That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
November 26, 2001


Don Lavoie: A truth-teller now silent



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I was very sorry to learn recently that Don Lavoie had died on November 6. He was 50 years old.

In the course of my years as a free-lance professional copy-editor I have worked on books by the biggest names in libertarianism: Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and Murray N. Rothbard. But the work of that sort I am proudest of, I did with Don Lavoie on his book National Economic Planning: What Is Left? (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1985).

I was brought in to copy-edit and reorganize the manuscript by Roy Childs when Childs still worked at the Cato Institute, the sponsor of the project. I'm pretty sure I was no one else's first choice; I had been out of the editing business for nearly a decade and was pretty rusty, and any flaws in the spelling, punctuation, style, notes, or bibliography in the final text are probably my fault. But as it turned out, Don and I worked well together. From the very start, I had gotten a sense of his graciousness from the dedication in the manuscript: "For my brother John M. Lavoie (1959-1982)." John had been the primary impetus behind Don's becoming an economist, and the dedication expresses no merely formal sentiment. I was to enjoy that graciousness myself: the inscription that Don wrote in my copy of the published book makes that volume one of the most treasured in my library.

To this day, National Economic Planning is unsurpassed in the libertarian literature. Lavoie's purpose was to show how and why the Left, in addressing social problems of inhumanity, realizes only more inhumane results. Lavoie brought a historical perspective to his analysis but focused primarily on the darlings of the intellectual Left of the 1980s. In so doing, he managed to zero in on writers whose arguments and positions would later become an integral part of the Clinton administration's idea of economic management (e.g., Robert Reich and Felix Rohatyn). What is so excellent about his criticisms of them and others (Wassily Leontief, Amitai Etzioni, Michael Harrington, Tom Hayden, and Barry Bluestone, to name a few) is that he was able to see that they were all making the same two essential errors: none of them could provide any genuine basis for preferring their strategies against those of the others because they all fell into the trap of thinking that they could possess sufficient knowledge to run an economy; and none of them could make any provision whatever against dictatorship. (In his book, Lavoie often acknowledged his debt to F.A. Hayek for both points.)

But National Economic Planning was not just another book on the esoteric subject of economic calculation. Lavoie himself was loyal to the antiwar sentiment so often voiced by the intellectual Left — a loyalty he shared with very few in the libertarian movement, which is all too often dependent on right-wing conservatism for its support structure. But he also understood with a clarity seldom seen just how it was that the Left's opposition to war and monopoly was undermined by its embracing of central planning. (In a loathsome parody of the mistakes of the Left, many modern libertarians have begun to undermine their opposition to monopoly and central planning these days by embracing war.)

In the final chapter of the book, Lavoie "took off the gloves." He had allowed the Left to have its say, to pretend that the wars, gulags, and dictatorships that seemed to dog its political successes resulted merely from a few errors in judgment here and there, errors unrelated to the central planning that it had effected. But in the final chapter he insisted that the supposed failures of central planning were in fact the only successes it could have enjoyed. Moreover, those on the Left who might be sincere in their radical goals were being used by the ideologues of central planning to achieve opposite ends. In support of that assertion, Lavoie provided an overview of the history of left-wing radicalism, from the English Civil War on, that is a tour de force of integration of history and economics. It alone should have won his book a place of honor on libertarian bookshelves.

Throughout his criticism of the Left, Lavoie was eager for the reader to embrace the essential radicalism of its original opposition to war and monopoly. That central planning cannot help but end in monopoly, war, and dictatorship is no reason to abandon opposition to those things! Rather, it is a reason to abandon central planning.

Moreover, Lavoie was mindful of how often free-market rhetoric has been enlisted in the service of reaction, and he found the match made between those two as inappropriate as the match the Left had made with central planning. Many libertarians of the mid 1980s were seduced by Ronald Reagan's apparent devotion to the free market, even as his policies, in Lavoie's words, "constructed a permanent war economy." No wonder the Left was unable to mount a successful campaign against Reagan: his policies were the very essence of the central planning they had been calling for. It is only when the free market and opposition to monopoly and war are wedded that dictatorship can be averted. That alone is the marriage made in heaven.

I was to know only one disappointment as the book was being written, rewritten, and organized. Lavoie had composed two versions of the last chapter, one with a much more radical theme than the other. In a discussion of policies that libertarian radicalism implies, he showed in the more radical version that in treating their legitimate concerns (e.g., unemployment, poverty, and militarism) with the policies of central planning, leftists had played into the hands of the very power elites they purported to despise and oppose. Thus unemployment is made worse by the state's control of the money supply; immigration controls (which are directed against the poorest of the world) are a necessary part of the welfare state; and the surest way to expand the state's militarism is to expand its taxing power.

He also identified the sine qua non of a true, radical, libertarian revolution: "What radicals need to do is focus far more clearly than they have on 'naming the enemy.' ... The failure of previous revolutions lies in their inability to correctly perceive who — or what — their true enemy is." And what is this enemy? "Not some identifiable group. Rather, in each case, the enemy is a specific set of ideas — no matter who holds them — and a corresponding set of actions — no matter who takes them."

That insight explains in part what is wrong with the occasional calls one hears for revolution. Since the Patriot Movement has at this point no idea what the true enemy is, it can only make things worse. The most promising outcome of such a revolution would be its utter failure.

Because of the sponsorship of Cato, at that time still a young think-tank hoping to be taken seriously by the policymaking elites (who, whenever it suits them, hold and act on the very ideas Lavoie was attacking), it was predictable that the less radical version should have been the one included in the book. I still have a copy of the original version in typescript, and I have not given up hope that it will someday be published.

Two other disappointments, not actually having to do with the book, mar my memories of those happy days when I was working with Lavoie and Childs. Lavoie — like Childs — was fascinated by the arguments of Michael Polanyi on tacit knowledge as the basis — along with rivalrous contention — for scientific advancement. (An appendix to National Economic Planning constitutes a preliminary discussion of Polanyi's views on science and epistemology.) I once commented that someday we should talk about Polanyi: I was convinced that Polanyi's discoveries, views, and arguments actually implied the existence of God and the legitimacy of the Catholic Church. This claim astounded Lavoie, who was aware that Polanyi had made no such use of his arguments. An atheist, Lavoie thought it would be fun some day for us to discuss that matter.

Alas, we never had that discussion.

The other disappointment arises from a comment made at the end of the inscription he wrote me: "I hope we can work together on another book some day." So did I, but that day never came.  Ω

November 26, 2001

Published in 2001 by WTM Enterprises.

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