The greatest intellectual accomplishment of the laissez-faire liberal theorists was the recognition of the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ institutions that are crucial prerequisites of productive accomplishment and material prosperity. The hard institutions include private property rights, market prices, and sound money. The soft institutions include those that reinforce values such as prudence, thrift, resourcefulness, innovative courage, and respect for success.
However, this accomplishment was accompanied by a proportionately great intellectual error – the belief that these institutions can be safeguarded exclusively by monopolistic apparatus of aggressive violence, commonly known as states. Since states necessarily parasitize on the productive output of market society, the belief that they are necessary for its emergence, let alone that they can remain ‘minimal’ after its emergence, is fatally misguided. On the contrary, it appears perfectly predictable that they will grow in step with the increase in market output.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. As powerful as states may be in terms of sheer physical force, their survival is ultimately rooted in favorable public opinion, and the best way to secure such opinion is to share their plunder as widely as possible. Thus, with sufficiently wealthy hosts at their disposal, states invariably turn into ‘welfare’ states. And it is at this point that they start sawing off the branch on which they are sitting.
With productive achievement institutionally separated from consumption opportunities, the wealth-generating soft institutions start to erode particularly fast. When there is great abundance all around, but it seems that it can be enjoyed without putting in any productive effort, increasingly many of those who do not so enjoy it come to believe that abundance is a free good, and that the only reason why it is not free for them is because someone unfairly withholds it from them. In other words, the prevalence of welfare-statist ‘redistribution’ spells the death of economic thinking – that is, thinking in terms of resource scarcity, opportunity costs, and incentive structures. This temporarily strengthens the state even further – since at this point the state immediately steps in as an entity that is able and willing to punish the malevolent withholders – but it also further accelerates the death of the goose that lays its golden eggs.
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on September 2, 2017.