- - Sunday, August 26, 2012


By Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames
Crown Business, $26, 304 pages

In their new book, “Freedom Manifesto,” Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames promise to explain “why free markets are moral and big government isn’t.”

That’s a little bit misleading. “Freedom Manifesto” isn’t really about morals. It contains few Ayn Rand-style (or, for that matter, Gordon Gekko-style) defenses of the human instincts that propel capitalism forward. Instead, this book is about the practical effects of go ernment policy — its talk of “morality” does little more than reflect an assumption that good policy is moral and bad policy isn’t. A less bombastic subtitle might be, “why free markets make us better off and big government doesn’t.”

The basic argument here is simple, and very few Americans, conservative or liberal, would disagree with its broad contours: Free markets work. When people are able to create things and sell them, they compete with each other. As a result, prices fall, amazing new products become readily available and consumers are given countless options. Over time, a free-market society’s economy develops, and the vast majority of its population is lifted from poverty. Capitalism is one of the greatest developments in humankind’s history, and we should not be ashamed of it.

As simple as this is, Mr. Forbes and Ms. Ames are artful in explaining it. Particularly inspired is their choice of Steve Jobs, the late head of the tech giant Apple, as a prominent example of the benefits of capitalism. Today’s young liberals, from the College Democrats to the Occupy Wall Street crowd, are obsessed with Apple products — not just its computers, but also its accessories, including the iPhone and iPad. These products would not exist without the American economic system, which greatly rewarded Jobs, who came from humble origins, for his many innovations. It would be good if more of Jobs’ many fans realized this.

However, the fact that capitalism is a good thing in general does not get us very far, and neither does the fact that capitalism brought us the iPhone. Plenty of questions remain: What should we do to protect the environment? What should we do to help the people who remain poor while the rest of the economy flourishes? Are there specific areas of the economy, such as health care, housing and banking, where government interference in the free market can improve outcomes? This is where “Freedom Manifesto” has its work cut out for it.

In general, the book offers a solid and wide-ranging defense of the unregulated market, albeit a one-sided one. Readers should bear in mind that this is an introduction to a single point of view, not a full scholarly analysis: Mr. Forbes and Ms. Ames provide a steady stream of “noted” and “eminent” experts who agree with them, usually declining to mention that there are noted and eminent experts who have good reasons for disagreeing, too. (Lefty Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in economics, is referred to as merely a “New York Times columnist.”)

Mr. Forbes and Ms. Ames do show an admirable willingness to dive into subjects that are difficult to address. For example, the authors give readers a respectable discussion of poverty, making two related points: First, in the absence of government, charities step up to ensure that the poor are given at least minimal accommodations. Second, the government often has done more harm than good to the poor, trapping them in cycles of dependency rather than boosting them into the middle class. The discussion may not be detailed enough to convince a strong liberal, but it gives readers food for thought, and there are footnotes for anyone who would like to research the matter further.

Mr. Forbes and Ms. Ames also spend a considerable amount of time pointing out the failures of government regulation and “investment.” For example, attempts to encourage lending to the poor contributed to the housing bust, and government attempts to promote environmentally friendly technologies have often gone bust, Solyndra being the most prominent example.

While the authors do not offer clear guidelines about when environmental and other regulations are needed, they do show that the Obama administration has gone well beyond its constitutional powers in regulating industries without Congress’ go-ahead and often has been counterproductive on a policy level. Our bureaucracies, from the Environmental Protection Agency down to the Fish and Wildlife Service, are becoming increasingly powerful — and employing an increasing number of armed agents. They also are saddling businesses with ever-more-expensive regulations, usually for little or no measurable benefit.

As November approaches, open-minded voters will want to read up on economic issues to ensure they make the right choice. “Freedom Manifesto” is a good starting point for understanding the pro-free-market point of view. It makes the case for less government in readable English, with examples galore of how an intrusive state can make us worse off.

Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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