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Freedom's Requisite

July 5, 2004

Today's "knuckleheads" are nothing compared to yesterday's heroes. That was the message from Bill Cosby at a recent gala event in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

"These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education," said Cosby, referring to those who fought a half century ago to desegregate America's schools, "and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around."

The same might be said about today's economics. In terms of both foresight and impact, nothing that our current crop of economists is doing can match what Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises were doing some 20 and 50 years ago.

In his "Anti-capitalism" essay in 1956, Mises focused on how senseless it was for underdeveloped countries to be sending the elite of their youth to American and European universities only to be indoctrinated into an ideology of anti-capitalism:

"This is what these professors—Marxians, Fabians, Veblenians, socialists of the chair, champions of government omnipotence and all-around planning, peacemakers of inflation, deficit spending and confiscatory taxation—taught their students: rugged individualism, the policy of laissez faire and private enterprise are the worst evils that ever befell mankind. They enriched a few robber barons and condemned the masses of decent people to ever-increasing degradation."

The words these students were hearing from the most famous professors in Britain, America, and Germany, in short, were exactly the opposite of the prescription they needed in order to increase the standard of living in their backward countries.

Swimming against the rising tide of socialism, Hayek published "The Road to Serfdom" in 1944, arguing that there was an inverse relationship between government authority and individual liberty. The collectivist idea of empowering government with increasing economic control, Hayek warned, would lead not to a heaven-on-earth utopia but to the hells of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Long before the United States and Britain were ready for Reagan and Thatcher, Hayek infuriated much of the world's political and scholarly establishment by being an unabashed champion of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. Over the long haul, declared Hayek, individualistic objectives cannot be achieved through collectivist means.

Furthermore, the decreases in political freedom that would inevitably result from socialism would be matched by inevitable declines in economic performance, Hayek maintained, simply because governments weren't up to the task of efficiently managing economic enterprises.

In a lesson that Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy could have used before he decided the city needed more Polo and fewer wigs, Hayek argued that the goal of consciously shaping our future according to top-down "planning," however laudable the intention, will "unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for."

Applied to how the cities of the Rust Belt have effectively killed private investment through bloated government and excessive levels of taxation, litigation and regulation, Hayek would say the way out isn't by way of even higher levels of taxation and more shots at centralized planning.

The vast and complicated coordination of the market system, a basically "natural, spontaneous and self-ordering process," stated Hayek in another essay, "The Fatal Conceit," is an order so extended and full of twists and turns as to "transcend the comprehension and possible guidance of any single mind," even if one's mayor is a certified whiz kid. "There can be no deliberately planned substitutes for such a self-ordering process of adaptation to the unknown," explained Hayek.

In his classic about the inherent links between economics and individual freedom, "Free to Choose," first published in 1980, Nobel laureate and presidential adviser Milton Friedman helped to further shift the climate of opinion in the world away from collectivism and toward a belief in private markets and individualism.

Quoting from the Declaration of Independence, Friedman warned that our governments continue to erect "a multitude of new offices" and send "swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out our substance." Like Hayek, Friedman warned of "well-meaning" government actions that produce effects opposite to those intended, principally by destroying private initiatives through a nonstop expansion of the role that government plays in the economy. "Economic freedom," explained Friedman, "is an essential requisite for political freedom."

As Cosby might say, all of the above insights are better than anything we're getting from today's "knuckleheads."

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Ralph R. Reiland is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist and the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University. E-mail him at rrreiland@aol.com. Comment on the blog.

 


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