In a book I recently read, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers, I was surprised to find a chapter entitled “I Pencil Revisited.” Yes, they meant Leonard Read’s famous essay showing how market prices and competition work to coordinate production in a way that no single person, however powerful or intelligent, possibly could.
The authors aren’t exactly hostile to Read’s message but say that it leaves out something important — the role of government.
For me to be produced, someone had to protect the property rights upon which the market is based, someone had to guarantee that the contracts between individuals would be enforced, and someone had to be on the lookout for lead, for the safety of machines, and similar problems, which if not addressed might well lead to a society to undermine the institutional structure that produced me.
And, again writing through the voice of a pencil, Colander and Kupers say,
The reason I, Pencil downplayed government’s role is that he was afraid its inclusion would lead some people to expand the role of government to solve the inevitable problems that come about in coordinating production.
I believe that they are mistaken on that. The reason why Leonard Read focused exclusively on the remarkable story of voluntary market cooperation and did not expand the piece to discuss the proper role of government was that he figured most people already had some understanding of the need to protect property, enforce contracts, and settle disputes.
What very few people had any comprehension of was the way individuals all across the globe are brought into cooperation by the market for pencils.
Going into the role of government in the essay would have been like Mozart adding a few extra movements to his Jupiter Symphony.
Here is why the authors make this argument. They don’t like what they call the “market fundamentalism” of Leonard Read, former FEE president Don Boudreaux, and others (like me) who argue that the people of any society will be the most productive, happiest, and best able to deal with the problems they see if the government is kept only to the functions of protecting the rights of life, liberty, and property.
Instead of laissez-faire, Colander and Kupers favor what they call “laissez-faire activism.”
In short, they want us to believe that there is an ideal middle ground between unsophisticated “market fundamentalism” and top-down government planning and control of the economy. The latter, they understand, is bad because such authority will squelch innovation and competition, but the former supposedly doesn’t do enough to allow people to realize their “collective goals.” Here is a crucial passage:
What simplistic or fundamentalist free market advocates sometimes miss is that a complex system works only if individuals self-regulate, by which we mean that they do not push their freedom too far, and that they make reasonable compromises about benefiting themselves and benefiting society.
Of course, the common law framework that thinkers in the Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Leonard Read line advocated does put limits on individual action. Rights and the sphere of legitimate action are clearly established, and to the extent that people have collective goals, they are free to pursue them voluntarily. But Colander and Kupers think government can and should do just a bit more.
One of their ideas is that government should adopt policies that will “nudge” people to do what they “really want to do,” but can’t sufficiently discipline themselves to do. They extol the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, which purports to show how government can “encourage” people to act in preferable ways, without dictating behavior to them.
But why can’t we rely entirely on voluntary efforts by concerned individuals and organizations to do that encouraging? Churches, for example, have been encouraging people to behave better for millennia; Alcoholics Anonymous has been helping people recover from alcohol abuse since 1935; parents have been “nudging” children to make wiser decisions since time immemorial. Why look to government policy?
Sometimes, the reason why people seem to need “nudging” is that current government policy encourages undesirable behavior. Few Americans save much these days, for instance. But instead of trying to “nudge” them to save more, why not change the tax laws that discourage thrift? Going back towards “laissez-faire fundamentalism” would solve or ameliorate many of our problems.
Moreover, Colander and Kupers ignore the great and, I maintain, insuperable problem of keeping government interference within bounds. If the state has the authority to “nudge” people, what keeps politicians from ratcheting up the power if it doesn’t work? Nudging turns into pushing, then shoving. Interest groups will importune politicians with arguments for policies they favor, crafting them as merely helping “the people” to realize the social goals they “really” favor.
The way democratic politics tends to be captured by interest groups is the big message of Public Choice theory, but Colander and Kupers never think to explain how they’d prevent their “laissez-faire activism” from turning into plain old activism.
After reading Complexity and the Art of Public Policy, I fail to see how government can improve upon capitalism combined with the host of voluntary organizations that spring up in a free society. I, Pencil does not need to be revisited.