December 3, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Many people understandably wonder what spectacular music humanity was denied by the premature death of Mozart at the age of 35. What symphonies, operas, and concertos would today be part of the regular repertoire of orchestras and other musical ensembles had that sublime composer lived even for another ten years? Imagine had he lived to be 80! Even accounting for creativity’s possible decline with aging, to ponder this loss is heartbreaking. Glorious music that would have been will never be. Never. All we know is that, had Mozart lived longer, we would today have more of his music to enjoy. But we cannot possibly know what that music would have been – what the finale of Mozart’s 42nd Symphony would sound like, what notes would open his 69th Symphony, or what would be the highlights of the clarinet concerto that he might have composed in his 38th year.

It’s all forever lost, for it was never created.

A similar heartbreak overcomes me when I ponder the burning, at his deathbed request in 1790, of most of Adam Smith’s unpublished manuscripts. The wisdom and insightfulness that marked his works are precious because they are so rare. We know those works existed, but they too – like Mozart’s uncomposed music – are forever lost, never again to exist.

Artificial Intelligence might well one day justify the fear that it will destroy or enslave humanity. Or perhaps, instead, AI will peacefully liberate humanity from the necessity of toil. Whatever. AI will never compose the music that would have been composed by a 36- or 43-year-old Mozart. AI will never write what Adam Smith wrote but burned.

But at least we know of Mozart and Adam Smith. We have much, if not enough, from them. (How can there be enough?) If you really want to be overwhelmed by the loss of what-might-have-been ponder the poets, novelists, economists, engineers, physicists, physicians, philosophers, inventors, bankers, and entrepreneurs whose names we today do not know yet who would have contributed to humanity but for their being slaughtered or maimed in the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the two World Wars, and in the jungles of Vietnam.

Of course, I’m hardly the first person to bemoan the losses we cannot know in detail or measure with any accuracy. Yet these losses, as large and as regrettable as they are, are vanishingly small compared to the accumulated losses caused by simple obstructions imposed through the decades by governments on markets.

Consider the taxation of capital gains. This tax discourages some investment. Which new businesses would have been, but because of this tax weren’t, created? Which new goods or services might we enjoy today had this tax been lower? We’ll never know because all of the enterprise and production discouraged in the past by this tax is forever non-existent. Most of the resources that, because of this tax, were not used as they would have been used absent the tax did, of course, find alternative, lower-taxed uses. But these alternative uses are likely to be less productive and valuable than the tax-discouraged uses would have been. We are thus poorer, but cannot know by how much or, exactly, in what manner.

Add to this the new products and businesses that were never created because of regulatory barriers. What are the pharmaceutical products we would treasure today but don’t because the Food and Drug Administration artificially raises the costs of healthcare innovation? What are the medical devices that, because of FDA regulation, we don’t now have and might never have?

Let’s not overlook the employment opportunities destroyed by minimum-wage legislation. By pricing some workers out of jobs, minimum wages slow the entry into the workforce of many young people. We have a pretty good idea of the costs to the unemployed workers; they lose current income and the opportunity today to gain job skills. These costs alone are sufficient reason to end all minimum wages. But there are also ‘costs’ to society – costs unseen and unnoticed. Because minimum wages idle some workers, even people who think themselves to be unaffected by the minimum wage suffer, as a result of that intervention, reduced access to goods and services. These people pay higher prices. What would they have done with the money they would have saved had the prices they paid been lower? Some of this money would surely have been invested. What are the entrepreneurial dreams that would have been funded with the help of those invested funds but, because of the minimum wage, will forever remain unfunded?

And what about government spending? The US government alone spends annually today close to $7 trillion dollars. That’s more than a quarter of what Americans annually produce. The use of more than one in every four dollars’ worth of resources is determined by individuals – by federal government officials – who have only weak incentives to use those resources wisely. These officials will not personally profit from using these resources in ways especially productive; nor will they personally suffer losses from using these resources wastefully. As a result, we can be confident that a huge chunk, measuring in the trillions of dollars, of resources are used wastefully every year.

Wasteful uses of resources necessarily result in some economic opportunities that are possible being rendered impossible. What were these foregone opportunities in 1973? In 1983? In 1993? In 2003? What are these foregone opportunities in 2023? We’ll never know. Just as we can be confident that, had Mozart lived longer, we would today have a richer store of music to enjoy, we can be confident that, had taxes been lower, we would today have a richer store of goods, services, and economic opportunities to enjoy. But just as we will never know the details of the music that a longer-lived Mozart would have composed and that we would today enjoy, we will never know just what goods, services, and opportunities a lower-taxed and less-heavily regulated economy would have produced for our enrichment.

Perhaps it seems ludicrous to compare music that Mozart would have composed but didn’t to economic outputs that would have been produced but weren’t. Pairs of Crocs are not easily compared to the Prague Symphony. But because the individuals whose creativity and efforts are suppressed, and in some cases completely stymied, by governments’ economic interventions number today in the billions, the total quantity of That-Which-Was-Possible-But-Will-Never-Materialize is inconceivably vast.

Yes, Mozart died too young. Tragically. So, too, did Franz Schubert. Likewise for Hank Williams, Sr., Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon. What has been denied to humanity as a result of these premature deaths is enormous. But although entrepreneurship and commerce and the production of material goods and services don’t stir the soul as music and literature, seemingly humdrum economic activities are what make our modern lives – including our art, literature, leisure, and learning – possible. Institutions and interventions that diminish market-tested economic activities make us poorer in body and spirit. Sadly, such institutions and interventions are many.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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