Ever since he first proposed it in the same year Thomas Jefferson declared all men to be created equal, people have been delighted and beguiled by the hidden workings of Adam Smith's famous "invisible hand."
For a millennia or more, humans who marveled at the orderly movements of the heavens sought to invent some system to explain and predict the comings and goings of the planets. And so, it was entirely inevitable that in the fullness of time people would seek to impose the cosmic reliability of celestial mechanics onto more terrestrial phenomenon as well, like economics.
"Let the market decide!" That has been the battle cry of free market aficionados from the day Adam Smith first suggested that private avarice might transubstantiate into public virtue right through to the unspoken suppositions buried deep within Congressman Paul Ryan's god-awful budget that tax cuts pay for themselves and the whole point of national fiscal policy is to lift from the minds of America's job-producing investor class the dark clouds of "uncertainty."
But what if the laissez faire conception of the free market doesn't hold up any better than did the Ptolemaic vision of an earth-centered solar system that very nearly got Galileo burned at the stake for contradicting?
What if private vice doesn't produce public virtue at all, as Adam Smith surmised, but rather invites a heedless and reckless pursuit of private profit that leads inexorably to public catastrophe? That was the conclusion which the Chicago-school conservative Richard Posner reluctantly reached after sifting through the rubble following the collapse of capitalism in 2008.
In his 2009 diagnosis of the most recent financial crisis, The Failure of Capitalism, Posner concluded that the fundamental problem with free market capitalism is that behavior which is perfectly rational when pursued by individuals, and individual firms, is disastrous when that behavior is aggregated across the entire society.
The micro-economic laws of supply and demand that tell an economic participant how to use the price mechanism to maximize profits, in other words, are worse than worthless as a macro-economic guide for the national policymaker whose aim is, not profits, but the productivity and prosperity of the economy as a whole.
It makes perfect sense for the consumer to buy when the market is strong and save when it is weak, "but by doing this they make the downturn worse," says Posner, since from the standpoint of the overall society "we want people to save when times are good and spend when times are bad."
Likewise, it can be rational to ride one of the serial economic bubbles that have become all too commonplace since high finance replaced making things as America's signature industry -- even if you know it is a bubble -- since the individual investor can never know when that bubble will burst. And until it does, says Posner, there are lots of profits to lose if one climbs off the bubble too soon.
As a former Citigroup CEO put it: "When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing you got to get up and dance. And we're still dancing."
Because risk and return are positively correlated, Posner says a firm that plays it safe is, paradoxically, "courting failure because investors will turn elsewhere."
Likewise, while a "cascade" of bank failures could bring the economy to a halt, Posner says "no individual bank has an incentive to take measures to avoid such a consequence."
That is why, he says, it may be risky to follow the herd, but it is not irrational.
Since the 2008 collapse, the media has been on high alert (unlike the government) for the scoundrels and knaves who brought our economy to grief. But in apportioning blame, Posner says "there is no need to bring cognitive quirks, emotional forces, or character flaws into the causal analysis."
The "rational maximization" of businessmen and consumers all legally pursuing their self-interest, together and intelligently, within a framework of property and contract rights, was all it took to "set the stage for economic catastrophe."
It's this "rational indifference" to the consequences of one's own business and consumption behavior -- an indifference baked into the very nature of the "free" market itself -- that explains why government has a duty to do more than merely prevent fraud, theft and other infringements of property and contract rights, even though this "is the only duty that libertarians believe government has," as Posner says.
Government also has an obligation to regulate financial behavior, says Posner, for without such regulation "the rational behavior of law abiding financiers and consumers can precipitate economic disaster."
Given the structural deficiencies of the free market and the perverse, self-destructive incentives it creates, it was probably smart for conservatives to shift the focus of their cheerleading away from capitalism's economic performance and towards laissez faire's imagined moral underpinnings instead -- freedom, liberty, individualism and all of that. That's because, as an economic incentive that promises broad-based prosperity, greed, it turns out, has not been so good.