I have often stated my admiration for Thomas Sowell. I have finally gone back to one of his sources, the great Milton Friedman, and started reading his most popular work, Free to Choose. I was first told about this book, actually something of a transcript of a ten part video series he did for Public Broadcasting in 1980, by a friend when I was talking up the work of Sowell. Here are a few excerpts:
The key insight of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is misleadingly simple: if an exchange between two parties is voluntary, it will not take place unless both believe they will benefit from it. Most economic fallacies derive from the neglect of this simple insight, from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.
Prices perform three functions in organizing economic activity: first, they transmit information; second, they provide an incentive to adopt those methods of production that are least costly and thereby use available resources for the most highly valued purposes; third, they determine who gets how much of the product--the distribution of income.
A myth has grown up about the United States that paint the nineteenth century as the era of the robber baron, of rugged, unrestrained individualism. Heartless monopoly capitalists allegedly exploited the poor, encouraged immigration, and then fleeced the immigrants unmercifully. Wall Street is pictured as conning Main Street, as bleeding the sturdy farmers in the Middle West, who survived despite the widespread distress and misery inflicted on them. The reality was very different. Immigrants kept coming. The early ones might have been fooled, but it is inconceivable that millions kept coming to the United States decade after decade to be exploited. They came because the hopes of those who had preceded them were largely realized. The streets of New York were not paved with gold, but hard work, thrift, and enterprise brought rewards that were not even imaginable in the Old World.
Another fallacy seldom contradicted is that exports are good, imports bad. The truth is very different. We cannot eat, wear, or enjoy the goods we send abroad. We eat bananas from Central America, wear Italian shoes, drive German automobiles, and enjoy programs we see on our Japanese TV sets. Our gain from foreign trade is what we import. Exports are the price we pay to get imports. As Adam Smith saw so clearly, the citizens of a nation benefit from getting as large a volume of imports as possible in return for its exports, or equivalently, from exporting as little as possible to pay for its imports.
The more of economics I read, the more I realize that virtually no one in the press, political commentary, and especially politics itself knows anything about its reality.