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Dead Models vs. Living Economics – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Dead Models vs. Living Economics – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
November 23, 2013
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Since 2008, straw-man versions of free-market economics have popped up whenever someone needs an easy villain. Keynes roared back to prominence, and it looks like this reaction might be gaining steam.

According to an article in The Guardian, students at a few British universities, prompted by “a leading academic,” are demanding that economics professors stop teaching what they refer to as “neoclassical free-market theories.”

Michael Joffe, an economics professor at Imperial College, said, “The aim should be to provide students with analysis based on the way the world works, not the way theories argue it ought to work.”

Joffe is right on that point. But his target is wrong: It’s not free-market economics that’s the problem, it’s the model of perfect competition that often gets conflated with free-market economics. A commenter on my recent columns addressing falsehoods about the free market (here and here) suggested I discuss this conflation.

I was thinking of putting it into a third “falsehoods” column. But the Guardian story makes me think the issue deserves more attention. Here’s the key passage:

The profession has been criticised for its adherence to models of a free market that claim to show demand and supply continually rebalancing over relatively short periods of time—in contrast to the decade-long mismatches that came ahead of the banking crash in key markets such as housing and exotic derivatives, where asset bubbles ballooned [emphasis added].

Why Do You Support the Free Market?

“Free-market economists,” on the other hand, typically have confidence in free markets owing to our understanding of economics, although we often (notoriously) disagree on exactly what the correct economics is. A number of free-market economists base their confidence on what is known as the model of “perfect competition.” Briefly, that model shows how in the long run the price of a good in a competitive market will equal the additional cost of producing a unit of that good (i.e., its marginal cost), and it shows that no one has the power to set prices on her own. How do you get those results? By making something like the following assumptions:

  1. Free entry: While buyers and sellers may incur costs to consume and to produce, there are no additional costs to enter or leave a market.
  2. Product homogeneity: From the point of view of any buyer in the market, the output of one seller is a perfect substitute for the output of any other seller.
  3. Many buyers and sellers: No single buyer or seller is large enough to independently raise or lower the market price.
  4. Perfect knowledge: All buyers and sellers have so much information that they will never regret any action they take.

From these assumptions you can derive not only marginal-cost pricing but also nice efficiency properties as well: There is no waste and costs are minimized. Which is why people like the model.

Moreover, for some important questions the analysis of supply and demand under perfect competition is quite useful. Push the legal minimum wage too high and you’ll generate unemployment; push the maximum rent-control rate too low and you’ll get housing shortages. Also, financial markets sometimes—though as we have seen, not always—conform to the predictions of perfect competition. It’s a robust theory in many ways, but if you base your support for the free market on the model of perfect competition, you’re on shaky ground. The evidence against it is pretty devastating.

Free Entry, Not Perfect Knowledge

In fact, it doesn’t even take the Panic of 2008 to shake up the model; any comparison of the model with everyday reality would do the job. Assumptions two and three about product homogeneity and many buyers and sellers are pretty unrealistic, but it’s the last assumption about perfect knowledge that’s the killer. (I’m aware of Milton Friedman’s “twist” (PDF), which argues that this is irrelevant and only predictions matter, but it’s a methodology I don’t agree with.) Markets are rarely if ever at or near equilibrium, and people with imperfect knowledge make disequilibrating mistakes, even without the kind of government intervention that caused the Panic of 2008.

When the institutions are right, however, people learn from the mistakes that they or others make, and there’s a theory of markets—certainly neither Keynesian nor Marxist—that fits the bill better than perfect competition.

It’s Austrian theory. Its practitioners argue competition is an entrepreneurial-competitive process (PDF). This theory not only says that competition exists in the presence of ignorance, error, and disequilibrium, it explains how profit-seeking entrepreneurs in a free market positively thrive in this environment. The principal assumption that the theory rests on, besides the existence of private property, is No. 1: free entry.

As long as there are no legal barriers to entry, if Jack wants to sell an apple for $1 and Jill is asking $2 for that same quality apple—that is, there is a disequilibrium here in which either Jack or Jill (or both) is making an error—you can profit by buying low from Jack and selling high to Jill’s customer, Lucy. If another entrepreneur, Linus, spots what you’re doing, he can bid up the price you’re giving Jack and bid down the price at which you’re selling to Lucy. Bottom line: A process of entrepreneurial competition tends to remove errors. There is no need to assume perfect knowledge to get a competitive outcome; instead, competition itself improves the level of knowledge.

So Joffe and the critics are wrong about the theory. You don’t knock out the theoretical legs from under the free market by “debunking” the model of perfect competition. He is also wrong about the history. As I’ve referenced many times, economists Steve Horwitz and Pete Boettke have documented how a government-led, interventionist dynamic, and not the free market, led to the Panic of 2008.

Joffe, the Imperial College professor, “called for economics courses to embrace the teachings of Marx and Keynes to undermine the dominance of neoclassical free-market theories.” He also complains that “there is a lot that is taught on [sic] economics courses that bears little relation to the way things work in the real world.” I agree. But that complaint would apply at least as much to the Keynesian and Marxian economics he hypes as to the static, equilibrium-based models of competition he slams.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.
Labels and Ideological Bubbles – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Labels and Ideological Bubbles – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
August 30, 2013
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Be mindful of how you label the people with whom you disagree.

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When I engage in an ideological discussion I try to be sensitive to how I ideologically label the person with whom I’m talking and how she labels me. I’m not talking about dismissive or openly pejorative words (e.g. evil, stupid, silly), but proper terms of discourse. More than just good manners, how we habitually label our opponents in ideological dialogue could reveal something unpleasant about the ideological world we inhabit.
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Getting the Label Right

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Now, some people argue that “ideas matter, labels don’t.” When we’re talking about specific ideas, such as for example military intervention in the Middle East, then yes calling it liberal, libertarian, progressive, socialist, or whatever may add nothing to the discussion. But when referring to the worldview of a particular person or group of like-minded persons, especially in the context of a public debate, then how we label ourselves and others can matter a great deal. If the goal is to promote constructive dialogue then it’s important to get the labels right.
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We prefer in such cases to be called by the label that we identify ourselves with. I don’t like being called a conservative or a liberal because those labels signify sets of ideas and policies, many of which I do not hold. I prefer to be called a libertarian. (Classical liberal might be better but no one in the mainstream knows what that is.)
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Colleagues I’ve known for decades at my college assume that I’m a conservative because I’ve come out publicly against nationalized healthcare, from which they wrongly infer that I oppose same-sex marriage and that I “support our troops” in foreign wars. Readers of The Freeman have, I’m sure, had to defend themselves against the charge of being “pro-business” because of our skepticism of regulation and high taxes. We have to explain that upholding the free-market is not pro-business, pro-consumer, or pro-labor (although the free-market position is in a sense “pro” all those things and more). That kind of mislabeling, however annoying, can be the result of an honest mistake—one I know I make myself.
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Mistakenly mislabeling someone is one thing: conservative for libertarian, marxist for progressive. Another is deliberately mislabeling your opponent, a trick that forces her to waste time defending herself against the false charge. But there’s a third kind of mislabeling that reflects a deeper sort of error, one that issues from exclusivity and insularity.
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Who calls herself a Neoliberal or a Statist?

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For example, I’m reviewing a book about cities whose author uses the word “neoliberal” a lot. It’s used mostly by Europeans on the political “left”—e.g., social democrats, progressives, socialists, greens—to refer to people or groups who hold some sort of “libertarian” views. I’ll explain in a moment why I’m using scare quotes here.
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From what I’ve been able to gather from my European colleagues, however, no one actually identifies herself as a “neoliberal.” Neoliberal is apparently a term some attach to positions “on the (extreme) right,” which apparently includes people thought to have an anti-union or pro-business agenda. There are such people, of course, but there’s a reason no one self-identifies as a neoliberal.
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As Stanley Fish explained a few years ago in The New York Times: “…neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets.” So “neoliberal” is pejorative.
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And before libertarians get too indignant, let me point out that we sling words like “collectivist” and “statist” when describing our opponents, and to my knowledge no one self-identifies with those terms, either. To be sure, among our ideological comrades, they may have a fairly clear meaning and may spark a certain esprit de corps. But consistently using a word, over a wide range of venues, to describe others that no one ever uses to self-identify is a pretty good sign that you live in an ideological bubble.
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Evidently, while the author of the book I’m reviewing says she’s writing for “an interdisciplinary readership,” she takes it for granted that it will be an ideologically sympathetic one.
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Our Ideological Bubbles

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An ideological bubble, as I’m using the term, is a social network with shared ideological understandings that closes its members off to others with opposing views. You can be a staunch market-anarchist, for example, but still be willing to have a serious, civil conversation with people with whom you strongly disagree. Put simply, you live in an ideological bubble if the only people whom you will talk to seriously about ideology are those you already agree with.
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An ideological bubble insulates us from real-time criticisms of our principles and positions, retarding our intellectual growth. It gives us a false sense of security and breeds self-satisfaction, off-putting harshness, and intolerance—things destructive to civility. Also, keep in mind that it’s often the bystanders to a debate whom we want to persuade, and they will consider our language and conduct when judging our ideas.
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One of the things I’ve learned from my great teacher Israel Kirzner is that we can’t realistically be aware of all of our current limitations because we simply don’t know all that we don’t know. We have blind spots, and that means intellectual bubbles of all sorts are inevitable.  But that doesn’t mean that they have to remain invisible to us. Kirzner also taught us that creative discovery is possible. The signs are there, and keeping an eye open to them will give us a chance to make them at least a little more permeable.
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Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.
Bookstore Wars: Creativity versus Scale – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Bookstore Wars: Creativity versus Scale – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
August 22, 2013
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Independent bookstores appear to be making a comeback after several years of decline. As reported by MSNBC, the number of independent bookstores has risen significantly.

Some 1,000 independent bookstores went out of business between 2000 and 2007, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), as consumers turned to online buying, downloading e-books, or flocking to Barnes & Noble and (now defunct) Borders. But the ABA said that since 2009, the number of independent bookstores has risen 19 percent, to 1,971.

If my arithmetic is right, that still means the industry hasn’t rebounded to where it was in 2000 (about 2,600 stores), but it’s not bad. Meanwhile e-book sales, which had been rising at triple-digit rates, have evidently lost a bit of steam, last year growing at about 5 percent overall.

These facts perhaps illustrate two important lessons:  First, the scale of a business’s operations is not the same thing as its competitiveness; and second, the kind of competition that counts in free markets has much less to do with efficiency than with creativity.  Selling books and digital media in massive volume seems to make firms sluggish in addressing customer preferences for more personalized service and responsiveness.

Efficiency and Scale Are Important

Free-market economists are typically painted by friends and foes alike as cheerleaders for efficiency. Indeed, many economists do tout efficiency as the prime virtue of the free market, keeping prices low and employment high. In standard economics, efficiency refers to using the lowest-cost means to reach a given end.

