About 40 years ago, economist Bruce Yandle went to Washington to work for the Council on Wage and Price Stability, ready to apply his knowledge of economics and educate his fellow workers. After all, he reminisces, one eye-rolling, head-scratching decision after another was coming from government regulators that surely someone versed in economics could expose as stupid, wasteful, and downright ridiculous.
Government Serves the Interests of Government
At some point, Yandle realized that the lay of the regulatory land looked quite different in Washington than it did in Clemson, South Carolina, where he was on the faculty at Clemson University. Regulators — and the representatives of the enterprises they regulated — were not looking to create an atmosphere in which the government tried to find the “optimal” set of regulatory policies that both minimized regulatory costs and allowed for the maximum removal of whatever “externalities” were created.
No, as Yandle writes:
… instead of assuming that regulators really intended to minimize costs but somehow proceeded to make crazy mistakes, I began to assume that they were not trying to minimize costs at all — at least not the costs I had been concerned with. They were trying to minimize their costs, just as most sensible people do.
The more he examined the situation, the more he realized that all of the various actors in the system were acting in their own perceived self-interests — regulators, politicians, and those being regulated — and the combination of their interests created perverse outcomes. The “big picture” view that those on the outside of the situation might have is irrelevant to what actually happens, and understandably so.
Far from the stated goals of the regulators and those involved in the process — that regulation was pursued in order to promote a lofty “public interest” — the real purpose of the regulatory apparatus is the promotion of the regulatory apparatus. The system exists to preserve and protect itself.
Socialists Are Interested in Control, not Economic Prosperity
As I observe (and participate in) a few discussions on Facebook and elsewhere about socialism, I have come to a few conclusions about the nature of the arguments and the reasons why socialists remain socialists even as we see the utter failure of socialist economies throughout history. Maybe the meme that appears once in a while — “If socialists understood economics, they wouldn’t be socialists” — might be true, but I doubt it. As I see it, the purpose of establishing socialism is to further promote socialism, not improve the lot of a society and certainly not to promote prosperity.
First, and most important, the minds of socialists work differently than do the minds of economists that see an economy as a mix of factors of production, prices, final goods, markets, and entrepreneurs that drive the whole route. Those of us who are economists are fascinated by this process because we see human ingenuity, the coordination of the goals of numerous people, and, when the system works, a higher standard of living for most people.
Socialists, however, don’t see what we see. Instead, they see chaos and unequal outcomes. Not everyone benefits, right? In some situations, someone may lose a job or a way of doing things becomes obsolete. In the end, some people won’t be helped at all, at least not directly, and in the mind of someone that has an organic view of society, the fact that certain entrepreneurial actions taken by some individuals have created goods that meet the needs of others is irrelevant. Society should be providing those goods for free! People should not have to pay for what they need!
Are you a surgeon who had done well financially because you have performed medical miracles for people who desperately needed your services? You have exploited sick people! Are you like Martha Stewart, who became wealthy in part by showing people how to make holiday celebrations better? What about the poor? They don’t have nice houses!
When I first started writing about economics nearly 40 years ago, I was like Bruce Yandle, believing that all that was needed to convince socialists to stop being socialists was a well-reasoned economic argument. You know, explain that entrepreneurs don’t earn profits by exploiting workers, but rather entrepreneurs make workers better off by directing resources to their highest-valued uses. You know, explain how a price system really does result in morally-just outcomes because, in the end, it directs resources toward fulfilling the needs of consumers. And so on.
I still believe the arguments, and over the years have come to understand them even better than I did when I wrote my first article for The Freeman in 1981. (It’s funny how Economics in One Lesson continues to become increasingly relevant to my thinking each time I read it.) However, I believe that the end of all of this activity is — or should be — the improvement of life for people in a way that is not predatory and brings about voluntary cooperation among economic actors. In other words, economic activity is a means to an end, and the end is free people gaining in wealth and standards of living.
A socialist does not and will not see things this way. The end of socialism is not a higher living standard or even making life better for the poor, as much as a socialist will talk about the well-being of poor people. No, the end of socialism is socialism, or to better put it, the ideal of socialism. Once socialism is established, as it was in Venezuela or in the former USSR or Cuba, the social ideal had been met no matter what the actual outcome might be.