“Ending Useless Lives” – A Critique of Matthew Parris

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The UK Government’s Assisted Dying Bill, which was defeated in the House of Commons in September of this year, was, rightly, a controversial one. The question of assisted suicide, in order to prevent the onset of pain or the so-called “loss of dignity” from a degenerative disease or old age, is disputed amongst libertarians too, with some asserting that if you own your body and your life you should be able to do whatever you want with it, whereas others claim that anything that seeks the destruction or termination of one’s life is antithetical to freedom.

We are not, of course, hoping to resolve this kind of debate here. Rather, the focus of this essay is an interesting article that appeared recently in The Spectator authored by Matthew Parris entitled “Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended” and subtitled “If the law does not lead, it will follow — at root the reason is Darwinian”. Parris states forthrightly what he believes will be a result of any assisted dying law, a result that most people do not wish to countenance – that, one day, we will encourage and/or require people to end their lives. Unwittingly, however, Parris unveils not the dangers of any assisting dying bill at all. Rather, it is the dangers of the culture of statism in which such a law would be enacted, a culture of government permissibility, prohibition and encouragement which has seeped into our psyche that rejects any difference between law and positive morality.

The argument (deployed by opponents of assisted dying) is that licensing assisted dying is to smile upon the practice. The legal change would act as a cultural signal that society now approves. This would in time lead to pressure on those who might not otherwise have contemplated ending their lives, to hasten their own demise — so as ‘not to be a burden’ on others. One day (say the faith squad) it could even become the norm.

I am sure they’re right. We who may argue for ‘permissive’ legislation must have the intellectual honesty to admit that the ending of a legal prohibition does act as a social signal. In vain do we protest that ‘nobody is forcing’ upon anybody else (say) same-sex marriage, or the cashing in of pension pots, or a quickie divorce, or the possession of marijuana. Indeed not. Nobody is forcing these delights upon others, but humans are social animals and one of the ways a society signals its attitudes is by criminalising behaviour it thinks very harmful, and decriminalising behaviour towards which its attitude has softened. [Emphasis added]

It is clear from this that Parris views government laws and the will of “society” as harmonious – that government restricts what “society” does not want and permits what “society” does want. There is, therefore, in Parris’s view a union between government and people, that we are all one. It is clear also that Parris views “government” and “society” as primacies – any rights and freedoms we enjoy exist because society and government have been kind enough to pass “permissive” legislation so that we can enjoy them. “Society”, however, is not some mysterious entity with its own cognitive ability and even if it was there is no reason for the government to be in step with anything “society” decides. The prevailing attitudes, opinions and points of view on certain moral subjects originate in the minds of individuals in disagreement with the points of view of other individuals. After all, if everyone was in agreement the alleged immoral act would never occur and hence laws against it would be pointless. Never does Parris consider that the law is simply being used by one set of persons to curtail the freedom of others. Never does it occur to him that the law’s proper scope is to simply prevent invasive violence between individuals and not to confer any moral propriety on anything. Rights and freedoms originate with individual people and do not require the government to permit them. They require a total absence of government, not any piece of government paper with a Royal assent or presidential signature in order to bring them about.

The stoning to death of women taken in adultery under sharia law is undoubtedly the signal of a cultural attitude towards adultery. Were you to advocate the abolition of this punishment, Islamic moral conservatives would be right to warn that the move would both indicate and encourage a softening of public moral disapproval of female adultery. Likewise, the progressive removal of legal restraints on homosexuality has been both consequence and cause of an increasingly sympathetic attitude towards gays. It is futile to deny this

Assisted dying is not a novel desire, not a strange new way of thinking. As a moral impulse, the idea that one might hasten one’s end because one gained no pleasure from living and one had become a burden on friends, family and the state has been with us since the dawn of man. You will find it in literature right down the ages. In your own lifetime you will have heard it expressed by others of your acquaintance. The impulse, though, has usually been discouraged — resisted as an unworthy attitude to life — and this cultural disapproval is reflected in law.

To alter the law in a permissive way would therefore be pushing (as it were) at an open door: legitimising a moral argument that has always been present (or latent) among humans. I would have every expectation that, given the extra push, the habit would grow.

