Learning from history

Spent the last couple of days at the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia meeting which was, as always, filled with interest and revelation. There are a handful of us on the free market side of things, but it is always instructive. If you are interested in these sort of things, even just in economics as such, you should become a member of HETSA and perhaps come along to the meetings.

Two things occurred to me at this particular meeting, which perhaps I ought to have noticed before.

The first one was while I was in conversation with our guest speaker whose specialty was in the theory of capital which is also my own, his from the Marx’s Capital side of things, mine from another side of things. But as we pressed on about the nature of the oppression experienced by the worker today, it became clear to me for the first time what the difference in our perspective is, or at least one such difference. For me, I take the past as unalterable, the present as the bequest from what came before and the future thought about in relation to how things might be improved given where we are. But he had one additional aspect that permeated everything he said and thought, and that was how unjust the past had been and how important it was to punish those who had been at fault (as he saw it) for these sins of the past, and in some way provide some kind of retribution for the harm that had been done.

Of course, most of those who in his view had been wronged are now long dead. Those who would be helped now are somehow those who might be brought together in some present-day category of those who had been wronged, and whoever might be paying the compensation, are those who are not in any specific sense the actual direct beneficiaries of this presumed wrong-doing, but that anyone who is doing well in the present – pick some category, capitalist, the rich, you name it. It is they who owe compensation to those other categories and groups identified as not doing as well today.

The more I listened, the more it was clear that this is the mantra of the left in general. Their aim today is to decide which categories of people had, in their view, been a victim of some perceived injustice in the past, and then work out who in the present compensation can be paid. A madness, but given that we cannot change the past, a very poor way to go about framing public policy.

The other revelation was how the obvious bits of economic policy for an economist – such as the great great harm that is done by trying to assist anyone by controlling prices rather than providing whatever compensation one might feel is necessary only after the market has determined what prices should be charged – seems a fantastic wrong. You cannot tell such people of the certain harm that comes from rent control or minimum wages. Deaf, dumb and blind to markets, although they live in a world of such abundance and ease, beyond anything imaginable less than a hundred years ago, all brought to them through the market economy. The misery and harm such people cause to others with their sanctimony and ignorance is hard to calculate, but it is enormous.

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