An Undeniable Asymmetry

by Don Boudreaux on December 21, 2011

in Civil Society, Cleaned by Capitalism, Complexity & Emergence, Creative destruction

One possible objection to the anti-statist implications of posts such as this one on North Korea (and on Mark Perry’s posts linked therein) is the following (in my words):

North Korea’s experience tells us very little about the likely consequences of the implementation of serious proposals in countries such as United States for greater government intervention.  No reasonable person in the free world today wishes to establish such extensive and detailed and harsh top-down planning and protectionism as is practiced in North Korea.

The world isn’t always linear, so as a matter of logic it certainly does not follow that imposing more state control over the economies of the west – say, imposing the amount of additional state control endorsed by “Progressives” such as Paul Krugman or even Harold Meyerson – would necessarily move the west closer either to the economic consequences or the political consequences (or both) that we witness today in North Korea (and that were everywhere the horrific results when states had such extensive power – e.g., Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, and Castro’s Cuba).

But let’s be clear about one indisputable fact: capitalism vigorously pursued has never produced the atrocities – starvation, tyranny, and genocide – that are produced by statism vigorously pursued.  Nothing remotely close.

Capitalism vigorously pursued might produce trade cycles and long periods of high unemployment; it might produce anxiety in yesterday’s successful entrepreneurs who now face competition from today’s upstart entrepreneurs; it might cause too many people to become obese; it might kill off animal species in unusually high numbers; it might cause the earth’s climate to change; it might create asset bubbles; it might spark envy and over-work in the Smiths who are trying to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses.  It might do these things and others that reasonable people might regard as unfortunate in comparison with some imaginable paradise.

But we must never lose sight of this important asymmetry: complete or near-complete state control of the economy has proven to be a sure recipe for deep impoverishment and brutal tyranny, while historical periods that have been close to laissez faire – that is, much closer to laissez faire than is America at the dawn of 2012 – have produced nothing remotely of the sort.  Indeed, whatever problems might be caused by more and more reliance upon laissez faire capitalism are always accompanied by – and are at least partially (and arguably more than completely) off-set by – unambiguous benefits of capitalism such as the elimination of starvation, more abundant supplies of clothing, and better housing.

Any problems promoted by greater and greater reliance upon capitalism, in short, are first-world problems (which isn’t to say that these problems should be tolerated); they are problems incomparably more tolerable than are the horrors promoted by the elimination of capitalism.

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