Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race is the kind of economic manifesto that will appeal to most conservatives and libertarians and curdle the cream of liberals and progressives. Todd G. Buchholz, the author, has an impressive array of credentials. He is a former presidential economic advisor. He was a managing director of a successful hedge fund. He was a fellow at Cambridge University in 2009. He taught at Harvard, was a co-producer of Broadway’s Jersey Boys, and contributes regularly to (god help me) NPR and PBS. This is an economist to be taken seriously.
Essentially the thesis of the book seems to be that human beings are best served by an economic system that encourages and rewards individual initiative through freewheeling competition as opposed to one where a paternalistic government tries to equalize rewards among its citizens. The book highlights examples of research purporting to show that people who work for what they get are better satisfied than those who get a free ride. People like to compete because they like to win. Competitive instincts are embedded in human genes, and to the extent that competition drives us to excellence, it is not only a positive force, it may well have been the force most vital to human development. We compete for rewards. Competition breeds innovation; innovation means progress. In a society where there everyone gets rewarded there is no need to compete; there is no progress.
Work is the agency of competition. There is nothing wrong with working. Indeed, productive work keeps our minds sharp and our bodies healthy. Retirees, for example, tend to dry up and die away; those who keep working seem to grow old gracefully. The idea that work is a hardship, that the less one works the better is a demonstrable error. There is satisfaction in work. Work is rewarded. This, of course, is not a new idea. Think of the industrious ant, and the lazy grasshopper. It might be argued that the coal miner or the garbage collector may not be so thrilled with work, but at the very least in a free society with a free market, they have the option of looking elsewhere for work that they might find more to their taste.
Paternalistic societies that try to protect their citizens from all the evils of life from second hand smoke to job loss are creating an underclass unable or unwilling to protect themselves. Why work if you can get unemployment insurance? Why not speculate in esoteric securities if the government will bail you out when you get in trouble? Governments that intervene in the market place cause problems. Regulation stifles energetic innovation. Regulation creates red tape that smothers industry. The free market can be relied on to weed the garden. A business that doesn’t deal honestly will soon be out of business.
Buchholz is a true believer. I have no doubt that conservatives, although some may have some problems with his use of Darwin’s ideas about evolution to support his assertions about the nature of man, will find in him a convincing spokesman. Certainly there are arguments to be made on the other side. History is replete with examples of economic disasters resulting from the failures of unregulated capitalists. One only has to point to the recent securitized mortgage crisis to see what can happen when innovation runs amok. Moreover to many readers, his arguments will sound too much like that famous rant about the value of greed, a screed which Buchholz, in fact, takes the time to unpack and explain.
Still, liberals will find him a formidable opponent. He writes with flair. He argues with good humor and intellectual depth. His frame of reference is large. He talks about Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai and I Love Lucy, Bruno Bettelheim and Franz Kafka. He seems reasonable. If one accepts his basic assumptions, it is very difficult to see problems with his conclusions.
Of course, not everyone will accept those assumptions. Not all economists believe that free markets are quite as efficient as Buchholz believes. Indeed, one can argue about just how free some supposedly free markets are. One can argue that a humane society has some obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves. One can argue that those who prosper in a nurturing society’s environment have an obligation to give something back to that society. More than likely however in today’s polarized political environment, there aren’t many who would object who will bother with the book in the first place. This is unfortunate, because Buchholz doesn’t seem to be one of these yellers and screamers. He may be a voice with whom dialogue is possible.