Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Moving the goal posts

Between a free market economy and a Marxist one, the United States tries to score from midfield

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

When a friend reminded me this past week that there is not a single nation, on the whole face of the globe, that operates with a genuinely free market economy, I did a double take. Can't be, I thought.

But he pressed me, offering a free lunch if I could name such a country. Maybe you can help me-but so far, I haven't claimed the free lunch.

The exchange took me back 20 years to a discussion I had in a city park near downtown Havana, Cuba. An elderly and slightly scruffy gentleman had introduced himself as a retired economics professor, unapologetic to call himself a committed Marxist, and eager to practice his English.

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Indeed, my new friend's English was good enough to draw a sharp picture of his analysis: "You people think mostly about the individual person, and you put a great emphasis on such a person's freedom. We think mostly about the common good, and our emphasis tends to be more on the benefits to society as a whole."

Then, because he also wanted to learn a little more about the differences between soccer and American football, I remember our sketching together a football field to illustrate what he had just described. We penciled in individual rights at one end of the field (my American specialty), and community good at the other (his Cuban specialty). But I worried that this was an overly simplistic view of things. So I emphasized to him, pointing to the American end of the field: "Don't assume that we're playing anywhere near this goal line. Most of what goes on in the U.S.," I stressed, "happens out around the 40 or 50-yard line. The lives individual Americans live take place much closer to midfield than to what you see as the American goal line."

All of which brings us back to the claim that there's not a nation anywhere on earth serving as an unambiguous picture of the free market at work. Have you thought of one yet?

To the extent that Americans see themselves as practitioners and beneficiaries of the so-called "market economy," both honesty and modesty remind us to admit that the society in which we live has been incredibly shaped by a collectivist mentality. Everywhere we turn, through almost every hour of every day, our lives are regulated and shaped by every level of government-and all supposedly for the common good. From this morning's stop at the gas station, to the labeling on what we picked up at the grocery store, to the interest rate announced by the neighborhood bank, to the words that got bleeped out of this evening's newscast-in all these and many other situations, someone wasn't content just to let market forces do their thing. Someone was always jumping in to say: "Let's give those market forces a little extra help."

Implicit in all those governmental efforts to "help" market forces do their thing is the sense-maybe we could even call it the hubris-that government has enough intelligence and brainpower to do it better than the market would by itself. And maybe that's why we're not left with a single notable example of a free market model that we can all sit back and view and then say: "So that's what such an animal looks like!" Everywhere we go, we always spoil things by jumping in and upsetting the process.

In the United States we haven't been close-for several generations-to creating a test case for a so-called market economy. It's at best a blend, and more and more, in recent years, it's been a blend tilting toward collectivism rather than freedom.

All of which puts a sharp focus on this year's elections. At one end of the playing field, Coach Obama persistently calls us to apply the collectivist playbook to more and more aspects of life. We're getting a pretty vivid example of that experiment.

But for better or for worse, the other model simply isn't there for inspection and review-not in Havana, not in the United States, and apparently nowhere else in the whole wide world.

Email jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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