Wednesday, October 01, 2014

You can't take it with you

The week before last, my wife and I spent a few days in New York. We went to a few shows, including the preview run of - sorry, but he's a big name -  James Earl Jones in the reprise of the 1936 Broadway hit "You Can't Take it with You" at the historic Longacre Theatre (48th just past Broadway).  I highly recommend it. It starts slow but finishes fast. And Jones' character delivers one of the best takedowns of the abuse of Congress' Commerce Clause powers - really - that I've ever heard. I'll get to it at the end.

What struck me about the play is the way in which we can all find what we want in a work of art. I have a bias here unrelated to politics. My mother was a painter (who did not share my politics). She always insisted, however, that she was not the arbiter of the meaning of her work. She was trying to lay bare something real about the human condition but translating that into politics or rules about how to live in the world went beyond what she had actually done (whatever her intent). She was simply provoking a thought - or illuminating a truth - that could be taken in multiple - even contradictory - directions.

I thought the play to be  a libertarian tour-de force. Jones' character is patriarch of the odd Sycamore family - a lovable group of folks who do what they want - write bad plays, dance poorly, make (and sometimes explode) fireworks in the basement -  without regard to what others think and even for what makes sense. He won't pay his income tax (because he doesn't "believe in it" and doubts that the federal government will use his money wisely). His eccentric family insists on its freedom to be who it wants to be. I found my political presumptions affirmed.

But others see it differently. Kristine Nielsen, who plays Jones' daughter, says that the play is about -and supportive of -  "collectivism." My initial reaction was that Nielsen, who is a good actor, is a lousy historian and political philosopher. Eccentrics and dissidents don't fare well in collectivist societies. When the collective is empowered, then individuals who do not do what the collective wants - whether (as in the collectivist Third Reich), it is to hate the Jews or (as in the collectivist Russia ) it is to be gay - don't fare well. Nielsen can be a great actor and not appreciate the tension between the scope of collective decision-making and individual liberty.

But I see what prompts her to say what she did. In "You Can't Take it with You," one of the endearing things about the Sycamore family is that they care about each other and are open to caring about others. This, according to Nielsen, makes it "collective." She apparently believes that no one needs to be free in how they use their money or make their living as long as they are free in whatever realm the state decides to consider "personal." I think that's demonstrably false but that's not where I want to go here.

My guess is that Nielsen believes that political decision-making - where we get together and vote on who gets what - is an example of us caring about each other, while market decision-making - where we voluntarily enter into exchanges with each other - is not. 

There is absolutely no reason to believe this is so. A political decision will only reflect what most of us want. There is no reason to think that it will reflect concern for "all of us" as opposed to most of us or however many among us have managed to use the government to get what we want. 

A market system requires one side of a transaction to deliver what the other side wants. No one can coerce anyone to do what he or she does not want to do. If I want someone to give me something, I must give them something. I cannot take it. I must, in that sense, "care" about them.

(I understand that some people will suggest that the government may act to force people to support private interests - crony capitalism. That does happen - particularly where the government is given plenary power to "manage" the economy. But it's not my program.)

The criticism of the market system is that it is not perfect. The existing balance of power - who has what resources including property and talent - might be such that people must "accept" transactions that some observer believes should be more advantageous, i.e., a job that does not pay enough or rent that is "too damn high." Some people believe that political decision-making should be deployed to "improve" market outcomes.

Perhaps. For a variety of reasons, I think that this is mostly - but not always - wrong. But what I do know is that solving the puzzle of when and where the government must intervene is not materially aided by the notion of whether we should "care" about each other. Market economies and those in which the government commands who gets what - and all the points in between - are about how we decide the best way in which people can serve each other.

The eccentric Sycamore family teaches something about opposition to authority. It tells us little about coerced submission to authority which is what political collectivism is.

So here is Jones' character's line about interstate commerce. When IRS collector tries to him why he should pay income taxes, he invokes the government's need to regulate interstate commerce. "There are 48 states," he says, "if it weren't for Interstate Commerce, nothing could get from one state to another."

Grandpa Sycamore's reply: "Why not? Have they got fences ...?"

Yes,  I understand why you need federal oversight of interstate commerce. But the notion that, without a significant degree of regulation, nothing "could get" from one place to another is category error.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin


Tom said...

Much simpler - collectivism = forced associations, libertarianism = voluntary associations.

Calypso Facto said...

People traded long before the gov't regulated it. But an initial modicum of regulation can normalize and enhance the process, while added layers of regulation eventually bog the process down (the economic graph of which is known as the Rahn Curve).