- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

Joy is not an emotion one normally associates with economics. But economist David Henderson radiates joy through a lifetime of discovery. And the concepts of economics of incentives, property rights and, most importantly, freedom are both the means and result of that process of discovery. Mr. Henderson, who serves as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, has produced a book filled with practical arguments expressed in popular prose, a book that is simultaneously educational and interesting. Most people see economics as a dry academic pursuit. But Mr. Henderson picked up his love of economics from everyday life.

Why, the Canadian-born 17-year-old wondered, was the government taxing his fellow citizens to pay him to tag trees for research that would most benefit the Soviet Union? His lust to answer this and similar questions led him to read widely, seek out like-minded thinkers and explore issues. He emphasizes practical outcomes, criticizing his fellow economists for offering theoretical justifications for government economic intervention with no thought of the consequences. He complains: "None of the practical results made them question their theories. What seemed to be missing was any realistic view about how government actually works."

Mr. Henderson's effort is so important precisely because politicians, even more than academic economists, never let the facts get in the way of a good theory. As he notes, advocates of freedom have won the battle of ideas. Collectivism is in ruins the world over. Nevertheless, he laments, "despite the proven economic success of freedom, much of the world, including the United States, is hanging on to freedom's opposite, government control."

"The Joy of Freedom" mixes anecdote and analysis in describing Mr. Henderson's intellectual journey and, most important, the resulting intellectual fruit. He ranges across issues, consistently demonstrating that freedom is both the moral and efficient position. For instance, American military operations in Afghanistan led to a predictable call to renew conscription. Never mind that the military doesn't want a draft, and that one would yield a military that was less effective.

Yet, as Mr. Henderson notes, the most fundamental argument against conscription is moral. If recruiting becomes difficult, pay people more and reconsider what you are using them for, he suggests: "When soldiers are sent to the Balkans to help impose a quick fix on a centuries-old hatred, for example, it's understandable that American youths who have no quarrel with either side are not excited about enlisting."

Mr. Henderson brings a similar mix of philosophical and practical sensibilities to the issue of property rights. From personal experience, he demonstrates how property rights serve the interests of the poor as much, if not more, than the rich. After all, those without political influence most need legal security. Where it does not exist, political abuses inevitably mount. One of the greatest values of property rights is to resolve and, indeed, prevent conflict. "Imagine what would happen if you had to get a coalition together every time you wanted to paint your house," he writes.

The author also points to social benefits not commonly attributed to economic freedom. A market economy punishes discrimination because discrimination rejecting customers or employees because of their race or some other characteristic is expensive. Prejudice alone could enforce neither Jim Crow nor apartheid.

Mr. Henderson cogently argues that markets encourage tolerance. In his view, they create an environment in which we learn "to value people." Markets and property ownership force accountability. The wealth generated by markets underwrites charity and compassion. In contrast, he argues, when government acts, we are more likely to feel that we "gave at the office."

One of the chief virtues of the book is that it helps explain otherwise complex issues to laymen. The so-called crisis in health care, for instance, results from a mishmash of government funding, regulation and tax policies. Government is the chief threat to, not the chief protector of, the environment. As Mr. Henderson concisely explains: "Where government was in charge, the environment was trashed." This is not a message often heard in Washington.

The book cannot help but carry along its reader. Accessible and well argued, it is a welcome departure from standard economic works. And Mr. Henderson, who so loves life, wants his readers to be doers. We must fight for our liberty, he writes: "Let's stop settling. Let's speak out when our freedom is violated and, even better, let's do the same when the freedom of others is violated. It's not too late to seek a freer world."

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

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