Economic Myths #9 – Social Safety Nets

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It is often trumpeted as a virtue that “civilised”, social democratic countries offer their citizens one or more types of “social safety net” in attempt to eliminate the most dire effects of, say, unemployment, illness or some other kind of incapacity that could inflict a condition of extreme poverty upon the individual members of the citizenry. The idea is that the most basic wants will always be guaranteed by the state should one be unable to provide them for oneself and no one need have any fear of hunger or lack of shelter – situations that are said to be “intolerable” in a modern, 21st century society.

The first problem with this theory is that poverty is not some selectively appearing disease that crops up every now and then to infect an otherwise healthy and wealthy society. Rather, poverty is the natural state in which human beings first found themselves. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden they saw the world to be a barren and harsh place that is capable of providing precious little – may be just oxygen to breathe – without the conscious effort of its inhabitants. The only way to alleviate this harsh situation is for humans to work to produce the goods that they need and, eventually, to bring about capital investment in order to expand the amount of consumer goods that can be enjoyed – whether it’s cheap food, housing, education, holidays or whatever – a process that only really got underway in any significant form in the 1800s. If the individual beneficiaries of a social safety net are not able to produce these goods themselves then somebody else must do so. Simply legislating the welfare state into existence does not create the goods and services it needs to dispense to the poor and needy in order to banish poverty and want. Rather, existing goods have to be forcibly confiscated from those who have produced them and dished out for free to those that haven’t. Social safety nets are compulsory redistribution programmes, not wealth creation programmes and any benefit one receives under them will be at the expense of another person.

The economic effects of this are familiar to economists not only in the “Austrian” tradition but of other free market persuasions also. The most naïve error made by any proponent of redistribution is to believe that people’s behaviour is somehow hermetically sealed from the government intervention that seeks to achieve a certain end – i.e. that increased taxes on activity A will not discourage people from carrying out activity A; or increased funding to eliminate a “dire” situation will not, in fact, exacerbate that situation. Whenever a new tax is proposed the estimations of new revenue to be raked in are always based, incorrectly, on the assumption that people will still wish to carry on doing the taxed event just as they did before, as if the tax makes no difference. And if some new programme to be financed by this revenue is proposed, they will calculate the amount of money needed to cure the existing problem without considering whether throwing money at it will make it worse. All else being equal, if you pay people to when they do something they will do more of it; if you charge someone when they do something they will do less of it. In the case of social safety nets, if people are charged to produce wealth in order to fund it the cost of creating wealth is forcibly raised. Relative to other activities such as engaging in more leisure time, the attractiveness of producing more goods, more capital and more resources is reduced. There will, therefore, be less production, less capital investment and fewer consumer goods at higher prices – hardly the situation that one would expect to be conducive to the abolition of poverty. Similarly, if you grant a guaranteed right to be paid upon the occurrence of a bad event – such as sickness and unemployment – then you lower the cost of that event and the relative cost of preventative measures is raised. All else being equal, you will have more sickness, more unemployment and so on.

The focus of many of these social safety nets today appears to be on so-called “hardworking families” – never mind the fact that single people also work hard and struggle to make ends meet. Children, in particular, appear to be little more than a metaphorical blank cheque that the state writes to “protect” them from poverty and hardship. Yet children do not appear out of nowhere and a conscious decision must have been made at some point to have a child – or at least to carry out the act of procreation. The same economic effects will therefore result from any safety net that benefits parents with children. If you pay people when they have children then there will be more children in families that struggle to pay the bills. The resources to feed these hungry young mouths must be confiscated from those who do not have children – either through inability, a lack of desire or good old fashioned financial prudence – and redistributed to those who do.

