When "Good for the Economy" Isn't

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A. Barton Hinkle writes a thought-provoking piece in which he examines a common political argument he phrases as "[Fill-in-the-blank] is great for the economy!" Hinkle considers numerous examples of politicians and others using this excuse to push various forms of government meddling, including: even more money for government schools (Barack Obama), government enforcement of the Christian definition of marriage (Rick Santorum), and government loot for the movie industry (the Virginia Film Office).

Of this rationale, even in those cases when it is true, Hinkle notes:

Why give so much top billing to the bottom line? Well, Americans are pragmatic. They might not care about a particular endeavor by itself, but if you can show that it's good for business, they might agree to go along. The only trouble is that not everything can be good for business all the time.

The economic argument is also rather sad. There is more to life than dollars and cents, and it seems a little pusillanimous not to say so. ...

Neil deGrasse Tyson believes in space exploration because of its glorious scientific promise -- not because it might be good for Lockheed-Martin. Why not make the case for space on its own merits? We should educate children for their own benefit, not because of their potential future utility to us. People ought go to theaters and art galleries to gasp in wonder at artistic brilliance and beauty -- not because of the multiplier effect.

That's the real irony of the ubiquitous economic argument. Worthwhile causes speak for themselves. Pitching them as little more than economic stimuli really just sells them short. [bold added]
Hinkle is half-right, but he fails to see that "the economy" is both a worthy cause and is being worse than sold short. Although he notes that the economy is about trade-offs, he forgets to ask, "for whom?" it is or ought to be. Had he done so, he'd might have seen that all of these proposals involve the government making Americans less free to make their own choices on numerous matters that harm nobody else and are nobody else's business. Indeed, he might even have seen that these arguments not only sell short such things as education, science, and the arts, they sell the economy down the river -- a proper, free economy that enables Americans to become prosperous and make their own choices.

However, Hinkle hardly bears the blame for this. As Ayn Rand helped me see, and I have subsequently noticed many times myself, it has been conservative and libertarian commentators who have failed, time and time again, to make a moral case for capitalism -- when they haven't outright attacked capitalism as immoral on altruistic grounds. (The latter is usually via some kind of "admission" along the lines of it being the least-bad way of promoting some vague "common good".)

Although the poor would generally be better off under capitalism, the moral basis for that system, rational selfishness, directly conflicts with the idea that man exists to serve other men, and its political spawn -- the notion that it is good to steal from one person or otherwise compel him to allegedly benefit another.

This contradiction, between capitalism and the default morality of the vast majority of Americans, is what many who want a freer economy hope to avoid having to address when they merely tout some slight loosening of government controls as "good for the economy" (rather than, say, a baby step in the direction of freedom). The failure to address this contradiction is also why you rarely see them asking pointed questions, like: "Why isn't every day a 'tax holiday' if those are so good for the economy?" or "Why confine tax incentives to such a stingy amount or to just one industry?" or "Isn't government manipulation of the economy, even for an apparent short-term gain, directly antithetical to its mission of protecting the rights of all individuals, all the time?" (In every case, they would quickly face the task of questioning the propriety of the entitlement state.)

This failure has persisted for so long that most people accept some government measure (vice their own freedom) as indicative of what's "good" for "the economy". So now, the fiscal conservatives' chickens have come home to roost: "Good for the economy" (or even other past shibboleths) is no longer even vague shorthand for lower taxes or less central planning, let alone capitalism. As we see from Hinkle's piece, it often means quite the opposite.

-- CAV

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