Books / Digital Text
14. Over- and Underdevelopment
Critics often level conflicting charges against the free market. The historicist-minded may concede that the free market is ideal for a certain stage of economic development, but insist that it is unsuited to other stages. Thus, advanced nations have been exhorted to embrace government planning because “the modern economy is too complex” to remain planless, “the frontier is gone,” and “the economy is now mature.” But, on the other hand, the backward countries have been told that they must adopt statist planning methods because of their relatively primitive state. So any given economy is either too advanced or too backward for laissez faire; and we may rest assured that the appointed moment for laissez faire somehow never arrives.
The currently fashionable “economics of growth” is an historicist regression. The laws of economics apply whatever the particular level of the economy. At any level, progressive change consists in a growing volume of capital per head of population and is furthered by the free market, low time preferences, far-seeing entrepreneurs, and sufficient labor and natural resources. Regressive change is brought about by the opposite conditions. The terms progressive and regressive change are far better than “growth,” a term expressing a misleading biological analogy that implies some actual law dictating that an economy must “grow” continually, and even at a fixed rate. Actually, of course, an economy can just as easily “grow” backward.
The term “underdeveloped” is also unfortunate, as it implies that there is some level or norm that the economy should have reached but failed to reach because some external force did not “develop” it. The old-fashioned term “backward,” though still normative, at least pins the blame for the relative poverty of an economy on the nation's own policies.
The poor country can best progress by permitting private enterprise and investment to function and by allowing natives and foreigners to invest there unhampered and unmolested. As for the rich country and its “complexities,” the delicate processes of the free market are precisely equipped to handle complex adjustments and interrelations far more efficiently than can any form of statist planning.