If you haven’t listened to it, this talk by Jeffrey Tucker on “How to Improve Society” is excellent. He points out a phenomenon that a lot of us don’t really notice but that reveals itself as madness once you think about it. We venerate politicians and government officials, even going so far as to call them “public servants,” when most of their activity is wasteful, destructive, or superfluous. A lot of people vilify entrepreneurs and producers, even going so far as to call them “parasites,” when most of their activity is is what feeds us, clothes us, shelters us, warms us, and teaches us. We bite the hands that feed us while we kiss the hands that choke us.
In her ongoing series of books on “The Bourgeois Era,” Deirdre McCloskey is arguing that the source of modern economic growth is a rhetorical and cultural shift that has taken place over the last few centuries: commerce came to be given a degree of respect, or at least a reduction in contempt. People began to see production and exchange as something that was either outright virtuous or at the very least not self-evidently vulgar. A combination of changing culture and evolving institutions helped create modern economic growth.
Even for all of its successes, innovative, voluntary capitalism has its detractors. In spite of the horrors committed in its name, socialism still has its adherents. Their arguments are still demolished by the Mises and Hayek critiques of socialism. I recently reviewed G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? for The Freeman, and over the summer I wrote an article about Eugen Richter’s Pictures of the Socialistic Future that again takes up some of these themes. I’m teaching a course called “Classical & Marxian Political Economy” during Spring semester that will give me a chance to reexamine these issues in a new light. Like the law of comparative advantage before it, the Mises/Hayek critique of socialism is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.