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Rube Goldberg Economics


“Since ‘economic growth’ is today’s great problem, and our present Administration is promising to ‘stimulate’ it — to achieve general prosperity by ever wider government controls, while spending an unproduced wealth …”

Any contemporary libertarian or Austrian-school economist could have written those words. The quotation, however, is from Ayn Rand’s opening paragraph to the essay “Let Us Alone,” published in the 1966 book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She used the line to get to her point that few people know the origin of the phrase “laissez-faire,” and that government types never learn economic truths.

As Rand told the story, the French minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert asked a group of businessmen what the government could do to help business, since Louis XIV — whom Rand called a “pretentious mediocrity with grandiose ambitions” — had run the economy into the ground.

Colbert, like Paul Krugman, Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and other big-government Keynesian economists of today, believed that regulations, along with spending and taxes, create wealth and prosperity. He was wrong, and the dismal French economy proved the point. America’s currently failing economy is further proof.

In response to Colbert’s question, one man, a manufacturer named Legendre, stood up and said, “Laissez-nous faire,” meaning “Let us alone.”

“Apparently,” Rand wrote, “the French businessmen of the seventeenth century had more courage than their American counterparts of the twentieth [and now the twenty-first] and a better understanding of economics.”

Indeed, too many of today’s so-called business leaders are what Rand called “second-handers,” people who pander to and lobby politicians for favors instead of doing the real work of running a business, providing goods and services for a decent price. The result is an economy that’s worse today than it was when Rand wrote the essay because the government is further entrenched into the economy beyond that of a frugal consumer.

Rand would have balked at being called a prophet. She would have preferred being known as someone who signaled a warning, one that was heeded. The warning wasn’t heeded and the mistakes of the past are being repeated, as is always the case until we learn.

One does not need to be a prophet to know that violating any of nature’s laws, physical or economic, will have bad consequences.

Pundits and politicians from both sides of the horizontal flat line stress the need for growth. Libertarians also want to see economic growth, but the statists want to hype failed policies, while libertarians want to let the market work. Pundits and politicians think government creates wealth. We know government destroys wealth.

From Colbert to Geithner, from Louis XIV to Barack Obama, statist economists and politicians are all the same. They take the natural market, one that is self-correcting when allowed to function on its own, and they tinker with it. They treat the market as if it were an artificial mechanism and they were engineers who knew how to tweak and fine-tune anything and everything.

Yet the more they tinker, the more the mechanism falters and mis-times. Red tape turns the simple voluntary transaction of buying and selling into a Rube Goldberg contraption with so many branches that buyers and sellers become disconnected from each other while their money goes to pay the tinkerers. At least mechanical Rube Goldberg machines perform their intended task. Economically, they are dismal failures.

This past September 9, the Chadds Ford Republican Party held a breakfast meeting. The party chairman said the idea was to have supervisors learn what business owners would like to see from the township so that business could improve. That was ironic, since the Chadds Ford Business Association has an annual meeting with township supervisors every February or March to discuss just those matters.

Every speaker at that meeting was either a candidate for office, a Republican Party officer, or an elected officeholder. It was a campaign rally, nothing more. (One in need of much more pep.)

None of the speakers stood and asked, “Business people, what can we do to help?”

Nor were there any business people who stood up to offer an opinion. And none who would be invited would dare publicly to offer an original thought that did not, somehow, further involve government where it doesn’t belong.

There were businessmen and -women at the meeting, but they were few and far between. Of those recognized as business owners, only one wasn’t somehow connected to the Republican Party or township government.

No questions were asked about business and none was answered. It was all about turning out the vote. Legendre wasn’t invited.

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    Rich Schwartzman is managing editor at Chadds Ford Live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.