The running theme through all of this, therefore, is that throwing free money at a problem in which people have at least some kind of influence will only aggravate that problem. Indeed, in spite of more than half a century of the welfare state we in the Western world still seems to be afflicted with the scourge of poverty – although a rather bizarre form of it where those who are poor appear to suffer more from obesity rather than from starvation. One would associate progress with a reducing, not widening social safety net. We might as well also mention the “cynical” view that government prefers to retain people in a state of dependence because it means more reliance upon the state and more votes.

A powerful weapon in the arsenal of proponents of the welfare state is the false dichotomy – that the choice is either between a government social safety net motivated by care and compassion on the one hand or some kind of selfish, greedy, sink-or-swim and dog-eat-dog society on the other. This is plainly ridiculous; the free market exists precisely because people have needs and others are willing to advance the means to fulfil them. The whole purpose of insurance – presently and regrettably distorted by government interference – is to protect from genuinely catastrophic events that are not your fault in return for a premium paid in advance. Furthermore, opting for the alternative of the free market does mean the abolition of care and compassion – rather, it gives people the freedom to be caring and compassionate. Indeed it is such private benevolence that is discouraged by the welfare state as it obliterates the need to cultivate personal relationships upon which you can rely. Real benevolence, selflessness and caring for one another springs from these relationships and from private choice; the forced redistribution demanded by the state, however, leads to the very opposite – bitterness, antagonism and cynicism when your hard earned money is taken to be given to others, all of whom – in spite of whether they are genuinely needy or not – are tarnished as workshy and endless breeders. It is no accident that many of the great charitable foundations appeared in the nineteenth century, the most relatively free and capitalist period in history – and not in the era of the welfare state. As for the argument that social safety nets are necessary for civilisation, what could be less civilised than violently wrestling something you want from someone at the point of a gun?

The social safety net therefore needs to be realised for the destructive force that it is – not as a hallmark of economic and societal progress but as one of retrogression of civilisation and as a retarding influence on the very real cure for poverty and illness – more capital, more production and more goods for everyone to be able to buy at cheaper prices.

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Economic Myths #8 – Capitalism is Exploitative

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The myth that capitalism is exploitative – or rather, that capitalists, the private owners of the means of production, and entrepreneurs – exploit both workers and consumers is as old as the history of this political-economic system itself and has been a primary driving force behind the growth of the state and, indeed, of outright socialist and communist revolution. Although much watered down from those early days, the idea that there is some kind of antagonism between the capitalist “class” and the rest of us persists.

As “Austrian” economists we know, of course, that it is absolutely and undeniably true that any free and voluntary exchange, upon which capitalism and private property must rely, only takes place because each party expects to benefit from the transaction. This alone is sufficient scientific proof to dismiss any idea that capitalism exploits one party for the benefit of another. Nevertheless we should, of course, tackle directly the specific incarnations of this myth as they appear today.

The myth has its roots in the Marxian confusion of political castes with economic classes – the idea that the relationship between capitalists and workers, which is free and voluntary, was akin to that of king and subject, or landed aristocracy and peasant – relationships that were involuntary and subjected the masses to servitude. Caste systems were static and designed to keep people in their place; under conditions of free exchange, however, economic classes have a continually changing membership based upon one’s ability to serve consumers. This ability varies from person to person, of course, but nobody is legally prevented from becoming an entrepreneur and nobody, once they are a successful entrepreneur, has their wealth and status legally protected. A wealthy capitalist might find his fortune decimated when he loses this crucial ability to serve consumers and the latter turn to other suppliers for their wares; he may have to re-join the ranks of salaried employees if he is to make ends meet. On the other hand, an ordinary worker may see a gap in the market unnoticed by the current entrepreneurs of the day and set up a successful business accordingly. This does not mean say, of course, that political castes do not exist today. We can see quite clearly from bank bailouts that there are a distinct upper caste that is protected from its mistakes and is able to retain its wealth and status at the expense of the rest of us. Indeed all the similar injustices that did occur during the early history of capitalism were not owing to the capitalists’ reliance upon genuine private property and free exchange – rather, they used the power of the state to enforce their illegitimate property interests. The mercantilist corn laws, for instance, which artificially propped up the price of corn for the benefit of cereal producers are a good example from the early nineteenth century. Capitalism itself, however, does not produce these injustices.

Moving on to some more contemporary arguments, do businesses exploit the “needs” of consumers for whatever it is that the latter want? Do they withhold “vital” and “necessary” wares releasing them only at extortionate prices thinking only of their selfish greed for profits? The argument is ridiculous because all trade and exchange relies upon the desires of the trading parties – whether it is for food, housing, cars, computers, or trips to the cinema. The entrepreneurs in business exist to fulfil and satisfy, not exploit these needs. If they are able to charge high prices it is only because the supply, relative to demand, is low and has to be rationed to those who value the goods the most. This argument regarding exploitation usually surfaces today in one of two situations. The first is during sudden supply shocks or demand spikes that send prices soaring and allows suppliers to book large profits as they obviously paid for the inputs at much lower, wholesale prices. As these usually occur during times of emergency or crisis, aren’t the businesses exploiting the dire need of the consumers for such staples as water, canned food and fuel? Such an argument ignores the fact that it is not the businesses driving the demand – it is the other people who are willing to pay more to get their hands on the suddenly scarce items. The only options are to allow other entrants into the marketplace to bring more resources into the production of scarce goods and lower their price, which would satisfy everyone with more supply of those goods that are most needed in these crisis situations; or, to fix the prices of the wares below their market clearing level which would lead to guaranteed shortages. Needless to say, government always opts for the latter. The second situation that attracts criticism is when the entrepreneur is in the business of providing something “essential” such as energy or healthcare. Yet these businesses are almost always cripplingly regulated and interfered with by government that it is impossible to define them as anything approaching free markets. Britain’s Energy market is a case in point. Apart from the vast government bureaucracy that oversees the industry, idiosyncratic interferences such as the announcement by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, that his government would freeze energy prices if his party wins the 2015 general election also take their toll upon consumers. Firms are not passing on the reduction of wholesale Energy prices to consumers and are booking profits now for fear that they will be locked into furnishing energy at low tariffs in a period when wholesale prices are rising, should Miliband make good his threat. In contrast if you look to any industry that government tends to leave alone you do not find the same criticisms hurled at the dominant suppliers. Up until now we have seen that supermarkets, although subjected to food standards regulations that no doubt have raised prices, have benefitted from relatively less government interference and, apart from a few murmurings from food purists and local activists, inexpensive food has ensured that they have never been a serious political issue. However, now that food prices are starting to rise can we expect government to start poking its nose increasingly into the food industry and blaming the resulting shortages and disarray on the “exploitation” of the big supermarkets? Furthermore, given that trade is always a two-way process we could also say that the consumers “exploit” the need of businesses for money. These entities have suppliers and employees to pay and they are often desperate to get their hands on your cash – if someone else offers a lower price they could be left high and dry by your decision to shop elsewhere, threatening the employment and livelihoods of all of those people that work in the business you shun simply because you have the guile to want to pay less! It is partly for that reason that the supply curve for consumer goods is generally vertical, with merchants selling goods for any price they can get simply to shift them and have at least some cash to meet their future outgoings.

In a genuine free market businesses can never exploit anyone or hold anyone to ransom. A consumer would have the power to take his custom elsewhere if the business failed to meet his needs at an agreeable price. Although businesses as a whole set prices for consumer products and wages, no one individual business can do so and each one must be prepared to sell goods for, at most, as much as the next business, and to pay wages at least as high. These boundaries can be crippling if the selling prices are lower or insubstantially higher than the prices the business must pay out. Businesses, unprotected by government privilege, therefore have to be on their toes constantly in case someone comes along with a better offer. The beneficiary of this process is the consumer-employee, who always knows he is paying the lowest price for what he buys and receives the highest wage for his work that can ever be paid.

