… is from pages 296-297 of George Will’s important 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility (original emphasis):
The essence of America’s aspiration, however imperfectly realized, is that no one should be “fatally fixed for life.” Hence the constant need to refresh the nation’s commitment to a life of constant social churning by forces beyond the control of politics and of government with its bias toward the status quo.
People often lament the “impersonal” economic forces that shape the lives of individuals and communities. But personal forces, meaning political forces, are rarely preferable. Often they are more bitterly resented, because they are seen and felt to be personal.
DBx: Widely recognized is the reality that justice must be blind – that is, not personal. For there to be genuine justice, the rules of social interaction must apply to everyone without regard to personal characteristics or connections. The result is the rule of law. No society has ever achieved this goal perfectly, but some societies – the freest and most prosperous – have come nearer than others to its accomplishment.
Careful thinkers and observers of history recognize that legislation is often a means of violating the rule of law under the pretense of adhering to it. Legislation enacted by duly elected legislators according to the precepts of majoritarian democracy – and largely unconstrained by substantive constitutional limits – is widely believed today to be perfectly in accordance with the rule of law if the legislation on its face applies to everyone.
And so, for example, minimum-wage statutes – which formally apply to everyone – are believed by most people to be consistent with the rule of law. But they are not. In reality these statutes discriminate against low-skilled workers, as well as against firms that employ disproportionate numbers of such workers. The economic losses suffered by these victims are only partially offset by the resulting economic gains enjoyed by higher-skilled workers, by producers of labor-saving machines, and by employers who use disproportionately small numbers of low-skilled workers.
An even better example of legislation that violates the rule of law is tariffs. These interventions favor a subset of domestic producers at the larger expense of domestic consumers and other producers. But the latter, being unseen, are largely ignored by everyone save a few economists and a small cadre of unread bloggers obsessively perturbed not only by the economic ignorance that fuels protectionism but, even more, by its grotesque injustice.
It’s unfortunate that the same wisdom that leads most people to understand that justice should be blind in matters such as criminal law and civil litigation does not also lead people to understand that economic forces – for the same reason – should be blind. Pundits such as Oren Cass and politicians such as Donald Trump receive applause for their intellectual briefs and political efforts to protect subsets of existing workers from losing their current particular jobs (which is to say, from having to abide by the same rules of economic activity that created their existing jobs and standard of living in the first place). These briefs and efforts appear on their surface to be humane, even ‘progressive.’ But they are not. They differ in no essential way from briefs and efforts to save from conviction someone accused of burglary on the grounds that his family needs the cash or that his family is too socially important to have one of its members in prison.
Just as Lady Justice – pictured above – is blind for the purpose of ensuring that justice remains available to untold numbers of unseen others today and tomorrow, economic forces must be similarly blind in order to ensure economic opportunity and growth for untold numbers today and tomorrow.
Put differently, if justice in the courts were treated in the way that protectionists want the economy to be treated in the legislature, judges and juries would be encouraged to focus only on the personal circumstances of the individuals in the courtroom, especially the accused and his or her victims, and to ignore any and all pleas to consider the interests of those who are outside of the courtroom. When the accused appears to be more sympathetic than the victims, the accused is acquitted; when not, not.
Everyone of good sense knows that such an administration of justice would be calamitous. Unblindfoled justice is unjust. Unfortunately, not everyone of good sense knows the same about economic forces. Dispensing economic favors on the basis of what is seen benefits the few at the great expense of the many. And the more widespread is such economic favoritism, the worse is the resulting economic damage.
In short, just as putting blindfolds on justice is really a means of ensuring – ironically – that she ‘sees’ – that she takes account of the interests of – those who are unseen, putting blindfolds on the state’s governance of markets does the same. Such economic blindfolds ensure that the economy ‘sees’ – takes account of the interests of – those who are unseen.
Once again, the most productive – and just – role of the good economist is to be an attorney for the unseen; it is to represent, in the court of public opinion, the unseen.