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Markets, Morals, and Israel

December 8, 2014 | By: Samuel Gregg

Tikvah hosted an alumni event in Israel last month and invited the American economic thinker Samuel Gregg to speak. Gregg described the cultural foundations of economic order, and of national prosperity. Writing in Mida, Amnon Lord sees a similarity between these comments and Mitt Romney’s somehow-controversial praise for Israel’s start-up culture in 2012. But, as Lord and Gregg explain, start-up culture isn’t culture and Israel’s ingrained economic persuasions often work against its best interest. Here’s an excerpt:

Samuel Gregg did not hold back when at the end of his lecture before Tikvah youth, he clarified what’s at stake: “Civilizations collapse not from an outside attack but are wiped out by internal collapse,” then going on to quote Arnold Toynbee. “Civilizations die by suicide, not murder.”

Harsh words, you might say. Dr. Gregg himself occupies a position which does not exist in Israel to the best of my knowledge – an economic philosopher. Those who are exposed to the statements of economic experts in Israel – and it’s hard to avoid exposure to the endless TV and radio debates and economic conferences from Caesaria and Eilat – will always hear discussions in terms of practical benefit. If free enterprise and free markets are mentioned, it is on a purely utilitarian basis. The economic technocrat from Israeli universities or from various social think tanks will dig no deeper into the philosophical foundations than the value of equality.

But perhaps the most important message he passed on and the lesson which needs to be taken into the cold utilitarian world of Israeli economic thought is the issue of fighting for free market ideas in the arena of public opinion. “For this you need leaders committed to the idea, imbued with profound moral conviction,” Gregg said. “We need a moral position in favor of the ideas of a free economy and against a government-business partnership.” And here comes the great stumbling block: “What can you do? Most conservatives are terrible at presenting moral positions in favor of the necessary policy and reforms for a free economy.”

Citizens generally tend towards what Gregg calls a “fiscal kleptocracy”. Voters in many countries tend to favor leaders who promise to take from some and give to others. “The Jews,” he said, “are the nation that built the West. The West chose mediocrity. As a nation, you are still young and brave enough to effect the change.”

More about: Jews and Markets