Thursday, January 16, 2003

Arguments for a Free Market

There is something odd about the major arguments given by the right for maintaining a free market. They are two, and one of them is somewhat traitorous in appearance. The first is straighforward, basing itself on the right to property and the wrongfulness of taking wealth away from someone who is no willing to give it. The second is a bit squirrelly. It says that free market economies lift up the poor and maximize wealth for the greatest number. It is a utilitarian-style argument.

The difficulty is that the premise of the second argument seems to concede to the leftist opponent that we ought to institute whatever economy lifts up the poor and promotes the happiness of the greatest number. I'm sure you've heard conservatives urge leftists, saying, "That is precisely why those countries need a free market: because it will enrich them and reduce poverty." This is traitorous in appearance, because in appealing to a leftist premise, it seems to commit itself to leftism. In fact if one accepts the premise in question as a strict rule, one is a leftist. One's only concern is the poor, and their problems must be solved by any means necessary. Utilitarianism is a form of leftism. The only other form of leftism is strict egalitarianism which says prosperity be damned, we should be concerned only with maintaining equality of wealth. These two siblings quarrel, but at least they agree that no one has any intrinsic right to keep his wealth. Thus, if an unsuspecting member of the right decided to defend the free market by fully embracing the leftist premise, he would commit himself to accepting that if the free market turns out to lift up the poor less efficiently than socialism, we ought to accept socialism. This is unsettling.

But not to worry. One may appeal to the second argument as a self-respecting conservative. The trick is that one mustn't treat the premise (that we ought to institute whatever economy lifts up the poor and promotes the happiness of the greatest number) as a rule. One must appeal to it as a defeasible principle which is worth following as long as other things remain equal. "Other things" are people's rights to their wealth. In other words, as long as people's rights to keep their wealth are not violated, we ought to prefer the economic system that maximizes prosperity for the greatest number of people. This is not a leftist premise. It's just the commonsense notion that promoting happiness is a factor of some weight.