Freedom or Control?

Yesterday, I passed along a fascinating commentary by Arthur Brooks from the Washington Post – America’s new culture war: Free enterprise vs. government control – to my Facebook friends. The resulting discussion quickly became unwieldy as barbs and quips and talking points were thrown into the mix in a not terribly well organized fashion. Yet the issues and principles raised in this discussion are critical to the future well-being of our society. Therefore, I have chosen to move the discussion here where it might have a wider audience and where these issues can be addressed in the  more orderly fashion they deserve.

No doubt my opinons will be clear enough by the end of this post. But before presenting the Facebook debate and in the interest of full disclosure, let me state at the outset that I fall firmly on the free enterprise side of the culture war described in the Washington Post. In each case, I will provide the commenters’ full comment instead of trying to summarize it or leave readers here guessing the extent to which comments may have been taken out of context.

The initial commenter (GP) led off with:

Just a question if I may: Why should it be _just_ ‘free enterprise vs. government control’? … Why not have the best of both worlds; free enterprise AND government control?  Just something to think about maybe?

Of course, GP has identified precisely the status quo – our current economic system is neither free nor entirely controlled but rather a volatile mix of the two states. Based on the passion and argument of the following posts, I think we can all find common ground in the observation that the “mixed economy” status quo leaves much to be desired. The question then is how this current mix ought to be reworked to our mutual benefit.

The second commenter (JS) endorsed the article:

Great article – I’m proud of the Post for publishing it. The NY Times certainly wouldn’t have. To the other poster, note the key words: free – control. Somewhat opposites.

I agree with the second commenter, obviously, or I wouldn’t have posted it. A third commenter (SR) piled on:

@[GP] – why are we so hung up on absolutism with the law and rights? I mean, if the police have to beat up some really bad people to get information, then why not? – best of both worlds: justice and no bad guys squeaking by on silly technicalities. And the whole “freedom of the press” thing is way too absolute. If the govt just censors the things that need to be censored, then there won’t be any bad side effects – best of both worlds: you can say whatever you want, and not be bothered by fringe speech that nobody cares about anyway. And it’s really clear that we have too much personal freedom. I mean, there’s no need to go wild like China with the 1 child rule- heck, we could set it at 5 or 6: best of both worlds: have as many kids as any normal person would want, with none of the social costs of those weirdly huge families.

It’s really clear that nothing could go wrong with that approach, because it’s so obvious what being somewhat free means. Everyone knows that being completely free is just absurd, and being completely enslaved is not good -that’s why being somewhat free is so perfect. When it’s everyone’s business what we do and what we think, we can count on our box of freedom to be set at just the right size for a happy life without the burdens of being extremely free or extremely enslaved. Who could possibly object to being somewhat free?

Commenter SR further highlights a key danger of a mixed system. Who defines the mix and by what standards? I trust we all generally accept the principle of free speech. While a moral and ethical case can be made in support of free speech, consider for a moment just the pragmatic and practical implications. Harmful, hateful, spiteful, and just plain wrong ideas are best sanitized by full exposure to the rays of criticism, debate, and debunking. Those who disagree with the status quo should have every opportunity to challenge conventional wisdom and to persuade others of the worth of their ideas. Certainly no “right” (properly defined) can entail the violation of others’ rights. Thus we do properly prohibit such actions as:

  • Falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater threatening the patrons’ well-being in the resulting stampede for the exits,
  • The con-man defrauding his victims with false claims, and
  • The libeller spreading demonstrable falsehoods in a malicious fashion.

But when we move beyond freedom toward supressing those with whom we disagree (say Holocaust Denial, for instance), we open the door to whatever other supressions can gain sufficient popularity. Unpopular ideologies held by small minorities are particularly vulnerable. Some present day examples might include Climate Skepticism, Atheism, or other “fringe” beliefs not generally accepted by the majority. Eventually, we risk ending up in a state where only adherence to politically correct thought and expression are tolerated and dissent is supressed.

Commenter RD added a string of thoughts. First:

There is no absolute freedom, in order to have any freedom there must be some rules or the ruthless will be free & the rest of us will be victims.

