The Best of All Possible Economic Worlds

In Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, the protagonist is told by his teacher Doctor Pangloss that we live in the best of all possible worlds, a naive belief which Candide repeats and steadfastly maintains in spite of the numerous accidents, mishaps, calamities, and disasters that befall him and his friends. This overly-optimistic opinion of the world we live in was a repetition of the argument made by Gottfried Leibniz, which argument Voltaire wanted to demolish, that we must of necessity live in the best of all possible worlds because God, who is perfect, could not have created a world that is less than perfect.

Although no one would make such a ridiculous claim today, what is astonishing is that there exists, in this day and age, a group of grown men and women who declare that, provided certain economic conditions are fulfilled, it is impossible to increase the total of economic well-being, meaning that it is impossible to increase the economic well-being of some people without diminishing the economic well-being of others. This ideal state they call a Pareto Optimum, after the theorizing fool who first advanced it. But like so many of his economic colleagues, he never bothered to test his astonishing claim before he loudly trumpeted it to the world, believing instead that mere mathematical deduction and consistency were sufficient to ensure its truth and applicability in the real world.

More generally, there exists a group of blind fanatics known as free-market capitalists who, in the naive manner of the overly optimistic and completely blind-to-reality Doctor Pangloss, declare that we can achieve the best of all possible economic worlds by strictly limiting government functions, which means cutting services and reducing taxes, while encouraging free trade and allowing privately-owned and operated companies to provide as many services as possible, including health care, education, libraries, community centres, public transportation, pensions for the elderly, the construction and maintenance of roads and other large infrastructure projects, and even law enforcement and punishment, all free of any government interference or oversight. In other words, that an unregulated free market is the best means of providing everything that all people need at the lowest possible prices. But in formulating their glorious theory, they have ignored something rather important called reality, but which to them is clearly not of much importance, certainly not when compared to the magnificent results that logically and mathematically follow from their glorious theory, and therefore must result if only the simple conditions of their theory are adhered to.

Although we may laugh at the many mishaps that befall Candide and his friends, some of whom are miraculously resuscitated from death before they are reunited at the novel’s end, the many mishaps, calamities, and disasters that occur to the hundreds of millions of victims of free-market economists around the world are neither insignificant nor comical. And unlike Candide and his hapless friends, those who die as a result of the adoption, implementation, or imposition of free-market economic policies do not miraculously come back to life.

It is time that we recognize these theorizing fools for what they are, as modern-day versions of Doctor Pangloss. But unlike the original fictional character, who was not responsible for causing any of the calamities that occur in Voltaire’s novel, only for overlooking and minimizing them, these economic fools are responsible for causing great harm, suffering, instability, inequality, and injustice to large numbers of people all over the world by their naive advocacy of, and their rigid adherence to, the false and dangerous ideology known as free-market capitalism.