Prices and Cost of Production

Leave a comment

A major field of study in the science of economics is the pricing of consumer goods and their antecedent factors of production. The history of this area of thought provides an almost textbook example of the falsehood of the “Whig theory” of historiography – the idea that the knowledge of humanity progresses in an ever upward direction and that what we know now is better and more enlightened than what we knew before. For this area of study in particular is marked by progression, retrogression and progression once more, often with disastrous consequences.

The most serious case of retrogression in this regard was of, course the Marxian labour theory of value that stipulated that the exchange ratio of goods depended upon the quantity of labour time inherent in their production. This theory, together with its corollaries and associates such as the iron law of wages and the exploitation theory, was derived, so it was believed, directly from the largely pre-capitalist classical economics of Smith and Ricardo.

A basic “Austrian” response to this is to reject Marxism and its supposed classical parent by pointing out, of course, that costs are also prices. To explain prices in reference to prices, therefore, would appear to be a case of circular reasoning. Rather, the prices of the factors of production were derived from the value of the final good. Capitalists would bid up the factors of production according to the valuation of the final product. Thus the value of every factor was explained not according to the effort expended but, rather, according to its value in producing consumer goods.

Unfortunately, however, this basic understanding of the “Austrian” approach towards prices ignores the much richer theoretical tapestry inherent in the “Austrian” approach (especially that of Böhm-Bawerk) which, in fact, does not contradict many of the tenets of price theory in classical economics but, rather, armed with the law of marginal utility, provides a more powerful explanatory basis for them. Thus, one need not throw out the classical economics baby with the Marxist bath water and risk losing many of the important and true conclusions that were abused and distorted by Marx.

An immediate problem with the basic “Austrian” view is that the sequence of valuations from consumer good through the stages of production to the ultimate land and labour factors is the reverse of the temporal sequence of events. A product has to have been produced through all of its stages of production before a consumer can bid a price for it. Thus, the prices of the factors of production pre-date those of the consumer goods upon which the former are supposedly based. It is difficult to understand, therefore, how something can be derived from something else that does not yet exist. The more accurate view is, of course, that the prices of the factors of production are based upon the estimated selling prices of the future consumer goods. In a static equilibrium such as the evenly rotating economy the prices of the final goods are known in advance and hence the pricing of the factors of production will accurately reflect the value of the final consumer goods. But as helpful as this model may be in conceptualising the structure of production, it is woefully easy to draw from it the conclusion, so beloved of mainstream economists, that a boost in the value of consumption must necessarily result in a subsequent boost of the value of the factors of production. In other words that consumption feeds production. This, of course, is patently untrue. As John Stuart Mill said, “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. Rather, to produce a commodity for purchase, labour (and all of the factors of production) must already have been demanded by capitalist-entrepreneurs. In other words, it is production that feeds consumption not vice-versa.

Second, if the prices of the factors of production of a good are based upon the valuations of consumers this does not explain the individual pricing of the factors. If, for example, a consumer will buy a loaf of bread for £1.00, why does the flour that went into it cost, say, 40p, the labour 50p and the hire of the oven to bake it 10p? Why doesn’t flour cost 50p, labour 30p and the oven 20p? Or any other possible combination of prices? One possible answer to this problem is that each factor earns its marginal revenue product – that is, the portion of the value of the increased product that it is attributable to an incremental increase of that particular factor. So for example, if I have a patch of land and a given number of seeds and apply increasing units of fertiliser then each additional unit of fertiliser will be priced according to the additional revenue earned by the additional physical product that results. The problem with this view is that it ignores the fact that no additional product is the result of a single factor alone and that the value of the additional product need not be imputed solely to the additional fertiliser. What if, for example, the purchase price of the land and the seeds already accounted for the fact that additional fertiliser could be applied to it to produce a larger physical product? Moreover, even if, say, the land and seeds were purchased at a price that reflected the fact that only a limited quantity of fertiliser was available and thus only a reduced physical product could be yielded from them, any unexpected increase in the available quantity of fertiliser and thus increased physical product and increased revenue would also cause an increase in the capitalised value of the land and the price of seeds. In other words, there is no reason to assume that the marginal revenue product should be imputed to only a single factor. We are therefore no closer to solving our problem – what is it that causes the particular array of prices between the factors? As we shall see, each factor does, in fact, earn its marginal revenue product, but not in a partial equilibrium where we examine only a particular end or use for a factor. Rather we have to consider the entire assortment of uses to which a good can be directed.

A further problem with the basic “Austrian” approach is revealed when we consider large consumer goods such as cars and computers. It is patently obvious that the value of a car is zero unless it has a steering wheel. Indeed, the demand for steering wheels is likely to be extremely inelastic, stretching all the way up to the height of the value of the entire car. However, in reality, the full value of the car does not result in the imputation of that full value to the steering wheel but rather to all of the other factors as well. Similarly, a computer is useless without the monitor; a television without a plug; glasses without lenses. In fact, it is clear that the utility of thousands of goods is dependent upon the unity of all of their individual components and if any one of them is missing the utility of a particular good drops to zero. Yet in many cases we never have to pay more than a few pounds for the “essential ingredient” to be produced.

How then do we arrive at the prices of all of the individual factors? The answer to this question lies in a deeper understanding of the law of marginal utility. As we know, this law states that the value of a unit of a good is equal to the value attached to the least valuable use to which that unit can be directed. So if, for example, I have five bottles of water, I might use the first for my most important end which is drinking, the second for the next most important end which is washing, the third for cleaning laundry, the fourth for watering plants, and the fifth to make into ice cubes. As each bottle is interchangeable, if one bottle was to be lost it would be the least valuable use – making ice cubes – that would be foregone. Thus, the value of any one unit will equate to the value of the least valuable end of making ice cubes, in spite of the fact that some of those units will be directed to ends with far greater value.

What we can see, however, is that if the value of any one unit of a good equates to the value of the least valuable use to which that unit can be directed then this value must also be imputed to the factors of production. If a portion of those factors was to be lost, the resulting reduced supply of goods would result in the loss of the least valuable ends. Thus, each unit of the factors of production that created the five bottles of water must themselves be valued at the lowest valuable use of a good that those factors will produce.

However, this law will also apply when the factors of production are not specific and can be used to produce any range of goods that satisfy a number of different ends. Let’s say, for example, that a given quantity of factors of production can be used to produce the following consumer goods in descending order of value:

  1. A bottle of water;
  2. A loaf of bread;
  3. A bar of soap;
  4. A pair of socks;
  5. A box of tissues.

If the same factors of production can be used to produce my most valuable good, a bottle of water, as my least valuable good, a box of tissues, then it follows that the factors of production will be valued according to the value attached to the box of tissues. The loss of any portion of those factors of production will result in the cessation of the production of tissues while all of my other goods are still produced. Here, then, is the key to understanding the different prices of the factors of production. The value of a factor is based not upon the utility attached to the specific good to which that factor is directed but, rather, upon the least valuable good to which a portion of its supply is directed. Only highly specific factors of production which can be devoted only to a single end will derive their value fully from that specific end.

In real life, of course, it is never the case that whole combinations of factors of production can be exchanged between different ends. Rather factors have to take their place in different combinations of specific and non-specific factors. It is these various arrays that produce, at any one time, the individual prices of the factors of production. Thus the breakdown of prices of factors used to produce a particular good is derived from the lowest valued uses to which portions of the supply of those individual factors are directed.

We are now, therefore, in a position to see what we mean when we say that a factor of production earns its marginal revenue product. If we gain an additional unit of a particular factor, that unit will be directed towards the next most valuable end that is currently unfulfilled in the economy as a whole. All of the most valuable uses for the factor will already be fulfilled. Yet all units of this particular factor will now be priced according to the value of the marginal unit which will be derived from the least valuable end.

However, the pricing of the factors of production according to their marginal uses is not the only effect of the application of the law of marginal utility. It also affects the value of the supra-marginal products whose direct marginal utility is above that of the marginal product. These products too will be priced according to the combination of prices involved in their factors of production as the loss of any given portion of a factor will not result in the loss of this product but in the loss of the marginal product. Thus, the prices of most goods in the economy are priced according to the least valuable goods that are produced out by the marginal units of their shared factors of production. As George Reisman explains:

Allow me to illustrate Böhm-Bawerk’s point here by means of a modification of his famous example of the pioneer farmer with five sacks of grain. As will be recalled, the five sacks serve wants in descending order of importance. One sack is necessary for the farmer to get through the winter without dying of starvation. The second enables him to survive in good health. The third enables him to eat to the point of feeling contented. The fourth enables him to make a supply of brandy. The fifth enables him to feed pet parrots.