I agree with commenter RD’s first point – anarchy risks the strong victimizing the weak. There must be rules. The question is what principle ought to govern the way in which those rules are crafted? The principle to which I adhere is the idea that physical force is to be banned from social relationships. Further, the government should have a monopoly on the use of retaliatory force – that retaliatory force guided by objective law aimed at banning physical force from social relationships.

Commenter RD continues:

If this is the new culture war, it’s because everyone that wasn’t a republican got sick of the old culture war… Get the homos!

I’m not sure if the intent of this comment was to equate advocacy of free enterpise with discrimination against homosexuals and homosexuality. By way of clarification, a limited government has no ability to interfere with relations between consenting adults (nor should it).

Commenter RD further adds:

So whats their explanation for why the economic system blew up in 2008? To much regulation? What are they going to cut? Medicaid? Social Security? Unemployment benefits? MILITARY SPENDING? Good luck. I do think we need to cut some spending BTW. Bush spent & borrowed, that worked out great. These 2 worthless wars have past 1 trillion in their cost.

Here’s where a reading of the article in question would have been helpful. An excerpt from Arthur Brooks’ column:

Yet in truth, it was government housing policy that was at the root of the crisis. Moreover, the financial sector — where the crisis began and where it has had the most serious impact — is already one of the most regulated parts of our economy. The chaos happened despite an extensive, intrusive regulatory framework, not because such a framework didn’t exist.

The government actively pursued the goal of seeing that every American who wanted one could buy a house, whether they could afford it or not. And with the extent of the government’s regulatory control of the financial sector, they could make it uncomfortable for banks and lending institutions not to follow this policy. This popular measure helped fuel the real estate bubble – creating substantial gains in perceived house values, that ultimately were illusory.

RD’s comment further echos the widely accepted inviolability of Social Security, Medicaid, and other popular redistributive programs. Yet by any sane projection, the growth of these programs renders them completely unsustainable over the long run. They will either be cut, or the government will be mailing checks that bounce, or (most likely) the government will debauch and inflate the currency to the point where these onerous obligations are paid for in “dollars” worth a small fraction of current buying power.

Commenter RD finally adds:

I’m all for free enterprise if it means jobs & people making stuff, but not the loan swap shit & speculative wall street stuff that brought the whole system to its knees.

To some extent, I agree with Commenter RD’s disgust with Wall Street’s machinations. But the crony capitalism that made it all possible was the government control that enabled this behavior and left taxpayers holding the bag for these financial excesses.

Finally commenter GP returned with:

[SR], oversimplification of an issue might be good for people who don’t want to have the burden of _thinking_ (such as it being boiling down to words like ‘freedom’ and ‘control’ at such an elementary level), but it does no good to arrive at solutions in real life which we adults must deal with.

Simply believing that ‘gummint’ is just out to _control_ us, and that ‘free enterprise’ just gives people _freedom_ is a classic example of the oversimplification I’m talking about. Besides, if that really were the case, then let’s be consistent about this, and do away with government in total. After all, government = control. Control = bad. Ergo, government = bad. … All the time. Then since free enterprise = freedom, and freedom = good, then free enterprise = good. … All the time.

But you see, in real life, it hasn’t always worked out that way. Government regulations (you know, control?) in the free enterprise realm would have to be bad, since it exercises control. Yet, … government control, (such as child labor laws, minimum wage laws, clean water laws, and countless other laws that happens to benefit society :-\), … how is that bad?

Also, applying strawman constructed satire falls flat here too. Yes Virginia, you built yourself a strawman. What I’m talking about is the _balance_ between the total control of a dictatorship, and the near anarchy of a free market system that has no oversight what-so-ever; which amounts to a plutocratic dictatorship of corporations and the few very rich.

Plus [RD] brings up a valid point regarding freedom. Yeah, yeah, I know. It runs counter to your view of total, carte blanch freedom with no restrictions in life, but hey. Sometimes you _don’t_ get everything you want. … You probably found that out early in your childhood when you didn’t get _everything_ you wanted come Christmas morn.

