Fox News bewails the fall of the United States in the 2012 Economic Freedom of the World report, a study co-authored by Florida State University economist James Gwartney. Perusing the report, which finds Hong Kong and Singapore in first and second places, I was reminded of a passage from Marx Edgeworth Lazarus’ review (in an 1885 issue of Liberty) of the work of individualist and land reform champion Joshua King Ingalls. Praising Ingalls, Lazarus describes how he “exposes the hypocrisy of defending the actual business world by laws of tendency, as it were, in a vacuum; while ignoring the continual intervention of circumstances, and especially of government,–i.e., of arbitrary wills,–to frustrate [those laws of tendency].”
Throughout his life and work, Ingalls always contended that genuine laissez-faire could cure most of the ills associated with the labor question. The problem was that many economists and mainstream commentators had mistaken a system of state privilege for a condition of economic freedom. We’ve never gotten away from that, of course, with outlets like Fox News keen to brandish the guidon of a most unfree capitalist domination of the earth under the pretense of “Freedom of the World” reports. Coercive state protection of capital’s prerogative of demanding tribute, it must be said, has nothing to do with free markets or laissez-faire. But those are used equivalently by the great and seemingly growing list of these reports–themselves fairly interchangeable. We might do well to remember that, just as Ingalls and Lazarus had a conception of freedom quite different from those of many laissez-faire advocates of their day, so do many contemporary libertarians recognize the distinct difference between the now strictly potential freedom of the world and the “Freedom of the World” we apparently have.