Earlier this year Robert Lawson appeared in Wichita to speak about economic freedom throughout the world. While the United States presently ranks well, that is changing. Writing this month in The Freeman, Lawson and his colleagues warn of dangerous trends — particularly the Obama Administration’s response to the recession — that pose a threat to the economic freedom that powers growth and prosperity.
While the article is focused primarily at the national economy, there are lessons to be learned locally, too. In particular, increasing intervention into the state and local economy leads to compounding the loss of economic freedom.
As an example, the Wichita City Council has just approved a plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita that calls for public investment to be made downtown. While the plan is promoted as a market-based plan, it is, instead, a government plan to redirect investment from where people have decided it should be to where politicians, bureaucrats, and their patrons think it should be. These patrons are sometimes called “crony capitalists,” as explained in this passage from the article (James D. Gwartney, Joshua C. Hall and Robert A. Lawson:
The Decline in Economic Freedom):
It is important to distinguish between market entrepreneurs and crony capitalists. Market entrepreneurs succeed by providing customers with better products, more reliable service, and lower prices than are available elsewhere. They succeed by creating wealth — by producing goods and services that are worth more than the value of the resources required for their production. Crony capitalists are different: They get ahead through subsidies, special tax breaks, regulatory favors, and other forms of political favoritism. Rather than providing consumers with better products at attractive prices, crony capitalists form an alliance with politicians. The crony capitalists provide the politicians with contributions, other political resources, and, in some cases, bribes in exchange for subsidies and regulations that give them an advantage relative to other firms. Rather than create wealth, crony capitalists form a coalition with political officials to plunder wealth from taxpayers and other citizens.
We are now in the midst of a great debate between the proponents of limited government and open markets on the one hand and those favoring more collectivism and political direction of the economy on the other. The outcome of this debate will determine the future of both economic freedom and the prosperity of Americans and others throughout the world.
In Wichita, “those favoring more collectivism and political direction of the economy” are winning. Not only are they winning the actual political votes, they are also winning the battles within their own minds. Astonishingly, many of the crony capitalists in Wichita have deluded themselves into believing that they are supporters of free markets and capitalism. But taxpayer-supported institutions like Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Visioneering Wichita exist for the very purpose of directing taxpayer funds toward the crony capitalists. Even the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce plays a role in the plunder of the taxpayer, with its president nodding in approval as nominally conservative members of the Wichita City Council expressed their support for the collectivist, anti-market vision for downtown Wichita.
The heads of each of these organizations, along with city council members Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, Jim Skelton, and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell consider themselves to be conservatives. Many of these have personally assured me they are in favor of free markets.
The actions of the council members, not only their enthusiastic embrace of the downtown plan, but their interventions — at nearly every meeting, week after week — that interfere with the market economy and destroy economic freedom, show that none have even a basic understanding of the difference between the economic means and the political means. Writing in his recent book The Science of Success, Koch Industries Chairman and CEO Charles Koch explains the difference:
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The economic means of profiting involves voluntarily exchanging your goods or services for the goods or services of others. Parties will not voluntarily enter into an exchange unless they both believe they will be better off. Therefore, you can only profit over time in a system of voluntary exchange (a market) by making others better off.
The political means of profiting transfers goods or services from one party to another by force or fraud. A coerced or fraudulent exchange leaves at least one of the parties worse off. Examples are stealing, committing fraud, polluting, using unsafe practices, filing baseless lawsuits, lobbying government to hamper competitors or obtain subsidies and promoting self-serving redistribution programs.
The economic means creates wealth by making each participant, and, therefore, society as a whole, better off. The political means, at best, merely distributes wealth. As a general system, it causes the overcoming majority of people to be worse off. (emphasis added)