If Jack is in New York and wants to be in Philadelphia, then among the alternative means available to him—walking, boating, flying, driving, or taking the train—efficiency implies that Jack chooses the one that minimizes the cost to him of getting to Philadelphia. In manufacturing, the production process that, other things equal, produces a given rate of output at the lowest cost is the efficient one.

(Note:  Cost, like benefit, always refers to the cost to someone of doing something.  Sometimes the chooser experiences the costs, sometimes someone else does, but neither costs nor benefits are ever disembodied.)

One form of efficiency is economies of scale. Economies of scale occur when using more of all inputs (scaling up) increases output so much that the cost per unit of output falls. (In econ-speak that’s when the long-run average-cost curve slopes downward.) Critics pick up on this and argue that the free market therefore necessarily favors big businesses over small businesses because the bigger a firm is, the more efficient in terms of unit costs it tend to be, and that allows it to charge lower prices and drive smaller firms out of the market.

But Not as Important as Competition

That story, however, only looks at the relative efficiencies of existing firms and markets. If the fundamental goal is to improve the well-being of people as they see it, then you have to pay more attention to competition, particularly entrepreneurial competition. In that sense, competition trumps efficiency (as Israel M. Kirzner has explained).

That’s because, again, efficiency means choosing from among given alternatives the one that achieves a given goal at the lowest cost. Where the standard economic concept of efficiency falls short is that in the real world neither ends nor means are simply given to anyone. Ends and means, outputs and inputs, have at some point to be discovered by someone. Yes, efficiency is a good thing, like having a clean and orderly workplace, but it’s entrepreneurship in the competitive process that does the heavy lifting of finding the work to be done and putting you in a position to do it.

The resurgence of independent bookshops in the face of book megastores, I think, is an example of how creative competition overcomes the scale efficiency of providing a particular product. There’s nothing inherently wrong or uncompetitive about megastores or inherently virtuous about small businesses. Big and small businesses have their niches, whether online or in brick-and-mortar shops. But central to the competitive process is the ability, whatever your size, to be aware of changing circumstances and to adjust appropriately to them. The MSNBC article quotes an independent bookseller as saying, “We learned how to get books that people couldn’t find online, and to cater as much as we could to the customer. When a customer walks in, we try to make them feel wanted and at home.”

Scale economies in both the online and brick-and-mortar parts of the industry do little to win over customers who prefer personalized service or the intangibles of local businesses. Independent bookstores are more flexible, for example, at staging readings of local authors and other neighborhood events. The giant bookseller Borders Books, one of the pioneers of book retailing, apparently didn’t do a good job adjusting and closed a couple of years ago (I wrote about it here). Today Barnes & Noble scrambles to cope with competition from the e-book, Amazon.com, and, it seems, local bookshops.

While the diminished growth of e-book sales is hardly a harbinger of decline—5 percent is nothing to sneeze at—it does suggest that sometimes the demand side of the market doesn’t change quite as fast as the supply side—that is, a lot of innovation is just discovering better ways to satisfy fairly stable tastes. Still, it’s competition—for new markets, new techniques, new resources, and yes, new tastes—and not efficiency that drives, and is driven by, the creative discovery of ends and of means.

The Lesson Applied

The other day a friend told me that, when she told her fiancé she couldn’t understand why a mildly alcoholic beverage called “Chu-hi,” which is very popular in Japan, isn’t sold in stores here, his response was something like, “If there were a demand for it, it would be.” Knowing that I write this column she then said to me, “That’s the free market, right?”

Okay, class, what do you say?

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.
The Extraordinary Business of Life – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The Extraordinary Business of Life – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
May 25, 2013
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I heard it again from this year’s commencement speaker: the common mistake of thinking economics is just about business and making money. I know I’m not the only economics teacher who every year has to disabuse his students (and many of his own colleagues from other disciplines) of that same error.

Economics is not business administration or accounting. Economics is a science that studies how people interact when the means at their disposal are scarce in relation to their ends. That includes business, of course, but a whole lot more as well.

Where Does That Notion Come From?

Well, for starters, perhaps from one of the greatest economists in history, Alfred Marshall. He opens his highly influential textbook, first published in 1890, with this statement:

“Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing.” (Emphasis added)

This definition more or less prevailed until 1932, when another British economist, Lionel Robbins, defined economic science as being concerned with an aspect of all human action insofar as it involves making choices, not with a part of individual action. Economics, in other words, is the science of choice. Its starting point is not the “material requisites of wellbeing” but a person’s subjective valuation of her circumstances. Ludwig von Mises got it, which is why he called his magnum opus, simply, Human Action.

Similarly, Libertarianism Isn’t Pro-Business

An equally common mistake is to think that supporters of the free market are “pro-business” and favor so-called crony capitalism. But a consistent free-market supporter is neither pro-business nor anti-business, pro-labor nor anti-labor. A free market to us is what happens when you safeguard private property, free association, and consistent governance and then just leave people alone.

Part of the misunderstanding here might stem from the term “free market” itself. Since people tend to associate markets with buying and selling, jobs, and making (and losing) money, it’s perhaps understandable that they would think that advocates of the free market must be concerned mainly about business-related stuff: profits and losses, efficiency, and creating and marketing new products.

Indeed, I’ve met quite a few who claim to favor “free-market capitalism” merely because they believe in making as much money as possible in their lifetimes. It’s not surprising that many of these folks do tend to be pro-business and supporters of crony capitalism. I want to ask them not to be on my side.

