteousness in not making bad choices that are not available to you. A truly free market leaves open the possibility of bad decisions, but any system that does not allow these decisions makes us less, not more, morally responsible.

Capitalism is Humble

Part four in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

In a previous post I talked about the honesty of capitalism; people are not angels. A capitalist economy recognizes this fact, and our greed doesn’t ruin the system. Closely related to the honesty about people’s motives is capitalism’s humility about people’s limits. Humans are not all-knowing, and if force is absent, a free-market is what emerges to deal with this fact and spread valuable and coordinating information the best way possible. Markets are a result of our lack of individual knowledge, and a constant reminder of how fallible we are.

Models vs. reality

It has been well documented, especially during the Socialist Calculation Debate that absent a free-market, there is no way to allocate resources effectively. If we believe that people (or at least some group of elite experts) have near perfect knowledge of what resources and finished goods are valued to what extent by whom at what time in what location, then certainly a centrally planned economy would be superior to the messy market with all its profit and loss. Every time an entrepreneur starts a new venture that ends up failing, resources are wasted. His incorrect knowledge about how much people would value his products cause losses. A ruthlessly efficient economy wouldn’t suffer any such waste.

Indeed, the classical (and still standard in most economics textbooks) model of the ideal economy is one in which “perfect competition” is reached. The condition exists when everyone has perfect knowledge of the availability and cost of all resources and the value to consumers of all goods. There is no profit, no loss, no shortages, no surpluses and no speculation in this idealized economy. Everything is in equilibrium.

Seduced by this economic model, many an economist, statesman, do-gooder, social-reformer and power-hungry despot has attempted to achieve it in practice, and with disastrous results as evidenced in places like the former Soviet Union. The model may be a useful tool for testing some economic theories, but only an ill-informed or incredibly arrogant person would see it as a desirable or possible end-state for the real world economy. No one has perfect knowledge. It is impossible to even imagine a world in which they could. Since economic value is subjective and changing all the time, how can anyone know how much another person will value one good compared to another at any given time, let alone millions of people in a constantly changing world?

A process, not an end-state

Capitalism is humble enough to realize our limited knowledge. It relies on the price system—a spontaneous, organic result of billions of free choices—to convey information. It relies on consumers, producers, entrepreneurs and capitalists to act on that information. When they get it right, value is created, and it generates new price signals that encourage more of the same. When they get it wrong, loss results and puts a quick end to the waste of resources and sends a signal telling others not to do the same.

The price system conveys so much information in such a small bundle that I can scarce think of an analogy to show just how valuable it is. It is the most sophisticated communication system the world has ever known. Leonard Read’s famous, “I, Pencil” details the way in which the price system coordinates the actions of thousands of individuals who don’t know each other and might not even speak the same language, to bring an item as simple as a pencil to the market.


Beyond merely helping us know the preferences of others, the market system can actually help us discover our own assets and abilities. A professor once told me of a Canadian man who played the bagpipes and made small metal replacement parts for other bagpipe enthusiasts as a hobby. One day he saw an ad in the classifieds for someone who could make small metal parts for an airplane manufacturer. He could use some extra cash, and it sounded similar to his handcrafted bagpipe fittings so he gave it a shot. He ended up making good money producing airplane components—an industry he knew nothing about and never fancied himself skilled enough to enter.

If a central planner was trying to make the best use of all the labor and resources in Canada, he might conduct a survey of the skills possessed by the people there. This man could not have made known his skill in airplane manufacture, because he didn’t even know he had it! The discovery process of the market revealed to him knowledge about a value he could create for others that was previously hidden. If we don’t even know our own economic value, how can we know the values of others?

Greater than the sum

We can’t produce what the capitalist system produces. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It conveys coordinating information that lets us each go about our business and produce end results that are beyond our own abilities and comprehension.

