The Reign of Homo Politicus Perfectus
If you asked where you can find a regular criticism of anything that looks like a classical-liberal approach to social, political, and economic problems, I could recommend the pieces of Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar. Her latest column is another good illustration: “America Is Telling a Very Different Story About Trade,” Financial Times, June 18, 2023. Forget the strange title, which, to somebody used to thinking in individualist terms, suggests an anthropomorphic America speaking with our collective mouth; of course, newspaper titles must be short. The “very different story” that the American government is telling us is, the column argues, a protectionist story—as if any US government had ever advocated unilateral free trade, that is, the freedom of Americans to buy and sell wherever they privately find the best available terms.
The Financial Times columnist praises Joe Biden’s US Trade Representative (USTR), Katherine Tai, who said she wanted to “put the US back in USTR.” Despite her protests to the contrary, our columnist also seems to like this sort of Trumpian banter. In fact, it would be as difficult to put the “TR” in USTR. By this, I mean that if Ms. Tai and her boss think that they represent all Americans, they should equally support those who want to freely buy dolls, contra Donald Trump, or deodorant, contra Bernie Sanders, from foreign producers or from any producer.
The Financial Times columnist and the USTR claim to oppose any concentrated power. To pursue that goal, they want to concentrate power in the state, to expand the realm of politics. This ideal state power includes an ideological cartel between the US and the EU governments to fight high-tech companies. More state power means more regulation in general. (See also my post “Forward to the Past: US Regulators Top European Ones.”) The fact that the Financial Times columnist is not a loving user of new technologies, as I pointed out in a recent post, must not distract us too much, although it does suggest some pretentiousness among regulation fans. Ideal state power also includes enforcing trade union cartels against poor-country workers, the poorest of whom are thereby forbidden to compete.
In the same Financial Times column, we read:
Tai put a provocative gloss on this new approach, saying that [quoting Lai] “we are turning the colonial mindset on its head”—by partnering with emerging markets to put a floor, rather than a ceiling, on labour and environmental standards. “The key is to offer economies a spot in vertical integration so that developing countries are not perpetually trapped in an exploitative cycle,” she said.
Offer foreign economies a spot in vertical integration? How nice of us, cognoscenti and rulers of the rich world! The reality is that ordinary people in poor countries started, 40 or 50 years ago, thanks to trade and the liberation of their own entrepreneurship, to escape dire poverty after decades during which Western intellectuals had persuaded their governments that central planning and economic autarky were the panaceas. The dramatic reduction of poverty in underdeveloped countries is the big story of the past few decades.
The Financial Times columnist I am gently criticizing is, I fear, quite attuned to the zeitgeist of our times, a quest for social nirvana through the transformation of the individual into Homo Politicus Perfectus. From this perspective, every problem resulting from voluntary social interaction has a bright political solution. “Of course, the devil will be in the details,” the columnist says. Indeed, intellectuals always curse the actual governments under which they live as enthusiastically as they idolize the perfect state in their dreams.
It is not impossible—and I am saying this seriously—that the Financial Times columnist is right and that I, and all classical liberals and libertarians of the past three centuries, are wrong. Perhaps a most just and prosperous future lies in a fuzzy mixture of dirigiste-authoritarian ideas from the left and the right. Or perhaps, more realistically, some of the currently fashionable ideas, stripped of their worst coercive features—that is, reinterpreted à la Hayek* or à la Buchanan**—have something salvageable. But it seems quite obvious, doesn’t it, that the reign of Homo Politicus Perfectus is a regression toward mankind’s impoverished and tribal or collectivist past.
* I provide an introduction to Friedrich Hayek’s social and legal thought in my separate reviews of the three volumes of his trilogy Law, Legislation, and Liberty: Volume 1, Rules and Order; Volume 2, The Mirage of Social Justice; and Volume 3, The Political Order of a Free People.
** Again as an introduction, I could recommend my reviews of two books by James Buchanan: his classic The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan; and his Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative.