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When I first got to Washington in the mid-1980s, one of the big issues was the supposedly invincible Japanese economy. Folks on the left claimed that Japan was doing well because the government had considerable power to micro-manage the economy with industrial policy.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now quite apparent that was the wrong approach.

In more recent years, some on the left have praised China’s economic model. And while it’s true that the country has enjoyed strong growth, it’s far from a role model.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2010.

Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom – which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. …This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation.

With my skeptical view of the Chinese economic system, I figured it was just a matter of time before the nation experienced some economic hiccups.

And the recent drop in the Shanghai stock market certainly would be an example. I discussed the topic earlier this week in this Skype interview with Blaze TV.

To elaborate, there’s no precise formula for determining a nation’s prosperity. After all, economies are not machines.

But there is a strong relationship between prosperity and the level of economic freedom.

And as I explained earlier this year, China’s problem is that government is still far too big. As such, its overall ranking from Economic Freedom of the World is still very low.

And this means that the Chinese people – while much better off then they were under a pure communist system – are still not rich.

I mentioned the comparative numbers on per-capita economic output in the interview, which is something I wrote about back in 2011. And you can click here if you want the underlying figures to confirm that Americans are far more prosperous.

By the way, this is an issue where the establishment seems to have a semi-decent understanding of what’s happening, even if they don’t necessarily draw any larger lessons from the episode.

The Associated Press, for instance, has a good report on the issue. Here’s some of the story, which looks at why the the stock market seems untethered from economic fundamentals.

When China’s economy was roaring along at double digit rates in the 2000s, Chinese stocks floundered. But starting in the summer of 2014, as evidence of an economic slowdown gathered, the Shanghai Composite index climbed nearly 150 percent. …Now the Chinese stock bubble has burst and Shanghai shares are in a free fall. They’ve lost about 30 percent since peaking last month. …Prices in the stock market are supposed to reflect business realities: the health of the economy, the quality of the companies listed on stock exchanges, the comparative allure of alternative investments. But in a communist country where the government plays an oversized role in the economy, investors pay more attention to signals coming from policymakers in Beijing than to earnings reports, management shake-ups and new product announcements.

If savvy investors think it’s important to focus on what the government is doing, that’s obviously bad news.

During the booming 2000s, only politically connected firms were allowed to list on stock exchanges for the most part. Many of them were run by insiders of dubious managerial talent. The markets were dominated by inefficient state-owned companies. Investors were especially wary of investing in big government banks believed to be sinking under the weight of bad loans. Stocks went nowhere.

And when the government started to encourage a bubble, that also wasn’t a good idea.

…state media began encouraging Chinese to buy stock, even as the country’s economic outlook dimmed. The economy grew 7.4 percent last year, the slowest pace since 1990. It’s expected to decelerate further this year. But authorities allowed investors to borrow to buy ever-more shares. Unsophisticated investors — more than a third left school at the junior high level — got the message and bought enthusiastically, taking Chinese stocks to dangerous heights. Now it’s all crashing down.

I’m not sure “all crashing down” is the right conclusion.

As I said in the interview, the market doubled and now it’s down about 30 percent, so many investors are still in good shape.

That being said, I have no idea whether the market will recover, stabilize, or continue to drop.

But I do feel comfortable making a larger point about the relationship between economic freedom and long-run prosperity.

So if you want to learn lessons from East Asia, look at the strong performances of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, all of which provide very impressive examples of sustained growth enabled by small government and free markets.

P.S. I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

P.P.S. Click here if you want some morbid humor about China’s pseudo-communist regime.

P.P.P.S. Though I give China credit for trimming at least one of the special privileges provided to government bureaucrats.

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Folks on the left sometimes act as if the Nordic nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an impediment to prosperity.

As I’ve pointed out before, they obviously don’t spend much time looking at the data.

So let’s give them a reminder. Here are the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. I’ve inserted red arrows to draw attention to the Nordic nations. As you can see, every single one of them is in the top quartile, meaning that they aren’t big-government jurisdictions by world standards.

Moreover, Finland ranks above the United States. Denmark is higher than Estonia, which is often cited a free-market success story. And all of them rank ahead of Slovakia, which also is known for pro-growth reforms.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean the Nordic nations are libertarian paradises. Far from it.

Government is far too big in those countries, just as it is far too big in the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, and other nations in the top quartile.

Which is tragic since the burden of government spending in North America and Western Europe used to be just a fraction of current levels – even in nations such as Sweden.

The way I’ve described the Nordic nations is that they have bloated and costly welfare states but compensate for that bad policy by being very free market in other policy areas.

But you don’t need to believe me. Nima Sanandaji has just written an excellent new monograph for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Entitled Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism, Nima’s work explains how the Nordic nations became rich during an era of small government and free markets, how they then veered in the wrong direction, but are now trying to restore more economic freedom.

Here are some key excerpts, starting with some much-needed economic history.

Scandinavia’s success story predated the welfare state. …As late as 1960, tax revenues in the Nordic nations ranged between 25 per cent of GDP in Denmark to 32 per cent in Norway – similar to other developed countries. …Scandinavia’s more equal societies also developed well before the welfare states expanded. Income inequality reduced dramatically during the last three decades of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, most of the shift towards greater equality happened before the introduction of a large public sector and high taxes. …The phenomenal national income growth in the Nordic nations occurred before the rise of large welfare states. The rise in living standards was made possible when cultures based on social cohesion, high levels of trust and strong work ethics were combined with free markets and low taxes….the Nordic success story reinforces the idea that business-friendly and small-government-oriented policies can promote growth.

Here’s a chart from the book showing remarkable growth for Sweden and Denmark in the pre-welfare state era.

Nima has extra details about his home country of Sweden.

In the hundred years following the market liberalisation of the late 19th century and the onset of industrialisation, Sweden experienced phenomenal economic growth (Maddison 1982). Famous Swedish companies such as IKEA, Volvo, Tetra Pak, H&M, Ericsson and Alfa Laval were all founded during this period, and were aided by business-friendly economic policies and low taxes.

Unfortunately, Nordic nations veered to the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, not surprisingly, that’s when growth began to deteriorate.

The third-way radical social democratic era in Scandinavia, much admired by the left, only lasted from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. The rate of business formation during the third-way era was dreadful.
Again, he has additional details about Sweden.
Sweden’s wealth creation slowed down following the transition to a high tax burden and a large public sector. …As late as 1975 Sweden was ranked as the 4th richest nation in the world according to OECD measures….the policy shift that occurred dramatically slowed down the growth rate. Sweden dropped to 13th place in the mid 1990s. …It is interesting that the left rarely discusses this calamitous Swedish growth performance from 1970 to 2000.

The good news is that Nordic nations have begun to shift back toward market-oriented policies. Some of them have reduced the burden of government spending. All of them have lowered tax rates, particularly on business and investment income. And there have even been some welfare reforms.

…there has been a tentative return to free markets. In education in Sweden, parental choice has been promoted. There has also been reform to pensions systems, sickness benefits and labour market regulations

But there’s no question that the welfare state and its concomitant tax burden are still the biggest problem in the region. Which  is why it is critical that Nordic nations maintain pro-market policies on regulation, trade, monetary policy, rule of law and property rights.

Scandinavian countries have compensated for a large public sector by increasing economic liberty in other areas. During recent decades, Nordic nations have implemented major market liberalisations to compensate for the growth-inhibiting effects of taxes and labour market policies.

Let’s close with what I consider to be the strongest evidence from Nima’s publication. He shows that Scandinavians who emigrated to America are considerably richer than their counterparts who stayed put.

Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes. It is true that poverty rates in Scandinavian countries are lower than in the US. However, the poverty rate among descendants of Nordic immigrants in the US today is half the average poverty rate of Americans – this has been a consistent finding for decades. In fact, Scandinavian Americans have lower poverty rates than Scandinavian citizens who have not emigrated. …the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finnish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as ‘Scandinavian Americans’ in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219. …Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 percent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland.

In other words, when you do apples to apples comparisons, either of peoples or nations, you find that smaller government and free markets lead to more prosperity.

That’s the real lesson from the Nordic nations.

P.S. Just in case readers think I’m being too favorable to the Nordic nations, rest assured that I’m very critical of the bad policies in these nations.

