Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent review essay Freeman Dyson flatly asserts that “social justice demands equality. Fair reward for enterprise and achievement demands inequality.” Well, neither of these is true but for soundbites in a publication like The New York Review of Books one could do much worse. Social justice is neither social, nor just. It is an excuse for some people to run everyone else’s life.

But Dyson doesn’t stop there and adds this:

Advocates on both sides of the debate have tended to take extreme positions. Numerous utopian communities have been founded to put egalitarian principles into practice. Few of them have lasted longer than one generation. Children have a regrettable tendency to rebel against their parents’ dreams. Meanwhile, advocates of extreme free market capitalism have been preaching the gospel of greed. They glorify greed as the driving force that creates new industries and in the end will make everyone wealthy. Unfortunately in many parts of the world where free market capitalism prevails, the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer. [“The Case for Far-Out Possibilities,” Freeman Dyson, NYRB, 11/10/11, p. 27]

Much of this is simply wrong–no free market capitalist champion preaches any gospel of greed. The closest may be some economists who claim that each of us is motivated to make out well in life, a point so broad that it can mean nearly anything. As Milton Friedman put it, “. . . every individual serves his own private interest . . . . The great Saints of history have served their ‘private interest’ just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” [“The Line We Dare Not Cross,” Encounter, 11/76:11] So being “greedy” is merely to want to do something, anything, one likes. Self-interest is just having some interest, some goals, never mind what they are. No gospel of greed here, none!

Will freedom produce industries? Well, that and also art and athletics and family life and whatever free men and women choose to pursue. Again, nothing here that should offend any sensibilities.

Does free market capitalism prevail anywhere? Not by a long shot. At best we have some welfare states, mixed economies that include a few elements of capitalism, such a moderate protection of the right to private property and some, fewer and fewer, voluntary contracts, in the midst of innumerable socialist features and fascistic political powers. And where capitalism has made some inroads, the poor are definitely not getting poorer but growing rich, though perhaps not as rapidly as those who focus mostly on wealth care.

So why then is a famous public intellectual saying such misleading things? Maybe because his fame comes from doing work in physics, not in political economy. And maybe also because the common sense account of making it rich still owes too much to the times when that goal was pursued through pilfering, murdering, robbing and otherwise depriving others of what they have. In short, for most of the history gaining wealth was a zero sum game, not the win win situation that modern economists have found far more productive. Peace, not ripping people off, is the road to riches.

Dyson is of course saying all this nonsense in a publication that tries every which way to discredit human economic liberty. He promotes some kind of middle way, between liberty and slavery, at least in the realm of economics. But it makes no sense. It rests on obsolete theory about what gets people to create and produce wealth and ignorance about economic history and reality.

Maybe Dr. Dyson should return to physics and leave economics be. Although quite a few so called economists get it wrong just as he does, especially the Keynesians who believe that one can make something out of nothing. That confusing idea ought to be offensive a physicist for sure.

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