Don’t get me wrong, I am an ardent capitalist, but even I must concede that socialism has an enduring popularity.
If you think as I do then you know that markets are just so damn great. There’s actually nothing that creates wealth, prosperity, and riches faster. There are only four things that create wealth: economic growth, family distribution, mutualistic societies, and charity. But the last three don’t even come close to the economic growth only markets can create. The free-er markets are — the better! Though even distorted markets still work (albeit not as well). Like cocaine, markets are irrepressible. It’s estimated that roughly 10–15% of the Soviet Union’s GDP was thanks to the black market. Markets are the single greatest force for poverty reduction the world has ever seen. And yet, defending markets on ideological grounds is not even remotely popular or common. Occasionally I’ll see markets defended in the mainstream media on pragmatic grounds, but even that’s rare.
This is not an article about capitalism or socialism. This is an article about the human condition.
Humans crave a system that rewards morality. What we have is a system that rewards aptitude. If tomorrow you were admitted to ER and needed surgery, would you prefer a moral surgeon or a competent surgeon? Let’s assume one precludes the other. The moral surgeon will botch the surgeon and kill you if he does it. The competent surgeon will save your life, but every night he goes home and beats his wife. Most people would choose the competent surgeon over the moral surgeon in these circumstances, even if they had knowledge of the former’s wife-beating tendancies. In reality the competent surgeon would get picked a hundred per cent of the time because we don’t know the morality of everyone we deal with in a professional context. I needed a minor surgery recently, and I met my surgeon before hand. Since I only engaged with my surgeon on a professional level, I was never in a position to judge my surgeon’s personal morality even if I had an objective test for a person’s morality. So the only things I could judge my surgeon on were his credentials, experience and aptitude of which he possessed a great deal of all three.
We want a system that rewards morality. We need a system that rewards and incentivises aptitude.
Markets are not inherently moral or immoral, rather they are morality blind. Markets create a world where a competent arms dealer and a world class surgeon can both be extremely wealthy. If morals are shades of grey, markets see only black and white. Humanity seems to want an impossible thing: a system that rewards morality, and somewhat perversely, they want it so badly that so many people will overlook all the inherent wickedness and coerciveness of socialist regimes because those systems began with the noble intention to build a world where everyone gets what they deserve. Socialists are generally perceived as having more empathy for the poor than capitalists regardless of the lot of the poor in socialist countries. Humanity then decries the evils of capitalism despite all the prosperity that capitalistic societies enjoy because markets incentivise individuals to become better at what they do to improve their own lives, but not to become better people. Exceptions to this rule are those who adhere to belief systems where material wealth is linked to human goodness, and out capitalists like myself.
This all amounts to an endearing, but ultimately deeply tragic statement on the human condition. I wholeheartedly understand the desire to live in a world where morality is rewarded, but I can offer no succour. If one’s morality is rewarded in this life (or the next), it is rewarded by something other than riches. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than intentions, and markets cater to needs before they cater to wants. In the end socialism caters to neither.
In this recent post by Ben Harris, he aptly describes a insidious culture in which after a problem is identified “something must done” regardless of what that something is. To object to what is being done is tantamount to sanctioning the existence of the problem or denying the problem exists. This is exactly the type of thinking that creates bad policy, and once that policy is enacted and the consequences of the policy are shown to be harmful, the policy persists rather than being repealed. Often the reason bad policy stays in place is because of an emotional attachment to what the policy ‘means’ rather than what the policy ‘does.’ This type of thinking has lead to some of the worst of British policy making and I wanted to highlight a few of the most entrenched examples.
Foreign Aid - There is almost nil empirical evidence of the effectiveness of Foreign Aid. There is a great swathe of evidence demonstrating its misuse. Yet still, it not only persists, but is a popular policy because to suggest removing it is tantamount to advocating the continuation of third world poverty. What this policy means is more important than what it actually does for the third world poor.
The NHS - Are there more effective health care systems? Yes, most of the developed European countries have a better health care system now. Furthermore, the other ‘Beveridge’ models in Europe, like the NHS, underperform the ‘Bismarckian’ models by a significant degree. Not only do ‘Bismarckian’ models provide better health care, they provide it in a universal sense. The NHS can be charitably described as a second rate health care system. Yet, in face of this empirical evidence, the NHS still maintains cult-like support. It is as though its supporters think that the only options are ‘the American system,’ or ‘wanting poor people to die’ (something that someone actually said to me) - this is not ignorance; it is denial.
Comprehensive Schools - Whenever some social commentator wants to highlight inequality in education, somewhat inevitably the focus is always on how to make private schools more like comprehensives. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Private schools do exactly what the people paying for them e.g. the parents, want them to. Why get rid of the only part of the education system that is working exactly as it should for the people who pay for it? Comprehensives mean equality, so that trumps all objective measures of how they perform. The fact that they are largely inferior to private schools, and radically unequal owning to the fact that rich parents monopolise housing in good school catchment areas, becomes completely irrelevant. Damn the children who have to go to them, some policy maker somewhere means well.
The Greenbelt - The Greenbelt is one of the most appalling policies ever enacted. It is the reason for the housing crisis right now. Yet, despite a chronic undersupply of housing, and the fact that less than 10 per cent of England is ‘developed’ (some of that is gardens and parks), the Greenbelt is championed as an environmental necessity, else we all succumb to the dark satanic mills. Considering how little of England is developed, support for the Greenbelt is irrational. I would be horrified if they paved over the New Forest or Snowdonia National Park, but a field adjacent to the M25 is just not the same thing. It’s a policy based on a misconception rather than reality. How inhumane do you have to be to prefer that people go homeless rather than build on an ordinary green field? It’s actually barbaric but, hey, England’s green and pleasant lands…
Drug Prohibition – I don’t do drugs, I don’t like drugs, I don’t want anybody anywhere to be addicted to drugs. Yet, I still support the decriminalisation of drugs. I am so tired of people characterising my policy position as tantamount to an endorsement of people ruining their lives with drugs. Supporting drug prohibition means you disapprove of drugs. Good for you… The empirical evidence shows that drug prohibition makes it no harder to get drugs, but instead gives the whip hand of an entire market over to the drug traffickers and has serious knock on consequences for rule of law. This applies to most ‘sin taxes’ and ‘sindustry’ regulation, but, hey, ones moral disapproval is all that matters, right? Nope.
What all these policies have in common is a strong emotional appeal and a profound paucity of empirical evidence demonstrating their superiority or effectiveness. All these policies enjoy huge popularity for emotional rather than rational reasons, but as the effects of these policies show, meaning well is not quite the same as doing good. They are the perfect policies for a shallow, empty virtue-signalling culture in denial about the consequences of their actions. The reason I would get rid of all the aforementioned policies, as well as a great many more, is because I do care about the poor, the sick, the under-educated, the homeless, and the addicted, and I don’t care about how good your intentions are.