Capitalism’s features—the price system, failure and success, profit and loss, trade, specialization, even the hated speculator, middle man and advertiser—are the result of and cure for our ignorance. We need them to help us choose actions that are valuable to ourselves and others.

A capitalism system does not require perfect knowledge. Through it, we can produce what no planner ever could. This humble, dynamic, trial-and-error approach produces wealth and innovation like no other system. It also keeps us humble on an individual level. When you contemplate the production of a simple pencil, and how far beyond your own skill level it is, it certainly puts things in perspective. It reveals how much we need our fellow man, and how much more we can accomplish when we allow this organic market process to coordinate our activities.

Capitalism is Peaceful

Part three in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

Free markets are probably the greatest force for peace in history. There are three distinct ways in which capitalism promotes peace.

A negative system

The simplest way in which capitalism is peaceful is by its abstention from direct acts of violence. Free markets offer no positive prescription for what market participants must do. A genuine capitalist system is one of free trade and voluntary association. People are free to do, in the words of Leonard Read, “Anything that’s peaceful.” There are no “do’s,” and the only real “don’t” at bottom is, “don’t use force.” All else is permitted, but there is no guarantee the market will sustain or reward it.

Capitalism is not a master plan or a system created ahead of time by planners. It is really just the result of peaceful interactions. It is what emerges if force is only used in defense against force. The absence of violence results in secure property rights, contracts and all of the other institutional trappings that are commonly associated with capitalism.

Every other economic system requires a direct application of violence. Any regulation, fee, tax, trade barrier, licensing regime or mandate offered in any kind of “mixed” or corporatist or socialist or fascist regime is backed by the threat of violence.

Raising the cost of violence

Beyond the absence of force in individual actions, capitalism promotes a much broader peace between people groups from different regions and of different cultures and backgrounds. Self-interest begets trade; trade begets specialization; specialization begets cooperation. Ricardo’s law of association demonstrates how much more productive we are when we specialize and trade, which means that over time we come to rely on a vast network of trading partners for our own well-being. Some people find this state of affairs troubling and you hear things like, “What if X country decides to withhold good Y from us? We rely too heavily on imports!” There are plenty of natural and man-made things to fear in the world if you wish to worry, but the cutting off of trade in a truly free market ought not to be one of them. If a person genuinely wants to avoid all reliance on other people (not sure how this would work for a newborn), they are free to live as long as they can only eat what they can find or grow on their own. It’s not hard to see that that kind of “independence” is far more risky than being part of an interdependent trade network.

The more people rely on trade with others, the greater the cost to all parties of a conflict. If I grow apples and trade them to you for chickens, the last thing I want to do is tick you off and lose my chicken supply and vice versa. On the flip side, if you have a lot of chickens and I have none, and there is no trade between us, I will be tempted to try stealing some. Lack of trade builds enmity. There is a famous saying, attributed to Frederic Bastiat, “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will.”

In a free market, the cost of belligerence is very high. When governments come in and restrict trade or subsidize violence by building up large militaries, the cost of belligerence is lowered, and the benefits of peace are reduced. It is the state, not trade, which creates conflict.

Friends, not enemies

Pretend you live in a free-market economy. You are friends with your neighbor, who works at a small grocer in town. You find the selection to be limited and the prices high. A new supermarket chain is coming in to town, and you’re excited about it because the lower prices and better selection mean you’ll have better meals and money left over for leisure activities with your family. Your neighbor is unhappy about the new store because it may cost him his job. The store comes in. You shop there and save while also expressing your heartfelt empathy to your neighbor whose store may soon shut down. You maintain your friendship, even though in the economic sphere you cease to be trading partners.

Now pretend you live in a heavily regulated economic system much like ours today. You and your neighbor the grocer are still friends. This time the chain store is not free to sell in your town without a government permission slip. It goes up for a vote. Your neighbor actively campaigns to restrain the store from opening up, which will prevent you from buying better products for less money. He urges you to join his efforts and put a “No chain stores!” sign in your yard. You tell him that you won’t because you wouldn’t mind the chain store. It turns in to a bitter, possibly friendship-ending disagreement.