[…]

Now let us slightly modify the example. Let us imagine that the first sack of grain has been used to make a supply of flour, which in turn has been used to make a supply of biscuits, and that it is this resulting supply of biscuits by means of which the first sack of grain performs its service of preserving the farmer’s life […] We can imagine a little tag attached, this time saying, “Biscuits Required for Survival.” As before, our farmer still has four remaining sacks of grain, any of which can be used to make a fresh supply of flour and then a fresh supply of biscuits. And now, just as before, we may imagine rats or other vermin destroying the supply of biscuits. Will the answer to the question concerning the magnitude of the farmer’s loss be materially different? Certainly, his life does not depend on the supply of biscuits any more than it did on the sack of grain. For he can replace that supply of biscuits at the expense of the marginal employment of the remaining sacks of grain, which, of course, is the feeding of the pet parrots. To be sure, additional labor will have to be applied as well, but the magnitude of value lost here is that of the marginal product of that labor, which might be  something such as the construction of a sun shade or an additional sun shade or even the feeding of the parrots. The point is that the value of the biscuits will not be determined by the importance of the wants directly served by the biscuits but by the importance of the marginal wants served by the means of production used to produce biscuits and from which a replacement supply of biscuits can be produced at will.1

Thus, we can conclude, that for the majority of products that are available for sale today, their selling prices are based not upon their direct marginal utilities but, rather, upon their costs of production which is derived from the marginal utilities of the least valuable products to which factors of production are directed. There are several noteworthy effects of this analysis.

The first is that this does not nullify the operation of supply and demand in determining the price of any supra-marginal good. Rather, it results in a shifting of the supply curve to the right so that it intersects the demand curve at a level where price equals the cost of production, plus the going rate of profit. Changes in the availability of the factors of production which either increase or decrease their marginal utility will cause similar shifts of the supply curve to the left or right which will have the corresponding effect of raising or lowering the price of the specific consumer good. This is possible without any change in the quantity that is bought and sold if, for example, the shift of the supply curve takes place on a highly inelastic stretch of the demand curve. The same quantity will be bought and sold simply at a higher or lower price.

The second observation, derived from the first, is that this obliterates the standard economic analysis behind monopoly pricing. The basis of this analysis is that suppliers can exploit inelastic demand curves to reduce supply, raise their prices and thus rein in an artificially expanded profit at the expense of the consumer. However, our theory here reveals that the opportunities for doing this are minimal. For the raising of prices and consequent swollen profit margins will cause competitors to shift factors of production away from the production of marginal goods towards an increase in production of the goods whose prices have been raised, thus restoring an increase in supply and the reduction of prices back to near their costs of production. Thus, for any businessman, the primary tool for estimating his selling price is not elasticity of demand of the particular good that he is selling; rather, it is the cost of production of any potential competitor. It is for this reason why very basic goods such as bread, milk, eggs, salt etc. which have an inelastic demand curve are priced very low; and it is for this reason why sole suppliers in particular industries will earn only the going rate of profit; any attempt to raise prices will simply attract competition.

The third important observation is the impact of this analysis on wages. For labour too is, of course, a factor of production and thus will only draw income in line with the marginal use to which it can be devoted. What results, therefore, is that labour is paid a rate of wages that is far below the direct marginal utilities of the goods that the very vast majority of labourers will be producing. Yet it is also clear that, because the value of marginal products is imputed, via their factors of production, to the supra-marginal products, it is clear that the resulting lower prices means that labour can buy all of this produce. Thus increases in the supply of labour, resulting in the direction of the latter to further marginal uses and thus a lowering of the nominal wage rate, will have no bearing upon the ability of labourers, in their capacity as consumers, to buy its produce and, indeed, will serve to increase the real wage rate. Thus the argument that increases in the supply of labour through, say, immigration are largely unfounded.

What we can see therefore is that the “Austrian” understanding of the prices of goods and their costs of production, although complex, provides a strong bulwark against false theories in many important areas such as stimulus spending, wages, and competition law. Every individual who wishes to offer powerful affronts to the falsehoods that abound in these areas should study it avidly.

View the video version of this post.

1George Reisman, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s “Value, Cost and Marginal Utility”: Notes on the Translation, QJAE, Vol. 5, No.3: 25-35.

Advertisements

Capitalism – the Real “Third Way”

Leave a comment

Conventional understanding views economic history as some kind of big battle between unfettered capitalism on the one hand (as supposedly demonstrated by the late nineteenth to early twentieth century United States) and full blown socialism on the other (as the Soviet Union was supposed to have been). Allegedly, both extremes have their positive aspects but are, individually, weighed down by their supposed negative ones. So capitalism, for example, is able to raise the standard of living by several-fold in a person’s lifetime and showers us with more goods than we could possibly imagine. On the other hand, so this conventional belief goes, it promotes a consumerist, materialist and greedy “sink or swim” society that has no regard for the unfortunate and the least well off. Hence the vision of the US as the kind of place where you can buy whatever you want but if you happen to be poor or become afflicted with an illness then you are on your own. Socialism, however, stagnates and reverses the standard of living to the extent that nothing ever works and the population is mired in permanent poverty. On the other hand, so this conventional wisdom dictates, everyone is apparently more equal and the goods that they do manage to produce are distributed “fairly” across society. (Curiously this understanding of economic history seldom tends to acknowledge the tyrannous nature of socialism which, in the Soviet Union, resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people – one might ask whether this negative feature is so off the scale that it would completely obliterate the chance of socialism being taken seriously as an ethical proposition at all?). Thus, in order to create the best society, we allegedly have to try and combine the economic growth of capitalism with the supposed equality and fairness of socialism, discarding the negative aspects of those two systems in order to arrive at we have today – a social democracy, the “third way”, an economic order that is “somewhere in the middle” between greed and need.

The first problem with this conventional thinking is that neither of the two polar opposites have ever really existed, or at least not in the manner that their proponents imagine them. Capitalism has never existed because government interference in the economy has always been present, simply in lesser or greater quantities at different points in history. Often the interferences at lesser points have provided the catalyst for more intense government activity in later periods, such as the booms and busts and the stop-start flirtation with centralised banking in the last half of the nineteenth century paving the way for the Federal Reserve System that dawned in 1913 just in time to print enough money to pay for World War One. Socialism has never existed because, as Ludwig von Mises so convincingly told us nearly one hundred years ago, it is, quite literally, impossible to build a socialist commonwealth without economic calculation. The Soviet Union survived to a large extent because it could refer to international markets for prices for the factors of production which enabled it to provide at least some kind of functioning economy, albeit at a vastly reduced rate of output compared to the rest of the world.

The real polar opposites that we have endured in the post-Renaissance era are not unfettered capitalism and unfettered socialism at all, but, rather, state corporatism and state socialism. State corporatism, the alignment between government and business, has its epitome in fascist economies such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, but it describes also the imperialism of nineteenth century Britain and the evolution of the United States, which received corporatist boosts during the War between the States, World War I and the New Deal, the latter of which, modelled on Fascist Italy, has successfully sealed the fate of the US as a permanent “corp-tocracy”. State socialism, on the other hand, is not the ownership and use of the productive assets by all for the benefit of all. Rather, it is their ownership by the government and the bureaucracy with productive capacity devoted to their ends, such as missile parades in Red Square, rather than the ends desired by the people, with the people themselves treated as expendable public slaves whose disobedience warrants a one way trip to the gulag.

Second, the blend that has actually been achieved in modern government is not between capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. Rather, it is between state corporatism and a democratised form of state socialism. On the state corporatist side, we have central banks printing massive quantities of money, dishing it out to Wall Street which expands credit, creating artificial booms and busts and lining the pockets of the financiers. At the same time large swathes of industry are subject to government patronage and privilege to the extent that in sectors such as energy, transportation, finance, healthcare, and so on there is no genuine free competition. To top it all off, armaments manufacturers profit from the continued proliferation of invented and unjustified foreign wars. On the state socialist side, however, we have politicians bribing voters with other people’s money, and demands for social justice, fairness and equality, anti-discrimination are met through the forced redistribution of wealth and income.

The fissure between these two extremes has not produced any kind of successful mixed economy that selects the best aspects of each system at all. Rather, it has resulted in some kind of bifurcated system that is based on antagonism and resentment. Those clamouring for state corporatism, fake privatisations and government support for business simply want to line their pockets while leaving everyone else to foot the bill. Those wanting state socialism, noting that state corporatism seems to do nothing except make the rich richer and the poor poorer, want to end the anti-democratic structure of state corporatism and return key industries to “public ownership”.

