A review of episodes in economic and intellectual history indicates the superiority of a limited government market economy over the alternative models of economic organization. The siren calls of pundits, politicians, and even some economists in favor of communist central planning during the Great Depression; market socialism after World War II; and, more recently, massive welfare states and/or extensive government micromanagement of markets each ran afoul of their own problems and comparisons to the limited government (based on sound criteria) capitalist model. The limited government capitalist model, once again under attack from those who would greatly expand the role of government, needs its defenders, as the alternative models have proven historically, intellectually, and practically bankrupt.
This essay discusses the inflation of the 1970s and the disinflations of the 1980s and 1990s. It provides historical and intellectual history perspectives on these events. It argues that the consensus view of economists on inflation and its costs has changed more than on any other subject in the past thirty years. As late as 1980, many economists argued that the cost of inflation was low and that the cost of disinflation so great that it was better to live with 10 or 12 percent inflation than bear the temporarily higher unemployment and lost output that would accompany a disinflation.
Fortunately, Federal Reserve Board chairmen Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan engineered two rounds of disinflation, first from 12.0 percent to 4.5 percent and then to 2.5 percent. Although there were costs--a severe recession in 1981–82 and a not-so-soft landing in 1990–91--the low and relatively stable inflation of the 1980s and 1990s has been a major factor in a long boom in the United States, two long expansions interrupted by a short, mild recession. And economists' thinking about the costs and consequences of high inflation has shifted to the view that stable low inflation, like the lowest possible tax rates and minimum necessary regulation, is a fundamental pillar of maximizing sustained long-run growth.
If there is one really serious intellectual and cultural problem with capitalism, it stems from the lack of a sustained and widely known, let alone accepted, moral defense of the institution of private property rights.
Few doubt, in today’s world, that a society with a legal infrastructure that lacks this institution is in serious economic trouble. The failure to respect and legally protect the institution of private property—and its corollaries, such as freedom of contract and of setting the terms by the parties to the trade—has produced economic weakness across the globe. But many also believe that this institution is not founded on anything more solid than the arbitrary will of the government to grant privileges of ownership (for the latest statement of this position, see Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership [Oxford University Press, 2002]).
Without a moral, prelegal defense, the institution of private property, which is the source of a great many benefits to us all, will forever remain vulnerable to the critics, starting with Karl Marx, who said that “the right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily, without regard for other men, independently from society, the right of selfishness.” This essay argues that, contrary to widespread academic sentiments and impressions, the institution of private property rights fully accords with a sensible conception of human morality, indeed, rests on a solid moral foundation.