August 20 2012
The Wealth of a Nation's Ideas
This is a link to a some futuristic pictures of what France would look like in the year 2000 by an artist in 1899. The first thing you notice is that the artist couldn’t begin to conjure up the marvelous technological advances that have actually taken place. (Hat tip: National Review Online)
These pictures, which seem both fanciful and backward, are a good back drop to George Gilder’s essay (also on NRO) on the creativity that is unleashed by capitalism. It was this dynamism that rendered the artist's conception of France 101 years later so quaint.
America’s wealth is not an inventory of goods; it is an organic entity, a fragile pulsing fabric of ideas, expectations, loyalties, moral commitments, visions. To vivisect it for redistribution is to kill it. As President Mitterrand’s French technocrats discovered in the 1980s, and President Obama’s quixotic ecocrats are discovering today, government managers of complex systems of wealth soon find they are administering an industrial corpse, a socialized Solyndra.
All riches must finally fall into the gap between thoughts and things. Governed by mind but caught in matter, assets must afford an income stream that is expected to continue. The expectation may shift as swiftly as thought, but things, alas, are all too solid and slow to change. The kaleidoscope of shifting valuations, flashing gains and losses as it is turned in the hands of time, in the grip of “news,” distributes and redistributes the wealth of the world far more quickly and surely than any scheme of the state.
The belief that wealth consists not chiefly in ideas, attitudes, moral codes, and mental disciplines but in definable static things that can be seized and redistributed — that is the materialist superstition. ...
Gilder observes that governments can’t create wealth. They “can only expropriate and watch it dissipate.” Gilder’s fine essay deserves to be read by everybody. But it seems especially relevant as we find ourselves preparing to vote for or against a more centrally planned economy that seeks more equality of outcomes.
The Gilder essay and the futuristic pictures from France remind me of a radio host on whose program I recently was a guest. He challenged me to name how many jobs would be created if Romney-Ryan wins in November. He also insisted that I name what sectors would produce the jobs. I explained that I couldn’t, that capitalism unleashed is a dynamic system. You can’t predict what jobs will pop up where anymore than the artist in 1899 could predict Silicon Valley.
When I asked him to name what jobs a second Obama term would create, he didn't hesitate. He said that there would be more teaching and infrastructure jobs (he seems to see our nation as one of rotting bridges). I pointed out that all these jobs are public sector jobs or public project jobs—that, of course, he could name them and say how many because the central government would simply create them. With the authority to tax, the government in a second Obama administration would create jobs where it wanted them, whether or not such jobs are good investments of public money.
Like the artist in 1899, however, we all have a limited view of what human creativity can do. That is why central planners are always such a disaster.