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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 111 of a 1947 “Crofts Classics” edition of John Stuart Mill’s 1859 On Liberty:

Speaking generally, there is no one so fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it. This principle condemns the interferences, once so common, of the legislature, or the officers of government, with the ordinary processes of industry.

DBx: Indeed so.

Of course, by “personally interested in it” Mill meant having a direct, material interest. Being intellectually interested in some matter is insufficient. You have a direct, material interest in assuring that the money of yours that you spend at the supermarket to stock your household is spent wisely and well. If you spend your money well, you reap net benefits; if you spend the money carelessly, you suffer a net loss. Thus we can assume that in the overwhelming majority of cases people who spend their own money – and only their own money – on themselves will do so carefully.

At the same time, I as your neighbor might have a sincere intellectual interest in you improving your life along lines that I suppose to be best for you. (Perhaps I’ve read many books, penned by capacious minds, about how our fellow human beings ‘ought’ to live their lives.) Yet my interest in you is not the kind of interest Mill here has in mind. If I whip out my .38 caliber, point it at your temple, and instruct you on how you may and may not spend your money, my intentions might well be to improve your welfare (as I arrogantly judge that welfare), but if I get matters wrong, the negative consequences of this error won’t fall on me; they’ll fall on you. There is obviously no reason to trust that I should be able to coerce you in your economic affairs.

Few people have any trouble seeing and accepting the truth of the preceding paragraph as written. Yet very many people believe that, for example, industrial policy is jim-dandy. Industrial-policy advocates somehow fail to recognize that what they propose is, in effect, the same officious intervention by person A in the life of person B as is described in the previous paragraph.

I ask a serious question: If individuals such as Oren Cass, Josh Hawley, and Robert Lighthizer would not trust their next-door neighbors to coercively interfere with how they spend their own money – and I assume they do not so trust their neighbors to do so – then why do they insist that we trust them to coercively interfere with how we spend our money? What business is it of Oren Cass to tell me that I am buying too much steel from China and too little from Ohio? What right has Josh Hawley to sit in judgment of your decision to sell shares of stock to a foreigner (and thus increase America’s so-called “trade deficit”)? Why should we suppose that Americans’ spending pattern as re-engineered by Robert Lighthizer would be better for us than is the spending pattern that emerges when we are each left free to spend our own, and only our own, money?

Other than for themselves, Cass, Hawley, and Lighthizer have no personal interest in getting ‘correct’ the particular ways that anyone spends and invests. And, of course, nor can they possibly know what is best for anyone other than themselves and their immediate families. I’m sure that Messrs. Cass, Hawley, or Lighthizer would (as he should) summon the police the moment some stranger shows up at his door, gun in hand, ordering him to alter his economic affairs according to the stranger’s directions. And I’m also sure that no assurances, no matter how very sincere, by the stranger of his or her good intentions would persuade the police to leave the stranger to go about his or her nasty business.

And yet, when the gun-toting strangers are government officials, somehow the above common-sense understanding dissolves into dust.

Very strange.

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