Pragmatism must recognize reality

Any editorial that starts with “Karl Marx was right about at least one thing …” deserves close examination, especially when it appears in Kansas’ largest newspaper and is written by that newspaper’s former editor. The thrust of Davis Merritt’s article is that the theory of free markets hasn’t worked: “We’re painfully experiencing right now the unraveling of neat free-market theory.” (Pragmatism needs to trump ideology, November 18, 2008 Wichita Eagle)

Here’s the first problem with Mr. Merritt’s argument: what we live in is anything but a free market society. George Reisman details just how far removed we are from anything resembling free markets in The Myth that Laissez Faire Is Responsible for Our Present Crisis.

Then, Mr. Merritt warns that free market theory is doomed to fail because “perfect theories require perfect people.” I don’t know precisely who he refers to as not perfect, but judging from the tone of the article, I think he’s condemning greedy businesspeople who are the cause of the present financial crisis. In particular, investment bankers. Demonizing these people on general grounds doesn’t help. Instead: Did they steal from their shareholders? Did they commit fraud when they issued sub-prime loans? These acts are illegal, and to the extent they were committed, let’s prosecute them.

Greed — human self-interest — is a constant factor. It’s what drives people to expend tremendous effort to accomplish great things for the betterment of mankind. It can also drive people to accept a sub-prime mortgage loan that they can’t repay in order to buy a house they can’t afford — but, greedily, want nonetheless. It works both ways. So we need good rules that prevent people from using theft, force, and fraud to unjustly enrich themselves. These good rules are easier to create and enforce, and more reliable, than a false hope the people will start behaving “good.”

Besides, couldn’t we also say that good government requires good politicians, bureaucrats, and administrators? I’m surprised that an editor of a newspaper — someone who must have experienced the political process close-up — would have such confidence in government instead of people.

Mr. Merritt cites the “hands-off, no-regulation attitude of the current administration” as bad for people and economic welfare. If we had been experiencing a period of reductions in regulation, we might have evidence for this claim. The Heritage Foundation report Red Tape Rising: Regulatory Trends in the Bush Years debunks the myth that regulation has decreased during the presidency of George W. Bush: “Far from shrinking to dangerously low levels, regulation has actually grown substantially during the Bush years. By almost every measure, regulatory burdens are up.”

Mr. Merritt’s editorial, if its advice is taken, will lead us towards more regulation and reliance on government. That’s not what we need.

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