Crisis magazine veers towards libertarianism

“Inside Catholic” seems to have reverted its name to “Crisis Magazine”.  I don’t know if there’s any story behind the name changes.  Perhaps someone can fill me in on this.

More troubling is their increasingly uncritical embrace of the libertarian “tax cuts for the rich will solve all the world’s problems” school of thought.  First, there’s Father Orsi’s plea for a flat tax.  Why would anyone not filthy rich prefer a flat income tax to the current progressive tax? It’s supposedly “better for the soul”.  Like unfortunately many Republican-leaning intellectuals, he’s worried about those 47% of citizens who pay no federal income tax (the spongers!).  Of course, he only mentions federal income taxes for a reason.  The lower classes carry a large part of the state and local tax burden.  Social security is explicitly regressive, and sales taxes are implicitly so.  Let us call this agitation for a flat tax what it is:  class warfare.  It’s a call to put a crushing burden on the lower classes and enrich the already wealthy.

Now, being a heartless bastard, taking from the poor to give to the rich is not a thing that would bother me in itself–call it a feudal due and I might be all on board–but I do nurse a grudge.  For decades, the Republicans have treated us Christian patriarchists like nuts who need to be kept at a distance.  So, “Christ and family” is too disreputable, but “soak the poor” is something the nation can get behind?  If we’re going to be condemned as extremist nuts (as these self-proclained von Mises fans surely will be), why can’t we at least be so condemned in service to the truth?

Then there’s John Zmirak’s latest lecture on economics, an encomium to the omniscience of the price mechanism.  Now, we reactionaries are no friends of the centralized command economy (although I note that Zmirak is even opposed to more decentralized price controls, e.g. by guild monopolies), so what bothers me here are less his conclusions than his arguments.  They are two:

1) The “moral argument”:  Controlled economies presupposed a class of rulers who are supposed to be morally and intellectually superior to the masses.  But there’s no evidence that rulers are better than subjects.  Therefore, we shouldn’t have price controls.

What a bunch of BS.  Note first of all that one could make similar arguments not just against economic planning, but against any form of authority whatsoever.  It’s based on a false belief about the grounds of authority.  What conservative, authoritarian, social democrat, or socialist after Plato has premised his argument for rule on the belief that rulers are morally superior to those they rule?  Of course, virtue is important for rulers, but it’s also important for subjects.  Rule by merit is an ancient and a modern dogma, but it had little place in the civilization of Christendom.  Rulers rule because even order enforced by imperfect men is better than chaos.  So little do we believe in the necessary superiority of rulers that we give crowns out based on accident of birth.  Similarly, it’s just sophistry to say that government control/manipulation of the economy is an exercise in wicked elitism.  It may still not be a good idea, which brings us to his second point.

2) The “practical argument”:  The economy is way to complicated for it to be controlled effectively.  Nobody has the information it would take to do it right.   This information is effectively provided through prices (assuming they are not manipulated by government fiat):

That is what prices are — irreplaceable, accurate data about what millions of individuals prefer on a moment-to-moment basis, transmitted constantly from every consumer and producer in the world to a decentralized database, which almost instantaneously starts up the process of responding to those preferences. Each time you go to Amazon to buy, say, a Catholic humor book (hint, hint), you are sending the bookseller, the publisher, and the author a thank-you note in the form of money. Or, if you prefer, think of it as a vote. It’s a vote you likely earned by providing some good or service to someone else — who in turned earned his votes by serving still other people. This is the origin of the astounding organic order that emerges from the apparent chaos of economic life, when men and women are left essentially free to express their personal preferences and trade the labor they’re willing to do for the goods they wish to buy.

Now, I think this view actually captures some truth.  Also, Zmirak isn’t a total libertarian fanatic.  He agrees that prices don’t capture the extreme negative side effects to some people’s choices (e.g. pollution), and the government is right to step in and directly discourage this sort of thing.  What was most interesting to me, though, is how he fails to address the most obvious objections to his argument.  Prices may be a vote, but by that measure some people have a lot more votes than others, so doesn’t this give a distorted view of “what people want”?  Also, the housing market crash is still fresh in most of our minds.  Here the price of a house was based not on how much people wanted houses for themselves, but because the price was expected to increase into the future.  So the price mechanism started feeding back on itself, rather like if people were to base their votes on how they expected other people to be voting in the future.  Then voting would cease to tell very well what people really want.

The biggest problem, though, is the irrelevance of all of this.  The Democrats want to corrupt our kids, but none of them are planning on instituting socialism in any shape or form.  If the Republicans want to jump off the Tea Party cliff into complete irrelevancy, there’s no reason we should follow.

4 Responses

  1. Jerry Brown supported a flat tax in his presidential back in ’92, which a lot of his leftist supporters could not understand.

  2. John Zmirak’s evolution over the last ten years has been depressing. He is such a neo now that he is hard to read.

    On the other hand, his comic book is awesome. If you don’t have it, you should buy it.

  3. I’d say he leans way too libertarian.

  4. I’m glad someone brought this up. I have been increasingly shocked by the tone of the articles there lately. They do nothing but promote the neocon agenda.

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