Saturday, June 26, 2004

Sen(seless) Economics

Cass Sunstein's penultimate Volokh Conspiracy essay on FDR's Second Bill of Rights invokes Amartya Sen:
Randy [Barnett] asks whether the Second Bill should be seen as protecting "natural rights." To say the least, the natural rights tradition has multiple strands; a good contemporary version is elaborated by Amartya Sen (see his Development as Freedom).
In other words, the Bill of Rights (the real one) codified certain natural rights, but not all of them, according to Sunstein and his fellow travelers. The Second Bill of Rights envisioned by FDR would (and perhaps did) codify the Sunstein-Sen version of economic freedom as a natural right on a par with, say, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom from self-incrimination.

Here's Dr. Sen (the 1998 Nobel laureate in Economics and a professor at Trinity College, Cambridge) to explain what he means by economic freedom (from an online essay entitled "Development as Freedom"):
We…live in a world with remarkable deprivation, destitution, and oppression....

Overcoming these problems is a central part of the exercise of development. We have to recognize the role of different freedoms in countering these afflictions. Indeed, individual agency is, ultimately, central to addressing these deprivations. On the other hand, the freedom of agency that we have is inescapably constrained by our social, political, and economic opportunities. We need to recognize the centrality of individual freedom and the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom. To counter the problems we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment....

I view the expansion of freedom both as the primary end and as the principal means of development. Development consists of removing various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency....

Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systemic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states.
What's wrong with this picture? Sen, Sunstein, and their ilk -- clever arguers, all -- equate economic freedom (delivered in the form of make-work jobs, welfare, the minimum wage, social security, subsidized housing, free medical care, legalized extortion of employers through unionization, etcetera, etcetera) with political freedom (or liberty as it's better known). The two things are incommensurate. Indeed, they are incompatible.

In order for some persons to enjoy the kind of economic freedom envisioned by FDR and his acolytes, government must impose what Sen would call economic unfreedom and on other persons, through taxation and regulation. "Robbing Peter to pay Paul" still says it best.

Political freedom (liberty) works the other way around. One person's political freedom -- the freedom to speak out, to publish a newspaper, to cast a vote, and so on -- doesn't diminish another person's political freedom. To the contrary, political freedom is most secure when it is widely held.

True economic freedom flows from political freedom. True economic freedom encompasses such things as pursuing a better education, limited only by one's ability and financial resources; finding and keeeping a job, without paying union dues or belonging to a minority group; starting a business of one's own and running it freely, without extorting or cheating others; making a campaign contribution in any amount to any political candidate; not being forced to subsidize candidates one opposes; and saving for one's old age (in a real savings account) or buying a sports car, as one chooses. These are just a few of the many economic freedoms that government has circumscribed in its typically Orwellian effort to improve us by making us less free.

More importantly, from the Sunstein-Sen point of view, FDR-style economic freedom reduces the range of options available to individuals by significantly diminishing the economy (see "The True Cost of Government"). If the economy hadn't been stunted by FDR-style economic freedom, and if FDR-style economic freedom hadn't discouraged the habit of private charity, the poor, infirm, and aged of this land -- and many other lands -- would be far better off than they are today.

The irony would be amusing if it weren't tragic.