Third, if the two dominant social systems have been state corporatism and state socialism and the postulated “third way” of blending the two has failed, then what, we might ask, is the real third way? There are only three possibilities. First, unfettered socialism; second, unfettered capitalism; and third, a mixed economy of genuine socialism and genuine capitalism (what we might call “interventionism”).

The first option, socialism, is clearly a non-starter as its inability to perform economic calculations means that it is suitable only for bringing chaos out of order. A socialist economic order is no order at all; it is a disaster that would quickly relegate the human race to the Stone Age. The third option, interventionism, is also a non-starter as it produces distortions that must either lead to further interventions or to a complete abandonment of the intervention altogether. For example, if the government intervenes to set a price ceiling on a certain good that is below the market price the result, all else being equal, will clearly be a shortage of that good. The government therefore has one of two options in order to restore supply – to intervene further and take over the supply chain; or to abandon the price control. If it takes the first option, this requires further interventions in other industries which will create similar distortions and disarrays which will breed further interventions all the way until there is full government control over everything – i.e. socialism. Socialism, however, is impossible as so will collapse almost immediately. If it takes the second option, then capitalism is simply restored. In the opinion of the present author we are now reaching the apex of the so-called mixed economy where this decision will have to be made. Decades of excessive money printing and perpetuated malinvestment through the resulting credit expansion has driven financial markets to a zombie-like existence bathing in a sea of insolvency. We are now close to the point where governments will either have to completely socialise financial markets or abandon their policy of cheap credit and restore sound money and credit.

This leaves, then, only capitalism, the genuine free market, as the only prospective and sustainable economic order. Only capitalism, based upon voluntary trade resulting from each individual peacefully pursuing his purposes, is able to avoid the pitfalls of socialism, of the pseudo-capitalism in state corporatism, and of the pseudo equality and fairness of state socialism, all of which are based on force, fraud and antagonism. As we discussed before, all of the alleged pitfalls of capitalism – inequality, greed, selfishness, and so on – are not part of the capitalist system at all and are more appropriately assigned to one of the other systems where everyone attempts to live at the expense of everyone else. Only the restoration of a genuine free market capitalism can therefore lead to a peaceful and prosperous society.

View the video version of this post.

Against the Welfare State – and Bank Bailouts

Leave a comment

The welfare state is undoubtedly one of the elements of government opposed by libertarians, not only due to its inherent injustice and economic destructiveness, but also because of its ability to provide fuel and sustenance to the growth of the metastasising state

If we are launch a critique of the welfare state we must first attempt to define it and to distinguish it from other categories of government activity. Such a task is not an immediately clear cut one as, fundamentally, all government expenditure sustains the welfare of its beneficiaries. If the government launches an invasion of a foreign country, spending on military grade weaponry, aircraft and whatever else will very much contribute to the “welfare” of armaments manufacturers yet we wouldn’t ordinarily classify this as part of the welfare state. Similarly, if the government decides to build a new road or railway line we wouldn’t usually describe this as providing “welfare” to the construction workers who undertake the leg work (although certain “job creation” schemes that simply pay people to carry out pointless work could be classified as welfare).

Whether or not a particular government outlay is classified as part of the welfare state is therefore defined more by its purpose rather than by its effect. The purpose of a foreign war is usually to gain control of valuable resources (even if it is veneered with an alternative justification such as spreading freedom and democracy). The purpose of building a road or railway is to “improve” the country’s transportation and communication networks. None of these projects is designed to provide some kind of comfortable lifestyle to those who undertake them (and, ignoring the possibility of benefiting favoured lobbyists and donors, to the extent that a government has a particular purpose in mind and wishes to achieve it efficiently it will have a desire to remunerate its suppliers as little as possible rather than as highly).

Welfare spending, on the other hand, is markedly different. Its purpose is always couched in the language of providing some kind of “help”, “care”, or “assistance” to the citizenry, as if the government is a giant nanny who appears with an equally giant milk bottle whenever one’s own teat runs dry. Given this, then, we can attempt to define the welfare state as that portion of government activity which is devoted to the sustenance of either the existing lifestyle of a particular citizen or to a lifestyle that is thought to be the minimum that is equitable in terms of wealth and income. The welfare state therefore provides a cushion or relief from events that may intercede in that lifestyle so, for example, if you get sick, the government will provide you with either free or subsidised healthcare; if you lose your job you will be entitled to unemployment benefit; and if you have baby the government will give you some money so that you are able to take care of it and give it an “adequate” upbringing. Granted, this definition if the welfare state is not precise and it will overlap with many other types of expenditure – few government outlays have a single purpose, even if some of these purposes are not made public – but we can be satisfied that it is reasonably accurate.

In spite of the fact that the welfare state is a moral issue and that its proponents believe that its existence is justified by the fact that the able should take care of the less able (“from each according to his means to each according to his needs”) it is arguable that the strength of its cause derives more from a misunderstanding of economics and that an amelioration of these misunderstandings is likely to weaken the foundations of the welfare state most effectively. Rather, therefore, than elaborating on the fact that the welfare state is, in a genuine free market, a morally unjustifiable confiscation and redistribution of property from its owners to non-owners respectively, let us concentrate mainly on a proper realisation of the economic effects of the welfare state in order to find the source of its undoing.

The type of welfare spending that we will focus on specifically is the bailout of the banks. This selection may appear surprising as surely most supporters of the welfare state are flat out opposed to bailing out the banks? And yet if we look closely, the qualities of bankers’ bailouts fits our definition of welfare spending all but perfectly. The financial services industry was accustomed to its business of expanding credit during the boom years and ploughing them into ultimately unsustainable malinvestments; its practitioners were richly rewarded for doing so and could afford big houses, expensive cars, private schools for their children, exotic foreign holidays, and so on. Metaphorically, they became accustomed to a lifestyle of gambling and partying fuelled by the punch bowl of monetary expansion. Following the inevitable crash that revealed the extent of the malinvestments and the huge losses that would ensue, the bailout of the banks was designed precisely to prevent the liquidation of this crumbling economic structure so that the banks could keep on making loans, keep on making profits from those loans, and so their top employees would not lose the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. It was meant to refill the punch bowl and to keep the music playing so that the party would never end. The difference, therefore, between bankers’ bailouts and what we typically regard as the welfare state is simply a matter of degree, not of kind. They each provide a taxpayer funded cushion for their respective beneficiaries that insulates their lifestyles from the effects of either their own choices or from events that are beyond their control. Indeed, the collapse of the financial services industry as we know it would also have seriously curtailed the ability of governments to retain their accustomed lifestyle of borrowing and spending. To that extent, therefore, the bank bailouts were an exercise in self-preservation. The only perceived difference between bank bailouts and the welfare state is that the beneficiaries of the former were “rich” and not “poor”, which, it must be understood, is itself a misrepresentation. Many of those affected by a collapse of the financial services sector would not necessarily have been multi-millionaires as any insolvencies and downsizing is likely to have hit those lower down the pecking order first such as local branch managers and tellers before it hit those in the penthouse offices.

We have outlined this description of bank bailouts because every single argument that welfare statists use to oppose them are, in fact, the very same arguments that apply to their conception of the welfare state. We will therefore take each of these arguments in turn and show just how both bank bailouts and the welfare state, which are both a form of welfare spending, are economically destructive.

The first argument against the bank bailouts used by its opponents is that it creates moral hazard. In other words, if the banks can privatise their gains yet socialise their losses it provides an incentive to carry on and, indeed, augment the very destructive activity that was the source of the problem in the first place. All of this is true and we can have no quarrel with it. Yet it applies equally to the welfare state as well. Proponents of the welfare state imagine that if the government throws money at all of the events that manifest themselves as pitfalls in one’s own lifestyle then these pitfalls will simply go away. However if the government simply pays for a problem when it occurs then it creates as much of a moral hazard as the bank bailouts because all you have done is simply lowered the cost to individuals of bearing these pitfalls – and lowered cost leads to a swelled demand. If you pay people when they get sick, there will be more sickness; if you pay people when they are unemployed there will be more unemployment; if you pay people when they have children people will produce more children that need a roof and need feeding. The welfare state is not the solution to the problems it seeks to resolve; it is, rather, a fertiliser for their growth and proliferation, just as bank bailouts are a fertiliser for the growth of credit expansion, malinvestment and repeated boom and bust cycles.

