Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 29, 2015

in Hubris and humility, Myths and Fallacies, Other People's Money, Seen and Unseen, Work

… is from page 154 of Deirdre McCloskey’s brilliant 1990 book, If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise:

Clergymen and upper middle class intellectuals delight in the transformation of mea culpa into nostra culpa, prejudging in a word the weighty question of whether or not charity should be individual or social.

Yes.  And (as I know Deirdre would agree) not only charity but also market-improving actions, such as entrepreneurial efforts to hire away from their current employers low-skilled workers who at the moment are underpaid.  Such market-improving entrepreneurial actions – which occur daily in markets – are largely invisible to those preachers, popes, professors, pundits, and politicians who unthinkingly (or, in the case especially of politicians, greedily) insist that the chief means of ‘solving’ today’s problems is government force unleashed by conscious collective decisions and directed consciously by government officials.

Yet while not all real problems are practically able to be successfully addressed through private actions,* many problems are.  Contrary to the illogical presumption of a commenter (Richard Bearse) on a recent post here at Cafe Hayek, pointing out that problem X can be solved with private actions does not imply that problem Y is also solvable with private actions.  (If, for example, global climate change is a problem caused by carbon emissions, there is no obvious private means of profitably exploiting this problem in a way that reduces the magnitude of the problem.)  But if problem X is indeed one whose existence implies the real-world availability of privately exploitable profit opportunities, then one is justifiably skeptical of those who publicly assert that X is real while privately acting as though X is unreal.  And an unambiguous real-world example of asserted problem X is the assertion of monopsony power in modern American markets for low-skilled workers.  This assertion is akin to an assertion by Jones who refuses to trouble himself to walk over to the bushes just over there despite his repeated insistence that in those bushes just over there are bags full of gold.  If Jones does not act on his assertion – and if none of the many other people who hear Jones’s assertion privately act on it – then such inaction is powerful evidence that Jones’s assertion is mistaken.


* Note that, contrary to an all-too-common assumption, the inability of problem Y to be practically successfully addressed through private actions does not imply the ability of problem Y to be practically successfully addressed through government force.


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