An economy is often described as if it were a machine or a vehicle. It overheats and cools down. It stalls and accelerates. The machine metaphor encourages a mindset accepting of coercive government controls over economic activitiesespecially to alleviate economic and war crises. But an economy is not a machine. It is individual people engaging in actions such as investment, production, exchange, and consumption. Thus regulatory control of an economy is control of people freely choosing and performing peaceful actions intended to improve the material conditions of their lives. (Redress of force and fraud are not economic regulation but rather matters of criminal or civil justice.)
As the economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek have noted, an economy is far greater than the sum of its parts. Countless individuals set out to improve their situations through labor, investment, entrepreneurship, and exchange. They enter into trades (goods for goods, goods for money, labor for money) only when they expect to receive something they value more than what they give up. In game-theory terminology, voluntary exchange is always a positive-sum at the moment it occurs. (Being fallible, people often err, learn, and make new choices.) But these discrete activities, the trees so to speak, generate a forest: a complex, spontaneous social order whose details and design are beyond the grasp of any single mind. As the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson described it, this order is the product of human action, not human design. This economic orderfree-market capitalismis the unintended product of the cooperative, mutually beneficial, and goal-directed, individual behavior of millions of human beings. It promotes their welfare. Although orderly (i.e., bread appears in the stores every day), it is neither perfect nor efficient in the rarefied sense that economists use those terms, because people are neither perfect nor efficient. (No alternative arrangement could be either.) But free-market capitalism leaves people free to grapple peaceably with omnipresent uncertainty and scarcity in the pursuit of well-being as no other system could ever hope to.
The unschooled can easily fail to appreciate the idea of undersigned order and mistake the orderliness of the marketplace for the product of someones blueprint. This view in turn leads to a belief that the overall plan can be improved on. The results of such a belief are the welfare-warfare state (mixed economy), fascism, and communism. All to some degree seek to replace the spontaneous results of peaceful, mutual welfare-enhancing activities with coercive regimentationthe substitution of the macro-plans of a political authority for the freely coordinated micro-plans of individuals. All alternatives to the free economy impede the production of wealth and the raising of living standards as the narrow visions and ambitions of the few replace the compex integration and coordination of society at large.
Even economies that today are regarded as substantially free are yet unfree at their core: money and banking. All ostensibly free economies today are governed by state central banks, which manipulate the supply of money and interest rates. Since the price system is the critical source of information for all participants in the marketplace, government control of money inevitably distorts those signals, misleads entrepreneurs, fuels artificial cyclic booms, and produces the corollary busts. The biggest bust of all was the Great Depression, which occurred less than two decades after the U.S. established its own central bank, the Federal Reserve System. Far from being a natural part of the market process, the so-called business cycle is a product of political and bureaucratic manipulation and cartellization of the banking system. Central planning of money and banking has fared no better than government central planning generally. Yet the crises it has produced have furnished the excuses for new economic interventions, which bring on new crises and then new interventions as ever more political-economic cycles are created. In the process, enormous amounts of wealth are redistributed through the banking system from the public to special private and government interest groups.
Viewing the economy as a machine has facilitated increasing control by government. Expansion of power during crises has been easier because people have come to believe that government leaders are capable of adjusting the knobs and levers that allegedly control economic variables, such as unemployment and price levels, that affect their well-being. By shifting the publics focus from the activities of real people with personal aspirations to an inanimate mechanism mysteriously controlled by experts, expansion of political power over the economy has been accomplished with minimum resistance.
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