Chang Ha-Joon's foolish consistency (Korea Times, January 1, 2013)

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Is the sky blue? Is the ocean water? If you suspect those are trick questions, you are right.

The sky isn’t always blue ― it is reddish at sunset, dark at midnight, gray on an overcast day. The ocean isn’t water ― there’s also fish, plant life, submarines, dissolved minerals, surfboards, sunken ships, even people swimming in it sometimes.

As Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell wrote in his 1996 book ``The Vision of the Anointed,” people who use “all-or-nothing” reasoning can deny a statement because it is not 100 percent true in every circumstance. Such word games might be fun for college students or debaters, but there are some distinguished people who are respected for making such childish arguments about serious issues.

In his book ``23 Things They Don’t Tell you About Capitalism,” Cambridge University economist Chang Ha-Joon argues that 1) “[T]here is really no such thing as a free market” and 2) “The free market doesn’t exist.” His main reasoning: “Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice.”

As Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) wrote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Journalists, intellectuals, activists ― even the president of a country ― adore Chang’s all-or-nothing reasoning word games. But instead of dismissing Chang’s foolish consistency, let’s play along and apply it to other parts of life.

Is there such a thing as live radio? No, using Chang’s all-or-nothing reasoning, because of the slight delay of live material on the radio. Is there such a thing as “Fair Trade”? No, because many trades are deemed to be “unfair,” especially if big business or foreigners are involved. Is anyone really free? No, because there are stoplights or police officers stopping us at times. Is there such a thing as “my money”? No, because the government can confiscate my wealth. The “all-or-nothing” word games are endless, only limited by the creativity of the fertile human brain.

Chang says that there is no such thing as a free market because of rules, even though free market advocates and classical liberals from John Locke (17th century), Frederick Bastiat (19th century), Frederick Hayek (20th century), and Milton Friedman to contemporary scholars David Boaz, Tom G. Palmer, Don Boudreaux, Walter E. Williams, have been saying that the rule of law is the basis of a free society and free economy. In the case of Bastiat, he titled his 1850 book ``The Law.” Note to Chang: Bastiat didn’t title it “No Laws.”

Chang has deep knowledge of economic history, but when he waters down his writing for mainstream readers, he does so by citing extreme statements or off-the-cuff remarks from politicians like Sarah Palin or George W. Bush to build his case for larger government.

To be clear, there has yet to be a purely laissez-faire economy in existence—mainly because of the types of government interventions like trade protectionism and crony capitalism that Chang supports. But that’s different from Chang’s strawman that the free market is an “illusion,” that there is no such thing as a free market because there are any rules at all. The difference between the two points, to borrow from Mark Twain, is the “difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Among his many reasoning flaws, perhaps Chang will correct his most obvious errors in a revised edition of the book. After all, how can “free-market ideology” be responsible for economic problems since the 1980s, as Chang alleges, if there is no such thing as a free market? How can something that doesn’t exist be responsible for world-wide problems? Perhaps Chang’s next book should be titled, The Sky That Doesn’t Exist Is Blue.

Casey Lartigue, Jr., is a visiting scholar at the Liberty Society in Seoul. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu
Korea Times link, CafeHayek
Response in the Korea Times