Talk to Me

by

So here I am at school in Conservative Land, nestled oddly enough in the city of Liberalville. But with law school, I spend my 25 hours a day studying in Conservative Land. Clarence Thomas will be here next Friday. One of my new friends wrote “In Defense of the Bush Doctrine.” (I’m circling October 13 on my calendar. My new friend will be representing McCain in an on-campus debate with a most impressive law professor representing Obama. Ought to be lots of fun.)

Now the truth is that, of my five professors, only one has been overtly espousing conservative doctrine so far, and he is a really nice guy about it. I think one of my professors is a liberal (given her past), and though I’m sure the other three are conservatives, I haven’t seen much of it yet.

Now I think (thought) I have (had) a good idea of the basic liberal vs. conservative debate. Suddenly immersed here, however, I guess I’m thinking about it more and more.

So here’s the economic argument, right: admit people are self-interested, find a way to sort of channel it for good, and let it loose. A system where people’s pursuit of stuff helps people is preferred to a central government suppressing natural self-interest. Admit the natural tendency and turn it around for good instead of fighting a losing battle. Simplistic I know, but that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?

I need JU/Sandi and others to talk to me a bit. I have a feeling I’m not going to hear much from the other side in these hallowed halls.

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19 Responses to “Talk to Me”

  1. DeJon05 Says:

    I know Joe can shed some light on the subject in an articulate and informed manner… But will he?

  2. urbino Says:

    So here’s the economic argument, right: admit people are self-interested, find a way to sort of channel it for good, and let it loose.

    That’s not really quite it. The economics espoused by American conservatism is still essentially what Adam Smith “invented” in the 18th century (which, of course, was considered liberal economics for the next couple of centuries, and still is in some contexts). Smith was first and foremost a moral philosopher of the Scottish Moral Sense Rationalism school (the same school that produced many of the basic assumptions of Campbellism). He got involved in economics as an exercise in moral philosophy.

    His argument was — and pure conservatism’s argument still is — that you don’t need to “channel it for good.” The argument is that people are primarily rational actors (the rationalism part), and that they have an innate sense of right and wrong that does not vary from person to person or culture to culture (the Scottish Moral Sense part), and rational actors who know the good will rationally choose the good, and therefore, because the market is just an aggregation of those choices, whatever the market “decides” IS right. It doesn’t need to be channeled or guided.

    That’s why it’s a terrible thing to “interfere in the markets.” To interfere in the markets is to interfere with the clear expression of what’s right. The market is the instrument that points us to the right, in the same way that the adversarial courtroom process is the instrument that is supposed to find the truth of a criminal case.

    Now, some conservatives have found this level of optimism about people’s innate preference for the moral good to be a bit troubling. They find it inconsistent with, say, the notion of humanity’s fallenness. Hence, the fact that an uninterfered with market rapidly produces things like slavery and an ocean of pornography is indicative that Moral Sense philosophy is a bit over-optimistic, and evidence that not necessarily everything the market “chooses” is right. And therefore there have to be some rules; markets have to be regulated to minimize the effect of humanity’s fallenness.

    Here’s the thing, though. As soon as you admit the need for market regulation, you’ve given up the game. The question becomes one of: which regulations? And once the debate is about which regulations rather than no regulations, it becomes extremely difficult to make a coherent argument. It becomes a matter of opinion and voter preference.

    I think the current behavior of the insurance industry is clearly a product of humanity’s fallenness and that industry should therefore be much more tightly regulated. Most conservatives disagree. But having admitted that because the market is not an inherently moral instrument, some regulation of it is necessary to prevent evils, they’ve opened the door to everybody’s opinion on what’s evil.

    The thing is, though, they still want to claim the rhetoric of “free markets” and of being against regulation. But they’re not against regulation. They’re only against the regulation that they’re against.

    All this, of course, leaves aside the matter of market failures — failures, that is, in a purely economic sense.

