Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on November 10, 2016

in Adam Smith, Economics, Inequality, Truth-seeking & ideology, Work

… is from page 71 of Ben Rogge’s superb 1979 speech “What Economists Can and Cannot Do,” as this speech is reprinted in A Maverick’s Defense of Freedom, the 2010 collection of Rogge’s essays that is edited by Dwight Lee (links added):

unknownI begin with one of the defenses of capitalism, in fact with the one that is alone sufficient to lead me as a specific human being to prefer the capitalist economic arrangements to all others.  It is that man is endowed with the right to be free of coercive restraint in the doing of anything that is peaceful, whether singly or in pairs or in groups as large as IBM or the Mormon Church, and that capitalism, as the system of voluntary exchange, is the economic embodiment of this freedom.  If this basic premise of the primacy of freedom to choose be accepted, there is nothing more that need be said.  No economist need be called to explain the consequences of a legislated minimum wage.  It stands condemned by the very fact that it is a coercive intrusion into what would otherwise be a voluntary exchange between employer and employee.  In the words of Adam Smith, “It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman, and of   those who might be disposed to employ him” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Modern Library Edition, p. 122).

What am I saying?  I am saying that I believe that the primary argument to be advanced in the defense of capitalism is that it is the system under which the individual is “free to choose” (in the words of the title of Milton Friedman’s new film) – and that this is an arrangement that does not rest in any significant way upon the work of the economist.  It stands on its own.

Economists, such as myself and my GMU Econ and Mercatus Center colleagues, who, like Ben Rogge, value individual liberty as an important end in and of itself typically have a tough time of it in public discourse.  When we make consequentialist arguments – which arguments are the only sort that we, as economists, can make – we are often ridiculed and dismissed for allegedly caring only about dollars and cents, for caring only about material matters, for being philosophically shallow in our conception of human existence.  (Forget here that even the most thoroughly consequentialist arguments by sound economists nearly always go well beyond those consequences that are, or that can be, measured in dollars and cents.)  And yet when we acknowledge our humanity by acknowledging our non-consequentialist values, and then acknowledge that one of those values is individual liberty, we are then too-often accused of being ideologues whose scientific analyses ought thereby be discounted or even dismissed as being biased.

Why, for example, is it acceptable for one economist to acknowledge that among his non-consequentialist values is a love of greater monetary income or wealth equality, but unacceptable for another economist to acknowledge that among her non-consequentialist values is a love of individual liberty?  Why is the former non-consequentialist value regarded as one that is unlikely to taint the work of economists who hold it, while the latter non-consequentialist value is treated very differently – regarded as one that is likely to taint the work of economists who hold it?  Why is it considered to be scientifically acceptable to value greater monetary-income or wealth equality even if achieving this greater equality reduces the level of absolute prosperity of ordinary men and women, while it is considered to be scientifically unacceptable to value individual freedom even if this freedom means less monetary equality or, even it were so, less material prosperity for ordinary men and women?


Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Previous post:

Next post: