All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1985

Catch the Little Foxes!


4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

2.   J. Schurnpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), p. 67.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

2.   J. Schurnpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), p. 67.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

1.   The Song of Solomon, 2:15.

2.   J. Schurnpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), p. 67.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.


1.   The Song of Solomon, 2:15.

2.   J. Schurnpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), p. 67.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer based in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE this past summer.

A friend of W. C. Fields once discovered the comedian diligently reading the Bible. Surprised by this uncharacteristic display of piety, the friend asked Fields what he was doing. “What do you think?” retorted Fields. “I’m looking for loopholes!”

That, I suppose, is one way of reading the Bible. There are countless other ways. One of these ways simply involves seeking out and delighting in the images used by the Biblical writers. One such image, quaint but charming, I would bring to your attention. “Catch us,” requests the author of The Song of Solomon, “the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards.”[1]

Most defenders of freedom are aware of, and have thought about, the great and powerful forces which today conspire to spoil the vineyards of economic and political liberty. We do well, however, also to be alert to the “little foxes”—the sneaking, sly realities that nip away at and in time devastate the liberties our forefathers planted and we are called to tend. When we look, we discover that the number of these “little foxes” is alarmingly large.

The Little Fox of Snobbery

A strange phenomenon has recently become widespread in my country. It is fashionable to deplore and sneer at fast-food chains and socalled family restaurants. Liberals given to haunting those tribal rituals called “cocktail” or “sherry” parties become quite animated at these gatherings when the conversation turns to the actual or threatened arrival of a MacDonald’s outlet or Denny’s Restaurant in their fashionable suburb. Noisily, they lament the allegedly plastic smiles, plastic food, and plastic architecture of these establishments.

Some liberals have gone further, writing articles and penning little books bewailing the evils of fast-food and family restaurants. It would seem that these twentieth-century phenomena have become, for many liberals, the apotheosis of capitalism, the very epitome of the socio-economic system they deplore. Hence, while unable to take the liberal mentality as seriously as it takes itself, I invite you briefly to ponder this loathing of institutions which seem, at least on the surface, innocuous.

Strangely, the liberals have at one point got something right. Fast-food chains and family restaurants do capture something of the essence of the free market. In and through these enterprises the market is doing what it always has done: transforming luxuries once reserved for a privileged few into commonplace activities taken for granted by the many.

Writes Joseph Schumpeter: “It is the cheap cloth, the cheap rayon and cotton fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievement of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to a rich man. Queen Elizabeth [the First] owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”[2]

Not so long ago, dining out was considered—at least in my country—a luxury. The wealthiest frequently patronized restaurants. Moderately comfortable families dined out only on special occasions. Those yet to enjoy even “moderate comfort” dined out rarely if at all.

The Achievement of Capitalism

But the market worked its magic. Consider what capitalism has done. The pleasurable practice once enjoyed by a few became available to the many. Tastes once perceived as evidence of refinement—namely, choosing one’s meal from a menu and being waited upon—were revealed as universal and thus “ordinary.” Ordinary folk gained.

Yet some people lost—lost the pleasure derived from “feel[ing] and act[ing] smugly superior” by displaying “tastes and interests” distinguishing them from the masses. So deriving pleasure is, according to the dictionary, the defining characteristic of snobbery. That a snob, so the dictionary affirms, is “a vulgar or ostentatious person,” perhaps merits mention!

Still, people desperate to seem “different” can entertain their whims. Accompanying the advent of fast-food chains and family restaurants has been the emergence of extraordinarily expensive dining-places boasting a “homey atmosphere” and “home-cooked food.” People of self-styled “refinement” can thus pretend to be dining at home and, during their meal, con template the rare and special tastes distinguishing them from the masses. Indeed, affluent liberals today tend to regard taking their friends to restaurants as somewhat gauche. They thus flock to courses in gourmet cooking and, after a tiring day slaving over a hot stove, invite one another to home-cooked meals served by themselves. They thus remain “special.” Remain “different.” Remain “snobs.” And nip away at the free market for robbing them of their snobbish privileges.

The Little Fox of Obsessive Democracy

First cousin to the little fox of snobbery is the little fox of obsessive democracy. The obsessively democratic little fox actually enjoys what the snobbish little fox would like to enjoy: tastes and attitudes quite distinct from those held by ordinary mortals. Yet in the case of the ob sessively democratic little fox, “enjoy” is a misleading verb. He or she dislikes being different, and yearns to be simply “one of the boys” or “one of the girls.”

Usually, the little fox of obsessive democracy is an academic. By virtue of their training, academics frequently are elitist in their tastes, in the literal meaning of that sadly abused word, “elitist.” The academic savors the novels of Dostoevsky; the masses devour the works of Jackie Collins. The academic listens with delight to the music of Mozart; the masses spend vast sums upon recordings of the noises made by “Boy George.” And the obsessively democratic academic is profoundly disturbed.

Grounds for being disturbed certainly do exist. While holding that economic value is purely subjective, signifying not some property of an object but a relationship between an appraising mind and an object appraised, I see no more reason to assume that aesthetic value is subjective than to assume a subjective theory of truth. If informed that a Jackie Collins novel or a “Boy George” song is really on a par with The Brothers Karamazov or The Magic Flute, I shall treat my informant with courtesy, but nothing more. The informant is sadly misguided and, while praying that a soul might be delivered from barbarism, I shall not meditate at length upon a grotesquely perverse point of view.

Typically, however, the obsessively democratic academic is not content merely to lament error. Nor does it suffice to instruct the ill-informed and thereby foster the cause of civilization. A glaring difference must be explained away. The obsessive democrats like to believe that their tastes and interests are really “natural” and would be shared by all were it not for some distorting process debasing the values of so-called “ordinary” people. And the free market provides the sought-for scapegoat! It even caters to a demonstrably democratic desire for villains to hiss! The masses, so obsessively democratic academics muse, would agree with them were it not for the demonic manipulation and destruction of “authentic feelings” engineered by profit-seeking entrepreneurs and advertisers working in and through the market.

George J. Stigler puts the matter well. “It is . . . a basic function of the intellectual to define the standards of good taste more clearly, and to persuade people to approach them more closely. It is proper to denounce vulgarity of taste, and to denounce it more strongly the more popular it is . . . . [Y]et I say that complaints of deficiencies in tastes are misplaced when they are directed to the market place . . . . The market place responds to the tastes of consumers with the goods and services that are saleable, whether the tastes are elevated or depraved. It is unfair to criticize the market place for fulfilling these desires, when clearly the defects lie in the popular tastes them selves. I consider it a cowardly concession to a false extension of democracy to make sub rosa attacks on public tastes by denouncing the people who serve them. It is like blaming the waiters in restaurants for obesity.”[3]

Consumer Tastes and Values

The market place reveals, with uncanny and not undisturbing accuracy, popular tastes and values. Castigating the market for what it reveals is like denouncing wet roads for inclement weather. Yet the obsessive democrat, temperamentally, must sustain the illusion that he or she is really “one of the people.” It is not merely egalitarianism; it is profound insecurity combined with egalitarianism. Perhaps an element of guilt is also present, an academic wondering whether a salary determined by the market place for a person specializing and delighting in early Elizabethan literature would be quite as generous as that granted by an essentially government- funded school or college. Be that as it may, the villain has been uncovered. The obsessive democrat’s tastes are those of “the people,” but of “the people” as they would be were it not for the destructive, alienation-producing market.

So what, as Lenin once asked, is to be done? The answer is clear. Tinker with the market. A tax on popular novels here; a subsidy for “worthwhile literature” there. Extract money from football fans and movie buffs to underwrite performances of opera and ballet. Challenge the rule of radio stations playing recordings by “Boy George” by “publicly funded” radio stations featuring Mozart. And, of course, launch vigorous attacks on the evils of advertising.

The little fox of obsessive democracy is, I suggested, first-cousin to the little fox of snobbery. The differences are obvious, but so is the faro-ily resemblance. Each sets about spoiling the vineyards of liberty to protect personal convictions challenged by the choices of countless in dividuals through the workings of the market. One wishes to feel “different,” possessed of rare and refined tastes. The market, transforming luxuries ‘into commonplace opportunities, reveals that the tastes in question are universal. The other wishes to be “one of the people,” but the market, dutifully providing the people with what they value, reveals that the tastes of the masses and those of the obsessive democrat are radically different. In each case, the market shatters a cherished illusion. Not surprisingly, the market is thoroughly disliked!

The Little Fox of Moralism

The third little fox spoiling the vineyards belongs to a different family. The little fox of moralism is not the victim of illusion. Rather, he is merely confused. His values, while essentially sound, are impressionistic. His knowledge of the workings of the free market is almost zero. Yet, at least in theory, reason and argument might lead to his becoming a guardian rather than a destroyer of the vineyards.

The moralist values the cooperative and compassionate spirit. He is anxious to see justice realized and destitution abolished. He measures the market against these less than precise values, and declares the market wanting. The market is immoral. Or so the little fox of moralism believes. Sincerely believes. And with admirable intentions, he sets about spoiling the vineyards.

The sincerity and good intentions of moralists, religious and secular, who attack the free market in a free society, need not be questioned. However, a brief perusal of history suffices to establish the havoc and devastation wrought by the sincerest of people from the best of motives. G. K. Chesterton somewhere observes that were a lunatic wielding an axe to be pursuing one in the sincere belief that the world would be unspeakably enriched by one’s demise, the lunatic’s sincerity—and, indeed, good intentions—do not obligate one to assist him in his homicidal endeavors.

The moralist yearns to see destitution abolished. Astonishingly, that yearning leads him to oppose the free market. All the evidence available suggests that an allocation of scarce resources by political rather than by market forces perpetuates poverty. The Swedish economist, Sven Rydenfelt, recently published a volume in which he examines the performance of fifteen diverse nations embracing socialism. A single story emerges. “From disillusioned farmers to poor harvests, from food subsidies to foreign loans from massive debts to bankruptcy, the socialist state is doomed.”[4] The hungry are not fed; the naked are not clothed; the homeless are not housed. The survival of the unhappy inhabitants of these nations rests upon the productivity and generosity of the very capitalist nations so many moralists deplore.

That this is so should not surprise. A small tribal society may well be able to cope with a centrally planned economy. Wants are few and are known. Skills also are few. Raw materials available to the tribe are basically known. Tribal elders, or the tribe as a whole, can collate information about these wants, skills, and available resources, and direct the tribe’s productive activities by reference to this information.

This cannot be done in a large and complex society. People want innumerably different things. Countless skills are diffused through millions of people, and constantly change as new technologies are devised. Raw materials are distributed globally, and are characterized by constantly changing relative scarcities. No experts could conceivably collate, synthesize, and make economic decisions by reference to this totality of information. Yet in the absence of this information, resources inevitably will be misallocated, people failing to use what they have to acquire what they want.

The Market Process

But in a free market the requisite information is available. As Friedrich A. Hayek,[5] building on the work of Ludwig von Mises, has so cogently argued, changing relative money prices in the market “encode” the relative data. Suppose, for instance, that the price of one sort of fish in creases relative to the price of other sort of fish. Fish consumers use the more expensive fish sparingly, and start seeking for alternatives. Fish providers, anxious to secure a pleasing return for their labors, seek to increase the supply of the expensive fish or discover a pleasing alternative. Maybe an alert entrepreneur devises a means of farming the favored fish. Both consumers and producers know what they must do to adapt to the new social situation and to improve their personal lot, and have every incentive to behave in the appropriate way

Planning is still a reality, but it is planning by individuals who know precisely what their abilities and wants are rather than by alleged “experts” who cannot even begin to calculate what wants and abilities are there to be considered, coordinated, and satisfied. Cooperation is the essence of the exercise, but it is the uncoerced cooperation of individuals who, to improve their own situation, must take account of their fellow citizen’s wants, and whose productive activities rest upon and presuppose the different productive activities of their fellows.

Indeed, it is a society coordinated by political commands that involves a morally suspect form of “competition” as against “market cooperation.” Such a society inexorably declines into factions competing for the attention and favors of those exercising political power. Each faction seeks a larger share of available goods in the full knowledge that success in securing such a share means less for others. In a market economy, an economy coordinated by individuals seeking to improve their own situations, the only “competition” obtaining is the competition to discover new and better ways of satisfying the desires of others. Doubtlessly some individuals seek to curry favors from the politically powerful, but the extent to which success follows these attempts measures the distance towards socialism the community in question has traveled.

Simply, a desire to alleviate poverty, to foster cooperation, and to further consideration of the needs of others, favors not a socialist command economy, but the free market that moralists so angrily denounce.

The moralist perceives something “unjust” about disparities of income and wealth distribution effected by market forces. Yet what in this context can the words “just” and “unjust” signify? Absolute equality of income and wealth is usually conceded to be “unjust,” in that it takes no account of different needs, different wants, and different efforts, and demands constant coerced redistributions to “correct” inequalities generated as people freely exchange what is theirs. What then is required?

The Rule of Law

The answer usually is disarmingly simple: a distribution taking account of all relevant personal factors. Yet what are these factors? And how is such a distribution to be achieved? Maybe in a family or even schoolroom, burdens and benefits can be distributed related to individual wants and moral deserts, but in both the family and schoolroom a parent or teacher knows each individual involved and can, with moderately successful accuracy, determine such wants and deserts. Yet the smallness of the group involved is the sine qua non of this state of affairs. In a complex society of literally millions, such knowledge is inaccessible and such a distribution therefore impossible.

Yet both the words “justice” and “injustice” can still operate. Think again of the family or classroom. The parent or teacher ignoring individual needs and deserts may well be regarded as “unfair” or “unjust,” but so is the parent or teacher who has a “favorite” or “pet.” In some circumstances “fairness” or “justice” may demand a consideration of the personal situation of individuals, but in other circumstances what is demanded is the impartial enforcement of rules applicable to all. The first use of the words “fairness” or “justice” cannot, as argued, be extended beyond the small and intimate group to “society as a whole,” but the second use can. Indeed, only the second use can. In a large and complex society, “justice” demands rule by purely general principles of conduct, equally applicable to all. The “justice” of a particular distribution of income or wealth is determined not by some characteristic of the distribution itself, but by the behavior or procedures generating the distribution. The question to be asked is whether that behavior defied or complied with general rules of conduct equally applicable to all. If, for example, the behavior generating a particular distribution of income or wealth defied rules pro scribing force, theft and fraud, the behavior is “unjust” and thus the distribution is unjust. Conversely, if the behavior was voluntary and in accordance with the rules—if the behavior, let us say, did not involve force, theft or fraud—the behavior and thus the distribution is “just.”

Justice and Impartiality

Such a model of “justice,” applicable to a large and complex society, should appeal to many moralists, particularly members of the Christian clergy. It reflects the impartiality of the One Who “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Admittedly, it falls short of the “justice” which will be meted out on the Last Day, when He who knows all things, including the innermost secrets of every human being’s heart, judges each, but such justice cannot be emulated by finite creatures who do not and cannot know all things, yet who nonetheless must create social order. In one sense, “justice” understood as the rule of purely general principles of conduct equally applicable to all may be a “second best,” but given a

social group larger than the small and intimate unit of the family or family-like body, it is the only form of “justice” available to finite, fallible beings. Politicians may speak of a large modern nation as a “family”; some clergymen may cling to a social ideal based upon the small feudal village. The reality of a large and complex society is, however, ill-served by a model of “justice” appropriate only to such rhetoric and nostalgic yearnings.

In sum, the moralist objects to a market economy, but typically displays a morally culpable ignorance of the workings of such an economy and of the problem any attempt to devise a socio- economic system must solve: how, in the absence of the perfect knowledge an omniscient being alone enjoys, to allocate scarce resources and move beyond the arbitrary rule of the powerful.

Truly, the little fox of moralism is a mightily confused little fox. He remains confused even when decked out in a clerical collar or a bishop’s gaiters, lie may well be sincere, but the measure of that sincerity is his willingness to listen to a few home truths and modify his attitudes in the light of what he hears and concedes to be true.

Conclusion

Our list of “the little foxes that spoil the vineyards” could be extended. Sufficient, however, has been said to make our task clear. Our first task, as ever, is to toil in the vineyards our forefathers planted, that we may pass on to our children the inheritance that rightly is theirs.

Yet a second task also is ours. Depending upon our capacities and situation, let us become either amiable but alert guard dogs sniffing out the little foxes spoiling the vineyards, or scarlet- clad hunters riding after these foxes in dedicated pursuit. Either way, let us “catch the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards.”


1.   The Song of Solomon, 2:15.

2.   J. Schurnpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), p. 67.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer based in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE this past summer.

A friend of W. C. Fields once discovered the comedian diligently reading the Bible. Surprised by this uncharacteristic display of piety, the friend asked Fields what he was doing. “What do you think?” retorted Fields. “I’m looking for loopholes!”

That, I suppose, is one way of reading the Bible. There are countless other ways. One of these ways simply involves seeking out and delighting in the images used by the Biblical writers. One such image, quaint but charming, I would bring to your attention. “Catch us,” requests the author of The Song of Solomon, “the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards.”[1]

Most defenders of freedom are aware of, and have thought about, the great and powerful forces which today conspire to spoil the vineyards of economic and political liberty. We do well, however, also to be alert to the “little foxes”—the sneaking, sly realities that nip away at and in time devastate the liberties our forefathers planted and we are called to tend. When we look, we discover that the number of these “little foxes” is alarmingly large.

The Little Fox of Snobbery

A strange phenomenon has recently become widespread in my country. It is fashionable to deplore and sneer at fast-food chains and socalled family restaurants. Liberals given to haunting those tribal rituals called “cocktail” or “sherry” parties become quite animated at these gatherings when the conversation turns to the actual or threatened arrival of a MacDonald’s outlet or Denny’s Restaurant in their fashionable suburb. Noisily, they lament the allegedly plastic smiles, plastic food, and plastic architecture of these establishments.

Some liberals have gone further, writing articles and penning little books bewailing the evils of fast-food and family restaurants. It would seem that these twentieth-century phenomena have become, for many liberals, the apotheosis of capitalism, the very epitome of the socio-economic system they deplore. Hence, while unable to take the liberal mentality as seriously as it takes itself, I invite you briefly to ponder this loathing of institutions which seem, at least on the surface, innocuous.

Strangely, the liberals have at one point got something right. Fast-food chains and family restaurants do capture something of the essence of the free market. In and through these enterprises the market is doing what it always has done: transforming luxuries once reserved for a privileged few into commonplace activities taken for granted by the many.

Writes Joseph Schumpeter: “It is the cheap cloth, the cheap rayon and cotton fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievement of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to a rich man. Queen Elizabeth [the First] owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”[2]

Not so long ago, dining out was considered—at least in my country—a luxury. The wealthiest frequently patronized restaurants. Moderately comfortable families dined out only on special occasions. Those yet to enjoy even “moderate comfort” dined out rarely if at all.

The Achievement of Capitalism

But the market worked its magic. Consider what capitalism has done. The pleasurable practice once enjoyed by a few became available to the many. Tastes once perceived as evidence of refinement—namely, choosing one’s meal from a menu and being waited upon—were revealed as universal and thus “ordinary.” Ordinary folk gained.

Yet some people lost—lost the pleasure derived from “feel[ing] and act[ing] smugly superior” by displaying “tastes and interests” distinguishing them from the masses. So deriving pleasure is, according to the dictionary, the defining characteristic of snobbery. That a snob, so the dictionary affirms, is “a vulgar or ostentatious person,” perhaps merits mention!

Still, people desperate to seem “different” can entertain their whims. Accompanying the advent of fast-food chains and family restaurants has been the emergence of extraordinarily expensive dining-places boasting a “homey atmosphere” and “home-cooked food.” People of self-styled “refinement” can thus pretend to be dining at home and, during their meal, con template the rare and special tastes distinguishing them from the masses. Indeed, affluent liberals today tend to regard taking their friends to restaurants as somewhat gauche. They thus flock to courses in gourmet cooking and, after a tiring day slaving over a hot stove, invite one another to home-cooked meals served by themselves. They thus remain “special.” Remain “different.” Remain “snobs.” And nip away at the free market for robbing them of their snobbish privileges.

The Little Fox of Obsessive Democracy

First cousin to the little fox of snobbery is the little fox of obsessive democracy. The obsessively democratic little fox actually enjoys what the snobbish little fox would like to enjoy: tastes and attitudes quite distinct from those held by ordinary mortals. Yet in the case of the ob sessively democratic little fox, “enjoy” is a misleading verb. He or she dislikes being different, and yearns to be simply “one of the boys” or “one of the girls.”

Usually, the little fox of obsessive democracy is an academic. By virtue of their training, academics frequently are elitist in their tastes, in the literal meaning of that sadly abused word, “elitist.” The academic savors the novels of Dostoevsky; the masses devour the works of Jackie Collins. The academic listens with delight to the music of Mozart; the masses spend vast sums upon recordings of the noises made by “Boy George.” And the obsessively democratic academic is profoundly disturbed.

Grounds for being disturbed certainly do exist. While holding that economic value is purely subjective, signifying not some property of an object but a relationship between an appraising mind and an object appraised, I see no more reason to assume that aesthetic value is subjective than to assume a subjective theory of truth. If informed that a Jackie Collins novel or a “Boy George” song is really on a par with The Brothers Karamazov or The Magic Flute, I shall treat my informant with courtesy, but nothing more. The informant is sadly misguided and, while praying that a soul might be delivered from barbarism, I shall not meditate at length upon a grotesquely perverse point of view.

Typically, however, the obsessively democratic academic is not content merely to lament error. Nor does it suffice to instruct the ill-informed and thereby foster the cause of civilization. A glaring difference must be explained away. The obsessive democrats like to believe that their tastes and interests are really “natural” and would be shared by all were it not for some distorting process debasing the values of so-called “ordinary” people. And the free market provides the sought-for scapegoat! It even caters to a demonstrably democratic desire for villains to hiss! The masses, so obsessively democratic academics muse, would agree with them were it not for the demonic manipulation and destruction of “authentic feelings” engineered by profit-seeking entrepreneurs and advertisers working in and through the market.

George J. Stigler puts the matter well. “It is . . . a basic function of the intellectual to define the standards of good taste more clearly, and to persuade people to approach them more closely. It is proper to denounce vulgarity of taste, and to denounce it more strongly the more popular it is . . . . [Y]et I say that complaints of deficiencies in tastes are misplaced when they are directed to the market place . . . . The market place responds to the tastes of consumers with the goods and services that are saleable, whether the tastes are elevated or depraved. It is unfair to criticize the market place for fulfilling these desires, when clearly the defects lie in the popular tastes them selves. I consider it a cowardly concession to a false extension of democracy to make sub rosa attacks on public tastes by denouncing the people who serve them. It is like blaming the waiters in restaurants for obesity.”[3]

Consumer Tastes and Values

The market place reveals, with uncanny and not undisturbing accuracy, popular tastes and values. Castigating the market for what it reveals is like denouncing wet roads for inclement weather. Yet the obsessive democrat, temperamentally, must sustain the illusion that he or she is really “one of the people.” It is not merely egalitarianism; it is profound insecurity combined with egalitarianism. Perhaps an element of guilt is also present, an academic wondering whether a salary determined by the market place for a person specializing and delighting in early Elizabethan literature would be quite as generous as that granted by an essentially government- funded school or college. Be that as it may, the villain has been uncovered. The obsessive democrat’s tastes are those of “the people,” but of “the people” as they would be were it not for the destructive, alienation-producing market.

So what, as Lenin once asked, is to be done? The answer is clear. Tinker with the market. A tax on popular novels here; a subsidy for “worthwhile literature” there. Extract money from football fans and movie buffs to underwrite performances of opera and ballet. Challenge the rule of radio stations playing recordings by “Boy George” by “publicly funded” radio stations featuring Mozart. And, of course, launch vigorous attacks on the evils of advertising.

The little fox of obsessive democracy is, I suggested, first-cousin to the little fox of snobbery. The differences are obvious, but so is the faro-ily resemblance. Each sets about spoiling the vineyards of liberty to protect personal convictions challenged by the choices of countless in dividuals through the workings of the market. One wishes to feel “different,” possessed of rare and refined tastes. The market, transforming luxuries ‘into commonplace opportunities, reveals that the tastes in question are universal. The other wishes to be “one of the people,” but the market, dutifully providing the people with what they value, reveals that the tastes of the masses and those of the obsessive democrat are radically different. In each case, the market shatters a cherished illusion. Not surprisingly, the market is thoroughly disliked!

The Little Fox of Moralism

The third little fox spoiling the vineyards belongs to a different family. The little fox of moralism is not the victim of illusion. Rather, he is merely confused. His values, while essentially sound, are impressionistic. His knowledge of the workings of the free market is almost zero. Yet, at least in theory, reason and argument might lead to his becoming a guardian rather than a destroyer of the vineyards.

The moralist values the cooperative and compassionate spirit. He is anxious to see justice realized and destitution abolished. He measures the market against these less than precise values, and declares the market wanting. The market is immoral. Or so the little fox of moralism believes. Sincerely believes. And with admirable intentions, he sets about spoiling the vineyards.

The sincerity and good intentions of moralists, religious and secular, who attack the free market in a free society, need not be questioned. However, a brief perusal of history suffices to establish the havoc and devastation wrought by the sincerest of people from the best of motives. G. K. Chesterton somewhere observes that were a lunatic wielding an axe to be pursuing one in the sincere belief that the world would be unspeakably enriched by one’s demise, the lunatic’s sincerity—and, indeed, good intentions—do not obligate one to assist him in his homicidal endeavors.

The moralist yearns to see destitution abolished. Astonishingly, that yearning leads him to oppose the free market. All the evidence available suggests that an allocation of scarce resources by political rather than by market forces perpetuates poverty. The Swedish economist, Sven Rydenfelt, recently published a volume in which he examines the performance of fifteen diverse nations embracing socialism. A single story emerges. “From disillusioned farmers to poor harvests, from food subsidies to foreign loans from massive debts to bankruptcy, the socialist state is doomed.”[4] The hungry are not fed; the naked are not clothed; the homeless are not housed. The survival of the unhappy inhabitants of these nations rests upon the productivity and generosity of the very capitalist nations so many moralists deplore.

That this is so should not surprise. A small tribal society may well be able to cope with a centrally planned economy. Wants are few and are known. Skills also are few. Raw materials available to the tribe are basically known. Tribal elders, or the tribe as a whole, can collate information about these wants, skills, and available resources, and direct the tribe’s productive activities by reference to this information.

This cannot be done in a large and complex society. People want innumerably different things. Countless skills are diffused through millions of people, and constantly change as new technologies are devised. Raw materials are distributed globally, and are characterized by constantly changing relative scarcities. No experts could conceivably collate, synthesize, and make economic decisions by reference to this totality of information. Yet in the absence of this information, resources inevitably will be misallocated, people failing to use what they have to acquire what they want.

The Market Process

But in a free market the requisite information is available. As Friedrich A. Hayek,[5] building on the work of Ludwig von Mises, has so cogently argued, changing relative money prices in the market “encode” the relative data. Suppose, for instance, that the price of one sort of fish in creases relative to the price of other sort of fish. Fish consumers use the more expensive fish sparingly, and start seeking for alternatives. Fish providers, anxious to secure a pleasing return for their labors, seek to increase the supply of the expensive fish or discover a pleasing alternative. Maybe an alert entrepreneur devises a means of farming the favored fish. Both consumers and producers know what they must do to adapt to the new social situation and to improve their personal lot, and have every incentive to behave in the appropriate way

Planning is still a reality, but it is planning by individuals who know precisely what their abilities and wants are rather than by alleged “experts” who cannot even begin to calculate what wants and abilities are there to be considered, coordinated, and satisfied. Cooperation is the essence of the exercise, but it is the uncoerced cooperation of individuals who, to improve their own situation, must take account of their fellow citizen’s wants, and whose productive activities rest upon and presuppose the different productive activities of their fellows.

Indeed, it is a society coordinated by political commands that involves a morally suspect form of “competition” as against “market cooperation.” Such a society inexorably declines into factions competing for the attention and favors of those exercising political power. Each faction seeks a larger share of available goods in the full knowledge that success in securing such a share means less for others. In a market economy, an economy coordinated by individuals seeking to improve their own situations, the only “competition” obtaining is the competition to discover new and better ways of satisfying the desires of others. Doubtlessly some individuals seek to curry favors from the politically powerful, but the extent to which success follows these attempts measures the distance towards socialism the community in question has traveled.

Simply, a desire to alleviate poverty, to foster cooperation, and to further consideration of the needs of others, favors not a socialist command economy, but the free market that moralists so angrily denounce.

The moralist perceives something “unjust” about disparities of income and wealth distribution effected by market forces. Yet what in this context can the words “just” and “unjust” signify? Absolute equality of income and wealth is usually conceded to be “unjust,” in that it takes no account of different needs, different wants, and different efforts, and demands constant coerced redistributions to “correct” inequalities generated as people freely exchange what is theirs. What then is required?

The Rule of Law

The answer usually is disarmingly simple: a distribution taking account of all relevant personal factors. Yet what are these factors? And how is such a distribution to be achieved? Maybe in a family or even schoolroom, burdens and benefits can be distributed related to individual wants and moral deserts, but in both the family and schoolroom a parent or teacher knows each individual involved and can, with moderately successful accuracy, determine such wants and deserts. Yet the smallness of the group involved is the sine qua non of this state of affairs. In a complex society of literally millions, such knowledge is inaccessible and such a distribution therefore impossible.

Yet both the words “justice” and “injustice” can still operate. Think again of the family or classroom. The parent or teacher ignoring individual needs and deserts may well be regarded as “unfair” or “unjust,” but so is the parent or teacher who has a “favorite” or “pet.” In some circumstances “fairness” or “justice” may demand a consideration of the personal situation of individuals, but in other circumstances what is demanded is the impartial enforcement of rules applicable to all. The first use of the words “fairness” or “justice” cannot, as argued, be extended beyond the small and intimate group to “society as a whole,” but the second use can. Indeed, only the second use can. In a large and complex society, “justice” demands rule by purely general principles of conduct, equally applicable to all. The “justice” of a particular distribution of income or wealth is determined not by some characteristic of the distribution itself, but by the behavior or procedures generating the distribution. The question to be asked is whether that behavior defied or complied with general rules of conduct equally applicable to all. If, for example, the behavior generating a particular distribution of income or wealth defied rules pro scribing force, theft and fraud, the behavior is “unjust” and thus the distribution is unjust. Conversely, if the behavior was voluntary and in accordance with the rules—if the behavior, let us say, did not involve force, theft or fraud—the behavior and thus the distribution is “just.”

Justice and Impartiality

Such a model of “justice,” applicable to a large and complex society, should appeal to many moralists, particularly members of the Christian clergy. It reflects the impartiality of the One Who “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Admittedly, it falls short of the “justice” which will be meted out on the Last Day, when He who knows all things, including the innermost secrets of every human being’s heart, judges each, but such justice cannot be emulated by finite creatures who do not and cannot know all things, yet who nonetheless must create social order. In one sense, “justice” understood as the rule of purely general principles of conduct equally applicable to all may be a “second best,” but given a

social group larger than the small and intimate unit of the family or family-like body, it is the only form of “justice” available to finite, fallible beings. Politicians may speak of a large modern nation as a “family”; some clergymen may cling to a social ideal based upon the small feudal village. The reality of a large and complex society is, however, ill-served by a model of “justice” appropriate only to such rhetoric and nostalgic yearnings.

In sum, the moralist objects to a market economy, but typically displays a morally culpable ignorance of the workings of such an economy and of the problem any attempt to devise a socio- economic system must solve: how, in the absence of the perfect knowledge an omniscient being alone enjoys, to allocate scarce resources and move beyond the arbitrary rule of the powerful.

Truly, the little fox of moralism is a mightily confused little fox. He remains confused even when decked out in a clerical collar or a bishop’s gaiters, lie may well be sincere, but the measure of that sincerity is his willingness to listen to a few home truths and modify his attitudes in the light of what he hears and concedes to be true.

Conclusion

Our list of “the little foxes that spoil the vineyards” could be extended. Sufficient, however, has been said to make our task clear. Our first task, as ever, is to toil in the vineyards our forefathers planted, that we may pass on to our children the inheritance that rightly is theirs.

Yet a second task also is ours. Depending upon our capacities and situation, let us become either amiable but alert guard dogs sniffing out the little foxes spoiling the vineyards, or scarlet- clad hunters riding after these foxes in dedicated pursuit. Either way, let us “catch the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards.”


1.   The Song of Solomon, 2:15.

2.   J. Schurnpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), p. 67.

3.   G. J. Stigler, The Intellectual and the Market Place and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), p. 7.

4.   S. Rydenfelt, A Pattern For Failure: Socialist Economies In Crisis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), dust-jacket summary.

5.   F. A. Hayek, “The Telecommunications System of the Market,” 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1980), pp. 25-37.


  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.