It’s 87,576 to nothing. What am I talking about? Well, there are 87,576 governmental jurisdictions in the United States – well, at least there were when the 2o02 Census of Governments was conducted. And what does the score mean? How many of them do you think are truly “free enterprise” zones? How many of them do you think resemble anything like an idealized (albeit experimental) version of a private property rights order? Sure, some of the small municipalities have outsourced their fire services and trash services to a private company, but those are an extremely stark minority. How many of them have totally eschewed eminent domain authority? How many of them have no zoning? How many of them have no tax system to speak of? How many of them attempt to nullify bad state and federal laws and say, grant immunity to any immigrant who makes their way there? How many of them allow doctors to practice without a license? Allow hair stylists to cut hair without cosmetology degrees? How many of them eschew building codes and historical preservation statutes? How many have no government run schools or post offices? How many eschew central bank money? How many do all of these things? And more.
The point of my question is not really to wax idyllic about the desirability of a world comprised of large swaths of 100% private organization, not at all. My point is that for all of the tinkering, techno-planning, stimulating, etc. that we do, is it not even the tiniest bit odd or awkward or perhaps cognitively inconsistent to see not so much as one tiny little experiment in America, something resembling complete private order? When people ask me why I think the default view is what it is, this is primarily what I have stuck in my head that has led me to that conclusion. Clearly there are millions of thoughtful people out there, and clearly a good many of them would like to see better outcomes for humanity regardless of how we got there. At least so I think. Then why are the “experiments” we see here in America anything but what I refer to above? I think I can answer that question without having to rely on the default view argument, but that’s for another post.
This musing really struck me hard as I was sitting outside the other night gazing at Orion (don’t ask) and thinking about a discussion I had recently with some Chinese students. I had asked them about how some of their home cities have changed in the last 20 years and I had asked them if they had thoughts on the emerging multi-tiered system of property rights in China. It was exciting to see them talk about how fast China has developed, about some newfound freedoms people were enjoying, etc.
And so I am stuck with this in my head. There are some people in this world, including one of the most influential Progressive intellectuals who gaze fancifully upon China because their still authoritarian government has the ability to mobilize people and resources rapidly and therefore would be a better model to emulate if you wanted to end bipartisan gridlock on climate policy and health care policy, for example. Never mind that China has lots of trains and roads to nowwhere and that their middle class is subsidizing American consumption at their own cost …
I am absolutely baffled by the quite opposite take on China. I, too, can be called a Chinese navel gazer. And I too wish the US could be more like China for a day. But I say that because I look at the trajectory of China and I look at how their economic system has evolved in the last two to three decades and I see a country where private enterprise is becoming more respected and where notions of private property are becoming more, not less, appreciated. Indeed, the authoritarian Chinese that Friedman and his followers so lovingly look upon are authoritarian enough to set up many giant enterprise zones where the scope of economic freedom is far larger than it is elsewhere in the country. In other words, the Chinese communists are far more willing to experiment with competition and respect for property than it seems we American “democrats” are … isn’t that a bit funny?
And no, please don’t try to invoke New York’s special enterprise zones as an example – they are far from resembling what I am talking about. Giving special favors to certain technology firms and sticking it to the rest of the taxpayers is not exactly what I have in mind.
Finally, my scorekeeping above is a bit conservative. Why is that? It’s a static measure. But remember each of the 87,000+ jurisdictions out there has a chance to remake policy every year. Over a two year period, for example, there over 170,000 chances to try contract and property. Over three years, over 261,000 … in other words, if there are N jurisdictions and T time periods, there are N x T total periods when contract and property have had a chance to be tried. And how many of the 87,000 jurisdictions over the past 50 years have actually committed to it?
In a country that is characterized as “wildly capitalistic” that is a pretty low batting average, no? What would you call us if we actually gave it a shot a few times?