The first thing one learns from economics at the beginning of Paul Samuelson’s famous college textbook is this: society must choose between guns and butter. This metaphor represents the primordial truth that resources are scarce compared to infinite human desires. This is true even for trade union activists and social justice warriors who chase money. Although the concept of scarcity appears quite obvious once formulated to anyone who can read and count and perhaps more, its understanding has important consequences.

A literal illustration of the old Samuelson metaphor is provided by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, even if he is certainly not the most economically literate person on earth (Dasl Yoon, “When Kim Jong Un Shows the World ‘Fire and Fury,'” he projects a different message home” The Wall Street JournalOctober 18, 2022):

Even the munitions industry was mobilized to support agricultural efforts. In late September, North Korea’s munitions industry displayed some 5,500 new farm machines, parked in rows at a green-and-red rice threshing floor in a town in southern Hwanghae province. … The equipment was reportedly gifted to local farms by Mr. Kim himself.

It is only later that a student of human affairs learns another important concept from economics, which seems so complicated to understand that even some brilliant economists cannot get to the point: it is not “society” that chooses between guns and butter, but either government. Or every man for himself. The theory that individual preferences are capable of solving the fundamental economic problem of scarcity more efficiently than social preferences, i.e. the preferences of rulers, was not developed before the 18th century.

The fact that international sanctions against “North Korea” have complicated the country’s problems helps to understand the fact that society and the state are two different entities between which the distance increases as a direct function of the power of the state. The more powerful the state, the more isolated it is from society. In a classical-liberal regime, there exists an interface between individual claims and state activity, a reality clearly modeled by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, although all liberal theorists have been involved in this exploration. In a tyrannical regime, of which Kim Jong Un is a real-world caricature, there is little interface, and international sanctions can hurt the dictator’s subjects far more than the dictator himself and his allies. In such circumstances, the ruler’s choice of guns over butter meant starvation for many:

About 70% of North Koreans will face food shortages this year, according to estimates released in September by the US Department of Agriculture. … “A small number of houses in rural areas see smoke coming out of their chimneys as if there is nothing to cook at home” [Lee Sang-yong of Daily NK, a news website focused on North Korea] said … Meanwhile, the government is devoting most of its budget to military advances. … North Korea launched 27 missiles during its year, more than the previous year.

Everyone in the classical liberal tradition should feel sympathy for poor, exploited people. In a free society, these people would have more butter and some guns to defend their freedom. As explained in Samuelson’s introductory economics textbook, liberty pushes the production possibilities frontier (PPF). Trade-offs are still necessary, but their location is mainly a matter of individual preference.

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