All of this would be true only if one accepts the view that law either is or should be, by its presence or absence, a promoter of positive morality. As libertarians we reject this view. Perhaps stoning adulterous women and criminalising homosexual behaviour was rejected not to signal any cultural approval but merely because what people do to each other in their own bedrooms is no business of the state nor of anyone else? Legalising them simply means that legitimised violence cannot be used to prevent them by people who have no business interfering in the lives of others. There is no reason to suppose that legalisation, as well as having been a consequence of relaxed social attitudes towards certain acts, should be regarded as a continuing cause of this tolerance. Everyone is still free to disapprove of such acts and to disassociate themselves from them if they so wish. Nor is there any reason why legalisation should transform simple permissiveness into encouragement or promotion. Adultery may be legal today but it is not culturally acceptable to cheat on one’s partner, and such acts are met with indignation, disapproval and rebuke. Where there has, on the other hand, been a continuing social relaxation to acts such as homosexual behaviour it is because a greater exposure to these acts that legalisation permits has caused people to realise that such acts are probably not as horrific as they might have once thought from when all they knew about them was disseminated from the propaganda of the government and moral zealots. If, on the other hand, murder was to be legalised it is likely that such exposure would cause people to still regard this as horrific and abominable. Legalisation is not, therefore, necessarily a direct cause of any social attitude towards anything.

And so it must — indeed, in the end, will: and if it does not lead, the law will follow. At root the reason is Darwinian. Tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper. As medical science advances, the cost of prolonging human life way past human usefulness will impose an ever heavier burden on the community for an ever longer proportion of its members’ lives. Already we are keeping people alive in a near-vegetative state. The human and financial resources necessary will mean that an ever greater weight will fall upon the shoulders of the diminishing proportion of the population still productive. Like socialist economics, this will place a handicap on our tribe. Already the cost of medical provision in Britain eats into our economic competitiveness against less socially generous nations.

This does not mean an end to social generosity. It does not mean an end to economically unproductive state spending. These are social goods that we value for non-economic reasons, and should. But the value we place on them is not potentially infinite. They have their price. Life itself has its price. As costs rise, there will be a point at which our culture (and any culture) will begin to call for a restraining hand. I believe that when it comes to the cost of keeping very enfeebled people alive when life has become wretched for them, we’re close to that point.

Parris seems to have forgotten that “tribes” are only handicapped because they existed in a pre-capitalist era where they had to compete with either each other or with other tribes for a finite number of resources. Capitalist economies, however, allow every person to take their place in the division of labour and all are better off from the resulting manifold increase in productivity. More alarmingly, however, Parris seems to think that all values and ends are collectively held and desired. What is “useful” as well as the “costs” and “prices” of attaining these ends are all decided by the “culture” or by “society”. It is absolutely true that all ends have their price but the only reason these ends are priced by “society” is because the government has taken upon itself to socialise welfare and medical care. People only become a burden to everyone else because they are forced to pay for the sustenance of other people’s lives through the conduit of the state which cannot and will not ever do so in the most cost effective and sustainable way. Indeed, it is government that creates the problem of hordes of sick and dying individuals by encouraging demand through the provision healthcare and welfare that is either free or vastly reduced in cost at the point of need.

Parris refers to “socialist economics” as harming “the tribe” yet he doesn’t seem to realise that the tribal mentality that he adopts is precisely a symptom of socialisation and collectivism. Socialist economics doesn’t harm “the tribe”, which in Parris’s case seems to mean his country the UK, a country that must, for some reason Parris does not explain, remain “economically competitive” with other countries. Rather, socialist economics creates tribes in the first place, with the tribal leaders – the government, the heads of planning, etc. – deciding what is important ahead of everyone else. The value of “economic competitiveness” ahead of other ends would be valued by them, the leaders, and forced upon everyone else, with the “useless lives” sacrificed for that end. Parris makes a mistake typical of collectivist thinking which is to regard society, or man’s propensity to be a “social animal”, as requiring each human to value the same ends or to work towards the same goals. This is not true. Society exists because humans realise that they can pursue their own ends (that differ from everyone else’s ends) peacefully and more productively through the division of labour and voluntary trade. The beauty of this system lies in the fact that everyone can coexist peacefully and harmoniously while pursuing their own material, self-interest (and indeed can accomplish their individual goals to a much greater extent). It is utterly false to view society as a vast machine in which individual people comprise nothing more than metaphorical cogs and pistons, all fitting together and moving along to produce the same output. If, therefore, socialisation was ended, how much should be spent on medical care and on other so-called “economically unproductive” ends would be a matter for each individual person with their own individual means, or with the voluntary assistance of other people. They would willingly sacrifice their individual “economic competitiveness” and direct resources to providing for their care in old age at a point that was desirable to them without forcibly burdening everyone else.

