Secondhand Statism

A common charge leveled at free-market advocates is that, if as FMA’s claim  the free-market could/would be superior to the existing “mixed economy”, then why hasn’t it already been widely adopted due to it’s supposed superiority– and furthermore, FMA’s should accept that this shows that their minority position is rightly deserved to be such. Obviously, this is a weak claim, but in my estimation a fairly common one.

I can think of a number of reasons why this charge is without merit. For one, it assumes that the knowledge regarding the operational structure necessary for a freed-market [sic] is widespread. A casual glance at political commentary that emanates from likes of expert talking-heads, down to the teeny-boppers in school reveals that many people conflate a Dickensian perception for a free society.

Secondly, the claim is based on a flawed understanding of the concept of rationality. Rationality does not mean for someone’s actions to be considered “normal”. To illustrate this, think of a smoker, who we will assume for this day and age is well aware of the dangers of cigarette smoke. Most people would say the smoker’s actions demonstrate irrationality, but as Ludwig von Mises taught, all purposeful action is rational by definition. In other words, the smoker is aware of the costs to his actions, but in his estimation, the immediate benefits outweigh those long-term risks (the costs) that he is willing to undertake.

In this sense, the smoking habit is rational. To claim otherwise is akin to dictating to another person what is their favorite ice cream flavor, despite whatever that person may say about his own likes. What people actually mean regarding the smoker, is that if the smoker presumingly values his good health and lifestyle as much as they do, then how could he possibly still choose to smoke. But this is a disagreement over ends, and not the means advocated to obtain those ends. Quite correctly, a smoker could agree with the anti-smoking advocate in concern to the effectiveness of the means, and would simply prefer different ends. (It’s likely that he would prefer good health too, but in his preference scale, the immediate enjoyment of a smoke is more highly preferred than to a distant risk.)

Another explanation is that the smoker is simply not aware of the severity of the risks involved and in effect he doesn’t have enough knowledge to internalize those costs into his decision process. Presumingly, once he is made aware he would make the attempt to change his habits– but it’s still subject to a cost-benefit analysis! (A person on or nearer his deathbed may choose to continue smoking, while someone with long-term life expectancy may choose to value the good health of a protracted life associated with quitting the habit.)

The only valid way to term the smoker’s habit as irrational would be if the smoker’s means were knowingly incompatible with his ends. Meaning, that if there was a person who valued his good health above the enjoyment of the smoke and yet continues to smoke, then can we term his actions irrational, and such a person would be in need of psychiatric help. Of course, most people who continue to smoke might only claim to value their good health above all, while their actions simply demonstrate, or reveal their higher-ranked preference is for smoking.

To get back on subject, the interlocutor was in effect asking the FMA, are you really saying that all state-supporting people are irrational– how can the FMA hold that 99% of the population is irrational? To this the FMA can genuinely respond in the negative, that he does not think statists to be irrational. After all, the FMA can be charitable to assume that most statists believe statism to be beneficial. And just like with smoking, prior to the knowledge of the risks and costs being acknowledged and understood by the public at large, the FMA is likewise trying to educate others about the inherent dangers and costs of statism.

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  • The government is like the tobacco companies when they told people smoking was good for them — or it would be, if the tobacco companies had kidnapped children and told them this all day for 180 days a year for 13 years.