A Review of 'Freedom Manifesto' by Steve Forbes

Column by DP_Thinker.

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Having just finished reading Freedom Manifesto: Why Free Markets Are Moral and Big Government Isn’t by Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames, I found myself deploring government intervention even more than I had before. The “Freedom Manifesto” was a true indictment against big government failure. The theme of the book is to show the reader how much of that failure we have seen in the past few years. The authors touch on a multitude of problems with big government involvement by using examples of moral hazard, how big government stifles innovation, and how regulations have unintended consequences. Many notable Austrian economists are quoted in the book as well as some of America's founders.

The book shows us simple cause and effect scenarios of a government intervening in the marketplace. However, I don’t believe a true moral case for free markets was ever made. The book was filled with examples of how the opposite of a free market doesn’t work, but didn’t dive into too much detail about how it affects freedom. It could be said that a moral case was made in that a smaller government gives us more freedom of choice. But the book appeared to be more of a dictionary of failed government interventions and policies than an actual moral persuasion of free markets. Here are my thoughts on the book from a Voluntaryist/Anarcho-Capitalist perspective.

The book is broken down into only six chapters, but each chapter contains many sub-chapters only a page or two long. Each of these sub-chapters presents a new idea, or indictment against big government. The first chapter (titled “FedEx or the Post Office”) rages against the inefficiencies of government, but doesn’t do so in deep economic jargon, in order for the layperson to understand. The authors make the case that government inefficiency would be bad for areas as personal as healthcare, that the auto failures and subsequent bailouts were due to government intervention in the market, and that the invisible hand will guide the market to be the most efficient mechanism for providing to the masses. The case for abolishing the post office is never made, unfortunately. The conclusion is that big government is inefficient and free markets aren’t.

They touch very lightly on the case of free market morality. The authors state that the Golden Rule can be interpreted as being that “Each side seeks to meet the other’s needs by giving something of equal value” in a voluntary market transaction. I have to depart from the authors on that statement and say that what makes a market or transaction moral is that it is voluntary. Of course, this wouldn’t be in line with another overlooked conclusion in this book, that a small government is what is necessary.

Having been an astute reader of Austrian economics, maybe the first chapter just didn’t grab my attention due to its simplicity. So I thought the next chapter titled “Freedom or Big Brother?” would be more interesting. The title sounds like it could be a libertarian book in itself. Again, I learned this chapter wasn’t much different in philosophy, as within a few pages they state, “Yes, we need to pay taxes for government.” So again I found myself in disagreement with their case from a voluntaryist perspective. They make a list of all the taxes that we have to pay and conclude that too much tax is bad, but a little tax is good. But we know that if a little taxation is just, more tax is also just. It’s based on the same principle, the theft of property.

The authors continue with more examples of government inefficiencies, only this time due to coercive and legislative government programs and agencies rather than economic inefficiency. I will give them credit, though, as they do talk about having property in oneself, having self-ownership and self-sovereignty. But they don’t take that view to the full implications of it: that the state exists due to coercion and takes away our self-determination and ownership, that if little government is just, big government is also.

The next few chapters provide more examples of government failure and why free markets provide creative and innovative solutions for the “common good.” There are many examples of collectivism and utilitarianism as they point out that “Freedom does not imply license. A free society and a free market, then as now, require people who can control their passions--who have the discipline to put aside selfish, present-oriented needs to work toward a better future.” I think that if they understood the Non-Aggression Principle, they would understand their statements contradict with self-ownership, that freedom does imply license so long as one doesn’t aggress against another.

I think this book was aimed at and would be a great read for the typical Tea Party follower, religious conservative or voting Republican. The authors appeal to Judeo-Christian values on many occasions as they persuade the reader that creativity and market interactions are rooted in those beliefs. They definitely want less government, but never tell us how much is needed to make their moral against big government. And it is interesting to note that with the release of this book right before the election, the last chapter is in direct praise of “The Spirit of Reagan” and an argument against the values of Obama.

In conclusion, I found the book to be quite an easy read, with many examples of government failure, including some I believe most people aren’t aware of. But I think what would get under the skin of most astute voluntaryist readers is that the book is written in terms of society and not the individual, the case that a big state is bad, but a small state is good, and that the case for a free society based on individual liberty and voluntary markets, for all products--including security and regulation--is never made. The book does bring some good economic insights to light, but doesn’t come to the realization that the cause of our problems is not big government, but government. 

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DP_Thinker's picture
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tzo's picture

“Each side seeks to meet the other’s needs by giving something of equal value”
Yuk. Here we have free market 'morality,' I suppose, which is all about being fair and equal and giving and such.
That's garbage, IMO. Each side seeks to win in the exchange. Every voluntary exchange is made because both sides consider it a win. They are not worrying about trying to be fair and equal and looking out for the other guy, so that altruistic crud is crud.
When each person seeks to interact because it benefits him, and if all exchanges are voluntary, then every person is benefitting. Every interaction is win-win. The moral part comes with the fact that there is no coercion involved. The pragmatics are 'If I do what's best for me and I live in a society where everyone is likewise free to pursue their own best interests through voluntary interactions, then the benefits for everyone will be maximized.'

GeoffreyTransom's picture

Couldn't have said it better myself, tzo: voluntary exchange happens if and only if each party expects to be at least as well off after the exchange - but it does not surprise me that an economic illiterate like Forbes would try and put it into a touchy-feely psychobabble context more suited to a women's magazine. (Forbes' PhD in Economics was, like Greenspan's, awarded honoris causa).

As an aside - in the econo-babble that we economists get taught, we're trained to say "at least as well off" rather than "better off", in order to permit a situation in which trade occurs when one or more participants is genuinely indifferent. This seems to be done to avert a Buridan's Ass dilemma - if decisions take time and there is zero utility difference between "trade" and "no trade", the decision could otherwise take an infinite amount of time. In my view, absolute indifference should be "no trade" axiomatically, because there is uncertainty in the expectations operator (so departure from the status quo involves taking on new risk and two equal-utility outcomes are not equal-risk). And of course if EVERY participant is indifferent, an exchange should be impossible (I think that's the case anyhow). It all stems from insecure wanna-be Hawkingses wanting to show off their mathematical chops - crapping on about "convex upper-contour sets" and what-not.