Connotations aside, the free market encompasses far more than the stuff of business or a money-making scheme. Yes, it does include the essentials of private property, free association, and stable governance. But a dynamic market process that generates widespread material prosperity and promotes the pursuit of happiness would not be possible if it were based solely on the relentless pursuit of one’s narrow self-interest. Markets would not have gotten as far as they have today (with per-capita GDP up more than fiftyfold since 1700) if people didn’t also follow norms of honesty and fair play, trust and reciprocity. Such norms are without question partly the result of self-interest; few would trade with us if we weren’t honest and fair. But, as Adam Smith taught us, these norms also arise in large measure from a sense of sympathy, of fellow-feeling and fairness, that comes from our ability to see others as we see ourselves, and vice versa. This is why in most contexts I usually prefer the term “free society” to “free market.”

Bourgeois Virtue

But I think one good reason the association between business on the one hand and economics and classical liberalism on the other has been so persistent is that business and the free society arose together. That is, the liberal idea—that certain fundamental individual rights exist prior to and apart from the State—sparked one of the most momentous social changes in history: the commercial revolution and the emergence of the modern urban middle class. 

The triumph of liberty, of personal freedom, unleashed the creative potential of people, who found expression in art, religion, literature, but most of all—or at least most visibly—in the Marshallian “ordinary business of life.” The changes that have taken place in the past 500 years—scientific revolutions, religious reformations, political upheavals, artistic rebirths—were driven by the same human propensities as the commercial revolution and fueled by the wealth it produced. Indeed, the social and political changes of the past century—for women, workers, and minorities—would not have been possible without the entrepreneurial pressures of competition and innovation that forced radical changes in conventional thinking and socially conservative attitudes.

Tradition’s Worst Enemy

In short, business is the most dynamic social institution known to mankind. The critical and competitive attitudes that enable business to flourish erode custom and break old ties even as they foster new ones. The products of business tend to offend people whose sensibilities were refined by generations of tradition. The free market is tradition’s worst enemy.

Business has become part of the default mode of modern society. We take it for granted. We don’t realize what a radical, subversive force it is, to the point where it sounds strange to say so. But try to imagine a world without businesses and commerce. A world like the Dark Ages of, say ninth century Western Europe: static, grindingly poor, strictly hierarchical, socially intolerant, and, apart from the occasional battle or beheading, boring like you wouldn’t believe.

So, while it’s still a mistake to think economics and classical liberalism are somehow about studying and promoting business, maybe at a deeper level it’s not such a bad one to make after all. Business is subversive.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.
On Brakes and Mistakes – Article by Sanford Ikeda

On Brakes and Mistakes – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
March 30, 2013
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Here’s an observation from a recent column in The Economist magazine on “The Transience of Power”:

“In 1980 a corporation in the top fifth of its industry had only a 10% chance of falling out of that tier in five years. Eighteen years later that chance had risen to 25%.”

Competition makes it hard to stay at the top even as it offers a way off the bottom. Data on income mobility also support the idea. And despite occasional downturns (some quite large, as we well know), per-capita gross domestic product in the United States keeps rising steadily over time. These two phenomena, economic growth and competitive shaking out, are of course connected.

Different Ways of Thinking About Economic Growth

Economists in the mainstream (neoclassical) tradition are trained to think of growth mainly as raising the rate of producing existing products. For example, a higher rate of saving allows firms to employ more and more capital and labor, generating ever-higher rates of output. It reminds me of the Steve Martin movie, The Jerk, in which a man who is born in a run-down shack eventually strikes it rich and builds himself a much bigger house that is just a scaled-up version of the old shack.

But economist Paul Romer, for one, has said,

“If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance. Human history teaches us, however, that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking.”

So growth through innovation, technical advance, and making new products is more important than just using more inputs to do more of the same thing. The late Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter came even closer to the truth when he famously described competitive innovation as a “gale of creative destruction”—building up and tearing down—with creation staying just ahead of destruction.

But standard economic theory has had trouble incorporating the kind of economic growth driven by game-changing innovators such as Apple, Facebook, and McDonalds. Mathematically modeling ignorance and error, ambition and resourcefulness, and creativity and commitment has so far been too challenging for the mainstream.

What’s the Source of Economic Growth?

Achieving economic growth through innovation means someone is taking chances, sometimes big chances, to break new ground. As Schumpeter put it, what it takes is finding “the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization.” Although talented people are behind this process, we sometimes put too much stress on bold “captains of industry” such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Ray Kroc. The personalities of the players are important—but so are the rules of the game.

Imagine if cars had no brakes. How slowly and cautiously we would have to drive!  Clearly, brakes on cars enable us to drive faster and safer. How? Well, brakes give us the freedom to make a lot of mistakes—entering a turn too fast or taking our eyes off the road for too long—without causing disaster. We can take more chances with brakes than without them. (Of course, good brakes can also seduce us into driving recklessly, but that’s a story for another day.) Similarly, economic development of the Schumpeterian variety presupposes lots of experimentation, and that in turn means making plenty of mistakes.

Markets Mean Mistakes

Now imagine a world in which people looked down on innovators. That’s hard to do in our time, but as Deirdre McClosky argues in her 2010 book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economists Can’t Explain the Modern World,  it wasn’t that long ago when most people disdained innovators who challenged established ways of thinking and doing. The result was cultural and economic stagnation. Making an innovator a figure of dignity worthy of respect, which she says began to take hold about 400 years ago, has sparked unprecedented economic development and prosperity.

