It is a cherished belief, in all Objectivist as well as certain fellow-traveling circles, that economic interventionism must collapse under its own weight. Here, for instance, is Ludwig von Mises, in Planned Chaos:
Many advocates of interventionism are bewildered when one tells them that in recommending interventionism they themselves are fostering antidemocratic and dictatorial tendencies and the establishment of totalitarian socialism. …
What these people fail to realize is that the various measures they suggest are not capable of bringing about the beneficial results aimed at. On the contrary they produce a state of affairs which from the point of view of their advocates is worse than the previous state which they were designed to alter. If the government, faced with this failure of its first intervention, is not prepared to undo its interference with the market and to return to a free economy, it must add to its first measure more and more regulations and restrictions. Proceeding step by step on this way it finally reaches a point in which all economic freedom of individuals has disappeared. Then socialism of the German pattern, the Zwangswirtschaft of the Nazis, emerges.
Mises has just asserted, on the previous page, that for interventionists “the main thing is not to improve the conditions of the masses, but to harm the entrepreneurs and capitalists.” If this is true, it puts his claim that interventionism produces “a state of affairs which from the point of view of [its] advocates is worse than the previous state” in doubt. But what really interests me is the slippery-slope argument that interventionism inherently leads to socialism.
The example Mises chooses to support this thesis is price controls. The government begins by controlling the price of milk. The supply of milk declines, as the marginal producers are driven out of business. This is not what the government wants at all; so it continues by controlling the prices of the factors of milk production. The logic repeats itself a few more times, until we arrive at socialism of the German pattern. Mises, being no mean economist, points out that the government could guarantee milk for poor children more effectively by buying it at the market price and giving it away or selling it at a loss. The populace pays for this in taxes, of course, and you might end up with a black market in milk, but it surely beats price controls. Yet this policy is interventionism, just as price controls are. Does socialism emerge in either case? Or do only particularly stupid forms of interventionism produce the slippery slope?
The Objectivists, as is their wont, go a good deal further. Only Objectivism itself can halt the long, slow slide of the mixed economy into slavery. The go-to guy for over-the-top Objectivist pronouncements is not Ayn Rand herself but her “intellectual heir,” Leonard Peikoff. His book The Ominous Parallels is notable as the only work of German historiography ever written by someone who cannot read German. It also contains this gem:
No one can predict the form or timing of the catastrophe that will befall this country if our direction is not changed. No one can know what concatenation of crises, in what progression of steps and across what interval of years, would finally break the nation’s spirit and system of government. No one can know whether such a breakdown would lead to an American dictatorship directly — or indirectly, after a civil war and/or foreign war and/or protracted Dark Ages of primitive roving gangs.
What one can know is only this much: the end result of the country’s present course is some kind of dictatorship; and the cultural-political signs for many years now have been pointing increasingly to one kind in particular. The signs have been pointing to an American form of Nazism. …
There is only one antidote to today’s trend: a new, pro-reason philosophy.
This new pro-reason philosophy, of course, would be Objectivism. Now I think we can agree that in the twenty-five years since this passage was written two things have not happened. Objectivism has not swept the country, and American-style Nazis have not taken over the government. (Anyone who thinks the Bush gang counts needs to acquaint himself with the real Nazis.)
We have had approximately steady-state interventionism in the United States for a long time. Federal spending has hovered around 20% of GDP since the Second World War — no matter who was President, no matter which party controlled Congress, no matter what. Naturally there has been a great deal of expensive tinkering. The airlines are regulated, then deregulated. Savings and loans are encouraged, through insurance, to invest in risky propositions and then, after they lose hundreds of billions, enjoined from doing so. Liberty advances, when the draft is eliminated; and retreats, when the state sponsors offshore torture and suspends habeas corpus for citizens who are classified as “enemy combatants.” On the one hand the Fairness Doctrine is scrapped. On the other Draconian regulations are imposed in quasi-public spaces like offices, stores, and restaurants. To call these changes marginal would be an exaggeration; to call them a lurch toward fascism would be absurd.
Peikoff hastens to say that neither he nor anyone else can predict “the form or timing” of the coming dictatorship. Mises, similarly, disassociates himself from historical determinism, saying that the socialist tide can be stemmed with “common sense and moral courage,” which does not appear to be in any greater supply now than it was then. Their belief, in other words, commits them to nothing whatever. Barring an unlikely sudden upsurge of Objectivism, common sense, or moral courage, Peikoff and Mises are, epistemologically, on all fours with Christians who await the Rapture.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts the matter:
The rationalist virtue of empiricism consists of constantly asking which experiences our beliefs predict — or better yet, prohibit. Do you believe that phlogiston is the cause of fire? Then what do you expect to see happen, because of that? Do you believe that Wulky Wulkinsen is a post-utopian? Then what do you expect to see because of that? No, not “colonial alienation”; what experience will happen to you? Do you believe that if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, it still makes a sound? Then what experience must therefore befall you?
It is even better to ask: what experience must not happen to me? Do you believe that elan vital explains the mysterious aliveness of living beings? Then what does this belief not allow to happen — what would definitely falsify this belief? A null answer means that your belief does not constrain experience; it permits anything to happen to you. It floats.
When you argue a seemingly factual question, always keep in mind which difference of anticipation you are arguing about. If you can’t find the difference of anticipation, you’re probably arguing about labels in your belief network — or even worse, floating beliefs, barnacles on your network. If you don’t know what experiences are implied by Wulky Wilkinsen being a post-utopian, you can go on arguing about it forever. (You can also publish papers about it forever.)
Above all, don’t ask what to believe — ask what to anticipate. Every question of belief should flow from a question of anticipation, and that question of anticipation should be the center of the inquiry. Every guess of belief should begin by flowing to a specific guess of anticipation, and should continue to pay rent in future anticipations. If a belief turns deadbeat, evict it.
Consider this an eviction notice.23 Comments