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A Not-So-Radical Guide

February 2, 2010Gerald P. O'Driscoll Jr.

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureInterventionism

[Libertarian Forum, 1970]

A Radical's Guide to Economic Reality • By Angus Black • Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970 • 87 pages

Angus Black is a pseudonym, but the word is out that the book was written by a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Chicago. The Chicago influence is strong. In fact, in many ways, A Radical's Guide to Economic Reality is a "hip" version of Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. Black is apparently trying to appeal to participants in the drug culture, and other such "dropouts." He seems to be making an honest effort to educate his audience to economic reality by speaking about subjects that they're likely to have special interest in, and in terms that they will understand. However, Black has adopted an exceedingly patronizing attitude toward his readers. One doubts that any of the people to whom he is ostensibly appealing will either appreciate his style, or accept his arguments (indeed, some of his readers may be impervious to any form of argument, but that is another matter).

A more fundamental weakness is the intellectual tradition within which the book is written. The Chicago School is not generally characterized by any insight in the basic problems which beset the United States today. Milton Friedman, titular head of the school, thinks Richard Nixon is a profoundly intelligent man who is leading this country back to laissez-faire. The real meaning of the Vietnam War (the war was not a mistake) is lost on the Chicagoites. Analyzing the American economy through the rosy glasses of a model of "perfect competition," they are unable to see the brute reality of the military-industrial complex. Moreover, their economic analysis is faulty in certain other respects, so that on key questions (e.g., inflation), they fail to come up with the fundamental objections to current policy. A Radical's Guide suffers from all of these deficiencies, and some of its own.

Still, the book is a beginning — an attempt to communicate free-market solutions to specific problems, to classes of people usually inimical to this approach. Would that Black had written less flippantly, though. Len Liggio has an article on anarchism in the July 14 Liberated Guardian, written in plain English, and devoid of a patronizing attitude, which is far more likely to bridge the gap with the Left.

The book is short. A glimpse at the chapter titles gives an indication of what is in order for the reader: "Big Business or Screw the Customer and Full Speed Ahead"; "Our Tax System — A Field Day for the Rich"; and so on. Black is particularly good on some points. On the California grape boycott:

I want to help the grape pickers, so I eat grapes for breakfast, grapes for midmorning snack, grapes for dinner, and grapes for that midnight raid on the ice box. In this way, besides the makers of Keopectate, I help grape pickers. How? Simply by raising the value of grapes and therefore increasing the demand for grape pickers.

Besides taking up the grape boycott, Black examines the problem of unions in general, pointing out the necessarily discriminatory nature of unions. But he pulls his punches on major issues, and often comes up with "compromise" solutions which perpetuate the very problem he concerns himself with. In taking on the tax system, Black makes a telling point as to who really pays the taxes, and then lamely suggests a flat 20% income tax (plus a negative income tax for the poor). No analysis is attempted of why the tax system is set up the way it is presently. Surely Black doesn't believe that the electorate, given fresh insight by a reading of Black's book, could go off to Washington, and change the tax system. This is to overlook the vested interests who are responsible for the system as it is now; it is also to assume naively that power is wielded by the general populace in the country. It is to fail to analyze the situation realistically.

More importantly, one must ask why there is no critique of the federal income tax per se (à la Frank Chodorov's classic essay, "Taxation Is Robbery"). One would think that anyone with pretentions to being a libertarian would at least take up the issue of the morality of taxation. Black does not.

Like most Chicagoites, Black is reasonably good in his critique of economic fallacies, but has a penchant for discovering "problem" areas where the market is alleged not to work. Thus, to solve the problem of poverty, we need a negative income tax. There is "underinvestment" in education, so we need educational vouchers. No analysis of why the market sometimes "fails" is offered (on the alleged problem of market failure, see Murray Rothbard's new work, Power and Market).

Alas, one suspects that there may be a problem of class interest in all this. The idea of educational subsidies is generally a favorite of Chicagoites — this despite their critiques of so many other subsidy ideas. One feels that their position on this matter may be colored by a beneficial interest in the subject of education.

The last chapter is perhaps the most curious, as it is titled "A Plea for Anarchy." Certainly if one had bought Black's basic critique (even though it is not flawless), he might be on his way to a position of anarchy. But, "No," says Black, we can't have anarchy because

There would be open season on wops, wetbacks, kikes, niggers, hippies, redheads, and cripples if the constitution didn't exist … Anarchy is not the answer. We would therefore keep government, but reduce its power over our economic, moral and social lives.

For anarchy to work, according to Black, "all members of society must be fairly homogeneous." Now, the arguments in this book are, at times, deficient, but nowhere else are they as bad as the above.

The argument as stated by Black is an old canard. Only, in fact, if the population were (absolutely) homogeneous could government be justified. (Why one would be desired is a separate question.) Only in a heterogeneous world (such as we have) is there a problem of individual liberty. If we all thought alike, and desired exactly the same ends, then living under an absolute "dictatorship" would not involve an infringement on individual liberty; ex hypothesi, the dictator would merely be telling us to do what we wanted to do. In a heterogeneous world, on the other hand, people do not think alike. Therefore, any authority that would coerce a man is a violation of individual liberty. John Stuart Mill put it perceptively:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (From On Liberty)

It took thinkers more perceptive than Mill to see that the existence of any government, however limited, is inconsistent with individual liberty.

In sum, A Radical's Guide to Economic Reality is worthy of the attention of libertarians; it could and should have been a better book.

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