But a smart, creative, ambitious, and committed person is likely to make mistakes. And so a culture that lauds spectacular success also needs to at least tolerate spectacular failure. You can’t have trial without error or profit without loss.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that people in an innovative society should champion failure. I’m saying they must expect potential innovators to make a lot of mistakes and so have not only the right institutions in place (private property, contract, and so on) but also the right psychological mindset—which is something static societies can’t do.

Change, Uncertainty, and Tolerance

If you think you already know everything, anyone who thinks differently must be wrong. So why tolerate them?

One of the great differences between the modern world and the various dark ages mankind has gone through is how rapidly today our lives change. There’s immeasurably more uncertainty in the era of creative destruction than in times dominated by the “tried and true.”  But the more we realize how much uncertainty there is about what we think we know, the more we ought to be willing to admit that we may be wrong and the other guy may, at least sometimes, be right. And so if we see someone succeed or fail, we think, “That could have been me!” In a sense, an advancing society welcomes mistakes as much as it embraces triumphs, just as a fast car needs brakes as much as it needs an engine.

That’s not just fancy talk. The evidence—prosperity—is all around us.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author

Ending the War on Kidneys – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Ending the War on Kidneys – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
October 13, 2012
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The war on drugs can be dated to 1914, although the phrase “war on drugs” was coined in 1972 during the presidency of Richard Nixon.  The war on kidneys began in 1984.

It’s an oft told tale how drug prohibition has led to the promotion of organized crime, skyrocketing violence here and abroad, and a simultaneous increase in potency and decrease in safety.  (See here and here for examples.)  The solution to these perhaps unintended but predictable negative consequences is legalization.  So it is, too, with the sale of organs–kidneys in particular.

Meanwhile in Iran…

Since 1984, under the leadership of Senator Al Gore, the United States government has made it illegal to buy or sell kidneys and in so doing has effectively launched a “war on kidneys.”  Again, the consequences, unintended but predictable, are mostly if not wholly bad.

According to the Human Resources and Services Administration there are currently over 93,000 persons in the United States on the waiting list for a donated kidney.  Another source estimates that the list grows by 3,000 to 4,000 candidates a year.  Between 1988 and 2008 yet another source reports that the number of kidney transplants performed in the United States has ranged from 8,873 (in 1988) to a high of 17,091 (in 2006) for an average of about 13,847 per year.  While that may indicate a dwindling list of candidates, the reality is that the number who die each year still runs into the thousands.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, claims that 18 people die each day waiting for a kidney donor.  That’s 6,570 deaths a year, and though their figure for the waiting list is considerably higher than the HRSA’s, they are in the same ballpark.

Kidney sales are legal in Iran, which offers a mix of private and government financing for kidney transplants.  Not surprisingly, waiting lists there are practically nonexistent (because of a larger supply), and so is the number of people dying while waiting for one.

Moreover, the incidence of black markets and of “medical tourism”—in which relatively wealthy foreigners travel to relatively poor countries to buy local kidneys or have other procedures performed at lower cost than in the United States—would probably fall, much as legalization of alcohol after Prohibition saw the downfall of speakeasies and bathtub booze.

What’s the Downside?

And although some estimate that the cost of a kidney may be as high as $100,000—which would make the total cost of the transplant procedure around $350,000—keep in mind that in addition to the value of the lives saved, the savings from unnecessary kidney dialysis is about $70,000 per person per year.  (See also this article from The Economist.)

Some argue that only the rich would get organs and only the poor would die giving them up.  Existing black markets and medical tourism already reinforce any such tendency by keeping prices high.  Would a free market in organs mean that the relatively poor would supply the relatively rich?  Perhaps.  More generally, would abuses occur?  Yes, they would, just as they do in other aspects of organ transplantation—such as in shabby hospitals or lousy medical care. Nobody suggests banning hospitals or doctors because some hospitals and some doctors occasionally screw up.  The cure lies largely in greater competition, the prerequisite of which is making organ sales legal.

Some are put off by the very idea of a market in kidneys, and many who aren’t might have some reservations about extending the list to other parts of our bodies.  Some of this can be attributed to a socio-ethical resistance to “commoditizing the human body.”  Perhaps this is a valid concern.  Interestingly, there is a legal market for cadavers, so it seems to be OK to pay for bodies but not for organs.

What about other organs or body parts?  The thing about kidneys—or eyes, ears, hands, and feet—is that removing them from our bodies does not entail death or, in the case of kidneys, any significant decline in the quality of life to the donor.  But what about selling something vital such as a heart, which would spell certain death?  That’s a difficult question that we may not have to settle just yet.  Let’s start with kidneys.

The Moral Alternative

I confess to being uncomfortable with the thought of selling off body parts. In the same way, I would never recommend to anyone, including myself, taking cocaine for fun.  But I would stop short of banning cocaine, and my qualms about selling body parts doesn’t keep me from staunchly supporting legalization, especially when a strong case can be made (as in this video by Professor James Stacey Taylor) that banning it would itself be immoral.  Selling body parts for money should be no more illegal than letting people make a living fishing for crabs on the high seas or give up their lives for a cause they believe in.  I may disapprove of a practice that harms the practitioner, but that by itself doesn’t give me the right to stop it, especially if it harms no one else.

