Home > Uncategorized > Clear-sighted myopia: prominent libertarians quoting Ayn Rand miss that industry itself undermines Hayek's "market morals"

Clear-sighted myopia: prominent libertarians quoting Ayn Rand miss that industry itself undermines Hayek's "market morals"

Rob Bradley has up a post at the fossil-fuel cheering “free-market” Master Resource energy blog on April 25 that shows Ayn Rand’s familiarity with the mis-regulation of the energy industry. The post itself is fairly apt, except that while it paints the energy producers as victims of erratic government regulations it ignores those whose health and property were damaged by the energy industry and gives little play to the role of major firms in pushing for and benefitting from regulation.

But the chief point I wish to make is that Bradley’s post ends with a quote from Rand that is intended to criticize government but actually resonates because of the statism and poor decision-making of the major industry players themselves: (emphasis added)

There is no “natural” or geological crisis; there is an enormous political one. It is in the nature of a mixed economy that its policies are rationally inexplicable, that there are no identifiable causes, no accountable initiators, no ascertainable villains — and that you are losing your jobs, giving up your automobiles, catching pneumonia in unheated bedrooms, not because some giant evildoers are plotting your destruction, but because some seedy hack wanted an unearned salary, and some crummy professor wanted an undeserved prestige, and some measly shyster wanted a chance to fish in muddy laws, and none of them cared to or could watch the state of the country’s economy, and the sum of such termite aspirations has eaten through the pillars of the structure so that one kick from a sheik was sufficient to make it crumble.

Hundreds of thousands of people’s livelihoods and thousands of businesses have been disrupted along the Gulf Coast and nearby TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear power plants, and millions of power consumers in and around Tokyo have been and will be affected for several years, not because of “giant evildoers”, but because major energy firms –  protected by government from full liability and with weak shareholder classes – are themselves highly bureaucratized with no clear locus of responsibility, with executives who look out for their own  interests but have no personal responsibility or liability for the damages resulting from lightly considered but materialized risks.

As I noted in March, F.A. Hayek (in an essay that Jeffrey Tucker has since kindly tracked down and made available generally) noted that:

Where previously perhaps only the aristocracy and its servants were strangers to the rules of the market, the growth of large organisations in business, commerce, finance, and ultimately in government, increased the number of people who grew up without being taught the morals of the market which had been developed in the course of the preceding 2,000 years.  …

We are now in the extraordinary situation that, while we live in a world with a large and growing population which can be kept alive thanks only to the prevalence of the market system, the vast majority of people (I do not exaggerate) no longer believes in the market.

It is a crucial question for the future preservation of civilisation and one which must be faced before the arguments of socialism return us to a primitive morality. We must again suppress those innate feelings which have welled up in us once we ceased to learn the taut discipline of the market, before they destroy our capacity to feed the population through the co-ordinating system of the market.

People are losing faith in the market because large energy firms themselves are partially insulated from the market and as a consequence are not fully subject to its “taut discipline” – and, as a result, are making decisions that are highly damaging.

One can rightly protest that such firms are creatures of government and have been cosseted by government, so that government is responsible for skewed decision-making. But pointing this does not address the problem posed by institutionalized moral hazard.

Only reforms that restore responsibility and market discipline will do that. Such reforms should include not simply increasing competition and ending government ownership of resources and oversight of corporate risk-managment, but finding ways to ensure that there are real principals who are incentivized to hold corporate agents accountable. Otherwise, pervasive moral hazard and risk-shifting will persist.

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