Just look at what I’ve written, for instance, about Sweden’s healthcare system or Denmark’s dependency problem.

But I will give praise when any nation, from any part of the world, takes steps in the right direction.

And I do distinguish between the big-government/free-market systems you find in Nordic nations and the big-government/crony-intervention systems you find in countries like France and Greece.

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The proper view on inequality is that it doesn’t matter.

That assumes, of course, that people are earning their income honestly rather than via government-enabled cronyism.

To elaborate, some people will become rich in a system of honest and competitive markets, but that’s not at the expense of the poor. Indeed, the talents and skills of top investors and entrepreneurs generally make life better for the rest of us.

So if we want to help the poor, we shouldn’t attack the rich. Instead, we should pursue policies that will allow faster growth. That benefits everyone, particularly those on the bottom of the economic ladder (though there also are some specific policies that are disproportionately helpful to the less fortunate, such as school choice).

Unfortunately, there are many leftists who genuinely seem to think the economy is a fixed pie. And they seem impervious to all the evidence that free markets and small government are the way to achieve broadly shared growth.

In hopes of reaching these folks, let’s look at some recent academic evidence on inequality. We’ll start with some new research from scholars at Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Bank of France, University College London, and the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

They found that top incomes rose because of innovation, which is noteworthy since every rational person should welcome the prosperity fueled by innovation.

In this paper we use cross-state panel data to show a positive and significant correlation between various measures of innovativeness and top income inequality in the United States over the past decades. …this correlation (partly) reflects a causality from innovativeness to top income inequality, and the effect is significant: for example, when measured by the number of patent per capita, innovativeness accounts on average across US states for around 17% of the total increase in the top 1% income share between 1975 and 2010. …from cross-section regressions performed at the commuting zone (CZ) level, we find that: (i) innovativeness is positively correlated with upward social mobility; (ii) the positive correlation between innovativeness and social mobility, is driven mainly by entrant innovators and less so by incumbent innovators, and it is dampened in states with higher lobbying intensity. Overall, our findings vindicate the Schumpeterian view whereby the rise in top income shares is partly related to innovation-led growth, where innovation itself fosters social mobility at the top through creative destruction.

I particularly like that these scholars found that lobbying leads to less innovation, which presumably is a proxy for the degree of government intervention (there’s no need to lobby – on the good side or bad side of an issue – if government doesn’t have power to interfere with market outcomes).

Sticking with the main issue of inequality, we also have a recent study from a couple of German academics.

Here are the key results.

This paper offers a comprehensive econometric investigation of the impact of income inequality… Using survey data from all thirty-four OECD countries over a period of almost thirty years, …there is evidence that a more unequal income distribution strengthens the work ethic of the population. Thus, income inequality seems to generate work incentives not only via the pecuniary reward of work but also through the symbolic reward it receives.

Gee, what a shocker. If people are allowed to enjoy the rewards that accrue from serving the needs of others in the marketplace, they’ll have more incentive to be productive.

That sounds like a good system, particularly compared to places where success is penalized.

Now let’s consider some caveats. While these studies have results that I like, I confess that a certain skepticism is warranted with this kind of research.

Measures of inequality don’t really tell us anything unless we know why there are differences in income.

In jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, there may be a significant amount of income inequality simply because some people are getting richer faster than other people are getting richer.

That’s a nice problem to have, though it’s important to understand that inequality doesn’t drive growth. It’s simply an outcome of growth.

But in cronyist jurisdictions such as Argentina or Greece, there may be lots of inequality because corrupt insiders are using their connections to obtain unearned and undeserved wealth. And that means labor and capital are being misallocated, which is bad for ordinary people.

Once again, inequality is a result of policy, but in these cases, the inequality is bad because it’s the consequence of misguided intervention.

The bottom line is that policy makers should focus on growth rather than inequality. At least if their goal is to help poor people enjoy higher living standards.

P.S. Fans of Jonathan Swift will enjoy this “modest proposal” to reduce inequality.

P.P.S. Fans of honest research will be horrified by the OECD’s tortured attempt to show that inequality is associated with weaker performance.