I don’t even say we should look more benignly upon the termination of life when life is fruitless. I say we will. We may not be aware that our moral attitudes are being driven by the Darwinian struggle for survival, but in part they will be. And just as we feel ourselves looking more sympathetically at those who wish to end it all, so we shall be (unconsciously) looking at ourselves in the same way. The stigma will fade, and in its place will come a new description of selfishness, according to which it may be thought selfish of some individuals (including potentially ourselves) to want to carry on.

We admire Captain Oates for walking out of his tent and into his death when he judged his enfeeblement was threatening his colleagues’ chances of survival. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates a moral impulse that I expect to grow — and for the same reasons as it occurred to Oates: the good of our fellow men.

I do not therefore need to campaign for assisted dying. I do not need (and wouldn’t want) to persuade anybody that the time has come for them to end their lives. I don’t need to shout from the rooftops that suicide can be a fine and noble thing, or rail against the ever growing cost of medical care in the final, prolonged phase of people’s lives. My opinions and my voice are incidental. This is a social impulse which will grow, nourished by forces larger than all of us. I don’t exhort. I predict.

In these closing paragraphs Parris makes clear that he is not advocating the ending of life at some point that it is deemed socially useless. Rather, he makes it clear that it is an inevitable result of a Darwinian struggle for survival. This case may be probable, or even certain, under current conditions. The problem, however, is that Parris’s analysis once again misses the elephant in the room. Captain Oates only walked out of his tent because the resources available to him and his “fellow men” were finite – his “enfeeblement” threatened the survival of his colleagues because they lacked the ability to produce more resources. Government socialisation of welfare and medical resources replicates the predicament of Captain Oates across society as a whole, stifling production, and increasing demand of what becomes a dwindling supply of resources at ever spiralling costs. Moreover, statism and socialisation entrenches in our psyche the “common good”, the willingness to sacrifice the individual to upon the altar of the collective, a willingness which has only become necessary precisely as a result of the ineptitude of collectivism. So although we may have some, limited agreement with Parris’s “prediction” we can, as libertarians, respond emphatically that none of it is necessary if one simply puts an end to the mantle of the state. Had Parris abandoned his collectivist mind set he might have realised this.

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“Capitalism – A Treatise on Economics” by George Reisman – A Review

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It is not often that the present author is moved to review any particular publication by a specific author, let alone one that was published nearly twenty years ago. However, Capitalism by George Reisman, at more than one thousand pages long, is the first major treatise that is at least related to the “Austrian” tradition since the publication of Murray N Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State in 1962.

Although Reisman is a contemporary of Rothbard and a fellow student of Ludwig von Mises, Reisman’s approach to economics is markedly different from either. Indeed, armed solely with knowledge of his pedigree one might be forgiven for wondering why more attention has not been directed towards to Reisman’s work from within “Austrian” circles. It is only after having read this treatise that one can see why. Although Reisman claims that Mises is his primary intellectual influence, there is very little of this treatise that could be regarded as distinctly Misesian. Rather, Reisman’s direct influences are the classical economists (especially Smith, Ricardo and J S Mill, upon whom he relies for support to an extent far beyond his reliance upon Mises) and Ayn Rand. Reisman specifically rejects the categorisation of economics as the science of human action, and prefers, instead, to regard it as “the science that studies the production of wealth under the division of labour”. He therefore willingly abandons any analysis of individual values, means, ends, and choices, and restores economic theory to the study of holistic aggregates; indeed we might say that his definition of economics, which views wealth as an entity possessing some kind of objectively determinable magnitude, demands such a restriction. Reisman positions the businessman, rather than the consumer, as the centre of the economic system, stating that consumers (as a whole) are largely dependent upon businessmen (as a whole) rather than vice versa. While, according to Reisman, consumers provide the direction of economic activity (i.e. the precise direction of resources to fulfilling specific industries), businessmen and capitalists are responsible for its extent, i.e. the limits of saving and capital investment. In other words, it is the decisions of capitalists that determine the extent of “economic progress” (a term Reisman prefers to “economic growth”) rather than those of consumers. A corollary of this is that production and producers are reinstated as the keystones of economic activity rather than consumption and consumers (there is at least an implication in parts of the treatise that production is good and proper whereas consumption is bad and wasteful, although this is much muted compared to the same in Reisman’s classical influences). Furthermore, it is clear that Reisman does not regard his approach to economics as a wertfrei science and, instead, believes his economic theory to be a rigorous promoter and defender of the capitalist system – an attitude that cannot be avoided by his definition of economics as the study of the accumulation of wealth under the division of labour, a division that he says is only possible under private ownership of the means of production. Thus, in Reisman’s world, a discussion of economics is a discussion of capitalism which, presumably, explains the book’s title.

