“Let cities and states experiment, after which other cities and states can asses the good and bad of their experimentation. Such an approach is far superior to national solutions that don’t take into account how different we all are. And that doesn’t take into account how experiments most often fail. Local is bliss.”
Review by Steve Parkhurst
John Tamny’s new book, They’re Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America’s Frustrated Independent Thinkers, available next week, is going to make people think, and for the partisans on either side, it will hopefully make them ask questions about their own arguments. I have reviewed Tamny here before, back in 2016 when he published Who Needs the Fed?, and the things I said about him and his writing style then, I maintain those words now. Good prose is my bliss, so I can turn to John Tamny anytime.
John Tamny is a first-rate educator. And if he were a politician, we would all be admiring his ability to “stay on message” and to “control a narrative.” In all his writing, continuing into this work, Tamny has thoughts and phrases that continue to appear, and that is necessary because as soon as the reader starts to deviate from common sense thinking, he reins the reader back in to the central theme.
In his opening chapter, Tamny lays out that our obsessed political culture (my words, not his) was not the vision of the Founders as prescribed by the Constitution, which “as written made it possible for Americans to have very little interest in politics, and particularly national politics.” The Constitution’s “few and defined” powers meant that people could live the lives they wanted as almost all government that actually affected them was local.
Now, Americans almost “care about politics today because they have to.” As Tamny writes, “Americans who can no longer avoid policy errors foisted on them by the political class are understandably more and more political by the day.”
Tamny continues, “My view is that both Democrats and Republicans have turned the Constitution on its head by virtue of both parties presuming to govern us from Washington, DC, as opposed to each leaving us free to choose our policy bliss through our choice of city or state.” Later on in defining all levels of government programs, Tamny further clarifies, “most government and government services should be local, and it will be understood that if these programs are going to be offered by government, they should be offered locally, if at all.” Precisely.
From there, John Tamny launches into critiques of arguments from both major political parties with regard to various issues such as immigration, global warming, taxes, spending, the minimum wage, charitable giving, free trade, school choice, stimulus spending, and more. He does all of this from an economic perspective, looking at what markets recognize and how they function, and how government seemingly fails to realize that individuals are the market, that “economies are just individuals.” Politicians tinkering with the economy is not only unnecessary, it is usually counterproductive.
There is almost nothing the federal government loves more than trying to prevent failure. John Tamny is slowly but surely educating America that not all failure is bad. “Failure is information that informs the doings of investors in ways that persistently enhance the allocation of capital,” he writes. “Liberals ultimately believe that government is necessary to save economies, but all governments can do in fighting slowdowns is to elongate them. Never forget that economies are just individuals, and the faster individuals realize their errors, the quicker the recovery.” Tamny recalls the brilliant, late Warren Brookes and his book from the early 1980s, The Economy in Mind to remind us that, “To bail out or subsidize those companies and individuals who fail, we must tax, and therefore punish, those who succeed.”
Tamny’s argument can be further boiled down to calling attention to government spending and what the real economy, what he terms the “productive economy,” loses for every one dollar that the federal government spends. The argument is both fundamental and utterly fascinating. This is also not a new concept per se, it is just ignored by the politicians of today.
“Governments only have money to spend insofar as the private sector is creating wealth in the first place. Government spending is an effect of economic growth, not a driver of it, plain and simple,” Tamny writes. “So when the federal government spends, those in its employ are using the money of liberals and conservatives alike to compete with the private sector for access to what’s precious and what businesses cannot do without.”
As already mentioned, Tamny really does use this effort to take aim at government, more so federal than state and city. In fact, a major theme of this work is that we should be seeking to return power and decision making to the states and cities. They’re Both Wrong is not simply a screed against all government, Rand Paul has that market covered. Instead, this book is a hearty defense of more economic freedom, of more politicians doing less, and of people making the best use of their time and talent to achieve their bliss.
Let us be clear on a crucial point about this book: Tamny is not taking opposing sides to the issues of our time and pointing out disagreements among the political parties that currently rule, he is using the issues to show where both sides are wrong in their argument on those issues, especially from an economic perspective. It is a big difference, and an enjoyable one.
Take Tamny’s masterful critique of immigration. He talks about immigrants in America and the value they add to what America is. And just when it appears that his immigration concept is understood, he starts zigging and zagging, and it’s amazing. Tamny notes, “Furthermore, let’s not forget one likely reason some immigrants pursue low-wage work in the first place. Precisely because the pay is slim, they have better odds of hiding themselves and their employment from government officials. Conversely, if their work were legal, immigrants would more comfortably pursue all manner of work at all levels of pay, thus broadening their impact on the job market in general.”
A bit later, in driving home the point about government involvement in immigration, and the lack of a national “fix” to the issue, he points out a truth many of us forget, and one that others want to pretend does not exist when he states, “And as the ever-expensive—and failed—drug war has hopefully reminded everyone, increased border patrol (or worse from a conservative standpoint: more muscular policing of U.S. businesses) will grow government, but not do much to keep immigrants out.”
Finally, in his defining the idea of making work in America legal, he delivers this challenge, “In that case, arguably the best solution is an Athens, Greece-style approach. During its renaissance Greece legalized work, as opposed to citizenship. The ambitious flocked there, and its economy soared. Ideally U.S. legislators would legalize work once again, while requiring new arrivals to announce themselves.”
This country is a great and wondrous place, and it can be even more so, as Tamny opines, “The United States is the place where individuals cure their poverty, and where ideas become global corporations.” “Economic growth has the best track record of all when it comes to freeing people from lives of misery.” Perhaps both sides have been wrong about immigration for a long time now, and clearer thinking beyond platitudes and talking points is required once and for all.
Tamny early on points to the “low quality of national policy decisions” made in Washington. Recent events, typically involving shootings and crazy murderers, always have pundits and leaders looking to legislate, to “do something,” and many will utter that we need a “national discussion” on either mental health or gun rights, or both. This is precisely the idea for a book like They’re Both Wrong and for a writer like John Tamny to address the point that these decisions need to be local, not national.
The nonsense that follows is one side yelling at the other, CNN and Fox News panels (the ungodly ones with four yackers on the same screen) muddy the waters, accusations and insults are launched, presidential tweets are dissected, and eventually people stop talking to each other, then the issue (usually) dies. Rather than the sideshow, get the problem (in theory) solved locally, to the contentment of the people where they live, and if the solution works long term, other states will follow. If the solution fails, at least the failure was limited to that locale, and perhaps the next place can refine the solution until eventually maybe someone someplace gets it right. Markets work the same way, thanks to Tamny I understand better that markets, or economies, are individuals. And whether dollars and cents, or major political issues, we can get both right, locally.
One final point that needs to be made. On the issue of healthcare, Tamny makes a point that caught yours truly by surprise: Nearly everyone has a cell or smart phone, right? Did the government force everyone to buy a cell or smart phone? Did conservatives show up with a plan for cell/smart phone savings accounts? No and no. Instead, the market worked the way markets work and people got to make a choice and almost everyone now owns a phone that they chose and they can add what they want, like extra data or a protective case or a stylus or new earbuds, maybe even cordless ones. Instead of the federal government picking places to intervene and regulating this aspect and taxing or diverting dollars to the other aspect, the federal government should remove itself from the equation and let the states govern. People that are unhappy with their state, can elect new legislators, or they can choose to leave for a place that provides them their legislative bliss.
How do you chase your bliss now? First, read John Tamny, that can happen quickest. Second, choose elected officials that support your ability to chase your bliss. Those that are choosing for you, or those who want to use your earnings to reward someone else so they can build up favors for the future at the expense of your bliss, well, they’re both wrong.