P.P.P.S. If Margaret Thatcher is right, leftists are motivated more by hatred for the rich than by love for the poor.

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Since almost everybody wants a society that is just, that presumably means we all favor “social justice.”

But in the American political system, the phrase has been adopted by those who favor bigger government and more intervention. Sort of the way “solidarity” and “social” are code words for statism in Europe.

Leftists think that this phrase gives them the moral high ground, but shouldn’t we judge “social justice” by outcomes rather than intentions?

Is statism really compassionate if it actually winds up lining the pockets of wealthy insiders?

Is statism really compassionate when it gives people an excuse to be stingy, as we see in Europe?

Is statism really compassionate when it means less long-run growth and lower living standards for ordinary people?

The answers to those questions probably depend on one’s definition of a just society.

For those fixated on equality, it appears that they are willing to accept more deprivation and hardship if everyone is equally poor. Which is the sentiment expressed in this clever image.

Supporters of liberty, by contrast, want less government because they don’t mind if some people get richer faster than other people get richer.

You won’t (or at least shouldn’t) be surprised that John Stossel is in the latter category. Writing for Reason, he debunks the notion that “social justice” is either social or justice. Instead, he explains that it’s just a new term for a defective product.

Protestors demand “social justice.” …But there’s nothing “just” about the leftist protesters’ claimed solution: more big government.

He points out that Venezuela supposedly is a role model for social justice, yet ordinary people are impoverished.

Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Harry Belafonte praised Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez for his socialist revolution. Chavez then proceeded to destroy much of his country. …Only socialism could take an oil-rich nation and turn it into one where people wait in line for hours for survival rations.

Stossel correctly explains that genuine social justice is achieved with free markets.

Without the free market setting prices and allocating resources, all the cries of “justice” in the world don’t help anyone. You can’t eat justice. You can’t use it as toilet paper. …Socialists say capitalists just want to make a quick buck, but it’s government that can’t plan for the long haul. …Calling it “social justice” doesn’t make it work. …Markets, in which individuals, not just rulers, have property rights, give people options. Businesses have an incentive to serve as many people as possible, regardless of gender or ethnic group. They also have an incentive to be nice—customers are more likely to trade with people who treat them fairly. Everyone gets to choose his own path. That’s what I call justice.

Of course, I’m not holding my breath waiting for statists to agree with me or John Stossel.

That’s because, as Jonah Goldberg explains in this Prager University video, “social justice” is a catch-all term for the left’s agenda. And that agenda means more power for government and less freedom for individuals.

I particularly like how Jonah explains how statists are the ones that want to impose their values on others.

P.S. If you enjoyed this video, you’ll also like other Prager University videos, including ones on profits, the Laffer Curve, and the Great Depression.

P.P.S. I wrote last month to mock Senator Bernie Sanders for being a hopeless statist, but I also said he was a “faux socialist.”

George Will has the same jaded assessment.

Is it obligatory to take seriously his pose of being…a “socialist”? It gives excitable Democratic activists a frisson of naughtiness to pretend… In olden days, socialism meant something robust — government ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Then, voters and reality being resistant to such socialism, the idea was diluted to mean just government ownership of an economy’s “commanding heights,” principally heavy industries, coal mines, railroads, etc.

But you’d have a hard time finding people who still believe that nonsense, even in the diluted form. In Europe, for instance, Social Democrats have morphed into conventional statists.

Today, “socialism,” at least in Western Europe where the term is still part of the political lexicon, is the thin gruel of “social democracy.” This means three things — heavy government regulation of commercial activities, government provision of a “social safety net” and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and entitlement programs. …Sanders, who thinks European social democracies are exemplary, evidently thinks America should be more like Greece.

And Thomas Sowell has the best (and most hard-hitting) way of describing the ideology of modern-day statists.

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Even small differences in economic growth make a big difference to living standards over time.

I frequently share this chart, which highlights how long it takes to double economic output based on different growth rates.

I also use real-world examples to show how some nations become much richer than other nations within just a few decades because of better policy and faster growth.

