All Commentary
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Leaking Left and Right

The need for consistency.

The foundations of the free market are private property, freedom of association, and the rule of law.  The free market is what happens when the law does not intentionally privilege any person or group or persecute any particular person or group.  It exists to the degree that the rules of the game aren’t set up to favor or harm anyone, and it doesn’t exist to the degree that it privileges some at the expense of others.  For classical liberals the free market is the fruit of equality under the law and of freedom from State tyranny.

It’s common to hear some on the political left say they aren’t opposed to the free market in general, but that they find important exceptions where government intervention is necessary.  For example, they may tolerate the free market because of its ability to create wealth, except when that wealth is not as evenly distributed as they’d like it to be, or when unemployment is higher than they’d like, or in the face of global warming (or climate change), or when it comes to funding public education, or to public health, or to building public housing, roads, and infrastructure, or to fighting recessions with bailouts and stimulus packages, or to creating booms with easy money and, well, stimulus packages.

But you can’t really blame someone on the left for wanting bigger government, can you?  It’s at least consistent with her statist priors.

Leaking on the Right

I know that many conservatives sincerely believe that the free market is the best economic system for achieving the kind of life they want to live and the kind of world they want to live in.  But many on the political right give little more than lip service to the free market.  From a classical liberal point of view they say the right things about the preciousness of personal liberty, private property, freedom of choice, and nonaggression.  They are anti-government when the current regime uses political power for ends they don’t like but pro-government when it comes to political ends they do like.  It’s not less intrusive government itself that they want; they want it to intrude where they think it should.

Some of these folks say they favor the free market except when it comes to free immigration from some (or all) foreign countries, or when it comes to establishing Islamic centers in places they feel are “too sensitive.”  They favor the free market and equality under the law except when it comes to sanctioning same-sex marriage.  They favor the free market except when it comes to free trade in narcotics and recreational drugs, from marijuana to crack cocaine. (A hundred years ago it was alcohol.)  They favor the free market except when it comes to prostitution between consenting adults in brothels or on the street.  They favor the free market except when it comes to foreign policy and sending armed forces to kill people (soldiers and civilians) in countries the U.S. government has declared its enemy.

The folks at FEE used to call people who talk this way “leakers.”

Drip, Drip, Drip…

Someone who “leaks” declares she is “in favor of the free market” but then names a host of significant exceptions to it.  The problem is not so much that allowing a single exception will necessarily spell doom for the free market.  If the State provided national defense and left it at that, even though to me it would be a significant violation of individual liberty, the people who constitute the market would probably remain mostly free.  No, the problem is that there are countless groups, each of whom if given the reins of power would press relentlessly and passionately toward the social goal it believes is or should be everyone’s top priority.  Whether that means taxing the rich, saving American jobs, preserving the American way of life, protecting the natural environment, or striking deals with foreign governments to privilege American business, the consequences are that each group would use political power to coerce the rest of us, the so-called 53 percent, to pay for it.

When what you’re seeking through politics is simply “more,” there’s no principled way to say when enough is enough.  Through such leaks we lose our liberty, not only to the left but just as surely to the right.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.