The ongoing disagreement to which Kevin Williamson refers is, I think, deeper than mere attitudes toward the state or the people. On some questions, it seems to me, Williamson prefers elite consensus and liberal restraint and I prefer the majority opinion. On others we are reversed. I’m skeptical of great state-led projects such as trying to remake the Middle East into a series of democracies. So is he.
Largely I think Williamson conceded the main point when he argued that the government can contribute to the common good by providing a stable policy environment for business. This allows entrepreneurs, financiers, businessmen, and workers to make long-term investments, and these will contribute to general prosperity. Perhaps the difference is that I believe some of these laws, policies, and regulations can be altered in such a way that this general prosperity flows to certain regions, or classes of people, that have missed out on some of the gains in the last few decades. The question of pessimism could be reversed and we could say that Williamson has more confidence in the current status quo of regulation and law than I do.
I do think Williamson should sometimes be more optimistic about government. He has made much sport recently of the fact that Amtrak has trouble keeping a schedule. He implicitly asks: Why trust the government with other duties and assets? But markets and government don’t have a strictly inimical relationship. The fact is that the government’s trade negotiators are the people who make it possible to choose Korean and Japanese appliances and to compare them to American-made ones. And it is the U.S. Navy’s protection of the sea lanes that help make these goods competitive in our market. That’s an example of how an enormous government intervention creates a great deal of opportunity for private actors to work.
And it can go the other way. North Korea theoretically has a government that controls everything, but outside of Pygonyang, the actual economic system is something like anarcho-capitalism, with hardly any long-term planning or stability. You can get away with anything — restraints are notional — but you can’t get on with much.
We probably have to separate our philosophical disagreements from political and analytical disagreements. Then there are also matters of style. Though, there is something fitting about our disagreements: Williamson likes Swiss watches, and that industry reflects quite a bit of the spontaneous order of that republic which he admires so much. And I wear a nice Japanese watch, an industry that caught up to the Swiss in no small part because of judicious industrial policy. And I do have a fascination with the Asian economic miracles.