Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on April 12, 2020

in Complexity & Emergence, History, Legal Issues, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen

… is from page 150 of George Will’s excellent 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility (link added; footnote deleted; ellipses original to Will):

The Declaration is not just chronologically prior to the Constitution, it is logically prior. As Timothy Sandefur writes, the Declaration “sets the framework for reading” the Constitution, so it is the Constitution’s “conscience”: By the terms with which the Declaration articulates the Constitution’s purpose – the purpose is to “secure” unalienable rights – the Declaration intimates the standards by which one can distinguish the proper from the improper exercises of majority rule. “Freedom is the starting point of politics; government’s powers are secondary and derivative, and therefore limited…. Liberty is the goal at which democracy aims, not the other way around.”

The progressive project, now in its second century, has been to reverse this, giving majority rule priority over liberty when they conflict, as they do, inevitably and frequently.

DBx: A common error is to mistake means – especially those that are either essential or unusually effective – for ends. The likelihood of committing such an error rises further if these means are unusually challenging to carry out. By treating these means as if they are ends in themselves – as if these means are noble goals rather than ‘mere’ tools for achieving noble goals – people become more likely to employ these means faithfully rather than skirt them.

Democracy is such a means. When there exists a widespread conception that collective decisions must be made, it’s of course better that everyone who will be affected by this decision have a say in arriving at its particular conclusion rather than this decision be made by some external agent or by only a subset of the persons who will be affected by it. This perfectly understandable justification for democracy, however, does not imply that all decisions that affect in some way persons other than the immediate individual who makes the decision ought to be made collectively and democratically.

One of the greatest contributions of economics is its demonstration that when individuals act on their own unique bits of knowledge in pursuit of their own individually held ends, the results are generally beneficial not only for each individual decision-maker but for countless others – strangers to the decision-makers. This happy outcome is made more likely the more secure are property and contract rights, and the freer are markets in which consumers can spend their own money (and only their own money) as they choose and businesses are free to compete (using only resources voluntarily entrusted to them) for consumer patronage as well as for workers and other inputs used to produce outputs.

Of course such markets are “imperfect” (that is, they don’t operate as smoothly as do their simplified models in textbooks). And of course there’s reasonable disagreement about just what are the appropriate details of the institutions that are most likely to reduce such imperfections as much as possible. But it strikes me that far too many people suppose that decisions made ‘privately’ – and especially commercial decisions – are ones that serve the interests only of the private decision-makers and will harm, or at least do nothing to help, others.

Ignored is Adam Smith’s invisible hand – or Hayek’s later, more general spontaneous order. Ignorance (or denial) of these realities naturally creates demand for open-ended collectivization of decision-making. Democracy – legitimately justified as a means of making genuine collective decisions – comes to be worshipped as being very nearly an end in itself.


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