“A federal judge on Tuesday struck down some tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump on imported solar panels, finding that Trump had clearly overstepped his authority by hiking those tariffs last year.” – So reads the opening paragraph of this new report by Reason‘s Eric Boehm .
There are religious fundamentalists who believe that something is true just because it is written in the Bible or Koran, for example. And there are economic fundamentalists who believe that if Marx or Mao said something, then it must be correct. Fundamentalists don’t argue logically with people who don’t accept their premises: instead, they usually denounce or even physically attack them.
Libertarians are not like that.
I raise this issue because a recent article in The American Conservative by Declan Leary entitled “We Are Not Pencils” contends that libertarians who embrace the argument made by Leonard Read in his famous essay “I, Pencil” are guilty of fundamentalist thinking.
What prompted him to write his piece is our current “supply chain” problem. He sees deep trouble in our reliance on global trade. Leary writes, “’I, Pencil’ treats supply chains in the language of religion. They are miracles in which we must have faith. They are the product of some inscrutable but benevolent superhuman intelligence. The precision alone of the Invisible Hand demands from us reverence and wonder.”
But Read never said anything like that. He explained how human beings will engage in mutually beneficial production and trade as long as they are free to do so. He advocates leaving all human energy free if we want to achieve the highest standard of living. There is nothing even vaguely religious about it. The spontaneous order generated by humans following their self-interest is not a “miracle” but the entirely predictable result of freedom.
All we have here is another “conservative” attempt at discrediting libertarians for their principled support of freedom.
Observations in Butler and Smith on the limits of our knowledge and the scope of our duties of beneficence enter into their moral authorizations of commerce. Both conceive of commerce as a means of serving the common good. Butler urges diligent commerce and frugal saving to enable liberal and generous charity. Smith, especially in The Wealth of Nations , emphasizes how through honest commerce we cooperate, if only metaphorically, with others in a great social enterprise through the division of labor, an enterprise that increases general opulence. Both illustrate how in tending to our focal spheres, we often further ends beyond our intentions and may be said, in a sense, to “co-operate with the Deity” (TMS III.5.7) in serving human happiness.
[Christopher] Demuth ends by noting that “the originalist in me notes that the president is not only CEO of the executive bureaucracies but also, and primarily, head of state, responsible for the nation’s success and all of its citizens’ welfare.” Reading in a favorable light, this is defensible enough. But one of the things I learned  from DeMuth himself is that the economy is too complex, America too diverse—both in the modern sense but also in the Madisonian sense—to be managed by any president or by Washington itself. Our most nationalist presidents—Wilson, the Roosevelts, even LBJ—rejected this view, and understandably so. There is no limiting principle within generic nationalism. Turning presidents into nationalist tribunes of “the people” responsible for all of the nation’s successes and the peoples’ welfare, by its own logic means denigrating restraints on his power. I don’t want a St. Michael in the White House with an R or D after his name.
When Irving Kristol said neoconservatives were liberals mugged by reality, he had in mind the realization that the unconstrained vision of progressivism led to folly. The laws of unintended consequences, the limits of reform, and what Friedrich Hayek called “the knowledge problem” were too powerful to overcome (at least predictably and reliably) with even the most well-intentioned planning from above. This is why he considered the American Revolution a “successful revolution ”—because it took human nature into account.
It also doesn’t help that experts have been wrong about inflation. First, they claimed there would be no inflation. Then, when inflation inevitably came, they said it would be short-lived or transitory. When it persisted, the alleged reason was that prices were catching up to their pre-pandemic levels. Once experts finally admitted that some of the administration’s policies may have fueled some of the demand for durable goods and withdrawal of workers from the labor force, which in turn exacerbated the supply-chain issues, we were told either that there was nothing that could be done or that the resulting inflation was the price we must pay for a strong labor market.