What can we say about Reisman’s approach? Without beating about the bush we must state at the outset that Reisman, who is thoroughly acquainted with “Austrian” economics, has jettisoned a tremendous degree of sound theoretical understanding from the science. Although Reisman, who self-identifies as an “Austro-classical” economist, endeavours to restore to economics many of the (in his opinion) sound doctrines of the classical economists that were allegedly rejected following the discovery of the law of marginal utility and the backlash against Marxism, we must conclude that the result is something of a retrogression rather than a synthesis of two, hitherto quite disparate, schools of thought. In Reisman’s world, the achievement of all ends and their associated costs never advance deeper than the objective measurement of exchanges for money. He never advances any exposition of individual ends and subjective costs (indeed, he explicitly rejects the doctrine of opportunity cost). Hence the entire purpose of the economic system as serving the needs of individuals and the types of decisions that individuals must make in order to achieve these ends is missing, subsumed by the supposedly limitless need of man as a whole to accumulate “wealth” in perpetuity. In other words, Reisman’s restoration of the primacy of the production of “wealth” overlooks the fact that all production is ultimately aimed at providing for consumers and that it is the ends of consumers to which the economic system is geared. It is perfectly consistent to state, as does the wertfrei “Austrian” school, that the purpose of all economic endeavour is to provide for consumption while on the other hand remaining firm that the means of achieving this consumption can only be served by increased production. Therefore, while we can hold that the desire for consumption is the ultimate cause of economic progress, we can also state that production is the proximate cause. Thus, while Reisman’s categorisation of economic theories under the headings of either “productionism” or “consumptionism” – the former of which involves the promotion and encouragement of increased production as the means towards economic progress, the latter the promotion and encouragement of increased consumption – provides an instant and convincing cognitive aid, it obscures the clarity afforded by this insight of the “Austrian” school.

Furthermore, Reisman’s repositioning of the capitalist/businessman as the driver of economic progress relies upon capitalists providing the bulk of investment funds, i.e. that it is the consumption/saving decisions primarily of businessmen that determines the extent of economic progress. He argues that the wages of labourers do not provide a significant source of investment funds and are usually consumed either immediately or are saved in order to purchase durable consumer goods such as housing or automobiles. Any investment saving that labourers do happen to undertake is likely to be wholly disinvested at retirement, thus netting out the saving of younger generations. However, there is no reason for Reisman to think that this this must be the case. It is just as possible for investment funds to come from the savings of everyday individuals that are then lent to businessmen for them to deploy in their enterprises via a conduit such as bank savings accounts (and such a view would greatly undermine any opinion that capitalism keeps the masses in servitude as wage labour). The distinctive role of the businessman is that he provides entrepreneurial talent in order to generate economic progress by directing those saved funds to where they are most urgently desired by consumers. Yet Reisman’s treatise lacks any extensive theory of entrepreneurship and only passively recognises the need for superior decision-making in order to fulfil the ends of consumers. This lacuna in Reisman’s theory means that in order to position the businessman as the driver of economic progress he has to paint him as the primary provider of investment funds. This contrasts greatly with Reisman’s mentor, Mises, who makes entrepreneurship a hallmark of Human Action, thus giving us an insight into the economic significance of the businessman that extends far beyond the fact that he simply didn’t consume his wealth. (Some of Reisman’s views on what determines an individual’s consumption/investment preferences, which inform his theory here, are also incorrect and we will explore these below). In any case, however, Reisman seems to support his theory through a blurring of economic categories, such as labourers, consumers, capitalists, etc. (something which, irritatingly, is done all too frequently). In reality, all individual people in the economy participate in different categories at different times – a man is clearly a labourer when he goes to work, a consumer when he spends his wages in the shops, and a saver when he buys a corporate bond. However, when we are discussing, for the purposes of conceptual clarity, the roles of individuals in these economic categories, we isolate those specific roles from other categories and thus we always talk of labourers qua labourers and consumers qua consumers, etc. So even if it may happen be true that the particular people who are businessmen are responsible for the greater part of saving and investment, businessmen are consumers too and considering them as consumers qua consumers it is their decision to refuse to consume their wealth today in favour of accumulating greater wealth for consumption tomorrow that provides the source of investment funds. It is therefore true to state that it is the choices of consumers who determine both the direction and extent of economic progress. Moreover, as Mises also recognises, any consumer who is currently a wage earner can transform himself into a businessman, entrepreneur or capitalist by saving and investing his wages (while, equally and oppositely of course, any businessman who decides to consume his fortune may end up as a wage earner).