Politics makes enemies out of friends. In a market, you are free to express your varied preferences with your own actions and the expenditure of your own resources. If someone sells something you don’t like, you don’t have to buy. But the very anonymity and absence of compulsion in markets allows you to form community bonds quite separate from your trading choices. You can maintain friendships with all kinds of people whose goods and services you do not necessarily value. You can befriend an orchestral violinist without being a patron of the symphony. But when resources are allocated politically rather than in a free market, that friendship is hard to maintain when you would vote against a tax to fund the symphony hall, which she supports.

Capitalism allows our diverse tastes to be explored and expressed in a way that doesn’t restrict choices to zero-sum contests of your preferences over others. A cornucopia of choice exists in the market, and this not only means better products, but also the removal of artificially created conflict between choices A and B, such as those that inevitably spring from government management.

Three kinds of peace

Capitalism relies on voluntarism rather than violence in individual interactions. It also creates cooperative networks that dramatically increase the incentive to get along and raise the cost of conflict, while government intervention does just the opposite. Finally, capitalism allows us to live in harmony despite our different tastes and sometimes conflicting demands for limited resources, while political allocation always forces us to take sides and go to battle against each other. If you want a more peaceful world, promote capitalism.

Capitalism is Honest

Part two in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

Capitalism is honest because it accepts reality as it is.

Economist Thomas Sowell describes two ways of looking at the world, or two “visions:” constrained and unconstrained. Sowell’s book, “A Conflict of Visions,” is an application of many themes in the work of economist F.A. Hayek; especially Hayek’s views on the dispersed nature of information, the limits to what humans can know about each other, and the problems with attempts to replace organic and decentralized markets with top-down rational planning.

A constrained vision of the world recognizes some things as more or less unchangeable—scarcity and elements of human nature like the desire to better oneself and even frequent greed and nastiness. The best bet is to deal with these realities as best we can, rather than to wish them away. An unconstrained vision sees these as problems to be solved. Humans and our social systems are perfectible, if only we plan and direct our activities in a more rational way.

Regardless of the merits of each respective vision, it is to the great benefit of us all that a capitalist economic system is based on a more or less constrained vision. Even if it is possible that someday people may be better or scarcity may be gone, it’s here, and capitalism doesn’t need it to go away in order to work.

Honest about interest

Greed and self-interest are different. Self-interest is unavoidable. All people are self-interested, even when acting altruistically, because they believe the action will get them closer to where they want to be than inaction. Greed is unknowable to anyone but the greedy person. As Milton Friedman reminded Phil Donahue, greed can’t be prohibited by any system. Capitalism realizes this, and rather than wishing greed away, it provides an incentive structure that channels self-interest, whether greedy or not, to produce the least harm and the most good.

This is the fundamental insight of Adam Smith, that the butcher doesn’t provide meat out of love for his customers, but out of regard for his own self-interest. It’s not good if the butcher is greedy, but even if he is, good can result if he’s in a capitalist system. Capitalism is not harmed if he is a selfless person, nor is it harmed if he’s greedy. In fact, if he is a greedy jerk, it is likely to hurt his business because customers may not like buying from him. Bigots, jerks, scoundrels and greedy people won’t ruin capitalism, but capitalism might ruin them.

Contrast this to government, where officials and bureaucrats are supposed to do not what is good for them, but what is good for society. For government programs to achieve their goals, it would require people—voters, politicians, employees—to be always selfless. Voters don’t bear the cost of casting selfish votes; politicians can spread the costs of pork across millions of taxpayers and concentrate the benefits to a few; and the workers at the DMV or TSA don’t fear losing your business if they treat you poorly. Governmental solutions are not honest about human greed, and they cannot channel it to create benefits for all like the market can.

