Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Consistency & freedom”

by Don Boudreaux on October 26, 2019

in Archived writings, Immigration, Inequality, Myths and Fallacies, The Profit Motive

In my Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column of November 10th, 2005, I lament intellectual and ethical inconsistencies. The column is beneath the fold.

Consistency & freedom

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. While his wisdom here turns on what is meant by “foolish” — for absolutely no one admits to championing a consistency that’s truly foolish — Emerson’s maxim is invoked too often to criticize consistency itself.

Consistency, of course, generally is evidence of wisdom. It’s a good thing. My George Mason University colleague Russ Roberts likes to add the following observation to Emerson’s quip: “But inconsistency is the hobgoblin of even littler minds.”

Many objections to free markets bring to mind Russ’ polish of Emerson’s point.

One frequently encountered inconsistency is the belief that private firms are driven overwhelmingly by the profit motive and that these same firms discriminate shamelessly. One or the other of these claims might be true, or neither might be true. But both cannot be true.

A firm obsessed with making profit cares nothing for the race, religion, sexual orientation or shoe size of its employees or customers. If hiring a black handicapped Buddhist lesbian will add more to a firm’s bottom line than it costs that firm to hire her, the profit-obsessed firm will hire her, even if that firm’s owners are racist and sexist homophobes.

Of course, if a firm run by racist and sexist homophobes refuses to hire someone simply because that person is black, female, or gay, then this fact means that this firm is not driven exclusively by the profit motive. Such a firm willingly sacrifices profits in order to indulge its owners’ tastes for bigotry.

While I believe that government has no business preventing private citizens from acting like bigots, I’m glad that the profit motive penalizes bigotry. Thomas Sowell explains this matter nicely when he observes that “People who decry the fact that businesses are in business ‘just to make money’ seldom understand the implications of what they are saying. You make money by doing what other people want, not what you want.”

Another inconsistency prominent in public discourse centers on income inequality. Many people will, in one breath, insist that income inequality is a first-rank evil caused by free markets and then, in the next breath, accuse free-market advocates of having an unsavory obsession with material or monetary matters. Opponents of the market are forever applauding themselves for recognizing that nonmaterial pursuits are more ennobling, satisfying and important than is the pursuit of financial gain.

Well, if nonmaterial pursuits indeed are much more ennobling and spiritually rewarding than are material pursuits, then inequality of monetary income should rank quite low on these Leftists’ list of capitalist outrages.

The minimalist poet does indeed earn far less money than does Google’s CEO. But the poet presumably enjoys far greater spiritual and mental gains than does the corporate chieftain. Rather than taxing the CEO more heavily than the poet, perhaps government should tax the CEO at a lower rate to help compensate him for his meager spiritual rewards.

I recently encountered yet another example of inconsistency after I published a column suggesting that Americans have little to fear economically from more open immigration. This column brought forth a barrage of hostile e-mails (some downright nasty). I do understand that coherent arguments can be made in support of general restrictions on immigration. To endorse such restrictions, however, is inconsistent with a professed commitment to freedom. And most Americans think of themselves as principled champions of freedom.

When the U.S. government prevents peaceful foreigners from immigrating to America, it diminishes your and my freedom to associate with people of our choice. Now, it’s no crime to hold such freedom in low regard. But those who, say, prefer cultural stasis or labor-market stability to freedom of association should be made aware that their preference conflicts with freedom.

The true lovers of freedom — those who welcome freedom and aren’t afraid of it — are loath to sacrifice freedom merely for the real or imaginary economic gains that might be had by restricting it.

Freedom of association is not the only freedom that some Americans are willing to sacrifice — a willingness inconsistent with a true commitment to freedom. Many Americans are happy to have the Food and Drug Administration restrict their choice of medications, U.S. Customs agents restrict their choice of goods and services and the Social Security Administration restrict their freedom to plan their own retirements.

Again, such preferences aren’t criminal, but they are wholly inconsistent with a commitment to freedom.

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