Column on Whistling in the Dark

Whistling in the Dark

Tibor R. Machan

It is hardly ever disputed among honest political economists that most
Western countries, including the United States, are welfare states or
mixed economies. Unlike, say, a fascist or socialist country, in a
relatively free society if a substantial number of voting citizens
champion a system that undermines the very liberty that makes it possible
to have an influence in how the country is governed, the country is going
to reflect this fact in its public policies. Under socialism, which is a
planned society–especially when it comes to its economic features–or
fascism, which is run by some charismatic leader, opponents tend to be
officially silenced. The more the system is socialist, the more such
silencing takes place. The same with fascism. Unity is crucial for both
of these political organizations and when such unity is believed by the
leadership to be threatened, dissent is squelched.

But in countries where political participation is deemed to be a basic
right, it isn’t customary to silence opponents. At most a kind of
compromise is achieved among the various political factions. It is very
rare that some given political idea succeeds at dominating public policy.
Accordingly, a mixed economy is exactly that, a mixture of various
conceptions of how the economic affairs of the country ought to be
governed. Some parts of the economy will be substantially, maybe even
totally free of government regimentation or regulation. Consider the
market wherein pottery is being produced, sold, exported, imported, etc.
It isn’t subject to much government meddling. Or posters or hats. And
this could be the case for many other goods and services, although in an
integrated economic system regimenting or regulating one sector of the
market will tend to have an impact on the rest. What is pretty much
guaranteed, especially where no strict constitutional protection of free
trade exists, is that there will be no system-wide socialism or capitalism
or fascism in play but, instead, all these and some others will somehow
coexists and champions of every one will advance and retreat in their
respective influence on the country’s economy as a whole.

It is, therefore, a foregone conclusion that those who assert that a mixed
economy has become fully socialized or is completely laissez-faire are
engaging in hyperbole. When a columnist for The New York Time, the author
of some book on public policy, or a letter to the editor writer says that
the philosophy of free market capitalism has become the ruling ideology of
the country and is responsible for our ills, they cannot be telling the
truth and they must know that they aren’t since no genuine free market
system exists. Furthermore, it is inherent in the mixed economy that it
is, well, mixed. Perhaps in one or another era one or another part of the
mixture can be more pronounced. And, certainly, one or another part of
the mixture of a mixed economy could find more vocal champions supporting
it. But unless these champions manage to change the basic law of the land
that give legal backing to its mixed character, their position will not
dominate.

So when it is asserted that the American economy is based on market
fundamentalism–or, indeed, on any other pure idea of economic
organization–this cannot be right and is very likely done for a purpose
other than to say what is in fact the case. As the English linguistic
philosophers J. L. Austin argued, there are goals apart from stating the
truth that we pursue when we offer various utterances. In his wonderful
little book, How to Do Things With Words? Austin identified, among other
such goals, the influencing of people’s beliefs and even actions. Thus,
for example, there are what he called perlocutionary utterances whereby
those making the utterance want to make others do certain things they deem
to be important. But they want to achieve this influence in a roundabout
fashion, not directly, mostly by pretending something that is false,
namely, that the welfare state is a well functioning system of political
economy.

I am convinced that when opponents of free market capitalism charge that
America has been in the grips of market fundamentalism, they don’t mean to
say anything that’s true. Rather they want to influence others to act in
certain ways that such utterances are likely to encourage. They want to
belittle free market capitalism by associating it with various
disagreeable aspects of the American economy, one that is anything but
fully capitalist but rather highly regulated, highly interfered with by
the various levels of government.

Please do not fall for this trick. A great deal depends on repelling it,
especially when perpetrated by prestigious people at prestigious
institutions.

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4 Responses to Column on Whistling in the Dark

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