Here’s another way to approach the issue. Let’s use a hypothetical example to reinforce the importance of growth. If we went back to 1870 and assumed our economy’s nominal growth rate was one percentage point slower than it actually was (in other words, averaging 4.76 percent each year rather than 5.76 percent), our living standards today would be only 1/4th of current levels.

That’s a huge difference in national prosperity. We’d be about the level of Kazakhstan today!

In a column for the Wall Street Journal last week, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy and businessman Louis Woodhill used the same approach to make a similar point about the incredible importance of long-run growth. They go back even further in time and come up with an even more sobering example.

The recovery that began in 2009 is the weakest in postwar history. Millions have dropped out the labor force, frustrated by lack of opportunity. Lower-income workers are underemployed, middle-incomes have not advanced as in the past, and government dependency has increased. …ignored is what really matters: rapid, sustained economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the U.S. economy will grow by a meager 2.3% over the next decade… At this growth rate, Americans face a future of stagnation, inequality and despair. Here’s why: From 1790 to 2014, U.S. GDP in real dollars grew at an average annual rate of 3.73%. Had America grown at the CBO’s “economic speed limit” of 2.3% for its entire history, GDP would be $780 billion today instead of more than $17 trillion. And GDP per capita would be $2,433, lower than Papua New Guinea’s.

This is why (good) economists are so fixated on economic growth. It’s vital for our long-run living standards.

Which means, of course, that we’re also fixated on the importance of free markets and small government. We understand that an economy will grow much faster if the burden of government is constrained (think Hong Kong or Singapore).

But if the public sector is bloated, with high levels of spending, taxation, regulation, cronyism, and protectionism, then it’s very difficult for the productive sector of the economy to flourish.

Let’s augment our understanding by comparing two nations, Estonia and Croatia, that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Estonia has been a role model for pro-growth reform. According to Economic Freedom of the World, the small Baltic nation quickly moved to reduce the burden of government (including a flat tax) and Estonia consistently has been in the top 20 of all nations.

Croatia, by contrast, has lagged. While its economic freedom score has improved, the progress has been modest and Croatia has never been ranked higher than #70.

So what are the real-world results of what happened in these two nations?

The simple answer is that good policy yields good results. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita GDP in both Estonia and Croatia.

The most relevant lesson, which I highlighted, is that Croatia was much richer at the beginning of the post-Soviet period.

But Estonia quickly caught up because of its reforms. And over the past 10 years, Croatia has fallen significantly behind.

The key takeaway is that growth matters. And if you want growth, you need economic freedom.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal column. Cassidy and Woodhill are totally correct to worry about the “new normal” of anemic growth.

Fortunately, we know the policies that will rejuvenate the economy. And maybe we’ll get a chance to implement those policies after the 2016 election.

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Free trade is a good moral concept for the simple reason that politicians and bureaucrats should not be allowed to interfere with voluntary transactions between consenting adults.

It’s also a good economic concept for the simple reason that protectionists can’t provide good answers to simple questions.

And free trade is a good geopolitical concept because it is far better than foreign aid as a mechanism for generating prosperity in less-developed nations.

Writing for the Economic Times of India, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center writes about the benefits of open markets among nations.

With one simple policy—more free trade—we could make the world $500 trillion better off and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. …reducing trade barriers not only makes the world richer, it is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health and restoring the environment. …Freer trade essentially means that each country can focus on doing what it does best, making all countries better off.

The good news is that global trade has been substantially liberalized. Protectionist barriers are much lower than they were a few decades ago.

Indeed, shifts to freer trade have helped compensate for growing fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era.

But we also have bad news. There are still sectors where trade taxes and other protectionist policies inhibit voluntary exchange, most notably for agriculture and textiles.

Lomborg cites data about the huge gains that would be possible if these sectors were liberalized.

The direct economic benefits would be a 1.1 per cent increase in global GDP. This sounds modest. But because it would impact the entire world economy, by 2030 we would be about $1.5 trillion richer every year. Open economies also grow faster. In the last 50 years, countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile and India have seen their rate of growth shoot up by 1.5 per cent per annum on average, shortly after liberalisation. If Doha can be completed, it is estimated that the global economy will grow by an extra 0.6 per cent for the next few decades. By 2030, such dynamic growth would make the world economy $11.5 trillion larger each year, leaving us 10 per cent more resources to fix all other problems. …By the end of the century, free trade could leave our grandkids 20 per cent better off, or with $100 trillion more every year than they would otherwise have had.

