Since last summer one of my favorite blogs has been Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander may be long-winded but his willingness to consider an idea honestly, apart from its expressive implications, is rare and refreshing. He recently reviewed David Friedman’s classic The Machinery of Freedom and highlighted this passage:

Under any institutions, there are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends: love, trade, and force.

By love I mean making my end your end. Those who love me wish me to get what I want (except for those who think I am very stupid about what is good for me). So they voluntarily, ‘unselfishly’, help me. Love is too narrow a word. You might also share my end not because it is my end but because in a particular respect we perceive the good in the same way. You might volunteer to work on my political campaign, not because you love me, but because you think that it would be good if I were elected. Of course, we might share the common ends for entirely different reasons. I might think I was just what the country needed, and you, that I was just what the country deserved.

Love—more generally, the sharing of a common end—works well, but only for a limited range of problems. It is difficult to know very many people well enough to love them. Love can provide cooperation on complicated things among very small groups of people, such as families. It also works among large numbers of people for very simple ends—ends so simple that many different people can completely agree on them. But for a complicated end involving a large number of people—producing this book, for instance—love will not work. I cannot expect all the people whose cooperation I need—typesetters, editors, bookstore owners, loggers, pulpmill workers, and a thousand more—to know and love me well enough to want to publish this book for my sake. Nor can I expect them all to agree with my political views closely enough to view the publication of this book as an end in itself. Nor can I expect them all to be people who want to read the book and who therefore are willing to help produce it. I fall back on the second method: trade.

I contribute the time and effort to produce the manuscript. I get, in exchange, a chance to spread my views, a satisfying boost to my ego, and a little money. The people who want to read the book get the book. In exchange, they give money. The publishing firm and its employees, the editors, give the time, effort, and skill necessary to coordinate the rest of us; they get money and reputation. Loggers, printers, and the like give their effort and skill and get money in return. Thousands of people, perhaps millions, cooperate in a single task, each seeking his own ends. So under private property the first method, love, is used where it is workable. Where it is not, trade is used instead.

The attack on private property as selfish contrasts the second method with the first. It implies that the alternative to ‘selfish’ trade is ‘unselfish’ love. But, under private property, love already functions where it can. Nobody is prevented from doing something for free if he wants to. Many people—parents helping their children, volunteer workers in hospitals, scoutmasters—do just that. If, for those things that people are not willing to do for free, trade is replaced by anything, it must be by force. Instead of people being selfish and doing things because they want to, they will be unselfish and do them at the point of a gun.

Is this accusation unfair? The alternative offered by those who deplore selfishness is always government. It is selfish to do something for money, so the slums should be cleaned up by a ‘youth corps’ staffed via ‘universal service’. Translated, that means the job should be done by people who will be put in jail if they do not do it.

Though Friedman says it better than I can one of the lessons I try to get my students to absorb is that however much they may dislike how markets work, there isn’t a better system in terms of resource allocation that can work on any policy-relevant scale. (Remember, economics is mostly not about policy but my course is.)

One of the great things about SSC is that its readership appears to be mainly people who (1) are very bright, (2) don’t grok economics, and therefore (3) are much more likely than not to be constructivists when it comes to social science. One of the major lessons we get in economics is that there are serious limits on what can be feasibly constructed in the social realm. Seeing this passage endorsed on a blog they frequent is all the good news I need for one day.

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