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Thursday, December 20, 2007

From Every Mountain Top ...

I found this Walter Williams column of interest:
All too often defenders of free-market capitalism base their defense on the demonstration that free markets allocate resources more efficiently and hence lead to greater wealth than socialism and other forms of statism. While that is true, as Professor Milton Friedman frequently pointed out, economic efficiency and greater wealth should be seen and praised as simply a side benefit of free markets. The intellectual defense should focus on its moral superiority. Even if free markets were not more efficient and not engines for growth, they are morally superior to other forms of human organization because they are rooted in voluntary peaceable relationships rather than force and coercion. They respect the sanctity of the individual.

acts such as murder, rape, and theft, whether done privately or collectively, are unjust because they violate private property. There is broad consensus that collective or government-sponsored murder and rape are unjust; however, government-sponsored theft is another matter. Theft, being defined as forcibly taking the rightful property of one for the benefit of another, has wide support in many societies that make the pretense of valuing personal liberty. That theft, euphemistically called income redistribution or transfers, is often defended by lofty phrases such as: assisting the poor, the elderly, distressed business, college students, and other deserving segments of society. But as F. A. Hayek often admonished, “[F]reedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for any particular advantage. . . .” Ultimately, the struggle to achieve and preserve freedom must take place in the habits, hearts, and minds of men.

Or, as admonished in the Constitution of the state of North Carolina: “The frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.” It is moral principles that deliver economic efficiency and wealth, not the other way around. These moral principles or values are determined in the arena of civil society.

For individual freedom to be viable, it must be a part of the shared values of a society and there must be an institutional framework to preserve it against encroachments by majoritarian or government will. Constitutions and laws alone cannot guarantee the survival of personal freedom, as is apparent where Western-type constitutions and laws were exported to countries not having a tradition of the values of individual freedom.

Societies with a tradition of freedom, such as the United States, have found it an insufficient safeguard against encroachment by the state. Why? Compelling evidence suggests that a general atmosphere of personal freedom does not meet what might be considered its stability conditions. As is often the case, political liberty is used to stifle economic liberty, which in turn reduces political liberty.

If we were to rank countries according to: (1) whether they are more or less free-market, (2) per capita income, and (3) ranking in Amnesty International’s human-rights protection index, we would find that those with a larger free-market sector tend also to be those with the higher per capita income and greater human-rights protections. People in countries with larger amounts of economic freedom, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan, are far richer and have greater human-rights protections than people in countries with limited markets, such as Russia, Albania, China, and most countries in Africa and South America. That should tell you something.

Economics, politics and social order are all intertwined. Economic freedom can be foundational to advancing political freedom and human rights. These are all effected by culture and attitudes.


Harry Eagar said...

The burakumin might quibble about this.

I do not recall, historically, that the freest period of American free-market capitalism was a time of great contentment about personal rights, either.

Capitalism works best if you have capital, the more the better. Being set 'free' in a capitalist society with nothing to swap but your labor can be a grim experience.

erp said...

... and yet that's how all the fortunes, great and small were amassed.

Susan's Husband said...

And it's probably less grim than being set 'free' in a non-capitalist society with nothing but one's labor.

Harry Eagar said...

Well, no, it's not, erp. I just read that Vlad Putin is the richest man in Europe.

I might point out, for all you free-marketeers, who by some odd evolution have reversed themselves about personalty in intellectual property since I was young, that the only countries that have large amounts of intellectual property also are countries that have intellectual property rights protections, thus interfering with free markets.

The one creates the other, and there is an 'arrow of time' about it. It does not work the other way.

Bret said...

Strong individual property rights are a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for wealth creation.

You're certainly right, Harry, that theft at the point of a sword, or gun, or nuclear missile is the quickest way to riches.

However, without setting people free to interact and trade as they see fit, there will be no riches in the first place.

erp said...

Bret beat me to it. The quickest way to riches is to steal and probably Harry will argue that the great fortunes were made that way (or at least cheating the little guy).

If Putin is the richest guy in the world now, how will that help his self esteem. He still looks like the model for the gollem in the LOTR.

Harry Eagar said...

I didn't say they were sufficient, but I do say they are necessary.

So why are the free-marketeers trying to do away with intellectual property rights?

It does get complicated. Intellectual property rights are pretty much imaginary in Japan, which manages to be rich anyway, and to create new intellectual property.

This is accomplished partly by theft of American intellectual property; and partly by denyig economic freedom at the level where big-time intellectual property is converted into things.

Bret said...


Which free-marketeers are those?

I mean, yes, there is a debate about what what extent of IP rights are optimal, and it is true that some economists have called for the abolition of IP rights, but it isn't a very common view from what I can see.

I think the patent system has some serious problems and that the period of patent protection ought to be shortened. That's different, though, from calling for the elimination of all IP rights.

Harry Eagar said...

Try reading Volokh Conspiracy. Glenn Reynolds also often links to anti-IP posts, though I'm not clear what his view is.

The tech group I used to meet with on Wednesdays (until everybody but me got too busy making money) was mostly anti-IP, except, of course, when they had some.

There was one exception, whom I admired. He would copyright his programs, then assign them to the public domain.

Howard said...


I find it incredibly odd. My map of the extended order of human cooperation has a region called freedom. It's a rich, diverse and interesting place, ever changing. Oh yeah, IP is in there. Freedom is located between anarchy and statism. Based on your comments I get the impression that it's missing from your map.

Harry Eagar said...

Probably has something to do with whether you are a producer or consumer of IP.

I'm a producer.

Anonymous said...

Or not. I am a producer of IP and I agree much more with Bret.