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Rule of the Wise is No Gift of the Magi

William McGurn writes in today's Wall Street Journal:  "As someone who worked inside a White House, I say you really believe government should be small when you see your friends running it."  What a great line.  The whole article is worth a read, but I'd also offer a quibble.  Where McGurn says, "[C]onservatives believe that even our smartest friend is no match for the collective wisdom of the marketplace," I would scratch the notion that the market is, in fact, wise. 

It seems to me that this is one area where conservatives tend to get in trouble with liberals and even with non-ideological normal people who, quite sensibly, long for good government as opposed to chaos.  Conservatives should give it up.  There is no special "wisdom" in the marketplace--but there is, perhaps, more justice.  And this is where we need to make our stand.  In the first place, the "chaos" that the market produces cannot be distinguished from the "chaos" produced by modern-day wise men--except in the relative justice of it.  We are bound to have some measure of chaos in government and in markets.  Perfect justice is impossible.  So the question is not whether we will have chaos or whether or not some people will end up getting the shaft, but who or what should be controlling that inevitability.  Do we trust that the intentions of our would-be Magi are more selfless and pure than chance?  Or are we wise enough to recognize that they are every bit as flawed as our own friends would be if they were controlling it?

UPDATE:  Wheat and Wheeds makes an important amendment to my points above in noting that one big reason people tend to distrust what we call "free markets" today is that so few of these markets actually are free.  Government intervention, in the form of over-regulation and cronyism, has undermined the freedom of too many markets and it (along with nascent class envy) has contributed to the cynicism about them . . . which is, of course, convenient for those who want argue that markets are inherently unjust.  But that IS the way of the Left: take power, create a problem, complain about the problem you've created, promise that THIS time you will fix it, take more power, make the problem worse . . . and so on.  Just look at health care.   
Categories > Politics

Discussions - 4 Comments

Far be it for me to dispute with Julie, so let's call this a "clarification from authority," being Aristotle's Politics. In Book 3 he compares the qualities of "the many" versus "the few," and he grants that "the many are also better judges of the works of music and of the poets; some[appreciate] a certain part, and all of them all the parts." To be sure, "it is in this that the excellent men differ from each of the many individually."
The trouble is that there is no likelihood that we may have a government ruled by such "excellent men." The free marketplace is, I believe, a practical application of Aristotle's claim that the many are "better judges" of the arts, a claim that is perhaps magnified in a great nation like ours, when compared to government bureaucrats. The "wisdom" of the marketplace, in other words, has much to do with the fact that it offers "the many" a broad variety of choices, some of which are likely to be the best available. Government by its very nature can only offer one option, and with the tiny pool of decision-makers, it is most unlikely to offer the wisest or best option. Thus as an "Aristotelian conservative," I would remain reluctant to give up the claim that the free market does have a kind of "wisdom" compared to the single option commanded by law.

I accept your correction, Dennis. But it is only "a kind of wisdom" and not perfect wisdom. This is an important distinction when talking with people educated by liberals because liberals teach people to abandon faith in markets because of their imperfections . . . they make a claim that experts operate on the basis of scientific wisdom and that, as a result, their conclusions will be more in accord with justice. Climategate and the trend of other "public options" in the public imagination may finally be working in the direction of sinking this notion . . . thank God.

Yes, I agree with you, Julie. The premise of my comment is that the WHOLE PROBLEM OF GOVERNMENT is how to rule with perfect wisdom. The answer of classical political philosophers and our Founders is that it is not possible except by complete accident. What is needed then is "a kind of wisdom." Perfect wisdom in government would provide the best goods and services for man and would allocate them appropriately to each, according to natural justice. In my view, lacking that solution, the best alternative is the kind of wisdom available through the market -- which let me say does have the additional advantage of "freedom" which is the necessary foundation for the exercise of prudence, the highest practical virtue.

Exactly.

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