Thursday, 8 September 2016

Two Questions People On the Left Can't Answer

A favourite pastime of mine is making fun of my friends on the left. Most of the time it is a sign of affections, a bleeding-heart inspiration that I share with McCloskey, to reach out to my deceived friends on the left and convince them to maybe, just maybe reconsider - be provocative, and never ever apologize. About six months ago, I was relaying some entertaining Venn diagrams from the AEI that puts lefties' convictions in awkward positions. Today I have a few more, namely two questions lefties can’t answer without abandoning their own principles or running into serious academic and political problems. Here we go:

1. Economic Growth: why are we incomparably wealthier today than our great-great-great-great-great-greatgrandparents in the 18th century?

To counter the market-cheering explanation of the triple revolution ("Richer, Longer, Better lives"  – from McCloskey's Virtues (2006)) the standard response since Marx has been “enclosures of common lands” in Britain – or perhaps slave-powered imperialism. The former allegedly pushed the poor workers into the evil industrial machinery of the cities, where capitalists accumulated riches on the backs of poor workers and small children, which of course were immiserated until government or labour unions stepped in to save the day. There are about fifty things wrong about that story, to which there are volumes and volumes to cover. The most revealing of those mistakes is how workers’ wages have consistently risen since the early 1800s, way before governments or labour unions seriously entered the scene (and most entertainingly, considering that Marx’s and his followers predicted wages in capitalism to fall) - and besides, the story is about a century off anyway. More importantly and devastating for the anti-market camp, the parts of Britain where encloses were a thing (East & South Midlands, East Anglia) are emphatically not the regions of factories and “misery”. Let’s quote Winstanley writing for the BBC to hammer the message home:
'enclosures' affected only a small proportion of the population, primarily in parts of the south and east Midlands. Workers in the new factories and mills of northern England were not dispossessed agricultural labourers; they were primarily recruited from local families who had long been involved in some form of manufacturing.
The other standard response is “imperialism”; capitalists expanded their markets, ruthlessly and violently stole resources from other poor nations. Our wellbeing was paid for by the blood of (mainly black) tribes far-far away. Such zero-sum –game thinking was pretty accurate until Malthus, who, still believing it, wrote his infamous essay on population in 1798. Coincidentally, from that time on it ceased to be true. And besides, the lands of current Zimbabwe or Algeria didn’t have steam engines or medical innovations or trains or computers that western imperialists simply stole from them.

The most sensible leftie response is “well, capitalism served us very well in the beginning”, which is actually more in line with Marx’s own writing. But somehow everything is different now; capitalism changed somewhere along the route (prime suspect: the Neoliberal Agenda) and something else will take us to the next level of humanity.

Such response amounts to admitting defeat and choosing to fight another day; great! Capitalism made us wealthy, I’m glad we have that established. Next fight: the unconvincing idea that since 1931 or 1973 or 2008 it isn’t any longer – and we should adopt anti-capitalism and interventionist policies instead. That story is a much bigger question which the lefties still lose, but such responses are at least academically and historically honest enough to admit their initial defeat.

2. Why is redistribution of income from high-income-earners to low-income-earners justifiable only within a country and not across countries?

On this I'd watch Tom Woods' entertaining answer (you can spare 6 minutes of your life...), but here are the juicy bits:
"what is the reason that it’s alright for us to help ourselves to the things of the 1% - or, what is the same thing – demand that they ‘pay their fair share’ when at the same time we deny the ability of people elsewhere in the world to come up to us and say ‘you should give us our fair share of your things’? Why do we admit the one but deny the other?”
Or, as he mocks some trivial objections to that question on the wonderful ContraKrugman podcast
"’That’s completely different, man! Completely different’; Yes, you’re right! Now they’re taking your money, that’s what’s different!”
If you accept income redistribution on national levels, you necessarily have to accept it on international levels too (or give me a morally sound and consistent reason for why all your indignant arguments only apply to Britons, or French or Americans) – at which point you are the top 1-2-3% (seeing as how most of the top 20% of income earners worldwide encompass the entire Western world), and at which point income redistribution is too much to stomach, even for the left.

These questions probably don’t convince anybody, but my hope is that they force lefties to admit something they really don’t want to admit; markets work, they enrich us all and they make our lives better in every sense of the word. That’s a very useful step on the way.

No comments:

Post a Comment