The second argument against bank bailouts, related to the one we just outlined, is that it shoves the cost of the bad decisions of the bankers onto the shoulders of everybody else. Yet isn’t this precisely what the welfare state does? Welfare statists imagine that nearly every unfortunate circumstance in which people find themselves is not the product of their own making and that they are therefore blameless and should be (patronisingly) pitied – in short, that people do not bear any responsibility for their own circumstances. However, this is not the case with many of the issues that the welfare state attempts to address. As was argued in a previous essay on universal healthcare, the majority of medical ailments from which people suffer are not the unfortunate result of a random, illness lottery but are, rather, directly related to their environment and lifestyle – particularly diet, exercise and consumption of alcohol, tobacco and narcotics. If, therefore, people choose to pursue a lifestyle of eating gluttonously, exercising little and smoking and drinking heavily with this resulting in sickness, then if the government picks up the tab this simply forces the cost of these bad decisions onto everyone else. People, in most cases, choose to have children, or at least to engage in the intercourse that results in children – it isn’t a random, spontaneous event that appears out of nowhere to inflict itself upon people’s lifestyles. To the extent, therefore, that people cannot afford to raise these children properly and the government intervenes then the cost of other people’s bad decisions is again shovelled onto the shoulders of everybody else. But even those aspects of the welfare state that are not necessarily the fault of the individuals concerned – such as unemployment – is usually the result of government anyway. Low employability is caused not only by inadequate state education, but also government interference in the labour market such as minimum wages and excessive regulations that cause the cost of employment to exceed that of the productivity of the lowest skilled workers. Why, therefore, do welfare statists propose a government solution to what is a government created problem? Why not just get rid of the government created problem?

The third argument against bank bailouts is that they perpetuate what we might call a crony “corp-tocracy” where taxpayers’ money is siphoned off into the hands of the government’s favoured millionaire chums. Yet this is precisely the result of the welfare state also. Although the nominal beneficiaries of the welfare state are individual people, someone has to be paid in order to carry out the work of the welfare state. Not only does a welfare state require the creation and sustenance of a vast, leeching bureaucracy to administer it all but particular parts of the welfare state have to be contracted out to individual specialists. For example, public housing schemes need to find construction companies, hospitals need to find doctors and they need to purchase medicines from drug companies. The interests of these suppliers to the welfare state is to ensure that their compensation for carrying out their tasks is as high as possible; indeed, one of the reasons why the welfare state is such a burgeoning expense is because the disconnect between the consumer that pays and the supplier that is paid results in spiralling costs for the services of the latter, with the result that the majority of welfare spending goes not to the individual people but straight into the bank accounts of large corporations and contractors. Moreover, the welfare state is not usually a fixed pool of services that are provided by the government, but includes also private organisations and charities that lobby the government for money in order to solve the particular societal “problems” and grievances that they happen to have identified. Much of this money is simply wasted, as suggested by the recent collapse of Kids Company, a UK children’s charity, around a week after it received a £3 million grant from the government. Indeed, in the UK – when the chief executives of high profile charities are paid six figure salaries and they have been chastised for “aggressive” funding raising strategies that were recently attributed, at least in part, to the death of a pensioner – the substantive difference between a charity on the one hand and a corporation on the other is becoming increasingly questioned.

The fourth argument against bank bailouts is that they distort the economy, shovelling excess funding into the financial services sector and expanding their profits at the expense of other industries. Again, nothing about this is untrue and, indeed, as “Austrian” economists we would make an even more detailed case about how the resulting credit expansion distorts the consumption/investment ratio in order to result in unsustainable malinvestments across the entire economy. Yet the welfare state distorts the economy also, only in a more incremental and pacing manner. In the first place, the increased incentive caused by the welfare state to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to solve, such as sickness and unemployment, reduces the capacity of the labour market and thus shrinks the extent of the division of labour that would otherwise have been possible. Second, the burgeoning cost of the welfare state caused by an artificially inflated demand for welfare requires more and more resources to be confiscated by the government in order to fund it. Thus, the areas of the economy that are devoted to providing welfare are swollen at the expense of other areas of the economy which must correspondingly shrink. Third, this is compounded by the fact that a large, government pot of gold encourages rent seeking behaviour, which in the case of welfare means (as we stated above) large numbers of special interest groups lobby the government each with a claim that they have identified some societal affliction that is ripe for resolution by government spending. Governments are eager to attract this kind of attention for more government spending means not only more power and prestige but also provides another outlet with which to bribe citizens with their own money when making election “promises”. The result of this, again, is that the total portion of the economy that is devoted to welfare spending is artificially inflated compared to what consumers would otherwise prefer.

The final argument against bank bailouts that we will consider is that they create a feeling of bitterness and resentment in the general population, a fissure of hate, contempt and distrust between the bankers and the people whom they supposedly serve. Again, all of this is true. However, it applies just as readily to the welfare state. Its proponents usually justify the imposition of the welfare state by stating that it is morally good for us to care and look after one another as if we are all one big family. This may be true enough, but the welfare state does not create that situation. In order to become a morally better person I have to choose to care and to look after my fellow man – I have to decide to do it voluntarily. I am looked upon with admiration because in spite of all of the personal luxuries I could have spent my money on, I willingly deprived myself of them and was happy to give the money to a person in need. The welfare state, however, does not give me any choice in this regard – it just forces me to do it regardless of what I want. The action, therefore, is not as the result of any personal sympathy or empathy for the plight of the less fortunate, nor of any aspiration to moral heights. Instead, the void left by an absence of sympathy and empathy is likely to be filled by bitterness and resentment as my hard earned money has just been confiscated from me to go to people who I believe may not deserve it, particularly if it goes to some cause that I may disagree qualifies for welfare spending (such as breast enhancement surgery on the NHS or unemployment benefits to those who are just workshy). The welfare state therefore creates the opposite of any charitable feeling whatsoever and destroys any notion of brotherhood or family. When this is coupled with the welfare state’s encouragement of the afflictions it seeks to solve then the result is a society with a lower, rather than higher, moral standing. This is exacerbated by the interdependent relationship between bank bailouts on the one hand and the welfare state on the other. Bank bailouts mean that the banks take the money of the taxpaying public and plough it into assets so that the income of anyone who owns these assets – i.e. the bankers themselves – is swollen while the incomes of those who do not stagnates. The resulting price inflation lifts the affordability of assets such as houses and basic necessities, such as food, out of the grasp of those on low incomes. The consequence is another artificially swollen demand for welfare to give ordinary people somewhere to live and something to eat. Thus, the poorest in society demand increased taxes on the rich – i.e. the very bankers who were bailed out – in order to fund increased welfare spending. The result, therefore, is a toing and froing of mutual theft, a circle of robbery where bankers demand taxpayers’ money to continue their casino operations, after which everyone else demands some of it back to ameliorate the resulting effects. Far from being a moral and harmonious society all we end up with is hating each other and trying to grab whatever we can out of each other’s pockets.

What we can see from this brief comparison of the welfare state to bank bailouts, therefore, is that there is very little qualitative difference between the two and that the arguments that are used to oppose bank bailouts apply just as easily to the welfare state. The amelioration of welfare demand is achieved not through the redistribution of a fixed pool wealth but through the raising of real incomes by increasing the productive output per person. In order to achieve this we need to eliminate both the bank bailouts and the welfare state so that we can return to a genuine economy where everyone serves each other rather than engages in mutual plunder. The rich would have to earn their wealth by directing and increasing the productive capacity of the economy to best meet the needs of the consumer; the poor earn their money by providing the labour to bring about this direction, with their wages being able to buy more and more goods as a result of the increased output. Not only would this create a more prosperous society where poverty has truly been consigned to the history books, but the vanquishing of hatred, resentment and antagonism would create a morally superior one too.

View the video version of this post.

The Myth of Overpopulation

1 Comment

Overpopulation, either locally or globally, is often blamed on a number of apparent problems from the shortage of particular (usually “essential”) resources all the way up to the outright poverty of entire continents. Although few governments, most notably the Chinese, have enacted any strict policies in order to control their populations (except with regards to immigration), factoids such as the allegation that, if every single human wanted to enjoy a Western lifestyle we would need something like a dozen earths, attempt to create an unwarranted degree of hysteria.

