The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox

An insightful post at Imlac’s Journal includes this quotation:

Schumpeter argued the economic systems that encourage entrepreneurship and development will eventually produce enough wealth to support large classes of individuals who have no involvement in the wealth-creation process. This generates apathy or even disgust for market institutions, which leads to the gradual takeover of business by bureaucracy, and eventually to full-blown socialism. [Matt McCaffrey, "Entrepreneurs and Investment: Past, Present, ... Future?," International Business Times, December 9, 2011]

This, of course, is the capitalist paradox, of which the author of Imlac’s Journal writes. He concludes with these observations:

[U]nder statist regimes, people’s choices are limited or predetermined. This may, in theory, obviate certain evils. But as McCaffrey points out, “the regime uncertainty” of onerous and ever changing regulations imposed on entrepreneurs is, ironically, much worse than the uncertainties of the normal market, to which individuals can respond more rapidly and flexibly when unhampered by unnecessary governmental intervention.

The capitalist paradox is made possible by the “comfort factor” invoked by Schumpeter. (See this, for example.) It is of a kind with the foolishness of extreme libertarians who decry defense spending and America’s “too high” rate of incarceration, when it is such things that keep them free to utter their foolishness.

The capitalist paradox also arises from the inability and unwillingness of politicians and voters to see beyond the superficial aspects of legislation and regulation. In Bastiat‘s words,

a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

The unseen effects — the theft of Americans’ liberty and prosperity — had been foreseen by some (e.g., Tocqueville and Hayek). But their wise words have been overwhelmed by ignorance and power-lust. The masses and their masters are willfully blind and deaf to the dire consequences of the capitalist paradox because of what I have called the interest-group paradox:

The interest-group paradox is a paradox of mass action….

Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox encompasses much more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. Here is a minute sample:

  • Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for the benefit of the elderly (including the indigent elderly)
  • Tax credits and deductions, for the benefit of low-income families, charitable and other non-profit institutions, and home buyers (with mortgages)
  • Progressive income-tax rates, for the benefit of persons in the mid-to-low income brackets
  • Subsidies for various kinds of “essential” or “distressed” industries, such as agriculture and automobile manufacturing
  • Import quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions on trade, for the benefit of particular industries and/or labor unions
  • Pro-union laws (in many States), for the benefit of unions and unionized workers
  • Non-smoking ordinances, for the benefit of bar and restaurant employees and non-smoking patrons.

What do each of these examples have in common? Answer: Each comes with costs. There are direct costs (e.g., higher taxes for some persons, higher prices for imported goods), which the intended beneficiaries and their proponents hope to impose on non-beneficiaries. Just as importantly, there are indirect costs of various kinds (e.g., disincentives to work and save, disincentives to make investments that spur economic growth). (Exercise for the reader: Describe the indirect costs of each of the examples listed above.)

You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others, the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch.” Even the relatively few persons who might seem to have obtained a “free lunch” — homeless persons taking advantage of a government-provided shelter — often are victims of the “free lunch” syndrome. Some homeless persons may be homeless because they have lost their jobs and can’t afford to own or rent housing. But they may have lost their jobs because of pro-union laws, minimum-wage laws, or progressive tax rates (which caused “the rich” to create fewer jobs through business start-ups and expansions).

The paradox that arises from the “free lunch” syndrome is…. like the paradox of panic, in that there is a  crowd of interest groups rushing toward a goal — a “pot of gold” — and (figuratively) crushing each other in the attempt to snatch the pot of gold before another group is able to grasp it. The gold that any group happens to snatch is a kind of fool’s gold: It passes from one fool to another in a game of beggar-thy-neighbor, and as it passes much of it falls into the maw of bureaucracy.

[The interest-group paradox] has dominated American politics since the advent of “progressivism” in the late 1800s. Today, most Americans are either “progressives” (whatever they may call themselves) or victims of “progressivism.” All too often they are both.

Related posts:
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Law and Liberty
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
The Price of Government Redux
The Near-Victory of Communism
The Mega-Depression
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left
The Divine Right of the Majority
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
Our Enemy, the State
Understanding Hayek
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
Obamacare, Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death-Spiral of Liberty