Friday, October 17, 2008

Markets are amazing if you let them work

John Stossel:

Imagine you had never seen a skating rink. I tell you, "I'm going to invite 100 people down to strap blades to their feet and race around as they like." You say, "That's insane! Someone must coordinate all those people."

Yet we know that the skaters' actions are coordinated, though not through central planning. There are predictable and understandable rules, but within them, people are free. In promoting my interest in avoiding a collision with you, I also promote your interest in avoiding a collision with me.

Economics Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek called it spontaneous order. The market system is the leading example. In promoting my interest in gaining through a voluntary exchange with you, I also promote your interest in gaining through voluntary exchange with me.

Like skaters at an ice rink, we trace our way in the economy making decisions for ourselves. It works out pretty darned well. Prices help guide our way.

Most of life works by spontaneous order. It characterizes how we choose our jobs, hobbies, associates, recreation, etc. When politicians try to regulate the process, they usually make life worse.

* * *

Freedom is a good reason not to interfere. Still, we're told that the government must regulate the economy. Barack Obama says today's economic problems are "a stark reminder of the failures of . . . an economic philosophy that sees any regulation at all as unwise and unnecessary."

But governments have regulated and subsidized the housing and financial industries for years. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created to interfere in those markets. Had actual private companies invested in those mortgages, they would have been subject to market checks. But they were not. The results were predictable.

Now we will get a new onslaught of regulation. This intervention will fail and stifle innovation because, as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek taught, markets are too complex to manipulate beneficially. Life works best when decisions are bottom up. But pundits have no clue about spontaneous order. Instead, they talk about who will "run America."

This faith in political solutions thrives in the face of repeated government failure. Big farm bills have raised the price of food and squeezed out small farms. Campaign finance reform made it harder to challenge incumbents. FEMA couldn't deliver water to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans as well as Wal-Mart did. Medicare has a $35 trillion unfunded liability over the next 75 years.

Yet the media and political class call for more government control. What puzzles me is why citizens don't act like the skaters we tried to boss around. The skaters wanted freedom. Citizens might desire this too, but the political class assumes they want and need direction.

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