This is interview #14 in JohnsonForAmerica.com’s “Important Voices” series, where we talk with key figures, such as elected officials, candidates, authors, commentators, and policy experts, about the issues of the day. A new interview is released every Monday and every Thursday, so check back often!
Our guest for today’s Important Voices interview is Isaac Morehouse. Isaac is policy programs director at the Institute for Humane Studies, a Fairfax, Va.-based organization that facilitates the academic development of college students with an interest in liberty. Isaac was the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s first director of campus leadership, working for the Center from January 2007 through May 2009. During that time, he developed and coordinated on-campus free-market educational programs for Michigan college students. Previously, Isaac served as a Michigan House legislative aide for three years, finishing his time at the House as chief of staff for a state representative. Isaac has also helped run a small business involving telecommunications hardware and cable installation. He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Detroit Mercy, and he received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Western Michigan University. Morehouse lives in Falls Church, Va., with his wife and son.
Josiah Schmidt: Thank you for agreeing to talk with us, Dr. Morehouse! Tell us how you came to hold such a liberty-oriented philosophy.
Isaac Morehouse: I grew up in a typical Midwestern conservative home and I was taught responsibility, hard work and initiative. In high-school, my brother told me about this book he was reading called “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman. I liked the ideas in the book, since I was sort of predisposed towards free-markets. As I began to read more I eventually (after a long road and lots of rabbit trails) realized that, at bottom, government is force, and everything it does is backed by force. It made me realize that so many things I wanted done in the world–good things–should not be done by force, but peacefully and voluntarily. Not only did it sit right with me from a moral standpoint, but I learned through studying economics that voluntary actions have better results than centrally planned attempts by government to make the world a better place.
Josiah Schmidt: How would you define capitalism, in short?
Isaac Morehouse: Technically, capitalism is simply an economic system where individuals own the “means of production”, rather than government. In popular usage however, capitalism has come to mean a lot of different things, some of which I support (property rights, free-markets, etc.), some of with I do not (bailouts, subsidies, regulations against competition, etc.). I’m careful how I use that word, since people give it different meanings. To me, it means simply free-markets.
Josiah Schmidt: Why, fundamentally, does capitalism work?
Isaac Morehouse: Capitalism works because without private property and the right to reap the gains and losses of our own efforts there is little incentive to produce or to innovate. Property and free-trade also allow prices to form, which provide some of the most valuable information on the planet such as where demand and scarcity are and where surpluses are. Prices, which form spontaneously as a result of free-exchange, allow for the most impressive coordination in the history of man; billions of people and resources constantly adjust their individual behavior in a way that benefits society, not because they are trying to or would even know how if they were, but because they are responding to signals sent through the price system. No “rational” system of central planning can even come close to replicating that.
Josiah Schmidt: Is it meaningful to advocate a “mixed economy” of capitalism and socialism?
Isaac Morehouse: No. Any coercion in the peaceful, voluntary and spontaneously coordinating market reduces it’s efficiency, not to mention it’s a violation of individual rights. An only partly “planned” economy may be degrees better than a fully socialist one, but a free economy is magnitudes better than both.
Josiah Schmidt: How does capitalism, as opposed to socialism, accept human nature as it is, accounting for the flaws and fallibility of man?
Isaac Morehouse: It avoids what F.A. Hayek called the “Fatal Conceit” by recognizing that no one has enough knowledge to know where to put all the resources in the world all the time. It recognizes the dignity of each individual by allowing anyone to justly obtain and use property, but it recognizes the limits of each individual by not allowing any one person to control all others by force. If people are corrupt, the last thing we want to do is give a small number of them monopoly control over the rest, which is what government is.
Josiah Schmidt: Do government “consumer protection” measures actually protect consumers?
Isaac Morehouse: What is called “consumer protection” is almost always a special privilege or protection for some politically favored business or industry over their competitors. Since government hands out favors and makes regulations, instead of competing in the marketing place by trying to better serve customers, many businesses go to government and lobby for regulations that they can afford, but that will cripple their smaller competitors. The result is higher priced products, fewer choices, less competition, corruption in government agencies, and often times less attention to safety by consumers and producers who believe the government will do the work for them.
Josiah Schmidt: What is one of the most egregious examples of “consumer protection” measures that actually harmed consumers, in your view?
Isaac Morehouse: Oh boy, there are so many. It’s hard to say which is the most egregious, but certainly some very silly examples that really bug me are things like requiring decorators, hair stylists, yoga instructors or lemonade stand selling kids to get state licenses and pay fees just to offer their goods and services. These examples all exists in at least some states, and in every instance the laws were passed at the behest of some industry lobby that didn’t like lower priced competition. It’s very sad for the people who just want a chance making a living by offering their skills to consumers. They aren’t forcing anyone to buy, yet government is forcing them not to sell.
Josiah Schmidt: What advice would you give to libertarians reading this interview?
Isaac Morehouse: Take heart. It’s too easy to see all the violations of liberty around us and feel things are always getting worse. If you keep the big picture in mind and study some world history you will see that, in so many ways, freedom has advanced tremendously and there is no reason it cannot continue to do so. Don’t follow the news too closely or you’ll be angry all the time, and angry people are rarely good advocates of the ideas they believe in. Be optimistic and never stop learning about and fighting for freedom. It’s worth it.
Josiah Schmidt: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Isaac Morehouse: Sometimes it helps to remember that really, liberty is all around us. We often feel that it would require such a radical change in our everyday existence if government were not so invasive. While I do not want to downplay the destructive effects of government meddling, it is instructive to stop and think about what really makes the world tick. Why don’t people run through the shopping mall naked? I’ll give you a hint: it is not because they are afraid of indecent exposure laws. That may play some very small part, but it is primarily because they would be embarrassed. They are afraid of the social consequences. This is just one example of how society remains orderly without the use of force; without government mandates and rules and regulations. In fact, nearly all of the order, cooperation and coordination we see around us is not the result of government edicts, but of the forces of spontaneous order that emerge in a voluntary society. In many ways, government is less important than even libertarians think. The message we need to send to our big-government friends is not that government is so bad (even though it often is), but that society voluntarily produces so much good that we don’t need to use the blunt instrument of government.
Josiah Schmidt: Very insightful thoughts. Thanks again for taking the time out of your schedule to answer some of our questions.