What the Battle is About
By Arnold Kling
Scott Sumner continues the discussion of the merits of neoliberalism. Here are some remarks of mine.
1. This relates to what Arthur Brooks calls The Battle. I have not read Brooks’ book, and my guess is that I will have many problems with it, but the basic notion of a conflict between advocates of free enterprise and advocates of statism seems right to me.
2. At the margin, do you think that we need more decisions made by government experts and fewer decisions left to decentralized markets? If you consider an issue important (health care, energy, or whatever) and you think that the answer at the margin is more government experts, then you are on the statist side of the battle. If you think that the answer at the margin is more decentralized markets, then you are on the free enterprise side of the battle.
3. It is very hard to resolve the issue empirically. That is because very little empirical analysis focuses on the margins. The empirical arguments that Sumner describes all involve very crude averages. Does the level of government spending represent a good proxy for the marginal propensity to have government experts displace markets in making decisions? I don’t know. I am not saying that no one should bother trying to measure the intrusiveness of government, but I think it’s hard to expect broad aggregate measures to resolve fundamental disputes.
4. I believe that greater concentration of power in the hands of government experts is wrong for two reasons. First, other things equal, it diminishes the liberty and dignity of the typical individual. Second, I believe that experts systematically over-estimate the value of what they know and under-estimate the value of what they do not know.
This second problem is getting worse. As I argue in the widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced, knowledge is becoming more dispersed while political power in the United States is becoming more concentrated.
The battle is to dislodge the statists. I think that Brooks raises a red herring when he argues that those of us on the free enterprise side are the majority. I am, like Bryan, skeptical that we are the majority. Moreover, even if we were in the minority, I would not wish to concede the battle. Finally, I am not convinced that the electoral process should be the focal point for resolving the battle. It could be that statists inherently own the electoral process. We may be better off trying to keep alive private businesses, private schools, and so forth.