All Commentary
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Radical Today

Many people are not happy with the current state of society and the economy. People want to help the poor throughout the world in the form of foreign aid, better house, better education, and providing economic growth. Action must be taken! Free market economists and other advocates of freedom are often viewed as villains by these social reforms with big hearts. They see us as heartless because we are unwilling to help. Our refusal to support political action leads them to ask, “don’t you want to do anything?”

What they fail to see is that we do want to help, just not through government action. This idea that helping means government action was the Clichés of Socialism Number 20. Written by economist and former FEE president Hans F. Sennholz and originally appearing in Christian Economics on February 7, 1961, this short article attempts to show the fallacy that we must to do something. As Sennholz points out, “Their premises must be rejected and their conclusions corrected. In reality the call for action is a manifestation of individual lethargy and inertness. It is tantamount to a call for government action rather than individual initiative.”

It is true that advocates of liberty call for “do-nothing” government policies but it is not out of not caring. Free market economists have often warned about unintended consequences of government intervention. For example, foreign aid, which Sennholz mention in the article, produces many negative result that produces ends in complete opposition to the desired goal. One example is that often, instead of helping a country grow the aid will produces dependence for the aid, leaving the country in a vicious circle of poverty (for more examples just read William Easterly’s blog Aid Watch).

Sennholz, in the article, touches on the other side of the coin. Those who advocate for action are usually unwilling to take the action themselves. What they want is for someone else, namely the government, to do it! As Sennholz points out, what they are really asking is, “Don’t you want the government to spend other people’s money on foreign aid?” Many of these people are unwilling to invest in these foreign countries (possibly because they know the money will be squandered by the foreign governments). Their cries for help are often simply cries for someone else to help.

Despite being written in 1961 this article deserves a read because it is still extremely relevant. The financial crisis has had the particularly terrible consequence of an increase, to an already high, call for government interventions. It is at this time that advocates of liberty need to be more vocal in opposition, no matter how controversial. As Leonard E. Read said in his pamphlet “Conscience on the Battlefield” (1980 reissue), “Of course, it does not follow that an unpopular analysis would be right merely because its unpopularity. But it does follow that unless it is highly controversial, and challenging to a great number of persons, it cannot be consistent with the advancement of human freedom. For popular ideas and liberty are now not in accord. Indeed, they are at odds.” If we can influence these ideas and correct the fallacies of government intervention, then maybe one day we can say we did something; even if it was radical today.

Download Clichés of Socialism Number 20 “Don’t you Want to do Anything?” by Hans F. Sennholz here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.