The myth of overpopulation rests on the belief that humanity is akin to some kind of cancer which, as it grows exponentially, devours a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of resources that must be shared between everyone who has been unfortunate enough to have been born. This would have been the case in a hand-to-mouth society that preceded capitalism and the division of labour. There was effectively no production and the birth of each individual person constituted merely another mouth to feed. In other words, an increase in population led to an increase in demand for consumption without any corresponding increase in production, thus putting pressure on the existing stock of resources that had to be shared by everyone. Nevertheless, when it comes to shortages of goods in local markets today we can surmise that even if there was a fixed or otherwise relatively limited pool of resources that everyone had to share we couldn’t pin the blame for shortages on such a fact. In a free society, a particular good might be very expensive but it should never be the case that we cannot find anything. As the population increases the price of resources would rise and thus choke off demand for the least valuable uses. Shortages, rather, are always the result of government price controls that try to create the illusion of abundance without the reality, decimating the current supply and obliterating any incentive to produce more. That aside, however, the blatant reality for a capitalist society marked by the division of labour is that there is not a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of wealth and resources, and that the whole purpose of such a society is to grow, exponentially, the amount of wealth that is available. Indeed, as we shall see, humanity has succeeded in this endeavour to only a fraction of its capacity.

When the first human being trod the virgin soil of the earth, he found himself in a situation of almost unrelenting poverty. Mother Nature, as anyone trapped for an extended period of time in the wilderness has discovered, is far from a kind host, providing very little (except air to breathe and fruit on wild trees) by way of resources that can be consumed immediately for very little effort. Yet all of the matter contained in every resource that we enjoy today – buildings, cars, refrigerators, televisions, computers, clothing, medicines, and so – was, give or take a little, right there at the beginning of the world’s existence. Strictly speaking, no human being has ever created anything – rather he has merely transformed matter from one thing into another. So why, if all this matter was there from the very start, weren’t these wonderful things available to our first human? The reason is, of course, that a human must apply his labour in order to change the matter available in the world into useful resources that fulfil his ends. Yet the work of one man with his unaided body alone was not sufficient to create all of the wonderful things that we enjoy today. Indeed, it might take a single human being an entire day to hunt or catch enough fish for just one meal before the process must be repeated the following day. How can this be limitation be overcome?

The first answer is quite simply the very bugbear that is complained about – an increased population. A greater number of humans can together lift and carry a far greater amount than one man alone. Several or many men building a house would accomplish the task in a far shorter time than one man alone. More importantly, however, the widening of the division of labour as the population grows ensures that production stays ahead of population growth. Additional humans constitute an additional demand for consumption – ten humans may require ten houses whereas one human would require only one. But the fact that these men are also producers means that each can now fill his day by specialising in a particular task. One man, devoid of the ability to specialise, may take a year to build one house and he would have to undertake every single activity related to the building work on his own. With ten men, however, two may specialise in lumber felling, another two in transport, some in building, and the task of one the men may be solely to produce food and other supplies for the men doing direct work on the houses. The result of this is a greater degree and concentration of knowledge and an increased perfection of technique and expertise in each task. The resulting time saving means that, whereas one man would take one year to build one house, ten men would less than one year to build ten houses. Thus the rate of house building overtakes the rate of the increase in population. We therefore see that the quantity of labour has a marked effect on the accumulation of wealth and the transformation of matter into useful economic resources, provided that a society is distinguished by capitalism and the division of labour. To further emphasise this point, it is the twin effect of the consumption demand of the additional people coupled with the fact that these people are also producers that makes an ever increasing widening of the division of labour possible. If ten houses have to be produced then it might not be possible for one man to concentrate on any single task in order to fill his day; he might have to work in installing the wiring, the plumbing and the wallpaper. If one hundred houses have to be built then he might be able to concentrate on plumbing alone. If one thousand houses are built then he might be able to specialise on plumbing just bathrooms whereas someone else works on plumbing kitchens, for instance. The ever increasing volume of demand from an increasing population therefore begats an ever increasing division of labour when that population is put to work, and with it come all the benefits of specialisation and expertise.

Second, although it is flexible, the human body is a relatively weak and feeble creature, capable of moving and lifting only a tiny amount of matter at any one time. Regardless, therefore, of the quantity of labour available we can see that fifty men carrying sacks on their back would fail to transport as many goods in as short a space of time as, say, a railway locomotive hauling some wagons. The power of labour is therefore a further limiting factor on the number of resources that can be enjoyed. This power can only be increased by accumulating ever greater amounts of capital. All such goods – machines, tools, vehicles, and so on – are, fundamentally, merely extensions of the human body that enable its labour to accomplish more than it otherwise would. A man with an axe can fell a greater a number of trees than a man whose body is unaided by this implement. For centuries, humans could not labour to extract oil from the ground and refine it into petroleum. Yet with the capital available to construct drilling apparatus, oil rigs and refineries this is no longer the case. Indeed, most direct labour today is not concerned with the production of consumption goods at all. Rather, it is devoted to the production, augmentation and improvement of capital goods. In short, it is directed towards increasing the power of labour.

What we begin to see, therefore, is that it is not necessarily the scarcity of resources burdened by an ever increasing population that is the real obstacle to the growth of wealth and economic progress; rather, it is the scarcity of labour and the power of that labour as represented by the stock of capital goods which serve to enhance it. Goods are, to be sure, the original source of scarcity. We apply our labour only because the available quantity of a given resource exists in insufficient supply relative to the ends to which it could be devoted. Yet the power of our labour is a significant compounding factor on the degree of scarcity that we must endure. My body may only have enough capability in order to fetch a few buckets of water from a nearby stream – yet more than three quarters of the globe is covered in water. It is because the power of my labour is relatively weak that most of this water is either too far away or of insufficient quality to serve me any practical end. Only be improving the power of my labour – by being able to move greater distances, lift heavier volumes and develop processes of purification – could I hope to enjoy more water.

Such a circumstance is not limited to such a clearly abundant resource such as water. The entire world, right from the depths of the core of the Earth all the way up to the stratosphere is densely packed with matter. Our labour has only ever been able to harness a mere fraction of these resources, mostly skimmed from the Earth’s crust. As time goes on however, as population increases and with it capital accumulation and the widening of the division of labour, we harness the ability to tap into more and more of these resources. Hence, mines and oil fields that were once too costly to drill are now drilled (and, indeed, are more productive than the most productive fields of yesteryear); such mines could eventually reach depths of miles rather feet; and valuable elements can now be extracted from more complex ores. There is no reason to believe that this process cannot continue. Even today, the sea contains traces of elements such as gold which, in their totality, amount to a far greater quantity than all of that ever mined from beneath the land – 20 million tons compared to 175,000 tons respectively. Yet our labour is insufficient to take advantage of this fact. Indeed the sea remains one of the greatest untapped resources available to us. Unlike private land settlement which led to a prosperous agriculture and exploitation of the land, government has pretty much closed off areas of the sea to the possibility of settlement, preventing the development of a full-fledged aquaculture and robbing us of the ability to exploit this wonderful gift of nature.

It is for this reason – the increasing power of labour – that all predictions of resource depletion as a result of overpopulation (not to mention the ridiculousness of disingenuous “facts” such as the allegation that twelve earths are required to give everyone a Western lifestyle) – have failed. In the well known Ehrlich-Simon wager, for instance, economist Julian Simon made a bet in 1980 with biologist Paul Ehrlich that the price of five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing would have declined in price ten years later – indicating increasing availability of resources rather than increasing scarcity. Simon won the bet outright, in spite of a population increase of 800 million during that decade. Other peddlers of the overpopulation thesis, such as Albert Allen Bartlett, have labelled the views presented here as “cornucopian” or “the new flat earth” – mythical, whimsical and not based on any serious scientific understanding. What these people share in common is that they simply do not account for the future economic viability of production from what are currently viewed as uneconomic resources. For the clear result is that as population has increased we have been able to apply more labour with a greater power of that labour to a greater number of the world’s resources in ways that we were not able to do before. The ultimate goal, needless to say, would be something akin to molecular engineering – the ability to transform worthless matter such as dirt, trash or even air – into valuable resources. The futuristic “replicators” on TV shows such as Star Trek can apparently conjure goods such as a fully cooked meal out of thin air; yet the science behind would not be too difficult to imagine. We have already harnessed the ability to transform matter into energy through processes such as combustion. We can envisage that one day we could do the reverse and transform energy into matter. An inedible sack of coal could end up as a fabulous meal on your dining table.