  3. alsturgeon Says:

    If the market produced what was right, Urbino would be a college professor somewhere. But that’s my opinion.

    It’s my Property prof that’s leading these sorts of discussions. If I were smart enough to understand things yet, I’d share them. But there’s lots of conversation tying the terms “private property” and “morality” together. And that private property is proven to lead to economic prosperity. And that private property is prerequisite for democracy.

    Got to study some more.

  4. Sandi Says:

    Al, if you become a conservative, I will have to impale myself on something sharp.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    He’s just up the hill, Sandi. If you get too worried, let me know and I’ll stage some sort of face-to-face intervention.

  6. Sandi Says:

    Well, private property and capitalism may lead *some people* to economic prosperity, and the argument is that the creation of private wealth raises the bar and brings up the standard of living for everyone. I’m no expert on economics, but the ideas that people are rational actors and will choose the good are absurd. All you have to do is look around you to see that that’s not the case. People choose irrational things all the time and make economic decisions for irrational reasons. And greed, in my view, will almost never motivate one to choose anything that I think of as the good. In fact, it creates perverse incentives to be callous, dishonest, and scurvy in almost every context you can think of, and that’s exactly what’s happening in political life, in doctor’s offices, in retail sales, and on and on and on. So all that private property is great stuff is just . . . well, crapola. Greed (desire for material wealth) is what is wrong with human beings, not what’s right.

  7. alsturgeon Says:

    You don’t have to put away the knives in the house, Sandi. Consider yourself safe.

    The irony is thick: I’ve moved to a politically-conservative Church of Christ school. I do this to myself, you know.

    One cool sidebar especially for my friend, Sandi: my 11-yr-old daughter helped pass collection plates at church Sunday. Women participate freely in the worship service. I “think” the only hands-off items here are (at this point in time) women as elders, and women as “preacher.” The preacher thing is just a formality, though. I mean, what’s the difference between women offering communion thoughts and speaking in the spot devoted to the homily? But I digress.

    Back to the market. I need you guys to help me out because conservatism (economic, particularly) gets my brain all twisted so I can’t think straight. It feels like this maddening combination of the common man’s “keep the Man off my back” and… well, greed. And since lots of people have particular fondness for both of those things, it carries great potential for popularity. I don’t think Karl Rove came up with this stuff.

    I don’t hear in the local arguments the “people are rational actors and will choose the good” idea at all. It’s “people are self-interested actors and will choose what’s in their self-interest, so isn’t it handy that a system based on that limits the potential for big government having all the power in a society.”

    I think Urbino’s right on the money (HA! another funny) about the admission of fallenness/need for regulation leading to a lack of a coherent argument. I think this is where my brain gets twisted.

    Anyway, please keep talking. I need all the help I can get.

  8. urbino Says:

    I don’t hear in the local arguments the “people are rational actors and will choose the good” idea at all. It’s “people are self-interested actors and will choose what’s in their self-interest, so isn’t it handy that a system based on that limits the potential for big government having all the power in a society.”

    This is the more contemporary, non-moral argument for conservative economics — a result of having to give up on Smith’s original moral argument because it turned out to be, you know, fantastically false.

    This one is more of a psychological/financial argument. People are ineradicably, primarily self-interested, so don’t “kick against the pricks”; take advantage of self-interest and use it as an economic engine. In this model, “interference” in the market is bad because it affects the efficiency of that engine.

    This argument still runs aground on the problem of regulation, though, because these guys still think some regulation — interference in the market — is good. Necessary, even. But they still want to claim the mantle of “free markets” and “deregulation” and “small government.” It’s a lot of hooey. They’re not against regulation; they’re against the regulation they’re against. They’re not for small government; they’re for government that’s small in the ways they want it to be small, and huge in the ways they want it to be huge.

    And there’s no such thing as a “free market.” All markets — even in the most ancient, basic, town-square-bazaar sense — are products of regulation in one form or another.

