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National Conservatives Demand the Economic Equivalent of a Square Circle

Here’s a follow-up letter to an enthusiastic young “national conservative.”

Mr. F__:

Thanks for your follow-up e-mail, in which you write that

The new conservatism of scholars like Oren Cass improves on free market economics by understanding that although the free market is really good at supplying material goods it sucks at supplying noneconomic values like employment which isn’t a slave to market whims.

You misunderstand and underestimate markets. Anyone who truly wants employment that’s immune to what you call “market whims” – which are what I call the economic preferences of fellow human beings – can secure such employment. Most obviously, such a person can become self-sufficient: grow or catch his own food, build his own shelter, make his own clothing. The truly self-sufficient person is utterly immune to “market whims.”

Self-sufficiency is the only means of completely avoiding the effects of “market whims.” But because self-sufficiency is also deeply impoverishing, almost no one goes this far despite having the option to do so. Fortunately, less-radical moves are possible.

Someone intent on reducing, but not eliminating through self-sufficiency, his or her exposure to “market whims” can refuse to hone a specialized skill. That person can instead work at odd jobs. This generalist can toil Monday waiting tables, Tuesday mowing lawns, Wednesday washing cars, Thursday walking dogs, and Friday as a carpenter’s go-fer. With no specialized skill, this worker’s range of employment options will be wider than that of a specialized worker. Any change in “market whims” is thus much less likely to affect this person. Some employment in the local community will almost always be available at wages that this worker is accustomed to earning. But, of course, these wages will be low. Being unspecialized entails being very low-skilled, and being very low-skilled entails earning very low income. It’s an inescapable reality.

Each of the above two options is available to any and all individuals. What is not available, though, is the option of being largely immune to “market whims” and enjoying access to the ample fruits that come only from working with specialized skill in the market to satisfy fellow human beings’ “whims.”

The bottom line, Mr. F__, is this: The aspiration that writers such as Oren Cass have for workers is the economic equivalent of a square circle. Such writers want workers, on one hand, to enjoy the material abundance that can be produced only by highly specialized workers whose efforts are coordinated by market prices toward the satisfaction of consumer demands expressed on markets (“market whims”). But such writers also want workers, on the other hand, to be shielded from the price system whenever it moves in ways that reduce workers’ incomes in their existing jobs. This aspiration is lovely. It’s also impossible.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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