MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

EconomicPolicyJournal.com: The Government Shutdown and The Fallacy of the “Public Sector”

Posted by M. C. on January 22, 2019

http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2019/01/the-fallacy-of-public-sector.html#more

Below is a reprint of a Murray Rothbard essay particularly relevant at this time of the partial government shutdown. It was originally appeared in the New Individualist Review (Summer, 1961)

The Fallacy of the “Public Sector”
By Murray N. Rothbard

We have heard a great deal in recent years of the “public sector,” and solemn discussions abound through the land on whether or not the public sector should be increased vis-à-vis the “private sector.” The very terminology is redolent of pure science, and indeed it emerges from the supposedly scientific, if rather grubby, world of “national-income statistics.” But the concept is hardly wertfrei; in fact, it is fraught with grave, and questionable, implications.

In the first place, we may ask, “public sector” of what? Of something called the “national product.” But note the hidden assumptions: that the national product is something like a pie, consisting of several “sectors,” and that these sectors, public and private alike, are added to make the product of the economy as a whole. In this way, the assumption is smuggled into the analysis that the public and private sectors are equally productive, equally important, and on an equal footing altogether, and that “our” deciding on the proportions of public to private sector is about as innocuous as any individual’s decision on whether to eat cake or ice cream. The State is considered to be an amiable service agency, somewhat akin to the corner grocer, or rather to the neighborhood lodge, in which “we” get together to decide how much “our government” should do for (or to) us. Even those neoclassical economists who tend to favor the free market and free society often regard the State as a generally inefficient, but still amiable, organ of social service, mechanically registering “our” values and decisions.
One would not think it difficult for scholars and laymen alike to grasp the fact that government is not like the Rotarians or the Elks; that it differs profoundly from all other organs and institutions in society; namely, that it lives and acquires its revenues by coercion and not by voluntary payment. The late Joseph Schumpeter was never more astute than when he wrote, “The theory which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchase of the services of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind.”1…

Apart from the public sector, what constitutes the productivity of the “private sector” of the economy? The productivity of the private sector does not stem from the fact that people are rushing around doing “something,” anything, with their resources; it consists in the fact that they are using these resources to satisfy the needs and desires of the consumers. Businessmen and other producers direct their energies, on the free market, to producing those products that will be most rewarded by the consumers, and the sale of these products may therefore roughly “measure” the importance that the consumers place upon them. If millions of people bend their energies to producing horses-and-buggies, they will, in this day and age, not be able to sell them, and hence the productivity of their output will be virtually zero. On the other hand, if a few million dollars are spent in a given year on Product X, then statisticians may well judge that these millions constitute the productive output of the X-part of the “private sector” of the economy.
One of the most important features of our economic resources is their scarcity: land, labor, and capital-goods factors are all scarce, and may all be put to various possible uses. The free market uses them “productively” because the producers are guided, on the market, to produce what the consumers most need: automobiles, for example, rather than buggies. Therefore, while the statistics of the total output of the private sector seem to be a mere adding of numbers, or counting units of output, the measures of output actually involve the important qualitative decision of considering as “product” what the consumers are willing to buy. A million automobiles, sold on the market, are productive because the consumers so considered them; a million buggies, remaining unsold, would not have been “product” because the consumers would have passed them by.
Suppose now that into this idyll of free exchange enters the long arm of government. The government, for some reasons of its own, decides to ban automobiles altogether (perhaps because the many tailfins offend the aesthetic sensibilities of the rulers) and to compel the auto companies to produce the equivalent in buggies instead. Under such a strict regimen, the consumers would be, in a sense, compelled to purchase buggies because no cars would be permitted. However, in this case, the statistician would surely be purblind if he blithely and simply recorded the buggies as being just as “productive” as the previous automobiles. To call them equally productive would be a mockery; in fact, given plausible conditions, the “national product” totals might not even show a statistical decline, when they had actually fallen drastically…
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