Axioms and Animadversions

Herewith a new series for Power Line, which is intended to be complementary to—yet distinct from—Loose Ends. Loose Ends typically covers short news items and humorous things that may have escaped notice, while this series will raise questions and offer my idiosyncratic rants and observations on the intellectual scene. So here’s goes:

We very often see the phrase, “unbridled capitalism.” Never mind the accuracy of this term; why is it we never see the phrase, “unbridled liberalism”?

How is capitalism “unbridled”? A thriving capitalist or market order depends on the rule of law, property rights, contracts and their enforcement, and above all competition. All of these elements are “bridles” on any business enterprise. The exceptions are some “natural monopolies” (like water companies), or where industries and particular companies have successfully lobbied the government to protect them from competition (i.e., successful “rent-seeking”).

Let me bring in two expert witnesses here. The first is Nobel laureate George Stigler:

[T]he degree of ‘market failure’ for the American economy is much smaller than the ‘political failure’ arising from imperfections of economic policies found in real political systems.  The merits of laissez-faire rest less upon its famous theoretical foundations than upon its advantages over the actual performance of rival forms of economic organization.

The second is Paul Samuelson (a liberal!) who finally admitted in a late edition of his popular Econ 101 textbook: “Before we rush off to our federal, state, or local legislature, we should pause to recognize that there are government failures as well as market failures.”  (Emphasis in original.)

Second query: How come it is called the “Green New Deal” anyway? Why isn’t it called the “Green Great Society”? To ask the question is to answer it. The New Deal prompts gauzy (but erroneous) sentiments that the original New Deal was a rousing success, while everyone pretty much knows the Great Society was a fiasco. In reality, the “Green New Deal” is much more like the Great Society—offering grandiose promises of rapid, fundamental transformation of society and the economy from top to bottom. Remember that like the Green New Deal, LBJ’s anti-poverty warriors claimed their programs would completely eliminate all poverty in America in ten years. Sound familiar?

To the extent that the New Deal can be said to have accomplished anything at all, it was because some of its practical parts (like TVA and Bonneville Power) were just large civil engineering projects, while the Great Society was conceived as a huge social engineering project—which is why it failed so spectacularly. One conspicuous feature of the so-called Green New Deal is  its explicit opposition to one of the chief features of the original New Deal’s civil engineering: dam building.

Though I have ben calling it the “Green Nude Eel,” I think we might also consider calling it the “Green Great Society.”

• Third: “It is worth noting here that, when political science is severed from its ancient rootage in the humanities and ‘enriched’ by the wisdom of sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists, the result is frequently a pre-occupation with minutiae which obscures the grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history, and offers vapid solutions for profound problems.”

—Reinhold Niebuhr, 1952 (The Irony of American History, 1952). Some things never change.