Honest about scarcity

Capitalism also recognizes scarcity and is honest about it. Love to save trees? Love to save children?

Say there is a forest that is highly valued by the environmental community. It is also the site on which some philanthropist wants to construct a children’s hospital. What’s more important? In government-run or managed economies, this becomes a bitter political question, and everyone is forced into the unenviable position of deciding whether they care more for trees and animals or sick children. In a market system, the property owner can accept offers for the land and a price will emerge. Those who truly value it most will place a higher bid and proceed with their plans for the forest.

To many people, this seems cold and calculating. It feels as though markets reduce children and trees to dollars and cents. In reality, it is an honest way to deal with scarcity, and it allows for the most valuable actions, as judged by the people involved, to be completed. What is the alternative? A system of price caps, regulations or government decisions about land use will not result in the best use of the land, but the one that is most beneficial to political interests. It prohibits caring people who might be willing to sacrifice great amounts of their own resources from doing so, in order to please other people who may only mildly care and aren’t willing to put any of their own resources behind their desires. “Price gouging” is another excellent example of the good that results from capitalism’s ability to deal honestly with scarcity.

Promotion of personal honesty

Capitalism is not merely a system that honestly recognizes and deals with scarcity and greed, it also encourages and breeds trust among individuals. When I go to the store to buy fish, I don’t really consider the possibility that the store may sell me rotten or poisoned fish. No conscious process takes place in which I analyze the incentives facing the store owners and employees and asses my probability of risk. And these are people I’ve never met, people who don’t care about me, and people who I may dislike if I did meet them. Yet the very anonymity and impersonal nature of markets require a tremendous amount of trust from all parties. And we do trust each other! I needn’t trust anyone’s motives or knowledge personally, but the market itself has proven to be so trustworthy that I don’t feel any suspicion.

Capitalist economies produce trusting people. Contrast that to dictatorships or heavily planned economies. If you’ve ever spent time in a country with a heavily controlled economy, you’ve probably experienced things like vendors holding your money up to the light to check if it’s fraudulent.

Dream of the real world

Dreams of a world without scarcity or greed are wonderful. But an economic system that is honest about the scarce nature of resources and people of less-than-stellar character, is an unheralded blessing for humanity. It helps us make better choices with what we have, it channels the otherwise destructive behavior of others for our good, and it makes us more trusting people which creates a more vibrant civil society.

The Morality of Capitalism

This is part one in an eight part series on the morality of capitalism.  Originally posted here

It is a common belief that capitalism “delivers the goods” and creates prosperity, but does so only at the cost of our souls, our dignity and our humanity. Many people doubt capitalism not because they fail to see its wealth-generating capacity, but because they believe it to be immoral. I wish to contest the idea that capitalism is immoral and present evidence to the contrary. Not only do I believe capitalism passes the minimum test by failing to violate basic moral standards; I believe it actively promotes a robust sense of morality in a way far superior to any other system.

Before I present my arguments, I would like to define what I mean by the word “capitalism.” I mean only a system where individuals are free to keep, trade, use or give away property that was peacefully acquired. This is merely a negation of the use of force in the use and exchange of goods. I do not mean a system that is pro-capitalist, or pro-business or pro anything but freedom for the individual.

In matter of fact, capitalists and established businesspeople have always been the most active enemies of capitalism. That is because capitalism is decidedly not pro-business. It allows for human creativity, competition and ceaseless challenges to vested interests as people continually innovate in order to better serve customers. It is a system that does not allow one to rest on their laurels long, and as such, those who have been successful frequently try to slow capitalism down and look to the state to find shelter from its dynamism.

If the word capitalism is distracting, I encourage you to substitute “free trade,” “free markets,” “voluntary exchange” or simply “freedom.” It will not change the meaning of my arguments in the least. I have chosen to use the term capitalism because it creates a more provocative title and because the term is embraced by the curators of this blog. There are good arguments both for and against the use of the term capitalism by advocates of free markets, but I wish to avoid this debate at present.

