All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1997

Book Review: Getting It Right: Markets and Choices in a Free Society by Robert J. Barro

Valuable Lessons, Confusingly Presented


MIT Press • 1996 • 191 pages • $20.00

Mr. Weinkopf is the editor of National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com).

Despite serving on the faculty at Harvard, Robert J. Barro is judicious, discerning, and an unflagging champion of liberty. He is not scared to tackle taboo—blasting the faux science of second-hand smoke hysteria, and questioning the wisdom of protecting endangered species at the cost of untold millions. Such unconventional wisdom makes him eminently likable to conservatives and libertarians. They will no doubt rush to buy, read, and enjoy this book. But only the first task will come easy.

This is not to say that Getting It Right has nothing to offer; even valuable lessons can be hard to sit through, and on various subjects, most notably foreign policy, Professor Barro has much to teach. He spurns foreign aid and third-world-debt forgiveness schemes for subsidizing socialism and discouraging private-sector investment. Likewise, he dissects the notion that the United States can implement democracy in areas that don’t protect property rights, let alone support functional markets. Even the war on drugs—an obvious domestic failure—has harmful international repercussions, providing an easy source of revenue for foreign guerrillas like Peru’s Shining Path.

But Barro’s greatest asset, his ability to demonstrate free-market truths empirically (often with charts and diagrams), becomes a liability when he places greater trust in tables and formulae than in common sense and public knowledge. In the first chapter, Barro assigns numerical values to the economic freedom of various countries. He confidently forecasts that states with a capitalism quotient higher than a base minimum will be more democratic by the year 2000. Hong Kong ranks third in his list of nations on the fast track to political freedom—never mind that the tyrants of Peking take over in July.

His commitment to economic analysis sometimes supersedes even his own good instincts. Barro offers tortured reasoning to explain that Major League Baseball must impose caps on its players’ excessive salaries because the competitive wage for athletic skills reflects the benefit to an individual team . . . in contrast, the ‘correct’ wage from a social standpoint is the value of all teams having better players. But unregulated teams will never pay a player too much (more than what he can earn for them at the box office, concession and souvenir stands, or in TV revenues); Barro should know that.

This wonkish approach might be tolerable if it didn’t also infuse the writing, but it does. Getting It Right is a collection of columns not published as separate essays, but strung together haphazardly in what fails to comprise a coherent whole. Barro’s prose is drier than toasted rye, and not because it includes too much data or jargon, but because it lacks conviction. For example, Barro blithely dismisses the Civil War, saying slavery would have been eliminated peacefully in not very many years. Perhaps, but this reasoning ignores the moral imperative, not to mention natural rights. His arguments for freedom are always strictly utilitarian; he never acknowledges that liberty has an innate value separate from its material benefits. That sort of sagacity doesn’t show up in a graph.