Moral norms that served small bands of humans well 10,000 years ago — share, cooperate, punish anyone who violates the rules — are no longer very good at helping people navigate commercial society. Ask someone about price-gouging laws, or kidney sales, or generally talk about the role of price as an indispensable signal of scarcity. Most people will get upset.
How very appealing was the socialist idea in the late 19th and early (pre-WWI) 20th centuries! All the burdens of life and everyday work, all the seemingly unjust inequalities of material wealth observable in society, and all the uncertainties of health care and old age would be lifted from the weary shoulders of the common man with the arrival of socialism.
Friends of freedom, including many of those who strongly believed in and fought for representative and democratically elected government in the 18th and 19th centuries, often expressed fearful concerns that “democracy” could, itself, become a threat to the liberty of many of the very people that democratic government was supposed to protect from political abuse.
In the old days, people associated the Left with an ethos akin to the ACLU today: the right to speak, publish, and associate. The turn that took place with the New Left actually flipped whatever remaining attachment that the old left had with freedom.
If we are concerned about the rise of the ginormous corporation, and perhaps we should be, why not start with lowering barriers to entry, removing regulations, cutting more taxes, blasting away expensive mandates and litigation landmines? If we work toward a truly laissez-faire environment for business, we could let the market discover the right combination of big, medium, and small that serves consumers best. Piling interventions upon interventions takes us in exactly the wrong direction.
Wharton was the mind that gave the most rich and complex expression of the glory and failings of this fascinating time and place. She clearly loved freedom, and despised impositions on the human personality, which is why she was one of the few literary giants of her time to see the power of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. At the same time, there is no form of freedom that can stamp out the failings of human nature; freedom is a beginning – a necessary foundation with which no human community can do without – for the development of a truly civilized society.
As it turns out, many people have needs that cannot be appreciated or discerned in advance by intellectuals. Many times, they cannot even understand them. This has been obvious since the late 19th century, when the socialist critique of the capitalist market underwent a huge shift. The Marxists had predicted that capitalism would impoverish the working class while enriching the class of capital owners. When that turned out to be obviously false, the critique shifted: now the system was being attacked for providing too much in the way of frivolous luxury goods to the middle class.
Here is what is so amazing. It all happens without any central direction from the top down. In fact, we can go further to say that it could not happen under central direction. No government bureaucrat made this possible. They only get in the way. You need owners, marketers, manufacturers, prices, markets, banks, millions of people, and thousands upon thousands of rounds of trading across dozens of countries, plus many years, decades, and centuries of economic development, all ending in a sweet little healthy snack just for me.
The years between 1890 and the Second World War were the golden age of the American piano. Pianos were the biggest-ticket item on every household budget besides the house itself. Everyone had to have one. Those who didn't have one aspired to have one. It was a prize, an essential part of life, and they sold by the millions and millions. Then it all went away.
Individual freedom plays a central role in Immanuel Kant’s moral and political philosophy. He writes, “Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice, insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law, is the only original right belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity." Kant’s moral and political philosophy both center on freedom.
The car was the foundation of the second industrial revolution. Encroaching government regulations are robbing it of its future. We once dreamed of a flying car. The regulators are putting us in the position of just dreaming about returning to the glory days of the 1970s. That’s just pathetic.
It used to be a cliche to observe that libertarianism is neither left nor right. I don’t hear that much anymore, so it needs to be restated. Mostly it needs to be understood. Left and right emerged in the 19th century as a revolt against liberalism. They each favored different forms of statism to push back against the progress liberty was making possible. It remains the same today.
Yes, I’m suggesting a series of dramatic changes to the way employment works. No more payroll tax. No more withholding. No more health-care mandates. No more mandates of any kind. And no more policing of either hiring or firing by the state. In other words, free the market. Economic exchange is about equal power between negotiators, which only means that the same rules should apply to everyone. The more we mess with the freedom of contract, the more we privilege one party over another, with sometimes unpredictable results.
If not armed teachers, if not gun-free zones, if not gun bans, if not granting to the government an exclusive domain for security and the threat of violence, what is the answer? The least satisfying answer is actually the right one: we do not know precisely how to secure schools. We – “we” as in intellectuals, pundits, or society in general – do not know how to secure banks, jewelry stores, shopping malls, or casinos. How can we find out? By devolving that responsibility to institutions themselves, you allow the emergence of security solutions that are adaptive to the particular conditions of time and place.
To my mind, Creative Commons is an imperfect solution to a major problem, while the best solution would simply leave the whole problem of production, ownership, and attribution to the market itself. But that is not the world we yet live in. Until then, it’s a beautiful thing that the market has found a stop-gap solution to the intractable problems caused by one-size-fits-all standards of legislative imposition.
The net effect of all of this has been to ruin our bathrooms. You might not realize it because the change has been slow, extending over 25 years. Only by encountering a bathroom with original fixtures from the 1940s can you perceive the full horror of what has happened. Our showers are lame, our toilets don’t work, our pipes are dirty, and everything is less sanitary. Chalk it up as yet another thing that government has ruined.
For centuries, for millennia, we’ve relied on government to stop invasions of person and property. We live more safely than ever before, thanks to market-based technological improvements, not reliance on government. It was once believed that only government could provide security; this debate dates back centuries. Now we learn otherwise. We get security from the same source that provides us food, clothing, and shelter: the matrix of voluntary exchange and free exercise of human creativity.
Sombart's leftism became rightism but it was made of the same substance always: a loathing of regular people in their free choices and a longing for history to follow his own imaginings of what should be rather than what is.
Such is the core of socialist ideology: a delusion rooted in snobbery and, above all else, intellectual pretense.