Finally, it is one thing to state that the preoccupation of the economic activity of any one (or even most) individuals may be with the accumulation and augmentation of their own wealth. But it does not follow from this that the science of economics itself concerns the accumulation of wealth. Animals preoccupy themselves with the need to attain food and shelter but this does not mean that the focus of zoology is with the achievement of these things.

Examining Reisman’s treatise on its own, non-wertfrei terms as a rigorous defence of the capitalist system, much of its earlier part is a detailed offence against the fallacies of socialism, collectivism, interventionism and environmentalism (and later, Keynesianism and inflationism). These devastating, if often heavy handed, critiques are likely to be viewed as by Austro-libertarians as Reisman’s greatest achievement in this work, even if some of it was previously published as The Government Against the Economy. A specific and lengthy chapter is possibly the most passionate assault against the ecology movement, a chapter that could easily be expanded and published as a separate treatise (Reisman’s stress of the anti-human zeal of environmentalism resonates with that of environmentalists, such as former Greenpeace Canada President Patrick Moore, who have become disillusioned with the movement). Reisman’s explanation of various forms of government intervention, such as price fixing, with reference to specific notable examples such as the oil recession of the 1970s, in which he traces out all of the effects (and effects of alternatives to) government meddling have rarely been matched. Yet much of the remainder of Reisman’s exposition does not in fact read as a promotion or a defence of the capitalist system; rather it is more akin to an aggregative, accountancy-laden explanation of what the capitalist system does, much like a description of some giant machine that swallows up inputs measured in numbers and churns out some kind of output, also measured in numbers. Reisman categorises an endeavour as productive according to its ability to earn money voluntarily through exchange. Hence all government functions, relying upon taxation, must necessarily be classified as consumption and not production. In other words, government can never produce and must always be a leech on the genuinely productive, capitalist system. Moreover, his excellent critique of socialism recognises that socialism must entail tyranny and a replacement of the ends sought by individuals with the ends sought by leaders. However, Reisman’s aggregative, accountancy approach never builds upon this insight. In the depths of the latter half of the treatise one almost forgets any connection between these accounting entries and how the capitalist economy serves the needs of individual people. One of Reisman’s stated aims in the treatise is to show how a proper understanding of the capitalist system should prevent one from feeling any kind of “alienation” from or subjugation by the capitalist system – something which Reisman comes closest to achieving through his analysis of the division of labour. Yet in the main it would appear that the Mises-Rothbard approach of detailing the economy as a network of bilateral, voluntary exchanges between individual people striving to meet their own needs through voluntary co-operation (and how these disparate and often conflicting goals and purposes nevertheless mesh into a harmonious, productive society) is much more conducive to achieving this than is Reisman’s aggregative, accountancy method. While it is true that the ability of capitalism to manifestly increase the standard of living and the degree of material wealth lends it a tremendous amount of moral weight, we can suggest here without too much elaboration that any rigorous defence of capitalism and, moreover, freedom can proceed only by focussing on the primacy of the needs of each individual person, not all of which can be measured or attained though objectively viewable exchanges for money. This omission in Reisman’s work also weakens the distinctly economic flavour of this treatise, as individual choices, desires, wants, decisions and actions do not seem to matter.