Lomborg is making the very important point that even modest increases in growth, sustained over long periods of time, can lead to huge increases in prosperity.

He correctly applies this analysis to the trade sector, but it’s a lesson that has universal applicability. It’s why we need better tax policy, a lower burden of government spending, less regulation and red tape, and better rule of law to limit government corruption.

But today’s focus is trade, so let’s look at a great video from Marginal Revolution University. Here’s Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University talking about the benefits of trade.

By the way, I didn’t notice it at first, but Tyler’s video doesn’t focus on international trade. He simply explains the benefit of trade among people.

But this also helps to explain why free trade across borders is good for growth. If it’s good for two people inside Virginia to engage in voluntary exchange, and if it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ohio to engage in voluntary exchange, then it’s also true that it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ireland to engage in voluntary exchange.

Another subtle yet important secondary point from the video is that central planning is folly because no single bureaucrat, or group of bureaucrats, will ever have the necessary knowledge (much less incentive) to properly allocate resources. To elaborate, you just listened to Prof. Cowen explain that one of the big benefits of trade is that people can specialize in things where they have a comparative advantage. And when people specialize, they develop greater knowledge in particular fields, which further increases their productivity. Yet it’s impossible for that diffuse knowledge to be centralized, much less used properly.

Which is why centrally planned economies such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are such disasters.

And this also explains why nations that normally rely on markets get such bad results when politicians take control of specific sectors of the economy. Just consider the failures of Obamacare and the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system.

But let’s get back to the issue of trade.

Politicians sometimes make arguments about “economic patriotism.” If that simply meant, for instance, that they wanted a lower corporate tax rate to make American companies and workers more competitive, that would be fine.

But as we’ve seen with Obama, language about patriotism oftentimes is a ruse to push for protectionism and other bad policies.

And one of the reasons why the protectionism-patriotism argument doesn’t make sense is that it presumes a contest among nations. Yet as Walter Williams wisely explained, trade ultimately is between private individuals.

P.S. The MRU videos are great tutorials about economics. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value, highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and revealing the destructive impact of government subsidies. They’re all worth a few minutes of your time.

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What’s the most important factor for economic progress?

There are several possible answers to that question. We can take a big-picture view and argue that the key is free markets and small government, and there certainly is lots of evidence in favor of this assertion when you compare countries over time.

But what if we narrow our focus and try to identify, for instance, the key characteristic of a free market. At times, I’ve highlighted the importance of both property rights and the price system.

Private property gives people the right incentives to both produce and conserve, a lesson learned early in American history.

An unfettered price system is a mechanism that best ensures resources are efficiently utilized to serve consumers.

But we need to augment this list by also including the valuable role of the profit motive.

This Prager University video, narrated by my friend Walter Williams, succinctly explains the issue.

I especially like the section where Walter asks what institutions and entities leave us happy and contented. The answer, at least for most of us, is that we’re more likely to be satisfied in our dealing with private companies operating in competitive markets.

That’s because the profit motive gives them an incentive to treat us well, both to boost their reputations and so we’ll be repeat customers.

Simply stated, in a true free market, entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners can only become rich by providing consumers with things that make our lives better.

But our dealings with government (or government-enforced monopolies like cable companies) tend to be less rewarding, whether it’s because bureaucrats are taking our money, bossing us around, or simply treating us poorly.

So the next time some politician or pundit complains about “evil profits,” just remember Walter’s wise words from the video.

P.S. I’ve shared two other videos from Prager University, one of the Laffer Curve and one about statist policies and the Great Depression. They’ve both very much worth watching.

P.P.S. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that profits are only admirable if they’re earned honestly. There are fraudsters in private markets who rip off consumers and there are crony capitalists who use coercive government policies to line their pockets. These groups deserve disdain and punishment.

P.P.P.S. Walter Williams is one of America’s best public intellectuals. I’ve cited his work numerous times, but your first stop, in learning more about him, is this video from Reason TV.

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