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Uncle Miltie

As usual, I'm woefully late to comment on "current events" - nearly all of my meditations here are untimely.

Although, in a pinch, I'll still describe my political sympathies as lowercase-l-libertarianism, these days I prefer more obscure descriptors such as "Ordo Liberalism" or Liberalisme Triste. Like many "libertarians," I harbor a wish to reclaim the august mantle of "Liberalism" from its modern expropriators - the statocrats and securitarians - who besmirch that noble name with the advocacy of a markedly illiberal political and economic program.

I join libertarian orthodoxy in some of my negative assessment of Milton Friedman - both qua economist and philosopher. Notably, I differed with Uncle Miltie over, for example, his repudiation of the Gold Standard and the privatization of roads, and his enthusiasm for "flexible exchange rates" (not to mention the  whole "monetarism" can of worms).

Nevertheless, in addition to being a vigorous and powerful voice on behalf of Economic Liberty - or, in deference to Anatole France, the "right to be allowed to starve" -  Friedman earned my esteem both for his vigorous opposition to the "War on Drugs" (including a critical open letter addressed to William Bennett) and his key role in ending conscription in this country. He aimed to embrace the dimensions of liberty consistently.

Although Uncle Miltie often engaged in controversies and polemics that took him outside of his area of expertise as a technical economist (and did so with self-awareness of such a shift in categories), perhaps the following criticism of "economism" might apply to him in the end as well; it certainly does to many of the economist-heroes of libertarian orthodoxy.

"... Whenever the current concepts of right conduct are disturbed, the social harmony in in danger ... and it happens almost inevitably in a rapidly developing society, in which new functions and new ways of life are continually coming into being.

"... Once the complexity of the problem is grasped, the functional disorders which in fact occur in a developing society seem less matter for surprise than the high degree of adjustment secured it by a hidden automatism; the admiration felt by the men of the nineteenth century for self-regulating mechanisms is understandable ... [but] these mechanisms are much misconceived ...[T]here lies the mistake, in thinking that the whole problem in its entirety falls within the province of the economists.

"What makes it possible for political economy to be a science at all is that it looks on social life, and all the activities, relationships, and satisfactions of human beings, as the regular flow of one and the same energy: sometimes - as in the case of labour - active, sometimes - as in the case of wealth - potential. But the very feature which makes a science of it makes it incapable of explaining the whole of social reality, or even of taking account of all the phenomena which occur within its proper sphere. It reveals the reasons for which local savings are diverted from accounts into vast central reservoirs from which they are distributed nationally and even internationally; but it is no part of its business to stress the fact that the manipulators of th savings are now not the same set of men, and that the old and the new types are quite different, in nothing more unlike than in their respective concepts of right conduct. It justifies the money market as a useful piece of regulative machinery, but is not concerned to know what temperaments it attracts and what characters it develops. It is a valuable science, but one grafted on to a false psychology, which regards the race of men as a physical mass pin-pointed in place and acted upon only by the mechanical force of self-interest.

"Hence it is that the point of view of the economist is the worst of all for discerning social disharmonies: these must react on quantitative adaptations before they receive his attention. That is what in the end happened. Disturbance in the sphere of economic functions appeared as a sort of tertiary ague compelling attention to a social disease which had been long in progress."

De Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, pp. 408 - 410

November 22, 2006 | Permalink


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