Left-liberal intellectuals are often a wondrous group to behold. In the last three or four decades, not a very long time in human history, they have, like whirling dervishes, let loose a series of angry complaints against free-market capitalism. The curious thing is that each of these complaints has been contradictory to one or more of their predecessors. But contradictory complaints by liberal intellectuals do not seem to faze them or serve to abate their petulance — even though it is often the very same intellectuals who are reversing themselves so rapidly. And these reversals seem to make no dent whatever in their self-righteousness or in the self-confidence of their position. Let us consider the record of recent decades:
- In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the .liberal intellectuals came to the conclusion that capitalism was suffering from inevitable "secular stagnation," a stagnation imposed by the slowing down of population growth, the end of the old Western frontier, and by the supposed fact that no further inventions were possible. All this spelled eternal stagnation, permanent mass unemployment, and therefore the need for socialism, or thoroughgoing State planning, to replace free-market capitalism. This on the threshold of the greatest boom in American history!
- During the 1950s, despite the great boom in postwar America, the [p. 243] liberal intellectuals kept raising their sights; the cult of "economic growth" now entered the scene. To be sure, capitalism was growing, but it was not growing fast enough. Therefore free-market capitalism must be abandoned, and socialism or government intervention must step in and force-feed the economy, must build investments and compel greater saving in order to maximize the rate of growth, even if we don't want to grow that fast. Conservative economists such as Colin Clark attacked this liberal program as "growthmanship."
- Suddenly, John Kenneth Galbraith entered the liberal scene with his best-selling The Affluent Society in 1958. And just as suddenly, the liberal intellectuals reversed their indictments. The trouble with capitalism, it now appeared, was that it had grown too much; we were no longer stagnant, but too well off, and man had lost his spirituality amidst supermarkets and automobile tail fins. What was necessary, then, was for government to step in, either in massive intervention or as socialism, and tax the consumers heavily in order to reduce their bloated affluence.
- The cult of excess affluence had its day, to be superseded by a contradictory worry about poverty, stimulated by Michael Harrington's The Other America in 1962. Suddenly, the problem with America was not excessive affluence, but increasing and grinding poverty — and, once again, the solution was for the government to step in, plan mightily, and tax the wealthy in order to lift up the poor. And so we had the War on Poverty for several years.
- Stagnation; deficient growth; overaffluence; overpoverty; the intellectual fashions changed like ladies' hemlines. Then, in 1964, the happily short-lived Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution issued its then-famous manifesto, which brought us and the liberal intellectuals full circle. For two or three frenetic years we were regaled with the idea that America's problem was not stagnation but the exact reverse: in a few short years all of America's production facilities would be automated and cybernated, incomes and production would be enormous and superabundant, but everyone would be automated out of a job. Once again, free-market capitalism would lead to permanent mass unemployment, which could only be remedied — you guessed it! — by massive State intervention or by outright socialism. For several years, in the mid-1960s, we thus suffered from what was justly named the "Automation Hysteria."
- By the late 1960s it was clear to everyone that the automation hysterics had been dead wrong, that automation was proceeding at no faster a pace than old-fashioned "mechanization," and indeed that the 1969 recession was causing a falling off in the rate of increase of productivity. One hears no more about automation dangers nowadays; we are now in the seventh phase of liberal economic flip-flops.
- Affluence is again excessive, and, in the name of conservation, ecology, and the increasing scarcity of resources, free-market capitalism is growing much too fast. State planning, or socialism, must, of course, step in to abolish all growth and bring about a zero-growth society and economy — in order to avoid negative growth, or retrogression, sometime in the future! We are now back to a super-Galbraithian position, to which has been added scientific jargon about effluents, ecology, and "spaceship earth," as well as a bitter assault on technology itself as being an evil polluter. Capitalism has brought about technology, growth — including population growth, industry, and pollution — and government is supposed to step in and eradicate these evils.
It is not at all unusual, in fact, to find the same people now holding a contradictory blend of positions 5 and 7 and maintaining at one and the same time that (a) we are living in a "post-scarcity" age where we no longer need private property, capitalism, or material incentives to production; and (b) that capitalist greed is depleting our resources and bringing about imminent worldwide scarcity. The liberal answer to both, or indeed to all, of these problems turns out, of course, to be the same: socialism or state planning to replace free-market capitalism. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter put the whole shoddy performance of liberal intellectuals into a nutshell a generation ago: "Capitalism stands its trial before judges who have the sentence of death in their pockets. They are going to pass it, whatever the defense they may hear; the only success victorious defense can possibly produce is a change in the indictment."2 And so, the charges, the indictments, may change and contradict previous charges — but the answer is always and wearily the same.
