The Corner

Social Justice?

Well, here’s food for thought (and, I suspect, just a spot of controversy) from the Hoover Institution’s Richard Epstein:

The terrible economic news from both Europe and the United States has led to much soul-searching on both sides of the Atlantic. How did we get here, and how can we get out of this jam? In my past columns for Hoover’s Defining Ideas, I have insisted that both economies will be able to extricate themselves from their deep slumps only by promptly reversing those policies that have brought them to the brink. A successful and sustainable political order requires stable legal and economic policies that reward innovation, spur growth, and maximize the ability of rich and poor alike to enter into voluntary arrangements. Limited government, low rates of taxation, and strong property rights are the guiding principles.

Unfortunately, many spiritual and economic leaders are working overtime to push social policy in the exact opposite direction. At the top of the list are two prominent figures: Pope Benedict XVI and financier Warren Buffett.

One can only agree. The self-serving, sanctimonious drivel that has long been the stuff of Buffett’s preaching has come under fire around here before, but it’s certainly also worth spending some time looking at what the Pope has been saying. So that’s what Epstein does:

The Pope was on his way to recession-torn Spain—to lead the Roman Catholic Church’s weeklong celebration of World Youth Day—when he denounced  those nameless persons who put “profits before people.” He told journalists, “The economy cannot be measured by the maximum profit but by the common good. The economy cannot function only with mercantile self-regulation but needs an ethical reason in order to work for man.” Standing alone, these words mirror the refrains of countless Spanish socialists, whose relations with the Pope have soured in recent years. Their shared premises help explain why Spain finds itself in such a sorry state.

Denouncing those who put ‘profits before people’ may stir the masses, but it is a wickedly deformed foundation for social policy. Profits, like losses, do not exist in the abstract. Corporations, as such, do not experience gains or losses. Those gains and losses are passed on to real people, like shareholders, consumers, workers, and suppliers. It is possible to imagine a world without profits. Yet the disappearance of profits means that investors will be unable to realize a return on either their capital or labor. Structure a system that puts people before profits, and both capital and labor will dry up. The scarcity of private investment capital will force the public sector to first raise and allocate capital and labor, though it has no idea how these resources should be deployed to help the people, writ large. A set of ill-conceived public investments will not provide useful goods and services for consumers (who are, after all, people), nor will it provide sustainable wages for workers (who are also people). Poor investment decisions will lead to a massive constriction in social output that harms all people equally.

The proper response to these difficulties is to treat profits as an accurate measure of the cost of capital, rewarded to those individuals and firms who supply some desirable mix of goods, services, and jobs that people, acting individually and not collectively, want for themselves. The genius of Adam Smith, whose musings on the invisible hand are too often derided, was to realize that private markets (supported, to be sure, by suitable public infrastructure) will do better than a command and control system in satisfying the individual’s wants and needs. The Pope offers no serious answer to Smith’s point when he talks about “the ethical need to work for man” and the “common good.” In both of these cases, he treats a collection of diverse individuals as though they form part of some harmonious whole. “Man” in the Pope’s formulation is a grammatical singular but a social collective. The “common good” speaks of some aggregate benefit to a community that is not securely tethered to the successes and failures of the particular individuals within the collectivity.

As a technical matter, it becomes critical to have some reductionist argument that transforms statements about these groups into statements about the individuals who compose them. Ordinary business people understand this intuitively when they speak of win/win transactions. These are transactions that generate gains to all parties involved in the bargain.That common expression, “win/win,” is the distillation of sound economic theory, for the more win/win transactions a society can generate for its people, the greater its economic prosperity.

The great advantage of competition in markets is that it exhausts all gains from trade, which thus allows individuals to attain higher levels of welfare. These win/win propositions may not reach the perfect endpoint, but they will avoid the woes that are now consuming once prosperous economies. Understanding the win/win concept would have taken the Pope away from his false condemnation of markets. It might have led him to examine more closely Spain’s profligate policies, where high guaranteed public benefits and extensive workplace regulation have led to an unholy mix of soaring public debt and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. It is a tragic irony that papal economics mimic those of the Church’s socialist opponents. The Pope’s powerful but misdirected words will only complicate the task of meaningful fiscal and regulatory reform in Spain and the rest of Europe. False claims for social justice come at a very high price.

Amen (so to speak).

And what Epstein has to say about Buffett is well worth checking out too.


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