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Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Two Radicalisms

Capitalism Is an Ugly Form of Radicalism?

Is radicalism good or bad?

The answer depends on what is meant by “radicalism.” Radicalism is good when it means consistently adhering to principles. Among my principles, for example, is that adults who respect the rights of others deserve to live in peace according to their own lights. I apply this principle to everyone, regardless of sex, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preferences, or whatever other particular facts you care to identify about them. I make no exceptions. If you therefore accuse me of being a radical about this principle, I proudly plead guilty.

Radicalism is also good when it means seeking to understand a phenomenon by identifying its root causes. (The word “radical” is derived from the Latin radix, meaning “root.”) If an economist wants to understand why the price of milk fell, he doesn’t focus on the fact that the dairy manager in the local supermarket changed the price tag on cartons of milk from $2.50 to $2.00. Instead, he finds his answer in the principles that determine price formation—supply and demand—and asks which real-world events might have caused either the supply of milk to rise or the demand for milk to fall.

Radicalism in these two senses is the opposite of capriciousness and superficiality. It is, instead, a source of decency, intelligence, and wisdom.

Radicalism is undesirable, however, when it connotes a refusal to take account of the tradeoffs that our world of scarcity necessitates. For example, most people agree that family vacations are good things. But this fact does not mean that a family should spend 52 weeks of each year vacationing. Parents must work to earn income, and children must be educated. Any family that becomes so radical about vacationing that they do so year-round will suffer in the long run. Such a family will fail to make the tradeoffs necessary to lead a full and happy life. Single-minded obsessions are dangerous.

Consistent advocates of free markets are often accused by statists of being radical in the undesirable way. The insinuation, of course, is that advocates of free markets are like the family that insists on vacationing year-round—namely, obsessed with one particular thing.

But the insinuation is faulty. Consistent advocates of free markets are indeed radical, but only in the good way—only in the way that means that they aren’t diverted by superficial considerations—only in the way that means that they steadfastly stick to their principles. In fact, only by urging the widest possible role for the free market can we avoid the undesirable form of radicalism.

The reason is that free markets open to each person countless different ways to spend his resources and time. With this wide set of options, each of us tailors his or her choices in very subtle and nuanced ways. Undesirable radicalism is thereby avoided.

Here’s a mundane example of what I mean. Next time you’re in a supermarket, look around at everyone waiting in the checkout lines. Because each of us has unique tastes, knowledge, and circumstances, you’ll find that no one else’s grocery cart contains the same mix of items that you have in your cart. While two six-packs of beer might be excessive for you, it’s just right for the man ahead of you in line. Likewise, while a half-gallon of milk is ideal for the woman beside you in line, you need a full gallon. Each shopper selects that particular mix of groceries that promises to him or her—individually and uniquely—the greatest amount of satisfaction.

But if we acquired our groceries through government dictate rather than through individual choice, each of us would be compelled to consume a mix of groceries that other people—politicians—selected for us. The resulting mix for each of us would be inferior to the mix that each of us would choose individually. Each of us would be obliged to consume too-small amounts of some items and too-large amounts of other items. It’s true that each of us is free, within free markets, to become single-mindedly obsessed with something. But because each of us who becomes so obsessed personally bears the cost of the obsession, free markets reduce to a minimum the amount of such obsessions—such radicalism—that prevails.

The undesirable form of radicalism arises inevitably whenever some people assume the authority to dictate how other people should live. A particularly galling variety is exhibited by those collectivists who lament that each person in free markets generally pursues his own self-interest. For this reason alone, many collectivists want to eliminate capitalism. They display a dazzling willingness to overlook collectivism’s history; despite its long record of tyranny and mass slaughter, collectivism enjoys the praise of collectivists for no reason other than that it pretends that it will eliminate self-interest.

Why this radical obsession with motives rather than consequences? Why excuse a long and undeniable pattern of gruesome consequences merely because those who perpetrated these horrors said that their motives were altruistic? Are intentions so hallowed and consequences so trifling that only intentions matter?

Capitalism has proven beyond any vestige of doubt that it, and only it, is the engine of material prosperity for all. It creates colossal and widespread wealth, and does so peacefully. Contrast capitalist achievement with communism and socialism—systems designed to engineer society from top-down using coercion and, as a not-so-surprising result, distinguished chiefly by their excellence at human slaughter.

“No matter,” growls the collectivist. “Capitalists are selfish. That fact alone condemns capitalism.”

How radical in the worst way! Collectivists are willing to subject millions of people to the poverty, tyranny, and slaughter of statism—collectivists are willing to deny everyone the wealth, freedom, and flourishing that capitalism brings—merely because self-interest is part of the fuel that drives the capitalist engine.

Collectivism is surely the ugliest species of radicalism.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.