Dr. George Will (PhD, not M.D.) is a first-rate writer purveying second-rate ideas. Of his writing skills, they used to say, "If you have George Will, who needs William F. Buckley?" A Hamiltonian, Will once called Jefferson the "man of the millennium." His latest op-ed piece is typical for him: well-written, entertaining, contrarian, Pulitzerian even, and filled with flabby logic.
It’s about Enron. Will describes "Washington" as "narcissistic and even solipsistic" for missing the real story and thinking it’s really about Washington. Later, Will tells us that these slimy narcissists are the bulwark of our economy: "a mature capitalist economy is a government project." The federal government — that master prevaricator, sublime counterfeiter, magnificent confiscator of private property and incessant meddler into private contracts between consenting adults — must underwrite and guarantee the free flow of accurate information in the private marketplace. Personally, I wouldn’t trust the government to tell me which way is up.
Will quotes Randolph Bourne’s "War is the health of the state." — with no hint that he thinks this a bad thing. Then he notes that "Enron’s collapse is a reminder that economic scandal, too, causes the state to wax." War grows the state; scandal grows the state; Will grows the state.
Will writes that "a properly functioning free market system does not spring spontaneously from society’s soil as dandelions spring from suburban lawns. Rather, it is a complex creation of laws and mores that guarantee, among much else, transparency, meaning a stream of reliable information about the condition and conduct of corporations." A puzzling passage. First, government does not create mores, at least not directly. The mores its policies do slowly engender are uniformly bad ones: dishonesty, rapacity, laziness, and pugnacity.
To the extent that the law does have a role to play in the stock market, it is in banning and punishing fraud: false statements made to induce people to part with their money. That’s been illegal forever and it is the furthest thing from "complex." Beyond that, information is a commodity that, like any commodity, is most efficiently supplied by the free market. Unlike government, which grows continually in spite of poor performance, the market is self-correcting. Deficiencies in one market enterprise can be remedied by profit-seeking entrepreneurs offering goods and services that remedy or overcome such deficiencies. (Tip to critics of private business: start your own business, do better, make millions.)
Will’s senseless solution is for politicians — who he decries in his article as being seduced by Enron’s huge campaign contributions — to step in and clean house. "Clintonian" (his term) government will guarantee honesty and fair-dealing. However, Will’s fellow Hamiltonian David Brooks reports that buying political influence gave Enron its big start in the first place:
"On July 5, 1995, Enron Corporation donated $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Six days later, Enron executives were on a trade mission with Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor to Bosnia and Croatia. With Kantor’s support, Enron signed a $100 million contract to build a 150-megawatt power plant. Enron, then a growing giant in energy trading, practically had a reserved seat on Clinton administration trade junkets. . . . Enron received nearly $400 million in U.S. government assistance so that it could build a power plant south of Bombay. According to reports in the Houston Chronicle at the time, the Export-Import Bank kicked in $298 million, while another federal agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, put up $100 million." Weekly Standard, 1/21/02.
With David Brooks around, who needs George Will?
I agree with Will that we should have "congressional hearings that embarrass the looters, if they are capable of embarrassment." Alas, looting politicians are the only creatures who do not blush, but need to.
George Will deigns to inform us — presumably because we mere mortals do not already know — that the "mature" free market depends on coercive government regulations to ensure the accurate flow of financial information. Since this is an essential good, isn’t it essential that people be persuaded of its desirability by accurate op-ed pieces by such as George Will? Why shouldn’t a government bureau coercively regulate op-ed writers who disagree with Will to ensure "a stream of reliable information about the condition and conduct of" the government?
If "capitalism is a government program,"as Will said on Sunday; if the private market in information is defective, why isn’t journalism about capitalism also a government program?
January 17, 2002
James Ostrowski is an attorney practicing at 984 Ellicott Square, Buffalo, New York 14203; (716) 854-1440; FAX 853-1303. See his website at http://jimostrowski.com.