However, as America’s founders attested so vehemently, rights are at the core of social interactions and government, violations of which can justify revolution. And unlike the physical sciences, where the goal of language is precision, in the social sciences, the language (and thus analysis) is often quite vague and inconsistent (e.g., current versions of “social justice” are inconsistent with the traditional meaning of “justice”), making clear communication, much less clear analysis, far harder.
What is the upshot of all this? Economics is not like physical sciences, and reasoning and analogies based on them are often misleading in economics. Further, they can be dangerous to society, particularly in the mouths of those who wish to subject others to their command and control. That is why Friedrich Hayek wrote,
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
In other words, economics is a science whose principles and logic tell us why we cannot know enough to control people, even if we do know enough to control rockets.
At the very moment we succeeded in banishing a deadly affliction from our country, in other words, people began eschewing the measures that made this medical miracle possible.
Socialism, too, is having an American renaissance. As with measles, if it’s allowed to spread, the result will be needless human suffering.
A generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, young Americans have forgotten, if they ever learned, what happens when a citizenry allows itself be enraptured by the promise of communal ownership of a national economy (“Socialism Is Back, and the Kids Are Loving It,” page 55). Such regimes have failed whenever and wherever they’ve been tried, engendering misery, starvation, persecution, and wasted human potential on a massive scale. At this very moment, hyperinflation and desperate shortages of food, medicine, and power are ravaging Venezuela (“Man-Made Disaster in Venezuela,” page 75), a previously rich country that had every intention of forging a better, smarter socialist future for the 21st century.
The new wave of young ocialists are quick to insist they have a different, gentler vision—as the Democratic Socialists of America’s website puts it, one in which “working people” run things “democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.” But that is a hoped-for end state, not an implementable program. The concrete policies most modern socialists propose—high confiscatory taxes and aggressive wealth redistribution, free college, publicly provided universal health care (and, often, the abolition of private alternatives)—are far more likely to wreak devastation on the well-being of Americans than they are to finally achieve utopia.Each of these policies does violence to the market-based system of free exchange and private property rights that has underpinned the greatest expansion of human flourishing in human history. Whatever its faults, that system has brought us everything from air conditioning and aspirin to cheap flights and Netflix, all while lifting billions out of abject poverty around the world…
What unites the left’s flirtation with socialism and the right’s move toward nationalism is the willful discarding of long-understood, dearly learned truths about how to make the world a better place. Like the death count when parents stop vaccinating their kids, the fallout from these developments may not be instantaneous. But bad ideas can be hard to contain once they get going, and the results are not likely to be pretty.
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