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7. Conclusion: Economics and Public Policy

3. Economics and Social Ethics

If the economist qua economist must be Wertfrei, does this leave him any room for significant pronouncements on questions of public policy? Superficially, it would seem not, but this entire work has been testimony to the contrary. Briefly, the Wertfrei economist can do two things: (1) he can engage in a praxeological critique of inconsistent and meaningless ethical programs (as we have tried to show in the preceding chapter); and (2) he can explicate analytically all the myriad consequences of different political systems and different methods of government intervention. In the former task, we have seen that many prominent ethical critiques of the market are inconsistent or meaningless, whereas attempts to prove the same errors in regard to the ethical underpinnings of a free society are shown to be fallacious.

In the latter role, the economist has an enormous part to play. He can analyze the consequences of the free market and of various systems of coerced and hampered exchange. One of the conclusions of this analysis is that the purely free market maximizes social utility, because every participant in the market benefits from his voluntary participation. On the free market, every man gains; one man's gain, in fact, is precisely the consequence of his bringing about the gain of others. When an exchange is coerced, on the other hand—when criminals or governments intervene—one group gains at the expense of others. On the free market, everyone earns according to his productive value in satisfying consumer desires. Under statist distribution, everyone earns in proportion to the amount he can plunder from the producers. The market is an interpersonal relation of peace and harmony; statism is a relation of war and caste conflict. Not only do earnings on the free market correspond to productivity, but freedom also permits a continually enlarged market, with a wider division of labor, investment to satisfy future wants, and increased living standards. Moreover, the market permits the ingenious device of capitalist calculation, a calculation necessary to the efficient and productive allocation of the factors of production. Socialism cannot calculate and hence must either shift to a market economy or revert to a barbaric standard of living after its plunder of the preexisting capital structure has been exhausted. And every intermixture of government ownership or interference in the market distorts the allocation of resources and introduces islands of calculational chaos into the economy. Government taxation and grants of monopolistic privilege (which take many subtle forms) all hamper market adjustments and lower general living standards. Government inflation not only must injure half the population for the benefit of the other half, but may also lead to a business-cycle depression or collapse of the currency.

We cannot outline here the entire analysis of this volume. Suffice it to say that in addition to the praxeological truth that (1) under a regime of freedom, everyone gains, whereas (2) under statism, some gain (X) at the expense of others (Y), we can say something else. For, in all these cases, X is not a pure gainer. The indirect long-run consequences of his statist privilege will redound to what he would generally consider his disadvantage—the lowering of living standards, capital consumption, etc. X's exploitation gain, in short, is clear and obvious to everyone. His future loss, however, can be comprehended only by praxeological reasoning. A prime function of the economist is to make this clear to all the potential X's of the world. I would not join with some utilitarian economists in saying that this settles the matter and that, since we are all agreed on ultimate ends, X will be bound to change his position and support a free society. It is certainly conceivable that X's high time preferences, or his love of power or plunder, will lead him to the path of statist exploitation even when he knows all the consequences. In short, the man who is about to plunder is already familiar with the direct, immediate consequences. When praxeology informs him of the longer-run consequences, this information may often count in the scales against the action. But it may also not be enough to tip the scales. Furthermore, some may prefer these long-run consequences. Thus, the OPA director who finds that maximum price controls lead to shortages may (1) say that shortages are bad, and resign; (2) say that shortages are bad, but give more weight to other considerations, e.g., love of power or plunder, or his high time preference; or (3) believe that shortages are good, either out of hatred for others or from an ascetic ethic. And from the standpoint of praxeology, any of these positions may well be adopted without saying him nay.

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