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Drawing the Line

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Socialism and communism have collapsed so completely that only a few holdouts refuse to acknowledge the rubble before their eyes. We’ve apparently reached “the end of history,” as Francis Fukyama labeled the post-Cold War era a few years ago.

But appearances can deceive. Some people are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that capitalism might be the only “ism” left standing. The search for a “third way” goes on. President Clinton used that very term in his State of the Union address.

Authors Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw also seem to be looking for that holy grail when they wonder, in their new book and in the Washington Post, about where our era will set the “frontier between government and marketplace.” It is ironic that in thinking about the world on the brink of the new millennium, they are thinking in such old terms. They discuss the frontier between government and marketplace in analog terms, as though that line can be adjusted in infinitely small steps. The task, as they see it, is to find just the right position, where marketplace and government balance each other and each prevents abuse by the other.

But we live in the digital age! Analog thinking is inappropriate in so many areas of life — including the politico-economic realm. A digital device deals with ones and zeroes. A switch in an computer chip is either open or closed. There is no in-between, no range of adjustment, no third way.

What does this have to do with government and the marketplace? A great deal, for when we focus on the nature of state and economy, we see that the framework is digital not analog. Let me explain. George Washington is supposed to have said that “government is not reason or eloquence. It is force.” All government can do, when you come right down to it, is compel. Every activity it undertakes ultimately relies on coercion. If you take away its power to tax, what is left? Regulations would be mere advisories if the officers of the state did not have prisons, guns, and the legal authority to use them. Government does not produce or create; it appropriates and transfers what others produce and create. Whether we think the use of force to tax and regulate is proper or not, we cannot evade the fact that it is force on which government depends.

In contrast, the marketplace is reason and eloquence. It is an environment in which people try to better their circumstances by offering to better those of others. A proffer is an attempt to persuade. A price, someone said, is an argument. The marketplace, then, is productive and creative. Think about what happens there. Production is actually transformation. A successful entrepreneur transforms pre-existing factors — labor, machines, land, raw materials — into a finished whole for which people are willing to pay more than they would pay for all the parts. The entrepreneur’s profit is the difference between those two prices, his reward for figuring this all out. Contrariwise, losses represent the consumers’ penalizing an entrepreneur for “misusing” the factors by turning them into a less valuable form.

State and market, then, are opposites, embodying, respectively, force and creativity. That is why the mission to finely adjust the frontier between the two, as Yergin and Stanislaw wish, is misconceived. It is not a shade of gray that we should be seeking, but the bright line between force and reason (creativity). Force is appropriate only against force. The late Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, captured the proper conception of the scope of market and government in the words “Anything that’s peaceful.” As Read wrote, “Let anyone do anything he pleases that’s peaceful or creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation . . . . Leave all else to the free, unfettered market!”

The frontier between the state and market has only one right position, precisely at the point that leaves people free to do as they will so long as they recognize the same right held by everyone else.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.