Finally, today it’s considered perfectly legal and moral to allow husband A to give up his kidney to his wife B without compensation.  Or, if A’s kidney is not a match for B, it’s okay for A to donate to C, whose husband D could then donate to B.  That is like trading a goat to Jack to get a pile of bricks to trade to Jill for a sack of grain, which is what you wanted for your goat in the first place.  While the Internet and creative websites have made organ bartering of this kind easier than in the past, humans long ago developed another institution that gets the job done much more easily:  buying and selling for money.

Crimalizing activities—whether  drugs, prostitution, or organ sales—typically generates consequences that are usually unintended but, with the aid of some basic economic knowledge, mostly predictable.  After decades and over a trillion dollars spent and countless lives ruined, a summit of Latin-American politicians earlier this year declared that “the war on drugs has failed,” a sentiment echoed around the world.

It’s time that our government ended the war on kidneys, too.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

TANSTAAFL and Saving: Not the Whole Story – Article by Sanford Ikeda

TANSTAAFL and Saving: Not the Whole Story – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
October 3, 2012
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How often have you heard someone say, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” or, “Saving is the path to economic development”?  Many treat these statements as the alpha and omega of economic common sense.

The problem is they are myths.

Or, at least, popular half-truths.  And they aren’t your garden-variety myths because people who favor the free market tend to say them all the time.  I’ve said them myself, because they do contain more than a grain of truth.

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (or TANSTAAFL) means that, with a limited budget, choosing one thing means sacrificing something else.  Scarcity entails tradeoffs.  It also implies that efficiency means using any resource so that no other use will give a higher reward for the risk involved.

That saving is necessary for rising labor productivity and prosperity also contains an economic truth.  No less an authority than the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises has stated this many times.  In an article published in The Freeman in 1981, for example, he said:

The fact that the standard of living of the average American worker is incomparably more satisfactory than that of the average [Indian] worker, that in the United States hours of work are shorter and children sent to school and not to the factories, is not an achievement of the government and the laws of the country. It is the outcome of the fact that the capital invested per head of the employees is much greater than in India and that consequently the marginal productivity of labor is much higher.

The Catalyst

But the statement is true in much the same way that saying breathable air is necessary for economic development is true.  Saving and rising capital accumulation per head do accompany significant economic development, and if we expect it to continue, people need to keep doing those activities.  But they are not the source–the catalyst, if you will–of the prosperity most of the world has seen in the past 200 years.

What am I talking about?  Deirdre McCloskey tells us in her 2010 book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the World:

Two centuries ago the world’s economy stood at the present level of Bangladesh. . . .  In 1800 the average human consumed and expected her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go on consuming a mere $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two [in today’s dollars]. . . .

By contrast, if you live nowadays in a thoroughly bourgeois country such as Japan or France you probably spend about $100 a day.  One hundred dollars as against three: such is the magnitude of modern economic growth.

(Hans Rosling illustrates this brilliantly in this viral video.)

That is unprecedented, historic, even miraculous growth, especially when you consider that $3 (or less) a day per person has been the norm for most of human history.  What is the sine qua non of explosive economic development and accelerating material prosperity?  What was missing for millennia that prevented the unbelievable takeoff that began about 200 years ago?

A More Complete Story

Economics teaches us the importance of TANSTAAFL and capital investment.  Again, the trouble is they are not the whole truth.

As I’ve written before, however, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and I don’t want to repeat that argument in its entirety.  The basic idea is that what Israel M. Kirzner calls “the driving force of the market” is entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurship goes beyond working within a budget–it’s the discovery of novel opportunities that increase the wealth and raises the budgets of everyone in society, much as the late Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison or Madam C.J. Walker (probably the first African-American millionaire) did.  Yes, those innovators needed saving and capital investment by someone–most innovators were debtors at first–but note: Those savings could have been and were invested in less productive investments before these guys came along.

As McCloskey, as well as Rosenberg and Birdzell, have argued, it isn’t saving, capital investment per se, and certainly not colonialism, income inequality, capitalist exploitation, or even hard work that is responsible for the tremendous rise in economic development, especially since 1800.

It is innovation.

And, McCloskey adds, it is crucially the ideas and words that we use to think and talk about the people who innovate–the chance takers, the rebels, the individualists, the game changers–and that reflect a respect for and acceptance of the very concept of progress.  Innovation blasts the doors off budget constraints and swamps current rates of savings.

Doom to the Old Ways

Innovation can also spell doom to the old ways of doing things and, in the short run at least, create hardship for the people wedded to them.  Not everyone unambiguously gains from innovation at first, but in time we all do, though not at the same rate.

So for McCloskey, “The leading ideas were two: that the liberty to hope was a good idea and that a faithful economic life should give dignity and even honor to ordinary people. . . .”

There’s a lot in this assertion that I’ll need to think through.  But I do accept the idea that innovation, however it arises, trumps efficiency and it trumps mere savings.  Innovation discovers free lunches; it dramatically reduces scarcity.

Indeed, innovation is perhaps what enables the market economy to stay ahead of, for the time being at least, the interventionist shackles that increasingly hamper it.  You want to regulate landline telephones?  I’ll invent the mobile phone!  You make mail delivery a legal monopoly?  I’ll invent email!  You want to impose fixed-rail transport on our cities?  I’ll invent the driverless car!

These aren’t myths. They’re reality.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Are We Destroying the Earth? – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Are We Destroying the Earth? – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
October 3, 2012
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People often complain that mankind is destroying the earth: that insatiable consumption and relentless production have laid waste to irreplaceable swaths of our planet, and that these activities have to stop or someday it will all be gone.

