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Skating to Freedom

A Commentary by John Stossel

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

My last Fox Business Network TV show airs Friday.

That news pleases some people, like internet trolls who write that they are happy to be "rid of that noted LIAR and falsifier of news" who produces "hit pieces." Another wrote, "Hopefully the cancer came back to finish him off."

To be clear, I'm not ending "Stossel" because I have cancer. I don't have cancer. I had a small tumor removed, and, best we can tell, it's gone. I didn't even have chemo or radiation.

I'm moving on because I want to create a new libertarian internet-based platform with Reason TV and become an educator with the Charles Koch Institute's new Media and Journalism Fellowship program. I will still make appearances on Fox News.

I had a good time hosting my own show for seven years, trying to find new ways to simplify economics and demonstrate the benefits of free markets.

Unfortunately, economic freedom can be hard to demonstrate. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is, well, invisible. How do I explain it on TV? Friedrich Hayek's phrase "spontaneous order" is clearer but still hard to show.

I was stumped until I read "Rinkonomics: A Window on Spontaneous Order" by George Mason University's Dan Klein. That inspired me to rent a skating rink.

Why? Well, imagine you've never seen a rink, and you are the government regulator who approves new businesses.

I tell you: I will flood that arena, freeze the water and then charge people money to strap sharp blades onto their feet and zip around on the ice. I will have few rules. Anyone can skate: young and old, skilled and unskilled.

Most any regulator would resist my bizarre skating idea. Hillary Clinton might say that for my rink to be approved it must have stoplights, skating police and barriers between skilled and unskilled skaters, adults and children. I must have someone with a megaphone direct the skaters to make sure they don't smash into each other.

So, I actually tried that. I rented a rink and bossed people around: "You, turn left, you slow down." Of course, the skaters hated that. And it didn't make skating safer. Some people, responding to my instructions, lost their balance and fell.

There is spontaneous order on a normal skating rink. Skaters make their own decisions. No regulator knows the wishes, skills and immediate intentions of individual skaters better than skaters themselves.

Regulators might say my attempts to direct skaters failed because I'm not a skating "expert." On my TV show, one guest said regulation must be done "by technocrats with expertise."

So I hired an expert, an Olympic skater. She did no better with the megaphone. No "technocrat" has enough expertise to direct the skaters on the ice.

For safety, rinks usually just have a few employees who police reckless skaters and simple rules like "skate counterclockwise." That's enough!

Good thing rinks were invented before the modern regulatory state took over.

Leave people free to make their own choices and a spontaneous order arises. Skaters find their own path. Buyers and sellers adjust to changing prices. Families raise kids. Musicians create jazz.

That's what I've tried to demonstrate on my show.

Control freaks have criticized such spontaneity for at least 2,400 years. Plato warned that music should be simple so that it does not stir up passion. In America, Ladies Home Journal once warned that jazz would lead "to a breaking away from all rules." Lucky America didn't have a Department of Music Safety then or jazz would have been banned.

Over seven years on the "Stossel" show, I've done all sorts of stunts, trying to explain the benefits of liberty. I've dressed as a Founder and Santa and Uncle Sam, begged for money on Manhattan streets, broken windows, collected signatures on petitions to ban "dangerous" chemicals like dihydrogen monoxide (that's water), stolen things from children, held a racist (that is, affirmative action) bake sale, smashed cars with a sledgehammer (inspired by the "cash for clunkers" government program) and cut the federal budget with a chain saw.

If it helps explain the benefits of freedom, I'll try it.

John Stossel is the author of "No They Can't! Why Government Fails -- But Individuals Succeed." For other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.



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