Friday, October 11, 2019

Have We Lost Our Desire for Freedom?

And might economists be traveling a similar path? In an article for Cato, Pierre Lemieux reviews James Buchanan's What Should Economists Do?
Economists continue to be mainly interested in advising Leviathan on how it can manipulate people rather than how it can help people better achieve their desires, as Buchanan thought economists should do.
Perhaps the impulse to advise states instead, explains why economics sometimes becomes so political that its contributions to growth and prosperity are called into question. Lemiuex continues:
In America, both major political parties now seem to embrace government power as the only means of "running society" as opposed to spontaneous coordination through markets and individual liberty.
He notes how Buchanan feared that citizens preferred the state to make decisions on their behalf, in order to secure a stable outcome. Might we assume, then, the sacrifice of personal freedom as necessary for a life of relative tranquility?

Chances are, such a disheartening assumption isn't quite so simple. By way of example, most people I've known (including both sides of my family) are quite stubborn about giving up most levels of freedom, in terms of what they hope to gain for themselves! Plus, when governments do reduce freedoms, they tend to do so in ways that aren't clear about what's being further eroded - all the more so for lost production rights which generally morph into more professional ways of getting things done. In many instances, when citizens demand better outcomes in the form of economic access, they aren't exactly offering up their freedom as a sacrifice. And they may also be seeking amends for earlier losses in production means.

Further, the creation of artificial scarcities via professionalization of intellectual property, is how present day special interests assume and share greater authority with government. Given this reality, it is inaccurate to assume governments as the only ones with "parental" inclinations, considering the additional authority bestowed on private interests. When citizens lean excessively on government, they often do so because they believe their market options have been otherwise limited.

Recall as well, how governments set themselves up as mediators between private interests and the public, whenever private interests elect to limit their direct negotiations with citizens. Alas, that's the price special interests pay, when they demand further concessions from government for their benefit! Why would they assume they could somehow keep the resultant government meddling from happening on their turf? As it turns out, what is likely the citizen's innate desire for freedom, comes into conflict with the strong desire for economic freedom on the part of special interests. And when this process goes too far, some begin to assume "freedom for me but not for thee" means no meaningful freedom remains possible, hence become willing to proceed from this political assumption. Let's just hope we don't go there, for we are already too close in some respects. We see how other nations have already gone there before us and may do so again.

When special interests gain additional production rights, knowledge based artificial scarcities affect our freedom to choose as both producers and consumers. In Life is a Series of Presentations, Tony Jeary explains how imposed scarcities affect human decision making:
We are surrounded by advertising messages that promise certain deals "For a Limited Time Only" or "While Supplies Last"...Ironically, one of the main reasons we respond viscerally to these come-ons is that we cherish our freedom to choose. According to a field of study called reactance theory, writes Dr. Cialdini, "Wherever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity - or anything else - interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before."
Again we probably have not lost our desire for freedom. It could be more likely that nations lose freedoms through endless struggles to maintain them. When are special interests to blame? Is this a process set into motion when citizens lose too much of their ability to directly negotiate with special interests? What happens when citizens can't directly contribute to how market engagement takes place, or how markets are ultimately defined? Yet when citizens end up turning to government intervention instead, doing so often makes things worse. If special interest groups were more approachable, chances are citizens would not be as inclined to seek out governments as intermediaries, and governments might lose some of their paternalistic attributes.

Importantly, while governments tend to relish paternal roles just the same, their effectiveness in this regard will likely be reduced in the near future. It is becoming far more difficult to protect those who lack means to protect themselves, now that the bar for economic participation has been raised so many times by governments and private interests alike. Alas, governments have considerably damaged their own effectiveness, by making extensive agreements with private interests to control supply, even as they become indebted for the support of that supply. These losses in government and market effectiveness, only make authoritarian tendencies more dangerous.

What might these realities suggest for those who (still) believe in free markets? Since libertarians have had such limited success in the political arena, perhaps they might encourage economic settings where political concerns are put aside. Idealistic libertarians who have seemingly gotten nowhere in Washington, could contribute to local market generation which would be geared towards all participants, not just those who happen to have high incomes. When markets work for everyone (and yes, in the U.S. they were more efficient when I was young), there is less incentive for anyone to ask governments to intervene on a regular basis.

For that matter, opening useful markets which were previously shut off, closed down, or prevented from emerging for the first time, could once again encourage lower income levels to become more supportive of markets and free enterprise in general. These markets don't have to materialize in the prosperous regions of national stages where they pose problems for special interests. Nor need these market conditions become imposed on special interests, by authoritarians who are fed up with market limits which impact their own constituencies. They could be constructed in decentralized equilibrium by libertarians, instead.

It hasn't worked out well for economists or libertarians to get caught up in the cultural and political struggles of our day. And it's doubtful that many of us will be able to reduce authoritarian tendencies by engaging in the who gets what of cultural debates. Fortunately, there are still economic solutions that present better options for all concerned. Let's move forward once again, by ensuring that markets create real and useful choices for citizens of all income levels.

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