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Capitalist Theory Is Better Than Socialist Reality by Sandy Ikeda

Tell someone on the left that crony capitalism is not the same as the free market and they’ll often respond that capitalism as it really exists is crony capitalism. They will say that there has never been an instance of capitalism in which government-sponsored or government-abetted cronyism didn’t play a substantial role — either through war, taxation, or slavery — in a market economy. As a result, the failings of crony capitalism — corruption, privilege, oppression, business cycles — are simply the failings of capitalism itself.

One correct response is to show that the less intervention there has been, the less corrupt, privileged, oppressive, and unstable the socioeconomic order also has been. Many would simply reiterate that, historically, laissez-faire capitalism has never existed, nor could it exist, without interventionism. They simply will not or cannot distinguish the free market from state capitalism, corporate capitalism, or other forms of the mixed economy.

Which is perhaps why some on the left have adopted the term “neoliberalism,” a perfectly good word that has come to represent an imbroglio of vaguely market-cum-corporativist views. They can’t imagine how markets could work without some form of state intervention holding it all together. And that’s probably because they reject what economist Peter Boettke calls “mainline economics,” or economics in the tradition of Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, and Carl Menger, among others.

It’s frustrating, but there are two points I’d like to make. The first is that in our libertarian critiques of collectivism, we often make an argument that sounds similar to the one people on the left make. But, second, if libertarians are careful, they may be more justified in doing so.

What Is the Turnabout?

Most socialists today have abandoned their earlier claim that socialism generates greater material prosperity, but many on the left still insist that under a pure collectivist system, greater justice and equality would prevail. Socialism, in other words, is a far more humane socioeconomic order than capitalism.

How do libertarians respond to such a claim?

Sometimes we react with contempt or with disbelief that anyone could be so stupid or so evil or both as to argue such a thing. I hope no reader of theFreeman would react that way, although I’m afraid some do. Sometimes we react with slightly more civility by aiming our dismissive contempt not at the person but at the leftist ideas she holds. I will only say that we should take to heart what John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty about so-called bad ideas and opinions:

Every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of truth which the common opinion omits, ought to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion that truth may be blended.

There are other responses to the claim that socialism is more just and humane than capitalism, but I would like to focus on the one that I’ve often used: socialism in practice has always and everywhere tended to lead, to the degree that it is consistently applied, not to freedom and material well-being, but to tyranny and want. In other words, while socialism in theory may be all good things to all good people, the more government has practiced collectivism and central planning to achieve its goals of justice and equality, the farther it has fallen short of those goals. (And if you think countries such as Sweden are the exception, you might read my March 2013 Freeman article, “The New Swedish Model.”)

How is that different from the left’s position that legal privilege, oppression, and other problems are part and parcel of capitalism in practice? Each side seems to be arguing that the historical failings we’ve witnessed in each system are necessary to that system and not exceptions — features, not bugs.

A Possible Resolution

Clearly, the die-hard socialist and the die-hard libertarian argue from different fundamental principles. While there are many varieties of socialism, all are suspicious to a fairly high degree of private property, prices, and profit as the central ordering forces of society. Libertarians, too, are diverse, but I believe we all share strongly opposite views to those on the left on private property, prices, and profit as necessary (and for some libertarians, mistakenly I believe, sufficient) for a civil and prosperous society.

Socialists and indeed interventionists of all stripes also seem confident that the intentions of government authorities (especially those who have been elected) are virtuous enough and their knowledge reliable and complete enough to succeed in promoting the general welfare. In this, I think, it boils down to the underlying economics.

As a rule, libertarians use mainline economic theory to reach their conclusions about socialism and the perverse dynamics of interventionism. (There are, of course, ethical and philosophical approaches, as well.) And while interventionists and perhaps even some collectivists may believe that mainline economic theory does an okay job of framing some questions and of finding some answers to those questions, they also believe that mainline economics is far too limited to address a significant proportion of economic issues.

But the problem with such a view is that there’s no principled way to say in what circumstances mainline economics has failed. Sure, no theory of the economic system, mainline or otherwise, gets it right in every instance. We then have to look to historical evidence to clarify when, under what circumstances, and to what extent mainline economics holds up. And the historical evidence is indeed on the side of the libertarian interpretation of what collectivism and various degrees of central planning are, and of what laissez-faire capitalism is.