The titles of the next seven posts in this series provide a clue as to where I am going:

Through these posts I will attempt to briefly explain why a system of free enterprise is the best possible way to promote these virtues. I don’t think we should merely accept or “put up with” capitalism, but we ought to embrace it as the key to unlocking human potential—moral, mental, spiritual and physical. There is much more to be said on the morality of capitalism than I will say in this series, and I mean only to present some of the most basic arguments.

The Timeless Way of Being

I am currently reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building on the recommendation of a friend.  It is one of those books that is so full of insight that it cannot be absorbed all at once, especially with the analytical part of the brain.  It is as intuitive as it is logical.  It’s the kind of thing that forces you to think outside of your paradigms, but in a way that is oddly comfortable.

Yesterday a section of the book stood out to me in particular.  It was about the patterns in building that are good at resolving conflicting forces, and those that are not.  Alexander maintains that there is near universal agreement on what patterns of, say, a window or a garden resolve conflicting forces.  He asks people how they feel in a certain window area vs. another, and 95% or more feel good in the same one.  It may seem outlandish to claim that there is so little disagreement about what makes for a good pattern in building, but the key for Alexander is the word feeling.

He does not ask what they think of flat windows vs. Bay windows.  He does not ask their opinion on window material or position.  He does not ask what a builder should do.  He does not ask anything that evokes a belief or idea or a connection to some overarching plan or policy.  These ought expressions get in the way of the is  of the forces at work within us.  It turns out it is incredibly hard to be honest with ourselves about what feels good.  It takes a lot of discovery, and shedding all the baggage and ideology we carry around.

It someone asked me what I thought of using locally grown ingredients in food, my mind would immediately leap to the idiotic and regressive political movements that seek to force economies into localism, drive up prices, drive down quality, get everyone too involved in everyone else’s business while self-righteously proclaiming the superiority of an absurd proximity bias.  In other words, my thoughts on the matter would probably be negative.

Because of this, it is possible that I would overlook an opportunity to bite into a delicious and juicy local fruit at a farmers market, for fear of giving credence to the food busybodies.  These thoughts – my view that no one ought to get preachy about local ingredients – might prohibit me from finding alignment with the genuine feelings within me.  It’s harder than it first seems to constantly stay in touch with what feels right – with who we actually are – in the face of all the things we think we should be and believe.

This is one of the reasons democracy is such a poor way of resolving collective action problems.  It not only seeks and allows our mere opinions, it rewards our proclamations of what we wish we thought, or what we pretend to want, instead of what actually make us fuller, happier people.  It rewards and glorifies the boring lies and spin we weave into our narratives, and vilifies our honesty about what really harmonizes with us.

It’s much more fruitful to dig down to the bottom and discover what you really do feel, and work with those forces rather than pretending they don’t exist.  This is why capitalism is such a powerful and beautiful system of social coordination; because it takes humans as they are, imperfect knowledge and motives and abilities, and the scarcity and difficulty the natural world presents, works with it, and channels it all in a harmonious and life-giving way.  Capitalism is honest.

This is why the economic way of thinking – the rational choice model – is so enlightening and useful in explaining human behavior and institutions.  It does not condone or condemn, it just accepts ends as a given and seeks to understand what means will and will not achieve them.

Certainly some goals or desires or feelings are better than others.  Certainly some are worth trying to change.  But playing pretend and building patterns around forces we wish existed in us and in others, instead of what’s actually there, doesn’t help.  There is no better way to express this insight than to quote The Timeless Way at length:

“But a pattern which is real makes no judgments about the legitimacy of the forces in the situation.

By seeming to be unethical, by making no judgments about individual opinions, or goals, pr values, the pattern rises to another level of morality.

