Tibor R. Machan
There is a provocative recent comment attributed to Harvard University and Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen in The Philosopher’s Magazine (3rd Quarter 2010, p. 12 and taken from what he reported wrote in the New Statesman magazine). It is that "The nature of the present economic crisis illustrates very clearly the need for departures from unmitigated and unrestrained self-seeking in order to have a decent society" and it is extremely disappointing.
Sen, who used to co-teach courses at Harvard University with the libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick and therefore must have a pretty clear grasp of free market ideas and of libertarianis, must also know that no one who defends the free market advocates any sort of system he is caricaturing here, not Milton Friedman, not F. A. Hayek, and not even Ayn Rand.
Moreover, even those who do talk of market agents’ self-interest as the driving force in a free market economic system, such as do a good many economists, mostly mean nothing more by that than that free market agents would seek to do what they want to do, leaving it entirely open what that would be (if they really did operate in such a system rather than in the mixed economy where they do work and where the financial fiasco occurred recently).
In many cases, so called self-interested conduct in fact would promote various causes, objectives, goals that have absolutely nothing to do with self-enrichment. Moreover, even self-enrichment would often serve the function of enabling one to pursue goals that are generous, philanthropic, and focused on the arts, sciences, culture, and so forth. Even blatantly, overtly self-interested conduct often promotes one’s very useful skills and abilities which get translated into very valuable and, yes, socially beneficial actions. Self-interested conduct is what leads one to go to college, to major in some preferred discipline, to graduate with honors, etc., and all this has many desirable side-effects for those other than the agent of such self-interestedness.
If, indeed, people did pay heed to their bona fide self-interest, this world would be far more decent than it is with all the meddlers running around, pace Amartya Sen. The free market, if that is what is the target in Sen’s comment, merely leaves the decision as to what goals should be advanced to the ones who own the resources–including their own time and skills–instead of to politicians and bureaucrats who would regiment them. And that is nearly always a good policy.
One reason statists–and sadly Professor Sen has joined them wholeheartedly (it appears from the above quote form him)–use the language of management so readily is that they pretend, in contrast to what a free market embodies, that it is the job of politicians and bureaucrats to regiment the country like one might manage a football team or a company or in the role of a life-trainer. Such managerial jobs usually voluntarily authorize the managers to move around personnel and resources as if they owned these or had power of attorney to do so. It doesn’t matter to them that they are actually pushing people and resources around without this authority. To evade this, they have persuaded themselves that the bloated democratic process is natural and to protest what they are doing could at best amount to professional criticism, mostly a matter of technicalities, never of the proper scope of their authority which, to them, is limitless. They do not believe in a government that’s firmly limited in its role in our lives. They are like runaway dentists who, once hired to fix teeth, mistake this as having been hired to take over the management of one’s life.
It’s malpractice, of course, but with their self-delusion they can block out that fact easily enough, especially given that their academic cheerleaders, like Professor Sen, keep encouraging them in these delusions.
In the end they need a fundamental reorientation–a revolution–in their thinking. This shows up, also, in how readily these academic cheerleaders make fun of the Tea Party, missing its central point and focusing on how the party members dress, what food they eat, and their manner of speech.
What is needed is a revitalization of individualism, the idea that one’s life is one’s own and one’s actions must be left to the person to govern and may only be governed–"mitigated and restrained"–by others with full consent, not via the democratic process.