Pro-market but not pro-business
By Scott Sumner
I consider myself pro-market, but not pro-labor, pro-education, pro-health care or pro-environment. That’s not because I don’t see the virtue of workers, education, health care or a clean environment. Rather, I don’t accept many of the policy views associated with those positions. In an earlier post, Bryan Caplan did a nice job of explaining my perspective on how to characterize one’s beliefs:
What would a non-argumentative definition of feminism look like? Ideally, feminists, non-feminists, and anti-feminists could all endorse it. If that’s asking too much, all these groups should at least be able to accept the proposed definition as a rough approximation of the position they affirm or deny. My preferred candidate:
feminism: the view that society generally treats men more fairly than women
What’s good about my definition?
First, the definition doesn’t include everyone who thinks that our society treats women unfairly to some degree. In the real world, of course, every member of every group experiences unfairness on occasion.
Second, a large majority of self-identified feminists hold the view I ascribe to them. Indeed, if someone said, “I’m a feminist, but I think society generally treats women more fairly than men,” most listeners would simply be confused.
Third, a large majority of self-identified non-feminists disbelieve the view I ascribe to feminists. If you think, “Society treats both genders equally well,” or “Society treats women more fairly than men,” you’re highly unlikely to see yourself as a feminist.
I like that Bryan tries to work out a definition of feminism that matches the reality of how the term is used in the real world. I feel the same way about issues like labor rights. I could say I’m “pro-labor” because I believe that my favored policies would be good for most workers. But that would be deeply misleading, as I am often opposed to policies that are generally recognized as pro-labor, such as higher minimum wages, restrictions on child labor, restrictions on immigration, and the Wagner Act. Thus I’m not pro-labor in the commonly used sense of the term.
And I also do not support a package of public policies that would normally be viewed as pro-education, pro-health care, etc.
What about business? Here again, I think highly of business just as I think highly of labor. It’s an essential part of a well-functioning society, and provides many benefits to the public. But I’m not pro-business in the ordinary sense of the term, because I oppose a whole range of public policies aimed at things like allowing businesses to worsen global warming, shielding businesses from competition, subsidizing business via the Ex-Im Bank, crop price supports, the Small Business Administration, or allowing banks to lend out federally insured deposits to risky borrowers, etc.
On the other hand, I am pro-market, because I almost always support public policies associated with the “pro-market” label. Therefore I do think it is useful to identify as “pro-market but not pro-business”, especially at a time when a certain highly visible politician has taken a pro-business but not pro-market stance on public policy.
In a recent post, Bryan Caplan made this claim:
Yes, businesspeople are flawed human beings. But they are the least-flawed major segment of society. If any such segment deserves our admiration, gratitude, and sympathy, it is businesspeople.
I have to disagree with this. My father was a realtor, and he told me that 90% of realtors were dishonest. I’ve met numerous used car dealers, auto repair shop owners, financial advisors, etc., and they don’t seem more admirable that airline pilots, librarians or bartenders. Indeed many were dishonest. Overall, I have a modestly favorable view of businesspeople (market discipline reduces their worst tendencies), and a few are highly productive in ways that greatly benefit society. My best friend is a highly admirable businessman. But they certainly should not be treated like heroes. Just doing their job.
PS. If we treat them like heroes, then society might begin assuming they are highly qualified to perform jobs having nothing to do with business, like politics.