Overpopulation does, however, give the appearance of being a problem as a result of government interference. Above we noted above, additional consumption demand represented by an increasing population serves in increase wealth provided that the additional population are also producers and therefore will act so as to widen the division of labour and the accumulation of capital. Yet the actions of government serve to swell consumption while choking off production. Pressure on resources and industries therefore arises from government control of these things. Britain’s decrepit healthcare, energy and transport systems are bursting at the seams as a result of demand and increasing costs, a direct result of inefficiency combined with prices that are too low which serve to swell consumption demand in these industries. Government pays its citizens to produce babies and thus increase the population, while an increasing immigrant population today is induced not by the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and to better one’s own life for oneself through hard work and productivity, but, rather, by generous welfare states. All of this causes a rising population that contributes to consumption but very little by way of production. In other words, if you set up the economic system to make consumption as care free as possible and production as costly as it could be then the excess of consumption and a deficit of production will give the illusion of overpopulation. Government therefore begins to look on its citizens as pests and parasites, wanton consumers of precious resources that are desperately running out. Yet the problem is not with resources; rather the problem is with the ability of the government to swell the ranks of consumers and its inability to increase the power of labour, together with its incessant stifling of anyone else who tries to do so. Every additional person who is born in the world is another mouth to feed, another person who will demand the consumption of resources. Yet that person could also be a producer who will widen the division of labour and help to grow the capital stock. Government succeeds only in breeding the consumer in a man while totally destroying in him the producer.

Turning to a related aspect, the fact that whole continents, such as Africa, are mired in poverty has nothing to do with the allegation that the richer countries refuse to “share” their wealth. If the richer countries did not have their wealth, it would not mean that poorer countries would have more – the wealth simply would not have been produced, period. Indeed, whatever wealth that does exist in poor places is often the result of Western enterprise or outright gift. These places do not lack resources; rather, they lack the institutions of private property and voluntary exchange that enable capitalism and the division of labour to flourish, and with them a greater command of labour over resources. Indeed, many of these countries are proceeding down the wrong path by setting up welfare states, trade unions and Keynesian economic (mis)management overseen by democratic institutions which are, of course, the very things that are destroying the standard of living in the West. The West achieved its greatest accomplishments in a pre-democratic, pre-welfare state and pre-union age before Marxism and socialism succeeded in leading the onslaught against capitalism and private property.

What we can see, therefore, is that overpopulation is not a fundamental economic problem. It is only an apparent problem in a society that is hampered by government intervention and the stifling of private property rights, the division of labour and capital accumulation. However, even if population started to put pressure on resources when, in a capitalist society, we reached the (unlikely) point where we were regularly turning over all of the matter in existence to meet our ends – we would still conclude that this would not be a problem worthy of any serious attention. Or at the very least, it would certainly not be a problem that merited any centralised, government control. For as population increases relative to the supply of resources, the latter become more expensive. The cost of raising a child therefore itself becomes prohibitively more expense and people would need to choose between devoting ever more valuable resources to themselves or to their children. Indeed one of the first of such resources to exert this pressure may well be land, assuming we have not, by then, invented the ability to produce more of it artificially. We could, of course, build upwards and end up living in skyscrapers but people may prefer to breed less and have more land available to themselves rather than to their children. Such choices may serve to relieve, naturally, any exponential growth in population figures. Even if, though, people desired to keep on having more children it would only indicate that they prefer the company of children to enjoying more resources for themselves. There is no objective standard by which to complain about the result of such a choice. Nevertheless, even when it comes to the question of land, humanity is currently so far from this point that we hardly need to bother mentioning it, except to try and concede to the overpopulation thesis its best possible case.

The illusion of overpopulation is exacerbated today by a fundamentally antagonistic attitude from what Murray Rothbard called the “professional foes of humanity”, the environmentalist movement1. Apart from this movement’s interference in one the most crucial markets for capital accumulation – the production of energy – the fundamentals of their philosophy view the earth as inherently beautiful and sacred, and any of humanity’s attempts to exploit it as sacrilege. Such a view is radically anti-human and can only hold that the problem with the Earth is that there are too many of these stupid, dirty, polluting, and wantonly consuming human beings. Given the influence that this movement holds it is no small wonder that such thinking permeates into more mainstream views. That aside, however, we can conclude from what we have learnt here that humans need not fear increases in population. What they should fear, however, is their government turning additional people into spoon fed eaters with shackled hands – consumers who cannot produce. It is this fact that puts a very real pressure of resources. It is therefore not overpopulation that is the real problem but, rather, “over-government”.

View the video version of this post.

1Murray N Rothbard, Government and Hurricane Hugo: A Deadly Combination, Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr, (ed.), The Economics of Liberty, pp 136-40.

Negative Interest Rates

Leave a comment

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the policy of central banks to forcibly push down interest rates, followed by the rapid expansion of their balance sheets in order to attempt to “stimulate” economic growth has, to say the least, been something of an abysmal failure. Unemployment is still high, economic growth barely makes it any higher than a rounding error and real wage rates continue to stagnate as they have done for the past ten years or more. Benefitting only Wall Street, the new money has pushed stock markets to record highs and bond yields to record lows, so much so that owning these assets over the past five years has been the closest one can get to a sure bet. Main Street, however, having had to deal with the reality of the fact that the debt-fuelled consumption mania is no longer sustainable and that real savings to grow businesses are in short supply, continues to languish in what seems like a completely separate realm from the casino operations of the financial markets. With positive interest rates now as low as they can possibly go and with little to show for it, it is no surprise that the prospect of negative interest rates in order to force everyone to spend their way into a recovery is now a real one. Indeed, it is already very much a reality in Switzerland and Denmark.

The proposal for negative interest rates rests on a typical Keynesian plea that the government and central banks did not act “drastically enough” in attempting to defibrillate the economy back to growth. Contrary to understanding the lack of any meaningful recovery as a failure of their policies, they instead turn around and say “if it is this bad now then imagine how terrible it would have been had we done nothing at all!” The patient is therefore prescribed ever greater doses of bad medicine in spite of the fact that it is the medicine that is killing him. (Has it not also been said often that the definition of insanity is to repeat an act continuously with the expectation of a different outcome?) Indeed, the economy is so saturated with debt that only paying people to get deeper into it has any prospect expanding the volume of spending.

Negative interest rates are, of course, a praxeological absurdity and could not come about through anything except government force. It is tantamount to placing a premium on future goods as opposed to present goods, so that the prospect of receiving £100 today is less valuable than receiving £100 in a year’s time. Practically, what this means is that, if you deposit £100 in the bank today with an interest rate of -5%, you will have only £95 in one year’s time. You are, therefore, quite literally paying the bank to borrow your money, a proposition absurd to anyone except a tenured professor of economics. Since when, to invert a popular proverb, has a bird in the bush been worth two in the hand? The idea, of course, is that you will be so keen to avoid the interest charges that you will cease to be an “evil” saver and rush out to spend all of your money as soon as you can. Thus the magical Keynesian multiplier will burst into life, restoring us to the land of milk and honey. What’s more, they hope that it will encourage a flurry of borrowing as all the excess reserves piling up in bank vaults (or, rather, on their computer screens) are now lent out to those eager to be paid to hold cash. Traditionally, of course, banks earn their revenue by paying depositors a lower interest rate than they charge to borrowers. With negative interest rates it seems as though the situation will reverse: the bank will make its money by charging its depositors more than it has to pay its borrowers.

Such a ridiculous idea does, of course, run into the unfortunate fact that every unit of money has to be in someone’s cash balance and if all cash balances attract a negative interest rate there can only be an incentive to borrow if the rate on your deposit account is less than the terms of the loan – in other words, you have to pay less to hold the cash than you get paid for taking out the loan. Further, if someone can only get rid of their cash by passing it onto someone else and that latter person can then only do the same then the logical end of the proposal is hyperinflation. That aside, however, what will be the likely effects of the introduction of such a policy?

The first likelihood is that, with bank deposits now charging an interest levy, holding hard cash under the mattress becomes an attractive alternative. In both inflationary and deflationary environments it will lose less and gain more than a bank deposit. Indeed, at first blush, libertarians should welcome this possibility. After all, it is free deposit banking that has resulted in people willingly stashing all of their cash in fractional reserve banks, enabling them to pyramid loan upon loan on top of them and thus causing the disastrous business cycle. When money consisted of gold or silver stored in full reserve banks it was natural for banks to levy a charge for this storage service. People could either choose to accept the charge in return for the safekeeping of their assets, or prefer to keep the cash in their own storage provisions at no cost. Viewed this way, negative interest rates give the appearance of a return to something more akin to cash handling as it would be in a libertarian world. Unfortunately, of course, the negative interest rate is an arbitrary figure and does not represent the true value of storage services to holders of deposit accounts, and having been accustomed to the provision of such services for free anyway a mass withdrawal will be the most likely response. Indeed, it would not be unsurprising if something akin to Gresham’s Law emerged where, legally, bank deposits and cash notes trade at par but where undervalued cash becomes hoarded and people keep only a minimum amount of overvalued bank deposits with which to use for their exchanges. Such an outcome would, of course, utterly defeat the purpose of negative interest rates which is to swell the volume of spending through electronic exchange. In other words, the point at which negative interest rates begin a flight into cash will mark the true limits of monetary policy in creating a spending splurge.

Needless to say, of course, the likely government response is to restrict cash holding with a view to eliminating cash altogether in order to concentrate as much money as possible in commercial bank deposits. Such an end has, in and of itself, been a cherished aim of government, as it permits oversight of and control over every single financial transaction. Under the guise of “combating terrorism” such restrictions have already been tightened recently in France, where, from September of this year, cash payments in excess of €1000 will be illegal. Similar restrictions have appeared, in the last few years, in Spain, Italy, Russia and Mexico. Where cash remains less restricted, any attempts to convert deposits into cash may be met with refusal and obstinacy, as a Swiss pension fund discovered recently when it attempted to switch its deposits to paper notes stored in a vault. Indeed all of this harkens back to the era when banks overinflated on a monetary base of redeemable gold. Back then, redemption in gold was restricted to concentrate people’s cash holdings in paper notes. Now, redemption in paper notes is restricted to concentrate cash holdings in deposits.

The likely reaction to this is that, with deposits and fixed income securities losing value in both nominal and real terms, people will abandon these assets in pursuit of safer stores of value – probably gold and silver. In other words, shorn of the ability to withdraw hard cash, people will keep on deposit only the amount they need to meet their current expenditures while the rest of their savings will be ploughed into harder assets. A flight out of debt instruments would trigger a deleveraging and usually, in such circumstances, the safe home for such funds would be cash. But if cash will also be subject to a negative interest rate and with no ability to withdraw paper notes, then movement of the money into gold would cause the gold price to rise. We would therefore have the peculiar effect of increasing asset prices during an era of deflation. Such are the ways in which monetary policy can turn the world upside down.

The likely effects of a negative interest policy as outlined here demonstrate the limits of a monetary policy that attempts to kick the economy back into gear through spending. You can print all of the money that you like; you can lower interest rates as far as they will go; you can make it impossible for people to withdraw their cash; but like the proverbial horse to water, you cannot force people to borrow and spend. In short, you cannot cheat the market with increasingly absurd tricks that would have baffled even the monetary charlatans of yesterday. Only liquidation of the existing debt and a return to sound money with interest rates determined by the supply of and demand for saved funds will create a proper, sustainable recovery on the path to prosperity.

View the video version of this post.

Economic Myths #15 – Unemployment

Leave a comment

One of the key indicators of the economic “performance” of any given country is its rate of unemployment. Low rates of unemployment are understood as a sign of prosperity while high rates are taken as a sign of recession and stagnation. Indeed, during the Great Depression, unemployment reached as high as 25% in the United States. Politicians are particularly keen to monitor the rate of unemployment as low unemployment lends credence to the economic policies of those in power while high unemployment stocks the arsenal of those in the opposition. Given also that entire economic dogmas such as the so-called trade-off between full employment and inflation, not to mention the generation-long post-war Keynesian consensus are, at least, part rooted in the concept of unemployment, one would expect unemployment to be a unique and important category in economic theory.

This short essay will not explore in detail the government induced causes or aggravations of unemployment such as the minimum wage and excessive regulations heaped upon the shoulders of employers. Such topics have been examined countless times over by many economists, “Austrian” or otherwise. Rather, what we wish to concentrate on here is the validity of the very term “unemployment” itself and to determine whether it is really a useful concept in shaping so-called “economic policy” or whether it is really redundant and meaningless.

In the first place, as “Austrians” we must be highly suspicious of any concept that is an aggregation and is not explicitly linked to any notion of individual human action. All voluntary actions are, as we know, the result of the best choice of ends available with scarce means. A man who has several million pounds stashed in his bank account may be content to spend all of his time in leisure and would be “unemployed”. Yet aside from any moral wrangling over the worth of such a lifestyle we would hardly view this as a problem. But what about those lesser privileged folk – the ones who are not working but nevertheless have the outward appearance of needing an income from some kind of employment? Shouldn’t we classify these people as “unemployed” and doesn’t this state of unemployment indicate an egregious case of market failure?

The question turns on whether employment at the terms of the available opportunities is worthwhile for the individual person. If there are jobs available yet he refuses to accept them then it indicates that he is not satisfied with the terms of those opportunities. Perhaps it is the wrong industry, it is in wrong the place, or – most likely – the wage offered isn’t high enough for him. He therefore chooses to abstain and holds out for a better opportunity to appear in the future. From the point of view of individual satisfaction with the scarce means available, the outcome of seeming “unemployment” is therefore optimal. Indeed, labour, like anything else, is a resource that is available for an individual to use. Not all resources are deployed 100% of the time as it would be wasteful to do so. Everyone, for example, owns possessions that are not being used at the current moment – food in the fridge, clothes in the wardrobe, books and DVDs on the shelf, etc. Clearly it would be wasteful – nay, ridiculous – to try and use all of these “unemployed” resources at once. They are more valuable being kept in abeyance ready for utilisation when an opportune moment appears, i.e. when the person believes that use of them would yield more benefit than leaving them idle. More widely, there are always buildings to let, oil in the ground, trees that are left standing, water in lakes and reservoirs, and so on. All of these resources remain idle because an opportunity valuable enough for deploying them has not yet arisen. Indeed, consistent requirement for all resources to be utilised would mean that shops should be empty of all goods as they have already been purchased and consumed, and ultimately everything in the world should be consumed right now. To put it at its most basic, a person actively searching for the right job is not, in his mind, unemployed in the sense of carrying out a wasteful activity.

The inability to see labour as a resource that is deployed at the choosing of the individual labourer leads to many related fallacies and reveals the dangers of looking only at surface phenomena and appearance. An individual does not view employment as an end itself – work for work’s sake. Rather, all employment is action aimed at diverting scarce means available to their most highly valued ends. Employment per se is not a goal or achievement. No one would dig a hole in the ground and fill it up again unless the act of doing so led to a valuable end. Governments and people succumb to the illusion of economic activity brought about by “employment” and the apparent lack of it by “unemployment”, with any focus on providing “full employment” never stopping to ask whether the activity in which employment will be created is worthwhile or is wasteful. The most grievous example of this this is, of course, the forced lowering of interest rates to provoke an artificial investment boom. There will be lots of employment, everyone will be engaged in lots of activity and wages will be rising rapidly. But it is clear that everyone’s endeavours are ultimately wasteful and lie on a doomed path. So-called full employment policies are therefore nothing more than a surface coating to prevent social unrest, to make people feel as though they are doing something worthwhile and to put money into their hands that they can spend. To the extent that these actions create no new wealth, however, they should properly be regarded as welfare and not as employment. The wheels may be turning but the carriage goes nowhere and it is simply expending fuel on motionless activity. Far more difficult would be for governments to concentrate on policies that promote full production instead of full employment as this would, of course, require a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of government power and interference.

We submit, therefore, that unemployment is a meaningless concept at least when applied to the unfettered free market. It may have some relevance in economies where governments impede the ability of the supply of labour to meet demand through minimum wages and the like. Apart from shutting out a good number of low-productive persons from the labour market entirely, such interferences ultimately distort people’s views as to which terms of employment are achievable – they hold out for high wages because there is the illusion that that is what their labour is worth. They do not realise, however, that supply is unwilling to meet demand at that inflated level and hence their search for employment is in vain. All of this, however, is simply a particular application of price theory. If the price of any good is fixed too high it will remain unemployed. There is, therefore, no special concept of unemployment applying only to labour that attracts a different body of theory. Furthermore, the whole question of “nominal rigidity” or so-called “sticky wages” is beside the point when it comes to economic theory. If the demand for a particular good – in this case, labour – should drop it is entirely open for the particular labourers to express incredulity at this fact and to stubbornly hold out for wages that will never meet a willing demand. This is not, however, evidence of the market’s “failure to clear”. It is simply that the supply curve remains stuck to the left. There is an misconception that the market is “efficient” because it “values” everything correctly – a doctrine that underpins so-called “efficient market hypothesis”. But the “efficiency” of the market – the  nexus of voluntary exchanges between individual people – comes from its superior ability to channel goods to where they are most highly valued; it has nothing to do with whether a good should be valued or whether any particular valuation is correct. A good could be utterly useless but if a significant enough people chase a small supply it will command a relatively high price. The market will place this ware in the hands of those who value it the most, but the source of that value is the human mind and this valuation can be and often is erroneous. If people remain unemployed, holding out for unrealistically high wages, the fault lies in their incorrect assessment of the value of their labour, not in any market’s failure. Needless to say, however, the causes of these erroneous valuations are government interferences. It is because government creates such macroeconomic calamity that price bubbles and collapses occur and so-called “sticky prices” are a phenomenon associated with post-boom deflations. Having become accustomed to high wages, it is natural for workers to become frustrated and resistant when supply for these wages suddenly dries up and they not only have to face the prospect of lower wages but also a mass shift out of the capital goods industries – where they may have developed significant, specialist skills in the meantime – to consumer goods industries. In a genuine free market it is highly unlikely that workers would be faced with these problems. However, none of this really has much to do with economic theory, the purpose of which is to expound the formal characteristics of human action rather than the substance of those actions. Rather, sticky wages is more a topic for psychology, the field of human action that studies why people make the valuations that they do.

