Economist Imagines Lifting the Leviathan
In “Welcome to Free America,” author David Barker paints a futuristic picture of a U.S. government that has collapsed under a wave of debt, paving the way for a society run by free-market forces.
The former economist for the Federal Reserve talked with Roll Call about what could make his hypothetical a reality and how an America dependent on private enterprise would differ from a country shackled by a federal government.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: Two reasons: I’ve always been interested in libertarian theory, and I wanted to see what the results would be if it was taken to a logical conclusion. Second, the past few years have convinced me that government as an institution is in trouble. The promises that are being made are piling up, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to pay for them. That caused me to think what the results of all this might be if we can’t find a reasonable solution to the government’s budget problems, what might happen.
Q: What’s the one issue facing the country that you think could bring about the downfall of the government?
A: The inability of the government to pay its bills and to keep its promises.
Q: There are no political parties in “Free America.” How would people organize to voice their grievances?
A: In “Free America,” there’s no government, so there’s nothing for a political party to do. There’s no government to lobby. There are no elections to try to influence. The way that people express their grievance with something is to choose another business to patronize. If we are upset with the cars that General Motors produces, we buy a Ford. In a free-market system, people vote with their money. You choose the products that you want. And business people, their incentive is to please their customers.
Q: What would be the disadvantages of a society run by free enterprise?
A: I think that markets could step up and provide services. Some of them are fairly easy to imagine, like, say, schools. Government provides schools now, but we have a lot of private schools. So it’s easy to imagine a system where all our schools are private. Same thing with roads. We can imagine private companies building roads and making back their investment by charging tolls, particularly with modern technology. Other things would be harder to imagine, like security. In my book, security is provided by private firms, who set up a list of rules that you’re expected to follow, and they say, ‘Look, if you follow these rules, we will protect you against certain things.’ But if you break the rules, say, by stealing from someone else, then your protection firm will not protect you against the other person’s protection firm from incarcerating you or finding you.
Q: Is there any city within the United States or a country that remotely resembles the society you describe in your book?
A: I’d say no. Although we do have something of a spectrum of countries … we have everything from North Korea to Cuba to other countries — that have strong government controls over almost everything — to countries that are far freer, such as the United States, Hong Kong and some European countries. But even the freest countries have far more government control than the society described in my book. Although it is interesting when you look at these indexes of economic freedom that the countries that are the freest tend to be the more prosperous, [and] the countries that are the least free tend to be the poorest.
Q: In “Free America” you paint the media as an insignificant institution. Who would keep a watchful eye on the private organizations?
A: There would be media that would give people information about the choices they face in the marketplace. If you look at any newspaper, most of the stories have to do with politics [and] government. But without government and without politics, the role of the media would be dramatically different.
Q: How did your time at the Federal Reserve influence the way in which you wrote this book?
A: It influenced it a lot. Not because I’m an anti-Fed person— I’m not. I really enjoyed my time at the Fed, and the people I worked with were brilliant people, all well-meaning people. The problem [with the Fed] is that it has somewhat of an impossible job. It’s supposed to be the central planner for our monetary system, and we’ve learned over the past several decades that central planning doesn’t work very well — that markets work better. If we had competitive money supply, I think that would be much better than having a monopoly in the Federal Reserve. But, given all that, I think they do a remarkable job of managing that monopoly. I just think that markets would do a better job.
Q: Which department would you eliminate first?
A: Probably the usual ones that come up — the Department of Education can be handled by states and local governments or private schools, which would be even better. The Department of Commerce, a lot of what they do could be done by private markets. These things are small. The real money is in the entitlement programs, and those must be reformed or we’re in very, very serious trouble.