H.L. Mencken posited that 10 years was long enough for any one job. I have violated that rule only on the rarest of occasions–remember that each infraction requires more than a decade of consistent work. But, with this final column, I will correct one such violation. After 11 years–119 columns–this is adieu.
When I began musing for REASON in October 1989, the Berlin Wall stood tall and you hadn't heard of Microsoft or Cisco. The conventional wisdom was that the modest economic successes of capitalism were offset, more or less, by its sociocultural poverty. Textbooks by Nobel Laureates predicted that the Soviet system would perform and prosper for decades to come. Pick your poison: the floppy-eared Big Government, with its cradle-to-grave cuddles, or the shiny jet-smooth power thrust of Big Business–opulence at the cost of justice, beauty, and (for those on Wall Street) your immortal soul.
The intellectuals set the odds in the Great Struggle of the 20th Century at even-up. Esteemed gurus failed to note that the Iron Curtain blocked traffic in only one direction. The flow of desperate people–masses of the poor, clutching only their dreams–excited few of those fashionably decked out in the interior section of the market economy. Instead, the wise men groused about corporate takeovers and produced epic cinema exposing the greedy irrelevance of the Reagan years. It was blockbuster stuff, and spiritually fulfilling.
Without a cheering section, there was no need for competitive economic forces to grandstand. They didn't. Instead, they proved their mettle in magical feats of technological transformation. Then they made tyrants disappear. Today's globe glows a rich hue from enterprise overturning doctrines of control.
In the 1990s dictators fell like dominoes. When economic competition with the West proved too much, the enlightened but nearsighted Gorbachev eased up. The mere loosening of authoritarian controls unleashed events that proved impossible to stop. The Soviet system–victim of a record-setting 70 consecutive bad weather harvests–retreated, sputtered, and splat. Five Year Plan no more.
The East Bloc satellites fell even before the Kremlin; when the tiniest cracks opened, humanity rushed through. Around the world, the common folk took their cue. In 1990, the peasants of Nicaragua voted out the Sandinistas–nice try, but The People weren't buying The Revolution. They lusted to be Chilean marketeers. The Chileans, for their part, quickly got rich under open markets, and then shrugged off Gen. Pinochet like a bad hangover. They embraced the marketplace in goods and ideas–so much so, they have now voted in a Socialist.
In a series of events, 1989-92, the Nationalist Government in Pretoria saw the Soviet threat dissipate, as did the African National Congress. With the issue of world domination decided, either side compromised their way to democratic reforms. Nelson Mandela went from 27 years in prison to six as president, and both the Nationalists and the ANC–each ideologically committed to socialism of one variance or another–have grown beyond their predilections.
But here's the funny thing about the end of history: The lack of serious disagreement on the superiority of economic freedom has not swept the policy slate clean. Champions of the Third Way, the Welfare State, or the Mixed Economy have adjusted to changing times. The political market sponsors its own tests of creative destruction, and the survivors are a hardy bunch. They engage in ad hoc governmentalism, forging an electoral demand for new programs without seeming to upset the market economy. Craftsman of back-door incrementalism they attempt to beef up the state by clever use of levers. The era of Big Government is over, they say, but pat them down at the door.
Alas, the opportunists are playing on someone else's turf. The epic belongs to the beast of capitalism, roaring with the thrill of tumult. The long-awaited efficiencies of the communications revolution are swelling growth rates and fueling wealth. Seven million millionaires now dot the American tax rolls. Fifty million are projected by 2020. The wildest imaginations today puff a dot.com IPO. The career paths of our top youth converge in bustling bazaars where virtual continents are concocted, wired, and set streaming to the benefit of mankind. Empowered by commerce, the silent speak and the riff-raff gain admission to the club.
Without flacks, spinners, or even a vice president of sales, the triumph of the market is as natural as a volcanic eruption. It has made the government class smile–after all, they're sort of on commission–and yet quiver, too. How might they tap into power without paying homage to this wellspring? Only by leading the dual life of the serial incrementalist, touting the Grand Program while leaning on free minds and free markets to get the job done.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis, and is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He will continue his column and post other writings, at SelectedSkirmishes.com.