Turning now to some of Reisman’s theoretical contributions to the science of economics, there are two that stand out in particular. The first is his attempted demolition of the “conceptual framework” of the Marxist exploitation theory by asserting the primacy of profit rather than of wages. In Reisman’s view, critics of Marxism, including Böhm-Bawerk, have accepted the categorisation, originating with Adam Smith, of profits paid to capitalists as deductions from wages, and have sought explanations in order to justify this deduction. Reisman, however, asserts that wages, paid to labourers, are, in fact, a deduction from profits. If profits are calculated by subtracting business costs from business revenue, it is clear that if a person undertakes an enterprise to achieve, say, 100 units of revenue then every monetary outlay he expends in order to achieve that 100 units of revenue must count as a deduction from it. The fewer costs he has the more profit he is left with. Thus it is profits that represent the primary economic income, not wages. It is conceivable for the economic system to have profits but not wages in the event that every individual person operated as a sole trader and employed no other individuals. If, however, a businessman hires labourers to assist in his enterprise, the wages he must pay to these workers for their assistance are deducted from the ultimate sales revenues. Therefore, according to Reisman, wages only appear in the economic system on account of the help that other people provide to a businessman’s enterprise, and their help stakes a claim on his revenue. Thus it is wages that are deducted from profits, not vice-versa.

Whatever the merits of this view we must conclude that, to the dyed-in-the-wool Marxist, it is likely to be beside the point. The source of contention in the exploitation theory is that the businessman doesn’t do anything and simply leeches off the productivity of the worker; in other words by hiring labourers the businessman simply abdicates any participation in the act of production yet still gains an income. Reisman himself provides the answer to this by pointing out that labour is not the only source of productivity in a division-of-labour society and that it is, in fact, decision making, risk-taking, management and oversight that are also essential – in other words, entrepreneurship. And yet, as we noted, any extensive treatment of entrepreneurship is precisely what is missing from Reisman’s theory. Therefore, it must be submitted that an understanding of entrepreneurial profit and loss and the insulation of the labourer from business risk coupled with the time preference theory of interest provides a more effective demolition of Marxism than the primacy of profit theory which, if correct, provides only additional ammunition for it.

This brings us to Reisman’s next theoretical contribution which is his net-consumption/net-investment theory of aggregate profits, profits which he tries to explain in an environment of an unchanging supply and flow of money. The attempt to explain profit in terms of physical goods is relatively straightforward. Goods, of course, can increase or decrease and thus there can be absolutely more (profits) or fewer (losses) of them across society as a whole. We can also understand clearly, across the time structure of production, how the consumption of a smaller quantity of physical goods can be foregone today in order to produce a larger quantity of goods tomorrow. This is not so when it comes to accounting for profits and losses in terms of money which is assumed to be fixed in supply and flow. For every transfer of money that represents a credit to ones businessman’s income must show up as a corresponding debit to another businessman’s costs. Hence, while some individual businesses would earn profits and others would suffer losses, all profits and losses across the economy as a whole would net out and hence any question of aggregate profit would be impossible. The only method of solving this conundrum is to somehow, on the societal balance sheet, create a credit entry to income/equity without a corresponding debit entry to costs. It is the explanation of how this is possible that Reisman sets out to achieve.