The Attack on Technology and Growth
The fashionable attack on growth and affluence is palpably an attack by comfortable, contented upper-class liberals. Enjoying a material contentment [p. 245] and a living standard undreamt of by even the wealthiest men of the past, it is easy for upper-class liberals to sneer at "materialism," and to call for a freeze on all further economic advance.1 For the mass of the world's population still living in squalor such a cry for the cessation of growth is truly obscene; but even in the United States, there is little evidence of satiety and superabundance. Even the upper-class liberals themselves have not been conspicuous for making a bonfire of their salary checks as a contribution to their war on "materialism" and affluence.
The widespread attack on technology is even more irresponsible. If technology were to be rolled back to the "tribe" and to the preindustrial era, the result would be mass starvation and death on a universal scale. The vast majority of the world's population is dependent for its very survival on modern technology and industry. The North American continent was able to accommodate approximately one million Indians in the days before Columbus, all living on a subsistence level. It is now able to accommodate several hundred million people, all living at an infinitely higher living standard — and the reason is modern technology and industry. Abolish the latter and we will abolish the people as well. For all one knows, to our fanatical antipopulationists this "solution" to the population question may be a good thing, but for the great majority of us, this would be a draconian "final solution" indeed.
The irresponsible attack on technology is another liberal flip-flop: it comes from the same liberal intellectuals who, thirty-odd years ago, were denouncing capitalism for not putting modern technology to full use in the service of State planning and were calling for absolute rule by a modern "technocratic" elite. Yet now the very same intellectuals who not so long ago were yearning for a technocratic dictatorship over [p. 246] all of our lives are now trying to deprive us of the vital fruits of technology itself.
Yet the various contradictory phases of liberal thought never completely die; and many of the same antitechnologists, in a 180-degree reversal of the automation hysteria, are also confidently forecasting technological stagnation from now on. They cheerily predict a gloomy future for mankind by assuming that technology will stagnate, and not continue to improve and accelerate. This is the technique of pseudoscientific forecasting of the widely touted antigrowth Club of Rome Report. As Passell, Roberts, and Ross write in their critique of the report, "If the telephone company were restricted to turn-of-the-century technology 20 million operators would be needed to handle today's volume of calls. Or, as British editor Norman Macrae has observed, "an extrapolation of the trends of the i88os would show today's cities buried under horse manure." Or, further:
While the team's [Club of Rome's] model hypothesizes exponential growth for industrial and agricultural needs, it places arbitrary, nonexponential, limits on the technical progress that might accommodate these needs . . . .
The Rev. Thomas Malthus made a similar point two centuries ago without benefit of computer printouts . . . . Malthus argued that people tend to multiply exponentially, while the food supply at best increases at a constant rate. He expected that starvation and war would periodically redress the balance . . . .
But there is no particular criterion beyond myopia on which to base that speculation. Malthus was wrong; food capacity has kept up with population. While no one knows for certain, technical progress shows no sign of slowing down. The best econometric estimates suggest that it is indeed growing exponentially.
What we need is more economic growth, not less; more and better technology, and not the impossible and absurd attempt to scrap technology and return to the primitive tribe. Improved technology and greater capital investment will lead to higher living standards for all and provide greater material comforts, as well as the leisure to pursue and enjoy the "spiritual" side of life. There is precious little culture or civilization available for people who must work long hours to eke out a subsistence living. The real problem is that productive capital investment is being siphoned off by taxes, restrictions, and government contracts for unproductive and wasteful government expenditures, including military and space boondoggling. Furthermore, the precious technical resource of scientists and engineers is being ever more intensively diverted to government, instead of to "civilian" consumer production. What we need is for government to get out of the way, remove its incubus of taxation and expenditures from the economy, and allow productive and technical resources once again to devote themselves fully to increasing the well-being of the mass of consumers. We need growth, higher living standards, and a technology and capital equipment that meet consumer wants and demands; but we can only achieve these by removing the incubus of statism and allowing the energies of all of the population to express themselves in the free-market economy. We need an economic and technological growth that emerges freely, as Jane Jacobs has shown, from the free-market economy, and not the distortions and wastes imposed upon the world economy from the liberal force-feeding of the 19508. We need, in short, a truly free-market, libertarian economy.
Doesn’t all of this sound VERY familiar?
If you read any book this year, it should be For A New Liberty The Libertarian Manifesto by Murray Rothbard.
Its clarity of thinking, its unassailable logic and perfect moral balance is simply breathtaking. And beautiful. And inspiring.