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Feb 4, 2016

False Promises and Uncertain Economic Truths

Markets are overwhelmingly good, but the results of market processes aren’t always good for everyone, in every instance. Pretending otherwise isn’t persuasive.

There’s an unfortunate tendency among some free market advocates to blame the victim: If you can’t find work, it’s because you’re lazy or you somehow screwed up. Hard work’s all that’s necessary to succeed. But of course that’s not true. It’s quite easy to think of counterexamples. We know creative destruction is a necessary part of a well-functioning economy. Market churn means people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, and shifts in technology and consumer preferences mean that skills once lucrative can suddenly become relatively worthless. Markets are overwhelmingly good, yes, and are responsible for the astonishing amelioration of poverty we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution, but they have their victims.

A changing global economy has meant a changing American economy and a changing American economy has meant that some people who did well in the old pattern are having a harder time in the new. This harder time is felt by, among others, a segment of America’s lower-middle class who used to be able to find decent-paying jobs that demanded physical labor and the kinds of skills you don’t learn in school. That segment increasingly faces a fact about the modern economy: Unless you’re a knowledge worker, it’s become a whole lot harder to find a well-paying, stable, long-term job because the skills you bring to an employer aren’t as in demand as they used to be.

And that’s awful for the people going through it. We can say that free markets change over time and that those changes lead to more prosperity in the long term, and that’s true. But it doesn’t make life better for the machinist or construction worker without a college degree and without much retirement savings. Empathy seems an appropriate response by those of us not facing such hardship.

That even well-functioning markets hurt some people some of the time makes selling market solutions to policy problems often a difficult task. We know that the solution to unemployment or underemployment is more economic freedom. Get rid of the barriers to entry and the protectionist policies keeping afloat what would otherwise be failing firms. Enable private schools to create a robust and successful educational system so more people have the skills needed to succeed in a modern economy. Open trade with the rest of the world, so we can grow our economy, buy goods at lower prices, and sell into more markets.

But here’s the thing. Every one of those solutions ends up sounding, to the person economically hurting now, like saying, “Leave it alone and things will work themselves out. Don’t know quite how or when, but they will.” Market solutions are emergent solutions, and emergence takes time and can’t be planned or predicted. In fact, it’s the attempt to plan and predict that leads so many non-market-based policies to fail. Economists understand this and so largely trust markets. But most Americans aren’t economists.

I think this explains, in part, the appeal of people like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. We see them as misdiagnosing the problems and offering counter-productive, and sometimes abhorrent, “solutions.” Immigrants are taking your jobs. (They aren’t.) So let’s fix it right now but closing the borders. Trade with China is making us poor. (It isn’t.) So let’s fix it now by establishing quotas and tariffs. But to people hurting right now, people like Trump or Sanders offer something free markets can’t: certainty, even if illusory. These people right here are the cause of your problems. Punish or stop them and your problems will go away. America will go back to being great, with “great” meaning the way it was when low-information, low-skill Americans could spend their lives comfortably in the middle class. In other words, before America’s economy became modern. We don’t want that, of course. The economic visions of Trump and Sanders aren’t just backwards, but are dangerously retrograde policies that will hurt everyone without doing much to improve the lives of those who support such policies.

Liberty struggles when confronted with this combination of widespread economic ignorance and the political incentive for politicians to pander and promise solutions that are anything but. And I don’t know how to solve that. Nor do I believe there’s an easy solution. The incentives in politics run against us, and so we somehow need to get better at articulating the story of markets, of the voluntary and the emergent, and do it in a way that’s as compelling and hopeful in its rhetoric as the false hopes sold by those pitching meretricious intervention. Part of that means consciously avoiding a panglossian picture of markets, and recognizing that sometimes people get hurt by them, and that often that hurt is blameless.