Indeed, the historical evidence overwhelmingly shows that social mobility, innovation, prosperity, per capita income, and per capita wealth are all tightly and positively correlated with economic freedom. And contrariwise, to the extent that economic freedom is lacking, social and economic stagnation, want, and shrinking civil rights have followed. (See, for example, the most recent publication of FreetheWorld.com.)

Someone might retort that correlation is not causation, and they would be right if there wasn’t a causal theory linking economic freedom with all those great things. But libertarians do have such a theory, and it’s called mainline economics.

Those on the left, however, don’t have a coherent theory of the mixed economy. Indeed, no such theory exists. There are several theories of so-called “market failure,” but they do not together constitute a coherent theory. What does exist is a critique of the mixed economy that is based on the realization that the ordering principle of the free market and the ordering principle of collectivist central planning are logically incompatible. One is based on open-ended entrepreneurial competition, the other on some form of constraining central planning. Interventionist approaches that attempt to combine them aren’t really systems at all. They are literally incoherent, and what makes them incoherent is the absence of a consistent ordering principle.

(My contribution to this volume [PDF] delves into this topic more deeply.)

Instead, what you’re left with, given the cognitive limits of the human mind and the spontaneous complexity of real-world systems, is expediency. Each problem is addressed not on the basis of principle, but in ad hoc fashion according to the prevailing interests of the moment. In the case of capitalism, while opportunism and cronyism do constantly pull in the direction of expediency, the force resisting that pull is entrepreneurial competition. That’s because cutting corners opens opportunities for one’s rivals to do a better job.  Moreover, that competition operates more effectively to resist and absorb all forms of intervention, crony or otherwise, the less interventionist the system is.

So while the form of the critiques of the left and of libertarians may sound similar, they are vastly different in substance.


Sandy Ikeda

Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

The Ex-Im Bank Is Dead — But Watch Out for Corporate Welfare Zombies by Daniel J. Ikenson

At midnight, the gears of crony capitalism ground to a halt at 811 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.

After 81 years of funneling taxpayer dollars to favored companies, projects, and geopolitical outcomes under the guise of advancing some vague conception of the “U.S. economic interest,” the Export-Import Bank of the United States will end its financing operations at midnight tonight.

No more subsidies to Fortune 100 businesses. No more siphoning revenues from unwitting U.S. firms and industries. No more loan guarantees to wealthy, autocratic foreign governments. No more crowding out of private lending. No more taxpayer exposure to a Fannie Mae-like fiasco. No more bribery and corruption scandals. No more collaboration and lending to China’s Export-Import Bank – you know, the entity whose support for Chinese companies is alleged to threaten U.S. exporters and jobs, and is the most frequently cited imperative for reauthorizing Ex-Im.

No more of any of this… for now.

Champions of small government and market capitalism should savor this rare victory. It was won with solid arguments, including over 20 years of analyses from Cato Institute scholars including Ian Vasquez, Aaron Lukas, Steve Slivinsky, Chris Edwards, Doug Bandow, Sallie James, and – perhaps most comprehensively and tirelessly – Veronique de Rugy.

It was won because of columnist/scholar Tim Carney’s persistence in focusing the public’s attention on the corruption bred of corporate welfare and because of the analytical contributions of Heritage’s Diane Katz, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Young, and others who continued to make compelling arguments for shuttering the Bank, despite steep odds against that outcome.

It was won because certain libertarian groups and conservative activists made the issue a priority, recognizing that corporate welfare is as great a threat to liberty as is the Welfare State, and that reining it in should be a priority because success there would lend greater credibility to the effort to rein in the Welfare State.

It was won against great odds, including vast political expenditures and arm-twisting by U.S. business interests on Capitol Hill, a mainstream media that is reflexively unsympathetic to any cause associated with “Tea Party Types,” and a general aversion among establishment organizations to any challenges to the status-quo.

Radical and reckless, excessive and extreme, ideological and idiotic have been the characterizations assigned by media, politicians, and Boeing lobbyists in their attempts to discredit legitimate efforts to purge “crony” and make “market” the new brand of capitalism.

And it was won because House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, knowing the case against Ex-Im reauthorization was more substantive than the New York Times would allow, made good gatekeepers by putting the onus on Ex-Im proponents to answer the critics – a task at which they failed.

So, at midnight, the Export-Import Bank ceased in its capacity to issue new financing. That is something to cheer. It may also be short-lived.