Real life kinda sucks like that, don’t it?

This comment troubles me because of the sneering sarcasm and ad hominem directed at commenter SR (and by implication at me as well). GP views advocacy of free enterprise as childish and simplistic. Since there are some attempts at presenting coherent points burried in this comment, I will take GP’s comment at face value – but be warned I will not tolerate further comments without a much higher ratio of reason to rhetoric.

Ironically in GP’s attempted refutation of “freedom = good,” GP builds a strawman himself, equivocating between free enterprise and anarchy (“no oversight what-so-ever”) and ascribing the sins of anarchy to the account of freedom – a fallacy I previously addressed. In his attempted refutation of “control = bad,” GP asserts that child labor laws, minimum wage laws, clean water laws, etc. are examples of good controls.

A point-by-point discussion of the merits (or lack thereof) of such regulation would go beyond the scope of this already long post. To the extent such controls serve to protect individual rights against violations of others, they are morally justified and I support them. To the extent they limit the ability of free individuals to voluntarily interact among themselves I am firmly opposed. I will indulge myself with a brief example.

I do not believe minimum wage laws are an example of a “good control.” Such laws are basically intended to prevent “exploitation” of poorly skilled workers on the assumption that these poorly skilled workers are too stupid or incompetent or desperate to properly look out for their own interests. But the labor these poorly skilled workers have to offer may not be worth the value of the labor they have to offer. Unpaid or poorly paid work experience or an unpaid internship would help these workers acquire the skills they need to command salaries far beyond minimum wage in the future. Yet minimum wage laws act to thwart their ambitions and aspirations.

I recently helped hire seven high school and undergraduate students for summer employment at Q-Track. Dozens more applied for the openings, recognizing the potential value of the opportunity. These students generally lack work experience or much of a track record of success. For them to be productive, my colleagues and I at Q-Track have to take substantial time out of our own productive work and apply it to training, guiding, and assisting students in acquiring basic skills. We generally pay high school students a bit over minimum wage and undergrads about twice minimum wage. We have to hope that the money we pay in salaries to these students and the value of the training we provide will be returned to Q-Track in the students’ productive labor and accomplishments on our behalf. Most of the time, we chose wisely and we mutually benefit – a student leaves us with the money they earned and with improved skills that make them more attractive to future employers. And Q-Track’s development is moved forward by the extent of the student’s efforts. Sometimes we misjudge a student’s resume or get the wrong impression from an interview and we lose out on the deal, although the student will nevertheless end up with the money we paid and the training and experience we provided. We must therefore be extremely choosy about which students we hire. If the costs of hiring these students were lower, we would be able and willing to take more chances. As it is, we have to carefully screen and hire only the select few we are confident will be successful. Minimum wage laws prevent us from extending the valuable employment opportunities we have to offer to a wider selection of students.

In any event, despite the set backs of the last few years, we have a generally wealthy and healthy, if not always wise, society not because of government controls, but because of private enterprise. Government is force – a force properly directed only against those who seek to violate the rights of others. The question of whether we – as a society – should move toward still further control or toward further freedom is one of critical importance, and I am delighted to provide a forum to discuss these issues here.

I’ll close this post by quoting the article that started it all:

I call this a culture war because free enterprise has been integral to American culture from the beginning, and it still lies at the core of our history and character. “A wise and frugal government,” Thomas Jefferson declared in his first inaugural address in 1801, “which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” He later warned: “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” In other words, beware government’s economic control, and woe betide the redistributors.

I will be happy to allow comments below. Be courteous and respectful, be pithy, insightful, and to the point. Most of all, please read the article before commenting on it. Comments following these guidelines will be welcomed. Sign up for an account, submit your comment, and I’ll approve it as time permits for me to check back in. Sorry I have to impose this restriction, but, like most blogs, AetherCzar is inundated with spam comments. If your thoughts are of sufficient scope and length that they cannot be confined to the constratints of a comment, I will entertain guest posts with dissenting (or concurring) views.

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