All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 1989

Economics Has the Answer: Whats the Question?

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education and is the author of the book Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies.

Adam Smith’s monumental achievement was to enlarge the individual person’s freedom of action in economic affairs, and thus in other sectors of his life as well. Smith’s argument had several minor loopholes, but these were plugged by the Austrian School—Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk about a century after The Wealth of Nations. Today, it is fair to say that Ludwig von Mises and his students have created a genuine science of economics—a systematic exposition of the free market economy-which, as an intellectual structure, is virtually impregnable. Misesian economic science is, so to speak, The Answer. It’s the recipe for anyone who wants to know how a society must organize its workplace activities so as to maximize economic well-being for all.

The Question is: How may we achieve the free and prosperous commonwealth? To which The Answer is: Install the free market economy, as taught by Austrian—and some other—economists.

Trouble is, almost no one is asking The Question!

Economic science does not tell John Doe how to make a million dollars on Wall Street, or a killing in real estate, or how to protect his assets. Entrepreneurship is an art, not a science; profitable investing likewise. Economic science, like every other science, deals with abstract principles and general rules. Economic science sets forth the general rules which members of a particular society must apply in practice if the society is to enjoy maximum productivity and raise the general level of economic well-being. Economic science is a scholarly endeavor which shows what must be done to maximize the wealth of nations.

Economic science has The Answer for anyone who asks how a society may advance from poverty toward affluence. But economic science has no answer for those who ask: How can I make a fast and easy buck?

This is the wrong question, so far as economic science is concerned. How can people be persuaded to ask the right question? The question people should ask might be phrased as follows: How can we create the social institutions which provide maximum opportunity for all of us to be more prosperous? Only a sense of moral obligation will generate such a question.

The ordinary, decent, law-abiding citizen in his private dealings with his fellows would not use force or fraud to gain advantage over another. But when force and/or fraud are legalized millions do seek some advantage for themselves at the expense of their fellows. When the State allocates resources and redistributes the wealth, it is using its power to deprive producers of what belongs to them, in order to dispense it to those who have not earned it. Everyone is forced to pay tribute for the benefit of the wield-crs of power and their friends. Concerned with their own immediate well-being and looking to the State for handouts, tens of millions of Americans have no interest in working toward an economic order which would assure a rising level of prosperity for everyone—the free market economy.

Austrian economics is The Answer, all right, but it is the answer to a question which only a few are asking. The reason: only a few have an ethical incentive to ask it. Millions are searching for ways to increase their salaries, double their incomes, and enjoy the good life. Only a handful, by comparison, are working with any intensity to advance the free society-market economy way of life.

Economic Fallacies

We have it on the authority of Henry Hazlitt that “Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man.” Who can deny it? Any reasonably bright high school student can read Economics in One Lesson. Haw ing read the book, he can spot the fallacies in many textbooks of economics, in the speeches of public figures, in the commentaries of television and radio pundits, in sermons and academic lectures, in almost any place he cares to look.

The discipline of economics is not mired in simple ignorance; it is stalled by willful ignorance. Economic fallacies abound because every economic fallacy in practice gives someone an economic or other advantage over someone else. Pocketbook motivations keep economic fallacies alive; slay them in one generation and they return from the dead in the next.

Virtually every economic fallacy that plagues us today has been demolished time and again over the past couple of centuries; but has this work of demolition diminished the number and power of economic fallacies? Hardly; they appear about as numerous and virulent as ever. There are few new economic truths, but new errors proliferate wildly. Demolishing fallacies and exposing errors may be exhilarating for a time, but it is negative work; it is to toil on a treadmill. The positive maths of a market economy—together with its supporting institutions and ideas—are reached only by taking a different route.

The celebrated classicist, Gilbert Murray, offers some wise words on truth and error: “The great thing to remember is that the mind of man cannot be enlightened permanently by merely teaching him to reject some particular set of superstitions. There is an infinite supply of other superstitions always at hand; and the mind that desires such things—that is, the mind that has not trained itself to the hard discipline of reasonableness and honesty, will, as soon as its devils are cast out, proceed to fill itself with their relations.”

There will always be a need to expose economic error and demolish fallacies, but something more is needed if we wish to advance in the direction of a truly free society; and that something more is the sense of moral obligation which motivates persons to pursue the goals they perceive to be ethically right and good. Economics needs ethics.

Mises points out that economics “is a science of means, not of ends,” and that science, furthermore, is value- free. A science describes; but does not prescribe. “Science,” Mises goes on to say, “never tells a man how he should act; it merely shows how a man must act if he wants to attain definite ends . . . . Praxeology and economics do not say that men should peacefully cooperate within the frame of societal bonds; they merely say that men must act this way if they want to make their actions more successful than otherwise.” Moral obligation, a sense of “oughtness,” is not within the purview of science; the sciences, basically, operate in a sector of the universe that is ethically neutral. By the same token, there are no grounds in economic science per se for telling anyone that he ought to do this when he prefers to do that.

Although every science is value-free, the universe is not value-free! We live in a rationally and ethically structured universe where some things are morally right and other things are morally wrong; there is genuine good, as well as real evil. Moral obligation, besides being a reality that presses on the sensitive conscience, is a potent incentive to strive to translate the reasoned maths of economic science into a go_ ing concern economy.

Economics is the science of human action, and the actions of human beings are intimately implicated with ethical standards and moral obligation. In other words, economic science does not stand alone; it is a “means,” and as a means economics needs to be hooked up with disciplines that deal with ends.

What we have here is an IF—THEN situation. The economist cannot tell us that we ought to prefer a free and prosperous commonwealth; but IF that is what we want, THEN economic science can demonstrate that the market economy is the only means to achieve that end. Economic science can only explain; the economic argument must therefore be joined to an ethical imperative which commands.

Strengthening the Case

Economic reasoning can demonstrate that the free market system is the most efficient way to produce goods and services, rewarding every participant according to his contribution to the productive process—as that contribution is judged by his peers. But the economic case for freedom is strengthened immeasurably when it is bolstered by moral reasoning which demonstrates that the market economy is the only economic order which embodies the ideas of liberty and justice for all. Capitalism is the only economic system that does not reward some at the expense of others.

The interventionist state provides cushy jobs for many a predator and parasite, people whose services would not be needed in a truly free economy. Many of these people, once they become dependent on consumer choice, might, to begin with, be worse off economically than before. The pocketbook argument will not persuade them, but the moral argument might.

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.