I like traffic lights.
April 6, 2005 2 Comments
I was driving on abandoned streets after a hurricane. My future wife was with me. Trees were down. Power was out in many neighborhoods. When we got downtown and I saw that traffic lights were working, I said, “I like traffic lights.”
My then-girlfriend-not-even-yet fianc�e said, “But you’re an anarchist.”
I said, “And I like packet routers on the Internet, too.”
According to the manuscript I’m editing, “Generations of students were taught that socialism was, in theory at least, a viable economic system; some authors even went so far as to argue — statistics at hand — that the Soviet economies of Eastern Europe were superior or about to become superior to the capitalist economies of the West.”
A footnote adds: “See in particular the various editions of the most important Western textbook of the postwar years, Paul Samuelson’s Economics. In the very last edition that appeared before the collapse of the Soviet empire, Samuelson stated that it might soon surpass the Western economies.”
I audited an intro econ course with Jim Cox. The text he used was McConnell & Brue. I was pleased to be exposed to what mainstream neoclassical mishmosh is the most popular intro text in college economics — pleased the way I’m pleased to have visited places I never want to return to, or witnessed events I hope never recur.
In the 800 page text, the question of economic freedom gets exactly one page, with “conservative” Milton Friedman’s perspective given first.
Friedman basically argues for localism, federalism, and the right of exit — very straight-forward decentralism, presented pragmatically, not ethically. (I’m not sure how well that actually represents Friedman’s policy proposals, but it’s what he said in the one paragraph the textbook quotes.)
Then we get “liberal” Paul Samuelson’s “rebuttal”:
Traffic lights coerce me and limit my freedom. Yet in the midst of a traffic jam on the unopen road, was I really “free” before there were lights? And has the algebraic total of freedom, for me or the representative motorist or the group as a whole, been increased or decreased by the introduction of well-engineered stop lights? Stop lights, you know, are also go lights…. When we introduce the traffic light, we have, although the arch individualist may not like the new order, by cooperation and coercion created … greater freedom.
— Paul A. Samuelson, “Personal Freedoms and Economic Freedoms in the Mixed Economy,” in Earl F. Cheit (ed.), The Business Establishment (New York: Wiley, 1964), p. 219.
As an “arch individualist” I spend way too much time arguing with people who don’t even understand the position they think they oppose. Philosophical individualism isn’t just one straw man, but an army of them. An army of straw zombies. (Yes, the mixing of the metaphors compounds.) As soon as you take one apart, you’re expected to defend the next one. I realize that defining terms is essential. I realize that we will often have to remind people of those defined terms. But for some reason, everyone thinks they know what individualism is and most of them will return to that impression no matter how many times you point out that they’ve changed the subject. It grows really tiring.
So I leave Samuelson’s strawman as an exercise for the reader.