Proponents of the Bank have been regrouping and strategizing to move legislation to reauthorize the Bank at the soonest possible chance. In fact the White House is hosting a conference call for the purpose of advancing that outcome. Here’s the text of the email:

Dear Friend,

Please join us for a conference call on Tuesday, June 30th, at 2:35 PM with President Barack Obama, Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, and Director of the National Economic Council, Jeff Zients, to discuss the importance of reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

The Export-Import Bank is a critical tool to help U.S. businesses and workers succeed in global markets and grow their exports – it supports high-quality jobs, is a vital tool for small businesses, and doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny. Its reauthorization is vital to U.S. competitiveness and leveling the playing field for American small business owners and workers. …

This call is off the record and is not for press purposes nor amplification on social media.

Thank you,

The White House Business Council

The battle may be over but the war continues. Given the sway that conservatives have had on this issue, it will be interesting to see whether and how Speaker Boehner tries to circumvent Hensarling’s committee to get a reauthorization bill to the floor. Majority Leader McConnell believes there’s enough support in the Senate for reauthorization, but most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have expressed opposition to reauthorization.

It seems to me that if Ex-Im reauthorization resurfaces in the weeks and months ahead, it will be an issue that provides Republicans with yet another opportunity to demonstrate commitment to limited government, free market principles. Maybe this time they’ll see the value in reclaiming that brand.


Daniel Ikenson

Dan Ikenson is director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, where he coordinates and conducts research on all manners of international trade and investment policy.

EDITORS NOTE: A version of this post first appeared at Cato.org.

Check out these satirical (but on-point) U.S. Senate Campaign Political Ads

Hat tip to Tom Tillison from BizPac Review for putting us on to these fake (but are they reality?) campaign videos by Represent.US. According to their YouTube site:

What would an honest politician actually sound like? Old Gil is running for Senate against Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes. Follow his campaign at: http://igg.me/at/HonestGil

Honest Political Ads – Gil Fulbright for U.S. Senate

 Honest Political Ads – Healthcare Costs

Refreshing aren’t they?

Report: Enterprise Florida “operates in a crony capitalist manner”

A new report from the Reason Foundation titled “Crony Capitalism and Community Development Subsidies” raises the questions “Do community development subsidies actually result in community development? Or have they been captured by vested interests?”

Report authors Anthony Randazzo and Victor Nava reached the conclusion that Enterprise Florida “operates in a crony capitalist manner”.  

According to the Reason Foundation:

Enterprise Florida is tasked with providing grants, loans, tax incentives and subsidies to businesses it believes will spur economic development in the state of Florida. Seventy-six percent of Enterprise Florida’s budget comes from either state or federal funds, which are then allocated to the specific businesses and projects seeking the funds, but not before 35% of its funds are used on administrative and marketing costs. On its website Enterprise Florida defines economic development as follows: “In a nutshell, economic development focuses limited resources on securing business investment and employment that are either at risk or would not otherwise occur. It works to expand targeted business sectors as the primary means of sustaining a high quality of life while also maintaining a favorable tax environment. Where possible, it targets businesses that are able to pay their employees higher wages, while still maintaining competitive costs for doing business.” It’s this curious definition of economic development that makes the agency susceptible to charges of crony capitalism.

Integrity Florida, a nonprofit watchdog group, has recently leveled charges of crony capitalism against Enterprise Florida. In a recent paper the watchdog group claims that Enterprise Florida not only failed to meet its job creation objective and obtain the required level of private sector support, but it also has the appearance of pay-to-play, apparent conflicts of interest, and displays clear favoritism toward certain companies and industries.  According to the documents obtained by Integrity Florida, Enterprise Florida provided contracts to corporations with ties to Enterprise Florida’s board of directors. Half of Enterprise Florida’s board of directors have also “invested” an average of $50,000 each into Enterprise Florida.  Another potential conflict of interest revealed in the report is the fact that the board has control over staff bonuses, of which nearly $500,000 worth were given out by the board in 2012 ($70,000 alone to the president/CEO).  While it is unclear whether or not these board member investments or staff bonuses factor into deciding which companies receive funding, all the elements for a pay-to-play scheme are certainly there.

Even if a pay-to-play scheme were not the case, Enterprise Florida (like the CRA/LA) still operates in a crony capitalist manner. Its entire operating strategy of “promoting targeted industries” is—in and of itself—crony capitalism, as it has a government-funded organization using taxpayer money to pick winners and losers by favoring certain businesses over others.

In 2012 Enterprise Florida even made deals with eight companies listed as “confidential” in the documents provided to Integrity Florida. It is disconcerting that Enterprise Florida is not only picking winners and losers with taxpayer money, but also doing so without revealing who the winners even are.” 

Read more.