Some useful thoughts from Rod Long, over at Cato Unbound.
As he points out, there is a broad-based mythology that defending capitalism is equivalent to defending “big business” when, by its nature, big business abhors capitalism (at least as understood by true free marketeers). Of course, I agree with Jonah Goldberg that we latter should abjure the term “capitalism,” both because it is such a misunderstood word with a wide variance of definitions, and because it is fundamentally a Marxist concept.
A “free-market economy” (something that hasn’t existed to a large degree in this country for many decades) is what should be defended and supported, and we should continue to push to get the country to move back in that direction to find our way out of our current travails (which really started back in the Depression Era). Just as one example, there’s an interesting discussion over at Megan McArdle’s place, here and here, on GM’s straits (about which I’ve also had thoughts over the years, as someone who grew up with it). I think that, as one of the commenters over there notes, the roots of the destruction of the American auto industry lie in the Wagner Act:
GM and the UAW are a perfect illustration of bad government in action.
At some point, a collective decision was made that the unions should be given such expanded powers that they could destroy the company if they wanted (see the above post describing how a strike at a key plant could idle the whole company). What happens here? Well, naturally the union tries to extract as much as they can from the company with the tools available. The union doesn’t profit from increasing profits and building a healthy company, it profits from building an overstaffed company that exists to benefit its employees. The union would have been better served if it divvied up the right to collect a union payout from GM among the workers of the time and let them sell the claims. Then the union could simply negotiate the maximum dividend possible for the holders of these claims. This way you have a rationally run company with the benefits going to the larger voting block (the workers) than the shareholders who are all presumably evil capitalists.
What would have been much more honest and worked better would have been outright nationalization of GM when the rules were set up that the UAW could destroy the company. Instead you’ve got unclear property rights and consequent ill management.
It took a long time to kill the industry, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the cause. Arsenic or mercury can kill over a long period of time as well, though death might actually occur from some other ailment that the toxin-ridden body is ill equipped to fight.
The toxin in this case may be a lot of things (perhaps even including “capitalism” by some warped fascistic definition) but it is an abomination to a free market, and it has destroyed the American auto industry.
[Update a few minutes later]
IBD says let GM go bankrupt:
Far from vanishing, many of GM’s assets would be quickly purchased by competent foreign automakers eager to expand their capacity in what is the world’s largest auto market. Happily, the list of well-run car companies, from Toyota to Nissan to Porsche, is long.
How this helps Michigan, the auto sector and smaller firms reliant on the latter’s health is pretty clear. With capable auto executives finally overseeing GM’s poorly deployed assets, the value and utility of each would rise, thus perpetuating the existence of jobs in the sector, all the while ensuring that other businesses that exist due to GM will enjoy more stable commercial relationships with competent management.
So while the cries of certain Armageddon would be ear splitting in the event of a GM failure, the U.S. auto sector would actually emerge much healthier thanks to a change in ownership that would be the certain result of GM going under.
The problem of course, is that this will be another Enron, in that many people will be thrown out of work, and lose pensions (I should note, for the record, that as a Michigan native, I have close family members who may be in this situation). The political pressure to maintain the status quo will be intense, and unfortunately, given the fact that despite all of the talk about “change,” the status-quo-ante types (at least when it comes to static economic circumstances) have just entrenched their power in Washington, that’s probably the way it will go. If GM is going to get federal money, it should go toward buyouts of long-term employees, and then let the market work to redeploy its assets toward more useful purposes than maintaining an expensive company-town welfare state, that makes cars on the side.
[Update mid morning]
Matt Welch says to the barricades to defend free markets. Except that he uses the confusing word “capitalism.”
I should add, that I consider George Bush’s biggest failure not the events leading up to this crisis, but his response to it, in which (as Matt points out) he capitulated to those advocating government solutions to government-caused problems. Of course, it’s on a par with “compassionate conservatism” and “comprehensive immigration reform” and “no child left behind” and “prescription drugs” and myriad other issues, large and small, on which he showed himself to be anything but a conservative (let alone a libertarian). Had he been a Democrat, the Dems would have been cheering all of his actions as the greatest thing since LBJ and the Great Society.
Speaking of compassionate conservatism (and the tone deafness of George Bush and Mike Gerson and others to how rightly offensive the phrase was to actual conservatives), imagine how well the Democrats would take to a nominee who ran on a platform of “logical liberalism.”
[Early afternoon update]
Iain Murray has more thoughts on free markets and their relationship to liberty:
…as Jonah says, markets are more than this information delivery system. Where the Chicago School has gone wrong is in focusing purely on economic efficiency. As my boss Fred Smith said way back in 1983, “The Chicago School’s case for antitrust policy . . . rests solely on economic efficiency, as if rights had nothing to do with the matter — as if business had no right in principle to dispose of its property as it sees fit, but only a conditional freedom so long as it helps maximize some social utility function. That is to say, no business is entitled to its property if that property can be redeployed so as to expand output. With ‘conservative,’ ‘pro-business’ economists taking this view, who needs social democrats.” In other words, if we value property rights, the free market is an essential consequence. And that is why market socialism never works, because it devalues property rights. Liberty demands property rights which demand free markets. We only interfere with that chain in defiance of history.
It is not a coincidence that communist nations are the most unfree on earth.
[Early evening update, particularly for Instapundit readers, who might want to look around the site]
I’ve talked in the past about the fact that my father was a GM exec, but I’ve never noted what he did there.
Here’s a little background, which may be apocryphal, because I only knew it from my mother, but they met after the war in New York (he was from Brooklyn). She was a former WAC who had served in Egypt, and had decided to see a little more of the world before heading back to her home in Flint, Michigan.
He was standing on a soapbox in the Village, haranguing the crowd on the benefits of Marxism. As an economics major, raised on Keynes, she fell in love.
They married, and finished their graduate degrees, at various places (NYU, UCLA, other, his in Psych–Industrial Psych, hers in Econ). In the fifties he tried door-to-door in Lansing after moving to Michigan with his upper Midwest bride, but when he got an offer at A.C. Spark Plug in her home town (as a result of her brother, my uncle, being an engineer there) he took it, and settled into a middle-class lifestyle, during the best years of the company, in which he raised his family.
He moved up though the white-collar world at AC, in “personnel” (these days, it would be HR, which is one of the reasons that he could get me summer jobs there during college), until he got an offer to go to work for corporate in Detroit, a job for which he commuted sixty miles a day each way from Flint, and we never had to move. I know that this is no big deal of a commute in southern Cal, but for me, it was amazing. He died at an age slightly older than me (right now, for those reading in the future) that I can count on one hand, and not half of it, from a heart attack (his second–he had had his first about a decade earlier, in his forties). That was almost three decades ago.
Head of labor relations, and negotiator (perhaps chief negotiator, though (as Doctor Evil said) I can’t vouch for that), with the UAW.
[Bumped to the top, because there’s a lot of new stuff]