Which raises the question: What does it means to “destroy” something?

When you burn a log, the log is destroyed but heat, light, smoke, and ashes remain.  It’s in that sense that physics tells us that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  Similarly, cutting down a forest destroys the forest but in its place are houses and furniture and suburbs.

The real question is: Is it worth it?

Value Can Be Both Created and Destroyed

What people usually mean when they say mankind is destroying the earth is that human action causes a change they don’t like.  It sounds odd to say that my wife, by eating a piece of toast for breakfast, is “destroying” the toast.  But if I wanted that toast for myself, I might well regard her action as destructive.  Same action, but the interpretation depends on purpose and context.

When a missile obliterates a building and kills the people in it, it may serve a political purpose even though the friends and family of those killed and the owners of the building are harmed.  The perpetrator’s gain is the victim’s loss.  In the political realm, one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss.  You rob Peter to pay Paul; you kill Jack to appease Jill.  It’s a “zero-sum game.”

In the economic realm, however, a thing is destroyed to the extent that it loses its usefulness to somebody for doing something.  Someone may want to bulldoze my lovely home just for fun.  If she pays me enough I may let her do it and be glad she did.  When not physically coerced, a trade won’t happen unless each side expects to gain.  If it does happen, and if the people who traded are right, then all do in fact gain.  Each is better off than before. The trade has created something–value.  If they are wrong they destroy value and suffer a loss, which gives them an incentive to avoid making mistakes.

Profits and Losses Help to Minimize the Destruction of Value

In free markets gains manifest themselves in profit, either monetary or psychic.  (In the short run, of course, you can sustain a monetary loss if you think there’s a worthwhile nonmonetary aspect to the trade that will preserve the profit.)  Now, the free market is not perfect, despite what some economics professors say about the benefits of so-called “perfect competition.”  People don’t have complete or perfect knowledge and so they make mistakes.  They trade when they shouldn’t, or they don’t trade when they should.  Fortunately, profits and losses serve as feedback to guide their decisions.

There’s another source of market imperfection.  People may be capable of making good decisions but they don’t trade, or trade too much, because the property rights to the things they would like to trade aren’t well-defined or aren’t effectively enforced.  In such cases their actions or inactions create costs they don’t bear or benefits they don’t receive.  The result is that their decisions end up destroying value.

If I free-ride off the oceans, if for example I don’t pay for dumping garbage into it, then the oceans will become more polluted than they should be.  If there is a cleaner, more efficient source of energy than fossil fuels, but no one can profitably use it because the national government prevents anyone from doing so (for example by prohibitions or excessive taxation), then again the value that would have been created will never appear.

Aesthetics or Economics?

Our esthetic sense of beauty is part of what makes us human.  If we wish to protect a lake or a valley from development because we think it beautiful, how do we do that?

To some extent it’s possible to do what the Nature Conservancy does, and purchase the land that we want to protect.  But that’s not always possible, especially when the land is controlled not by private persons but by the national government, which makes special deals with crony capitalists in so-called public-private developments.  In any case, even the free market is not perfect.  Economic development and material well-being mean that some beautiful landscapes and irreplaceable resources will be changed in ways not everyone will approve.

Remember, though, that economics teaches us that an action is always taken by someone for something.  There are no disembodied costs, benefits, and values.  In a world of scarcity, John believes saving rain forests is more important than saving the whales.  Mary believes the opposite.  If we are to get past disagreements on esthetics–essentially differences of opinion–that can turn into violent conflict, we need to find some way to settle our differences peacefully, some way to transform them into value-creating interactions.

Imperfect though it may be, the free market has so far been the most effective method we know of for doing that.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Property Rights Aren’t Always the Libertarian Solution – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Property Rights Aren’t Always the Libertarian Solution – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
July 15, 2012
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At FEE’s seminar last week on libertarian perspectives on current events, a participant asked: “How do we privatize the air?”

The student may have had in mind the economic principle, popularized by Ronald Coase, that externalities–especially negative externalities such as air pollution– result from ill-defined or unenforced property rights. The question also seems to reflect a common libertarian idea that in a free society all scarce resources must be owned by somebody. That would include the atmosphere when clean air is scarce.

Property Rights and Economic Development

The Coase Theorem is an economic proposition which says that when property rights are well defined and enforced, and the costs of search, bargaining, and enforcement are reasonably low, voluntary trade will tend to produce results that are economically efficient. Negative externalities will be internalized, as unowned resources are transformed into marketable goods. And if, because of incomplete property rights, entrepreneurs are unable to capture enough of the benefits from their actions (that is, if positive externalities would result), they will be less inclined to make the discoveries that drive economic development. Those benefits would be internalized, too.

There are some positive externalities that most, perhaps all, of those who favor tough property enforcement would hesitate to try to privatize. For example, cultures develop in part on the basis of imitation. Jazz musicians copy from one another all the time, from motifs to entire songs, and reinterpret them in their own creations. Classical musicians have also done this. As a courtesy, the protocol is to name the artist from whom you are copying, such as in “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”

On an even higher level of abstraction, artists, writers, and even ordinary people partake in an esthetic ethos; scholars, intellectuals, and laymen draw on the intellectual milieu of a place and time. Without the experimentation that comes from such borrowing and give-and-take, cultures would stop evolving; they would die.

The same thing goes for economic development. One entrepreneur discovers a demand for flat-screen televisions and is soon followed by imitators, which in the long run results in lower prices and better quality–and often new products and uses, such as tablet computers.