The result is to allow things to be alive – and this is a higher good than the victory of any one artificial system of values.  The attempt to have a victory for a one-sided view of the world cannot work anyway, even for the people who seem to win their point of view.  The forces which are ignored do not go away just because they are ignored.  They lurk, frustrated, underground.  Sooner or later they erupt in violence: and the system which seems to win is then exposed to far more catastrophic dangers.

The only way a pattern can actually help to make a situation genuinely more alive is by recognizing all the forces which actually exist, and then finding a world in which these forces can slide past each other.

Then it becomes a piece of nature.”

Mr. Alexander is an architect and is here talking about patterns in rooms, gardens, buildings and towns.  He refers to things like the human desire to go towards the light in the room, and the desire for comfortable seating.  The patterns he seeks are those that bring into harmony such forces.  But read the above again, slowly, and consider how much broader this insight might apply; to institutions, to social coordination problems, and to our own lives.

Generational Wealth: Hesiod versus Aristotle

Originally posted here.

It is a great irony that prosperity affords posterity the luxury of forgetting its origins. Though not a hard-and-fast rule of societal evolution, generations who grow up wealthy often lack respect for or understanding of the values and ideas that generated the very wealth from which they benefit.

There is an honesty, realism, and practical virtue often accompanying generations that have to endure difficult labor that is sometimes lost on later generations that inherit a comfortable material life. This is not a new phenomenon but is present throughout history. Compare, for example, the life and work of the ancient Greek poet Hesiod with that of the great philosopher Aristotle some 300 years later.

Hesiod lived sometime around 700 B.C. in the region of Boeotia, which he described in his Works and Days as a “cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant.” Though little is known about his life, he was apparently a shepherd who claimed to have been given the gift of song by the Muses one day while tending his flock. Regardless of the source, Hesiod’s poetry is full of colorful mythology, practical wisdom, and sound ethics. The ancient poet wrote at a time near the end of the Greek Dark Ages and at the beginning of the Archaic period. Greece was a highly decentralized region made up of mostly small, self-governing societies, and the merchant class was just beginning to emerge.

It is in this context that Hesiod gives advice to his wayward brother Perses in his Works and Days. The poem is a very practical treatise on the value of hard work, the need to cultivate strong personal character and to focus on one’s own welfare rather than the affairs of others. There is a strong individualism throughout Works, and even a foreshadowing of Bernard de Mandeville’sGrumbling Hive and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, as Hesiod describes the value of self-interest and the ability of envy and strife to motivate hard work and wealth creation.

Hesiod makes no apologies for the pursuit of wealth. Indeed, he sees the hard work required to obtain it as a way of becoming virtuous:

But the immortals decreed that man must sweat to attain virtue.


If you work, you will be dearer to immortals and mortals; they both loathe the indolent.

No shame in work but plenty of it in sloth.

If your work brings you wealth, you will be envied by the slothful,

because glory and excellence follow riches.

Whatever your lot, nothing will be as good as work.

Ancient Greeks must have heeded Hesiod’s advice. Three centuries later, Greece had grown in power and wealth, and from it began to flower some of the greatest contributions to classical and modern art, science, law, and philosophy. It was into this culture that Aristotle was born.

Aristotle was the son of a royal physician and a member of the aristocracy. He enjoyed an excellent education at Plato’s academy, which allowed him to direct all of his energy to philosophic and scientific inquiry. There is no doubt that the product of his genius was tremendously important to the advancement of the sciences and to the advancement of liberty. However, several passages in his Politics stand in sharp contrast to the views of his Greek predecessor, Hesiod, regarding the value of work, wealth, and individualism.

Compare the passage above on work as a means of obtaining virtue and wealth as a precursor to “glory and excellence” to Aristotle’s description of those fit for citizenship in his perfect state:

Now, since we are here speaking of the best form of government, and that under which the state will be most happy (and happiness, as has been already said, cannot exist without virtue), it clearly follows that in the state which is best governed the citizens who are absolutely and not merely relatively just men must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be husbandmen, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties.