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Economic Myths #7 – Government means Harmony

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One of the aspects of capitalism and the free market that the typical lay person finds difficult to comprehend is the fact that the complex structure of work, production, distribution, and trade could possibly take place without some kind of centralised, directing authority in order to co-ordinate everybody’s efforts. Wouldn’t there just be chaos and mal-coordination with everyone trying to make their own, independent plans with no government tiller to steer the giant ship?

This fallacy stems from the belief – accentuated by holistic concepts such aggregate statistics and, indeed, national identities – that “the economy” is some kind of enormous machine that has “input” and requires one operator to “process” the “inputs” into “outputs”. In fact, rather than being one giant, amorphous blob “the economy” is made up of millions and millions of independent unilateral acts of production and two-way trades, many of which will never have anything to do with each other. Indeed, I may sell an apple to my neighbour for 10p in London; another person may sell an orange for 20p to his neighbour in Manchester. Neither of the two pairs of people has ever met, nor need any of them have anything to do with the exchange of the other pair; and yet both exchanges would be regarded as part of “the British economy” in mainstream discourse. Rather than being a top-down operated machine, the economy is a bottom up network of independent transactions – motivated by the ends desired by each and every one of us rather than a bureaucrat – joined only together through the communication of the price system. All of the trades together, stimulated by varying and changing desires and ends that people seek, will have a constant and unceasing influence on the prices that regulate the supply of goods relative to their demand. Ironically, it is precisely because of such complexity that the attempts of any central authority to control and direct it are nothing short of futile – as Ludwig von Mises proved as long ago as the birth of the world’s greatest collectivist experiment, the Soviet Union, in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.

An oft-heard complaint, particularly from the left, is that “globalisation” and expanding markets has led to a decimation of the local culture and community. All this means, however, is that the market for goods has simply expanded so that one can source one’s needs from pretty much anywhere on the globe. It is still the case that the driving force of demand is not global or holistic – it resides very locally in every individual person’s tastes and desires. Such complaints therefore fail to recognise the irony in calling for a very distant and hardly local entity – the government – to halt globalisation and expanding markets by replacing what individual, local people desire with its own ends.

This myth, of course, goes further than economics and has more than seeped into philosophy as well, stemming from a basic misunderstanding about what is required for the human race to live in peace and harmony. It does not mean that we all need to be pursuing the same ends, following the same plan or singing from the same hymn sheet and we do not need some centralising authority to prevent “discordance” between the actions of one person and another. Rather, what is required is that we can each follow our own plans while not conflicting with the plans of others. This is precisely what private property and the free exchange accomplish. Recognising that all conflicts have their origin in the contest over physical goods, an exclusive right is granted to the first user-producer (or to the recipient of the good in a voluntary exchange) so that he may fulfil his ends without molestation from other people; and other people can use the goods for which they are the first producer-user without interference from him. Any person arguing in favour of “one direction” and “harmony” at the behest of centralised control really means that everyone else’s plans should be overridden by his own – and should be forced to accept them. Indeed every forced, government transaction requires there to be at least one loser, one person who does not want his funds directed to the ends desired by government. Rather than producing harmony what results is merely bitterness and antagonism. Furthermore, aside from the economic chaos that such a system brings, rather than inspiring such qualities as productivity, self-reliance, hard work, prudence, patience and responsibility, the resulting social disorder instils, in their stead, laziness, apathy, conflict, corruption, impatience and cynicism – hardly the human qualities that one would wish to exemplify as the hallmarks of a “peaceful” and “harmonious” society.

True harmony can only be brought about by allowing each and every individual to pursue his own ends with the scarce resources over which he has lawful ownership, while allowing everyone else to do the same – permitting the human race to flourish peacefully and devoid of conflict. Not only does government fail to aid this process, it is the active cause of its destruction – and the sooner we recognise this the closer we will be to building a lasting peace and prosperity.

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