  9. urbino Says:

    Oh, and the connection you’re hearing between private property, democracy, and morality comes largely, I suspect, from Locke. The neat thing about that argument is it conveniently leaves out the fact that Locke also said that for his system to work, everybody must own property.

  10. urbino Says:

    If the market produced what was right, Urbino would be a college professor somewhere.

    An extremely rich and popular one.

  11. alsturgeon Says:

    That, too. 🙂

  12. Joe Says:

    I’ll talk to you, Al!

    JU gives a very good rundown of classical economics.
    I think most “free-market” proponents will readily admit that completely free markets can lead to some undesirable results. The dilemma we find ourselves in, and the one that we will be until the end of time, is how to maximize the productivity and efficiencies of the free market while avoiding these undesirable results.

    It’s obvious that there must be some level of control in our economic system. The question is “how much?” How much control can we have without killing the motives for productivity, efficiency, and growth? Growth is key, as it is the only way that we can ultimately raise the standard of living for all.

    There is a spectrum that runs from completely free markets to absolute command economies. We’ve seen the historic failure of a command economy as the driving factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. We see the Cuban economy existing on life support after just 50 years of command economy. The inherent inefficiencies and absence of motivating factors drain the system until it can longer survive, much less grow!

    Free market economies produce some undesirable consequences and leave some individuals behind, but command economies fail completely, leaving everyone worse off. Doesn’t it make sense that you would want to be closer to the free market side of the spectrum than the command side?

    Trent is absolutely right that there is no such thing as a completely free market. Our challenge is to decide just how free we want our markets to be. How much efficiency, productivity, and growth are we willing to give up for the sake of controlling the output of the system? That is a debate that is worth having and a debate that our elected legislators need to have on a continuous basis. What do we regulate and what do we leave alone? We just have to understand that every time we regulate, we introduce inefficiencies and stifle growth. We have to ask “is the cure worse than the disease?”

  13. urbino Says:

    We just have to understand that every time we regulate, we introduce inefficiencies and stifle growth.

    But that’s not strictly true. Regulation often promotes growth in existing markets, or creates whole new markets. Our food and drug markets are the most profitable anywhere, in part because they’re highly regulated — it gives consumers faith in the products, which increases demand. The fact that we have a serious pharmaceuticals industry at all is largely an outgrowth of the early attempts to bring the old patent medicines under some kind of regulatory scheme.

    It’s not a matter of how much regulation there is. It’s a matter of how intelligent the regulation is. And, oddly enough, anti-regulation conservatives have, ISTM, too little faith in entrepreneurship and the power of self-interest. Those forces will always find a way to make money off of whatever regulatory scheme exists, short of an absolutely confiscatory, absolute command economy.

  14. urbino Says:

    We’ve seen the historic failure of a command economy as the driving factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    I know you already said that totally free markets aren’t a good thing, Joe, but it should be mentioned that laissez-faire free market economics has also demonstrated itself to be a failure: it resulted in the Great Depression, which, according to classical economics, should have been impossible.

  15. alsturgeon Says:

    I like Property class, but you guys are much more fun.

  16. DeJon05 Says:

    I usually have about a 5.3-second attention span when it comes to finance and economics. I involuntarily tune out every time Jim Lehrer goes to the markets. I wish I were different.

    With that said this discussion between Joe and JU has been one of the most valuable and incisive discussions of economics I’ve had the pleasure to catch.

  17. Whitney Says:

    I hear you, Dej. Someone says economics, and my brain goes, “Please wait, while system reboots.” So, when Joe came home last night and said, “Did you read my comment on economy?”, my brain quit, and I looked at him like I’d never seen him. Then I said, “Why would I?” But I did, and actually, it is a little bit interesting. But College Football is on….WOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOO… so I won’t be joining the conversation. 🙂

  18. urbino Says:

    College football is definitely cooler than Adam Smith.

  19. DeJon05 Says:

    Indubitably, Amigo.

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