Aristotle’s aristocratic upbringing leads to an arrogant view of not only who should be a citizen or leader but also how a state should be governed in general. Hesiod’s focus is on the individual and how he might improve his own lot and leave others alone, while Aristotle is more concerned with selecting the best men to plan and rule the rest. Like Plato before him, Aristotle thought those fit to rule were educated men like himself — men who had sufficient leisure and could stay out of “unnatural” businesses like retail trade and moneymaking.

There is no doubt that — probably thanks to the intellectual lifestyle afforded him — Aristotle provided one of the best defenses for private property, and his work in logic and metaphysics remains unrivaled today. However, Aristotle’s political and economic thought leaves something to be desired by those who value free-market capitalism, the role of the entrepreneur, and the positive power of self-interest and individuality.

The main difference between these two men was their wealth and status. Hesiod, perhaps due to necessity, was a practical thinker. Extolling the virtues of hard work was not mere speculation; I doubt Hesiod could afford to look down his nose at labor. Aristotle, on the other hand, could afford to disparage trade and labor. The wealth of Greece provided opportunity for full-time teachers and thinkers to ponder anything they chose. Indeed, the power of wealth to fund such speculative philosophy is one of its greatest advantages, and as one who spends hours studying, I would not wish to return to a poor agrarian society. Still, such generational wealth carries with it a certain danger.

Anticapitalist theories share in common an inability to take human nature as it is. Rather than analyzing man as a complex creature who will always act to achieve what he perceives as good, anticapitalist theories tend to focus on what the theorist wishes man to be and often overlook the necessity of market exchange for human improvement. From the vantage of a moneyed aristocracy, it is easy to be “above” the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, and to pursue higher ideals than material prosperity — forgetting that such prosperity is what supports the hours of speculation.

I do not believe one must be poor to understand and appreciate capitalism, nor am I opposed to generational wealth or inheritances. It does seem, however, that there is a certain danger in living a life completely detached from market processes and the pursuit of wealth through production and trade. Far worse than a physically lazy trust-fund baby is a generation that has become intellectually lazy. With wealth comes the temptation to rebel against existing institutions and ideas — after all, you can afford to. While iconoclasm and courage to question the status quo are cherished virtues and much needed in defense of liberty, they are not ends in themselves. There is no heroism in revolting against the existing order if the existing order is better than the ideals for which the revolutionaries stand.

In our age of plenty where “higher learning” is ubiquitous, it is imperative that we remain realistic in our assessment of human nature and not forget that the basic principles that produced our prosperity still govern human action. Teaching future generations the theories of individual liberty and capitalist production is important; perhaps letting them experience the theories in practice is as well.

Five Myths About NASA

Most people agree that government programs are wasteful, and many are unnecessary.  But even small government advocates have a soft spot for NASA.  It’s pointed to as an example of a worthwhile government program because, after all, not only does it have a really cool mission, but it’s also resulted in microwaves and memory foam!  These are valuable contributions that justify it’s value, even if space exploration itself hasn’t proven enough.

Not so fast.  Let’s put on our economist lenses and look a little closer to expose five common myths about the value of NASA:

Myth #1: It’s worth it.  This is a claim without a test.  Without a profit and loss model, how can anyone know the value of NASA inventions and spin-offs products compared to the cost of the program?  Why not let a voluntarily funded outfit do space exploration work and pay for it by selling usable discoveries they make in the process?  That would reveal the value of such inventions to consumers over and above the cost of research.

It’s impossible to judge the value of big expenditures absent a market.  Imagine a company that picked an ambitious effort, like digging the worlds largest, deepest pit, and continued to fund it to the tune of billions a year.  I’m sure some interesting and useful stuff would be found down there, and some new technologies would result from all the efforts to dig deeper.  But it’s hard to imagine these side benefits being sufficient to draw an entrepreneur into such a venture.

It’s not enough to simply point to cool gizmos as proof of the value of a program.

Myth #2: We’d never have a bunch of cool tech without NASA.  This is of course impossible to know.  But what we do know is that the existence of NASA attracts many great technological and scientific minds.  These are not minds that would otherwise be sitting idle.  They would likely be doing much the same thing – inventing, solving problems, and creating stuff.  Many of the spin-off technologies from NASA would certainly have come from other organizations.  Maybe even better things would have resulted.

It is also worth remembering that none of the NASA technologies were created in a vacuum.  Invention is an incremental and messy process, full of simultaneous discovery, back and forth modification, and adaptation.  Because NASA gets the credit for something doesn’t mean it emerged from the secret NASA chambers untouched by any other researchers in the world.  This was stuff that was being tinkered with the world over.  If it has commercial value, there’s a good chance it will be discovered and put to use.  Who has more incentive to do so; an organization that doesn’t need to make widespread use of its technologies to survive, or a business that does?

We can’t know what would and would not have been invented without NASA, but it seems pretty odd to grant the assumption that a government agency is more likely than a market institution to innovate.

Myth #3: It’s doesn’t cost that much.  Maybe $18 billion a year is not that much compared to all the other stuff taxpayers are being forced to pay for.  But the costs of NASA are not just monetary; there’s opportunity cost.  In high-tech areas with highly skilled workers, the opportunity cost is very high.  What else might those people be doing to create value for the world if they weren’t there?  What projects are not happening because NASA is?  Opportunity cost is a big deal.

Not only is NASA an attractive option for a lot of really smart people because it sounds cool, but the fact that every other industry has become so heavily regulated and restricted makes other options artificially less attractive.  We all lose as a result.

Myth #4: They can spend our money better than we can.  Economic value is subjective.  As such, it’s impossible to know whether someone is happier with how you spent their money for them than they would be if they spent it themselves.  The best proxy is behavior.  What people freely choose to do with their money reveals what they value most at the time of choosing.  The mere fact that government programs can’t get by asking for voluntary contributions reveals that people value the uses to which they would put their money more highly than what government does with it.

When people spend their own money not only do they put it to their highest valued use, but their actions affect prices, which in turn send signals to producers and entrepreneurs indicating what kind of stuff people want more of.  More effort goes into producing more and better of that stuff, which creates even more value.  As preferences shift, so do production patterns.  This is an important process with complex feedback mechanisms that help to continually create real value for individuals in society.

You can’t create progress for all by taking money from everyone and giving it to a small group with no requirement that they respond to the demands of the many.  If you try, not only do you rob people of short term value by taking away their first-best spending option, you mess with the signals and incentives in the system ensuring that less of what people value will be produced in the long run.

Myth #5: Those smart scientists will innovate rather than waste money.  This may come as a revelation, but scientists are people too.  People respond to incentives.  When your lifeblood is determined by the political process, you will cater to the demands of that process.  Public Choice reminds us that the political process results in irrational, uninformed, biased and downright silly decisions.  It rewards all the wrong things, and punishes all the right things.  NASA faces the same calculation, knowledge, moral hazard, and incentive problems every other bureaucracy faces.  Explore the boundaries of the laws of physics though they may, they cannot break the laws of economics.

Conclusion: Relax, I don’t hate space exploration and neither must you to oppose taxpayer funding for it.  You may counter these myths by saying, forget spin-offs, space exploration is so important it trumps any other consideration.  You may say, sure, non-government space exploration is happening now, but without NASA we wouldn’t have had it for the past 60 years.  If we didn’t put a guy on the moon back then, would that be such a loss?  Maybe all those resources could have produced better things in that time.  Maybe the demand for space exploration wasn’t high enough, or the costs not low enough, until recently.  Maybe NASA was crowding out other space exploration alternatives.  Who knows.  What we do know is that free people have proven, throughout all of history, to be far better at generating progress for humanity than government schemes and programs.