by Mark Thoma
Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling is disappointed at the state of political debate:
Deepak Lal's Reviving the Invisible Hand: a review, Chris Dillow: There's very little political debate these days. Most people merely talk to their own tribe of converts. If they recognize an opposing position at all, it's only as a target of cheap abuse.
Deepak Lal has fallen into this bad practice in his Reviving the Invisible Hand. His aim is a noble one - to restate the case for classical Smithian liberalism against the anti-globalization movement. The trouble is, he fails.
The challenge for classical liberals is to justify free markets to those who fear they will lose from them. And - contrary to Tim's claim - markets do create losers, if only temporarily, simply because ... they throw people out of work. What does Lal say to these? This (p232):
As the northern losers in the new liberal interational economic order are the unskilled, there is a simple means for them to maintain and raise their incomes: go to school.
This is great advice for a 10 year old. But it's just ridiculous for a 50-year-old. Lal also opposes redistribution to maintain the incomes of the poor (p189):
Unless the coercive power [to levy redistributive taxes] is voluntarily and unanimously given by free agents to the State, its exercise would be unjust.
He's speaking here of justice in the sense of ensuring people have liberties (Lal is dismissive of "rights") to do as they will. What he never answers is the question which the poor might ask: "why should your conception of justice - which is only one of many - trump my need to continue living?"
And why are the poor poor? Lal has the decency to acknowledge that in some (many?) cases, it's because they are victims of past thefts of land. But he denies - as Robert Nozick did not - that they are entitled to rectification (p186):
Though the claim may be morally just, ... most societies throughout history have recognized the chaos that would be caused by seeking to redress any fault in the historical descent of every current title to property...
Well, this is a good game, isn't it? When the poor claim an income on grounds of expediency, justice triumphs. And when they claim it on the grounds of justice, expediency wins. Cynics will say Lal is merely defending existing inequalities and speaking only to the winners. And they've other evidence for this...
What Lal seems to be doing here is speaking only to the converted. This will get him an appreciative audience. But it will not advance the classical liberal case one jot.
I find all this tribalism especially depressing because Lal makes so many good points. His analysis of the gains from trade, the misuse of global poverty statistics, climate change and the influence of NGOs are all valuable. Sadly, though, liberalism's opponents will regard these not on their own merits, but merely as defences of existing inequalities.
If liberalism is to triumph - and I hope it does - its advocates will have to convince egalitarians. Lal fails to do this.
I'd be curious to know if you feel the "state of political debate" is better in the UK than in the US. Also, to follow up on the point that globalization produces both winners and losers, see Baumol's "Errors in Economics and Their Consequences" posted here a couple of weeks ago.