Don’t get me wrong! Private property rights prevent the kind of free riding that hinders economic development. And of course private property is essential for personal freedom: Property rights not only help to avoid or resolve interpersonal conflict–such as the tragedy of the commons–they are what provide a person with a sphere of autonomy and privacy in an economically developed world where contact with strangers is commonplace.

Elinor Ostrom on the Establishment of Conventions

There are many instances where free riding is a net negative, and the overuse of the atmosphere in the form of air pollution is probably one of them. Despite the efforts of some economists, legislators, and policymakers to institute so-called “cap-and-trade”–which would attempt to establish property rights in the air through government policy–it may be impossible to do something similar for all scarce resources, either by legal mandate or market arrangements. But this need not discourage libertarians, of either the minimal-state or market-anarchist variety.

Consider the work of Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, the only women so far to be so honored. Sadly, Ostrom died on June 12, a great loss for social science. While few would consider her a libertarian–I don’t believe she thought she was–libertarians can learn a lot from her work. She is perhaps best known for her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, in which she presented her methods and findings regarding how people coped (or didn’t cope) with what has come to be known as “common-pool resource” (CPR) problems:

What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems. Further, communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.

Voluntary Conventions

In those instances the nonstate, nonmarket institutions she studied were, when successful, conventions that the users of common-pool resources agreed to and used sometimes for centuries. They were made voluntarily and evolved over time, but they were not market outcomes, at least in the narrow sense, because no one “owned” the resource in question and it was not bought and sold. Ostrom added:

The central question of this study is how a group of principals who are in an independent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.

Her research covered the harvesting of forests in thirteenth-century Switzerland and sixteenth-century Japan and irrigation institutions in various regions of fifteenth-century Spain. Although not every community Ostrom studied was successful in establishing such conventions, it is instructive how highly complex agreements, enforced by both local norms and effective monitoring, were able to overcome the free-rider problems that standard economic theory–and perhaps vulgar libertarianism–would predict are insurmountable without property rights.

Dealing with air pollution is of course a more difficult problem since it typically entails a much larger population and more diffuse sources and consequences. But it’s important to realize that a “libertarian solution” to air pollution may not necessarily be a “market solution.”

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Prohibition: Bootleggers, Baptists, and Bandits – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Prohibition: Bootleggers, Baptists, and Bandits – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
July 7, 2012
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The political economist Bruce Yandle’s phrase “bootleggers and Baptists” captures the idea that special-interest groups with conflicting moral positions often find common cause in particular government interventions.  Many on the political left agree with crony capitalists that government should make taxpayers bailout some businesses that are “too big to fail”; some radical feminists agree with some Christian fundamentalists that government should ban pornography.  Their reasons are different but the policies they support are the same.

Bootleggers and Baptists

The inspiration for “bootleggers and Baptists” (pdf) comes directly from the diverse support that so-called “blue laws” have historically received.  According to Yandle,

Bootleggers . . . support Sunday closing laws that shut down all the local bars and liquor stores [because they increase the demand for illegal hooch].  Baptists support the same laws and lobby vigorously for them [because they believe drinking on Sunday is wrong].

Of course the story behind Prohibition era in the United States, marked by the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1920-33), is this lesson writ large.  Banning the sale of liquor, whatever it did to deter drinking, did wonders for promoting organized crime, which had (and still has) a comparative advantage over law-abiding people in supplying and demanding illegal goods. By clamping down on a product in such high demand, local and national governments (including the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, which also prospered during Prohibition) spurred mob activity, intentionally or not, from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York.

Ken Burns: No Eighteenth Amendment without the Sixteenth

What I hadn’t realized until I saw Ken Burns’s excellent documentary “Prohibition” is that an important and, I think, less-known connection existed between the anti-liquor lobby–which included among others the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)–and passage of the Sixteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.  That amendment gave Congress in 1913 the power

to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

(The Supreme Court had ruled an earlier income tax law unconstitutional in 1895.)

In an earlier FreemanOnline column, Don Boudreaux explained why Prohibition was repealed after only a dozen or so years.  In short the inability to tax liquor, now illegal, along with the onset of the Great Depression, had a devastating impact on government tax revenues.  My focus is on the alliance between anti-liquor forces on the right, pressing for prohibition, and Progressives on the left, pressing for an income tax.

Now, according to one source:

By 1868, the main source of Government revenue derived from liquor and tobacco taxes. . . . From 1868 to 1913, almost 90 percent of all revenue was collected from . . . excises.

That’s a significant source of taxes, without which the government could hardly operate, let alone grow to the size needed to implement the Progressives’ agenda: making government more efficient in order to run society along “rational” principles.  Government programs to improve schools, health care, and industry need a steady funding source, and without liquor taxes intervention could not go far enough.  So no matter how hard prohibitionists argued, marched, and lobbied, and no matter how sympathetic government officials may have been to their cause, they would never dream of sacrificing their cash cow on the alter of idealism–at least not without an equally reliable alternative.

And that of course led naturally to the social conservatives support of the progressive (in both senses of the word) income tax.  The Sixteenth Amendment passed in 1913, opening the way in 1919 for the Eighteenth Amendment.  The rest is history.

Baptists and Bandits

I’m not arguing that the alliance was primarily responsible for passage of the amendment, but rather that it’s clear the interests of social conservatives and the taxman were perfectly aligned.  “Baptists” on the one side, and on the other, those eager to expand the use of aggression to plunder wealth created by trade and to spend it to indulge their own preferences–that is, bandits.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.