We conclude, therefore, by emphasising that there is no special category of “unemployment” as it applies solely to labour. Any “unemployment” of labour is explained either as the willing choice of the individual worker to withhold his labour from the market (and thus, to him, the best possible outcome), or as the result of government price fixing which is merely a particular instance of the economic effects of that wider category of interference.

View the video version of this post.

Economic Myths #14 – Share the Wealth

Leave a comment

Clement Attlee is, with little doubt, one of the more notable of Britain’s former Prime Ministers. Apart from the long lasting effects of his legacy he was, in 2004, voted the “Greatest British Prime Minister of the Twentieth Century” in a poll of 139 academics. Needless to say, with such a high ranking in academic circles, almost every “accomplishment” of the post-war government that he led (with the possible exception of decolonisation) is likely to be an anathema to libertarians. Not only did he nationalise key industries such as the railways, canals, road haulage, coal mining, gas, electricity, telephones and steel manufacturing, he practically created the “cradle-to-grave” welfare state, the jewel in the crown of which was the now untouchable sacred cow, the National Health Service. Furthermore, he successfully entrenched the “Keynesian consensus”, the idea that full employment would be maintained by Keynesian fiscal policy, that was to unite all parties of any stripe for another three decades until the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

With such profound and fundamental changes to British society, many of which are still felt today, it is important to have an insight into Attlee’s motivations towards the legislation that his government passed. His own background, (not unlike that of most left wing intellectuals) was decidedly non-working class. The son of a solicitor, he was raised in Putney, an area of London populated by the professions. He was educated at an independent school and later read Modern History at University College, Oxford. He was not exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth but neither was he consigned to life working in factories or in the coal pits. According to Wikipedia, his original political leanings were conservative. It was after he spent three years managing a charitable institution for working class boys in Stepney, East London, that he “came to the view that private charity would never be sufficient to alleviate poverty and that only direct action and income redistribution by the state would have any serious effect”. Thereafter, he became a “full-fledged supporter of socialism”. Which such self-assuredness, can we expect Attlee’s post-war government (to borrow a phrase from the infamous Beveridge Report that influenced his government’s policies) to have come close to completely “abolishing want”? Unfortunately, the facts speak otherwise:

  • Coal production in 1947 fell seven million tons below the output of privately owned mines ten years earlier, resulting in a three week industrial power cut in London and the Midlands;
  • The government constructed 134,000 fewer homes per year at a higher cost per unit than were built in either of the two years preceding the war;
  • Wages were frozen to wartime levels while the cost of groceries soared as their supply declined;
  • When US and IMF loans dried up, the costs had to be borne by the British working man, leading to the “taxation and tears” budget of 19491.

And summing up the welfare state:

The [Beveridge] plan merely furnished a thin cushion against total disaster for the most impoverished third of the population. True, every citizen (whether or not he needed it) was entitled to prenatal care, a birth subsidy, hospitalization and medical care of sorts, unemployment insurance, an old-age pension, funeral costs, and an allowance for his widow and dependent orphans. The subsidies and allowances were tiny, and, with mounting inflation, barely sufficed for the poorest – sixteen dollars at birth and eighty dollars for a pauper burial. Medical services were spread so thin that even at the price of nationalizing the existing medical profession, it was impossible to guarantee first-rate care. With food rations hovering near the starvation level, sickness became more frequent and national; production fell still lower. So poverty was not eliminated but increased to plague proportions, and life was a nightmare for everyone but the most dedicated bureaucrats. A man might have “social security,” yet he could not go out and buy a dozen eggs. After four years of Socialist government, he was only entitled to an egg and a half per week, as decreed by Marxist No.1, John Strachey, Fabian Minister of Food and Supply2.

The origin of Attlee’s political views betrays his belief in a common economic error, a belief that can clearly have disastrous consequences if its holder happens to one day become the leader of his country. This view of either private charity or forced redistribution as the solution to poverty is based on the flawed notion that there is a fixed pool of wealth for everyone – that when one person possesses wealth it necessarily results in another person being without it. From this false premise it follows that the alleviation of the poverty of one person requires wealth to be disgorged from another. The solution to poverty, however, is that wealth is created and not simply redistributed – the pie gets bigger and not just chopped up in a different way. Capitalism and the free market, far from creating haves and have-nots, involves the progressive accumulation of capital that produces more products at cheaper prices that everyone can buy. More factories, more machines, and more tools that produce a greater supply of goods for less and less effort serve to alleviate material poverty. All of us become better off as a result. If, on the other hand, wealth is to be confiscated from some and redistributed to others, it retards this very process of wealth creation. While a specific redistribution may allow the beneficiaries to afford to purchase a bit more in the short term, in the long run there will be less work, less saving, and less capital investment and accumulation. The number of products produced will fail to increase and thus their prices will remain high and out of the reach of the poor. Redistribution is, therefore, a temporary solution at best. At worst, it traps the people permanently in the stagnant poverty that you are trying to get rid of.

Let us imagine ourselves, for one minute, as employees of the charitable institution of which Attlee was manager. How do we interpret that which we may see every day? From some kind of absolute standard, the poverty and destitution of the slums in the East End of London may have been “terrible” or “bad”. No one would ever seek to deny this. It is important to realise, however, that poverty, fundamentally, is not caused by humans but by nature. The earth is and never has been the Garden of Eden, full of delicious goodies that are ripe for our picking. The first person who trod the virgin soil of the Earth was in a position of absolutely crippling poverty by our modern standards. All he had was himself and his bare hands – no shelter, no food, no clothes, no tools, absolutely nothing. (Indeed, we might ask, how on Earth would “redistribution” have helped him when there was nothing to distribute!). But from the moment he dug the soil with his hands, from the moment he picked up the first plank of wood to build into a shelter, from the moment he fashioned a tool from basic materials such as a rock and a stick, so began the long, slow process of capital accumulation and wealth creation, a process that only really began to accelerate in the early 1800s. Humans, in other words, have to work to overcome the natural state of poverty in order to build up a civilisation as prosperous as the one we have today. To view a snapshot of this process at any one moment in history and to declare self-righteously that “those people over there are in poverty!” is to judge this march of progress against an ideal – as if earth should be the Garden of Eden. The appropriate standard against which to make a judgement however, is the best that can be done given the eternal condition of scarcity. If one cries “something must be done” it ignores the possibility that something is already being done and has currently reached its best possible stage before moving forward to bring greater things. Wealth creation and capital accumulation takes time – we did not get refrigerators and cars the very moment the first person on earth decided to get off his backside and start working. But this process has caused the percentage of people living on one dollar a day to fall from 85% to 20% in two hundred years – and that achievement has been accomplished while the population has multipled five or six times.

The only way, then, by which we can judge that there is “too much poverty” at any one time is to ask a single question – is there anything that is slowing down or causing an artificially imposed constraint upon the process of wealth creation? The answer can only be what Franz Oppenheimer referred to as the “political means” for an individual to gain wealth – that, rather than work oneself to use unowned resources, or to trade goods voluntarily with others, one confiscates them violently from people who already own them. Although we can see that Attlee’s solution – redistribution through the welfare state – is a major part of this, so too is any restrictive and regulatory encroachment upon private property. In Attlee’s day, we can point to the fact that the decade of his birth, according to historian David Cannadine, marked the peak of aristocratic power and influence in British society. Today, it is the power of the privileged financial barons of Wall Street that benefit from cheap, freshly printed money, robbing the poor of the their purchasing power and ploughing it into assets, causing bubbles, malinvestments, booms, busts, unemployment and misery. If we really want to solve poverty, we should be removing these barriers to wealth creation that favour the privileged elites rather than compounding the entire sorry state of affairs with further economic evils.

View the video version of this post.

1Rose L Martin, Fabian Freeway – Highroad to Socialism in the USA 1884-1966, Ch. 7.

2Ibid. p. 76.

Older Entries Newer Entries