Jun 092007

I’m a huge fan of private property and free markets, but this is nuts. Unfortunately it’s a kind of nuttiness we see all too often from certain Republican types. It handicaps them. If they don’t understand the limits on what private property and free markets can do for us, they will not be adequately prepared to defend these institutions from the onslaught by the left.

It’s from an article by Steven Landsburg in the June 9 WSJ, titled “A Brief History of Economic Time.

It’s one of those articles that talks about how wonderful life is, given all the modern conveniences we have. It talks about our well-being in purely material terms. I suppose you could say it’s outdoing Karl Marx and doing it on a very superficial level.

Here’s the lead paragraph:

Modern humans first emerged about 100,000 years ago. For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. There were wars, political intrigue, the invention of agriculture — but none of that stuff had much effect on the quality of people’s lives. Almost everyone lived on the modern equivalent of $400 to $600 a year, just above the subsistence level. True, there were always tiny aristocracies who lived far better, but numerically they were quite insignificant.

Yup, it treats the quality of human life in purely material terms, and says not a word about social relationships. One nice thing about this particular article, though, is that it reductio ab absurdums itself, saving commentators like me the trouble of explaining the nonsense this kind of thinking will lead to if not balanced by other considerations:

The moral is that increases in measured income — even the phenomenal increases of the past two centuries — grossly understate the real improvements in our economic condition. The average middle-class American might have a smaller measured income than the European monarchs of the Middle Ages, but I suspect that Tudor King Henry VIII would have traded half his kingdom for modern plumbing, a lifetime supply of antibiotics and access to the Internet.

Anyone who has read a history book or watched the turf wars at the office knows how important power is to people. Henry Kissinger said power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. George Washington understood that people think of their well-being in comparison to what their neighbors have. Does anyone really think Henry VIII would give up one bit of power? Look at how hard the left resists tax cuts, even though high taxes destroy our economic engine. What matters to the left is their slice of the economic pie in relation to the whole, not how large the whole is. It’s the same with everyone.

Henry VIII might give up a wife in exchange for a new one, or for one who would secure his continued power on the throne through his heirs. Think of all the trouble his power-grabbing caused for himself. He wouldn’t have traded a bit of it for modern conveniences, or even for the conveniences he could have had if he had not been so ambitious.