Of Claiming Good and Doing Bad

A very good book was published this month. Ostensibly, it is about our economy and the recession. It is actually about much more. It is the first book about the current American economy written by a philosopher, and it is perhaps the best book I have read yet about all the recent unpleasantness. Some might say that the economic trouble still continues, more like a long, slow convalescence from a serious illness than a healthy recovery. For many whose financial condition stagnates, for those who have replaced a full-time job with one or two part-time jobs, for graduates who have a degree in hand but no work in the field for which they have trained, and especially for the millions who remain out of work, talk of an economic turnaround can seem like a mockery.

For those and others, Infiltrated, by Jay W. Richards, can help make some sense of what hit us. The book does not suggest that there was a massive conspiracy to drive our nation into economic turmoil. It explains how turmoil came nevertheless as national policymakers followed the prescriptions of people who claimed to be doing good but tried to cheat the laws of economics and markets to impose what they might call “benevolence” on the rest of us.

It was their idea that in order to help more people own homes lenders should ignore such things as ability to repay a mortgage, strong history of employment and steady income, and having some equity in the value of the house so there would not be an incentive to walk away if prices dropped. They also agitated for the government to expand its guaranties for mortgages to people with poor credit histories and loans where lenders cut corners. And they badgered builders to keep building more houses.

Their plans horribly miscarried, and yet those people have even more control over us and our economy today and are more able and determined to try again. The recession, rather than educating and deterring them, has made them bolder.

I am reminded of what the late Louis Rukeyser, the very popular host of the PBS program Wall Street Week, wrote in the 1990s:

Washington has been taken over by an impregnable mob of short-sighted, power-hungry megaclowns.

They try their worst to micromanage every detail of the economy, but succeed only in whipping the markets back and forth, up and down in spastic patterns. They despise the gentler forces of a free market, which would moderate swings far more predictably.
(Louis Rukeyser, 1993 advertisement for his financial newsletter)

The people to whom I refer and whom Richards exposes in his book do not like the markets. They trust themselves more and think that you should trust them, too. They seriously do believe themselves smarter than the markets, and that is the problem. No one, other than God, is smarter than the markets. A large part of economic history, the tragic part, is a chronicle of the disasters caused when a small coterie of people are able to enforce their wishes and preferences on the rest of us in contravention of economic reality. It never works.

That was the story of the Great Depression, and it was entirely the story of communism, where whole societies were based upon the now well-proven fallacy that any group of people, no matter how smart or well intentioned, can gather sufficient data and know and understand enough to run a national economy. It is just far too complicated, with billions of economic decisions being made by millions of people all day and all night long. The markets make it all work, because the markets are the sum combined total of all of those economic actions and decisions interacting with each other. No human five-year plan for economic control has escaped failure.

What is worse, as well intentioned as such people may start out, all too often, as Richards’ book exposes, their efforts not only fail to do what they set out to do, they fail to stay virtuous and instead become enlisted in the service of private gain at the expense of the rest of us. The Soviet system might have worked pretty well for the party owners of the dachas along the Black Sea but only by impoverishing the workers their leaders claimed to be serving.

Do not let yourself be put off that Richards is a philosopher. His book is remarkably readable, one that you can take with you to the beach and actually enjoy, and feel that you have learned something—a lot—in the reading. Richards mixes real life narrative with hard facts and good research, unified by sound reasoning to expose a nasty and growing problem in American government today. The problem is a big part of why government is expanding and becoming more intrusive in all aspects of our lives, including our financial affairs, education, healthcare, energy use, the products we buy, the food we eat, and the entertainment we enjoy, and even the breath we exhale.

That is to say that the story told by Jay Richards, in Infiltrated, is actually a longer story, a story that began long before the recession, and continues afterward, a story that is bigger than his book. The recent economic events and their painful aftermath illuminate Richards’ core message, the human wreckage caused when some people are able to harness the coercive force of government to impose their personal notions of “benevolence” on the rest of us.

Roger Kimball, writing in 2011 in The New Criterion, warned that such efforts are “intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.” (Roger Kimball, “Liberty versus benevolence,” The New Criterion, February 2011, p.6) Richards offers several well-described examples, well illustrating the truth of Kimball’s observations.

A valuable lesson for policymakers and for the people they would govern: the more discretion you give to government, the more you create the opportunity for abuse of that discretion for private gain. Europe in the 18th century was lousy with the practice. Our forebears sought to escape it and fought a revolution to get out of its grip. The men who threw the tea into Boston Harbor were acting in protest of the partnership between the British Crown and the British East India Company.

Beware the public-private partnerships. Jay Richards explains how some public-private mortgage partnerships went bad, very bad, for the partners and for all of us caught in the dust and debris of their collapse. I am reminded of the warning by former Congressman Dick Armey, that when you enter into a partnership with the devil, you are always the junior partner.

I conclude with the words of New York City Democrat Congressman Bourke Cockran, delivered 110 years ago:

That Government only is good, that Government only is great, that Government only is just, which has neither favorites nor victims.

(W. Bourke Cockran, speech given before the National Liberal Club of England, London, July 15, 1903, in W. Bourke Cockran, In the Name of Liberty, p.190)

Our government should be that government.

(First published August 18, 2013)

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