The first element of aggregate profits – “net consumption” – derives from the fact that business revenues from consumption spending by labourers (and, as we noted, Reisman categorises all spending by labourers as consumption spending) shows up also as a business cost in the form of wage payments. Therefore, revenue and cost cancel each other out on the societal income statement. Similarly, business to business spending will be counted as both an equal and opposite revenue and cost and will net to zero. However, “the payment of dividends by corporations, the draw of funds by partners and proprietors from their firms, and the payment of interest by business firms” (which Reisman regards as “transfers”) to business owners, which provide the latter with a source of consumption spending, does not show up as a business cost yet does, once spent, show up as a business revenue. Thus the rate of profit is determined solely by the desire of the capitalists to consume. This element of profit has, Reisman claims, the ability of providing continued aggregate profits in an environment of unchanging money. For example, if the volume of spending is 1000 units of money each period, business costs could be 900 while business revenues could be 1000 and profits 100 in each and every period. (Reisman uses similar reasoning to explain how the rate of profit is increased by taxation as all taxation is consumption spending). The second element, “net investment”, derives from the fact that business spending on assets to produce business revenue are capitalised as assets and only later depreciated incrementally as a business cost. Thus, in an environment where the volume of spending is the same, business revenue exceeds business cost. For example, if 100 units of money are expended on capital assets, 800 units are spent on business costs, and there are 1000 units of business revenue, profits would be 200 as the 100 units spend on capital assets are not charged as a cost. Reisman believes that net investment provides a finite outlet for aggregate profit because, eventually, depreciation charges from assets previously capitalised will equal the value of new assets capitalised. For example, if 100 units of monetary spending on assets per year are capitalised and then depreciated at an uncompounded, annual rate of 10%, depreciation charges will be 10 units in year one, 20 units in year two, 30 units in year three, and so on until, in year 10, depreciation charges will exactly equal the 100 units of additional investment and so net-investment will provide no source of aggregate profit in that year. Thus, Reisman believes, only net consumption is capable of providing continuous, aggregate profits period after period. Net consumption and net investment are, however, joined at the hip. Reduced net consumption provides increasing funds for net investment to be capitalised on the balance sheet and charged as business costs only at increasingly remote points in the future.

What can we say about this theory? It should not be surprising to “Austrians” that Reisman’s theory is based upon net-consumption and net-investment as it those elements that are determined by the “Austrian” theory of time preference, which affects the rate of interest. (What Reisman refers to as “profit” is what most “Austrians” would refer to as “interest” – Reisman offers no explicit distinction between entrepreneurial profit and loss on the one hand and what “Austrians” would regard as interest on the other). Yet Reisman regards his theory as standing in opposition to the time preference theory and, moreover, the older productivity theory of interest. However, Reisman’s approach, characterised as simply a description of accountancy practices and the summation of money flows, does not challenge the time preference theory at all. The primary question of profit and interest that is answered by this latter theory is why do businessmen not impute the full value of the final product to the factors of production. In other words, why, even after businessmen are compensated for their managerial or oversight activities as a factor of production, is there always a further residual surplus that is not eliminated by competitive bidding amongst entrepreneurs? Why is there, to use Reisman’s terminology, a “going rate of profit” at all? The net-consumption/net-investment theory, while explaining that rises in net consumption will increase the rate of profit while reductions in them will lower it, only really explains how, from an accounting point of view, profits are possible. Reisman offers no extended treatment of the motivations of capitalists in paying (and of labourers in accepting) a sum lower than the total of business revenues and thus it is difficult to regard this as a distinctly economic theory. A more convincing explanation of his theory would detail how, with decreasing time preference, more funds are advanced to factors of production yielding revenue in the future, thus diminishing net consumption and the rate of profit, while these expenditures will be capitalised at increasingly higher amounts, depending on the time period when they come to fruition, relative to the ultimate business revenue that is earned. Thus Reisman’s accountancy-laden approach would, in this way, be fully reconciled with the “Austrian” approach to profit, or, rather, to what “Austrians” would call interest.

When Reisman does address the motivations that determine net-consumption and net-investment he does so erroneously. Reisman defines time preference as the determinant of “the proportions in which people devote their income and wealth to present consumption versus provision for the future.” It is Reisman’s link between this posited desire to provide for the future and net-investment that causes him to declare that net investment can provide only a limited contribution to net profit. To quote: “As capital and savings accumulate relative to income, the need and desire of people to increase their accumulated capital and savings still further relative to their income diminishes, while their desire to consume their income correspondingly increases”. In other words, the more saving and capital people possess the more they have provided for the future and thus productive expenditure will fall and consumption will rise, choking off net investment in the form of further additions to the asset side of the balance sheet. Thus depreciation charges begin to equalise new investments and aggregate profits from net-investment begin to fall. This view, however, is mistaken. Time preference has nothing to do with the desire of people to provide for the future. The need to provide for the future is always a present end just like any other and could be achieved by plain saving rather than investment. Time preference, rather, is the rate at which individuals prefer a larger quantity of goods available at some point in the future ahead of a smaller quantity of goods available today. It is perfectly possible for people to continue to invest sums of capital that will not produce consumer goods for well after they are deceased. Indeed, this is precisely why people have inheritances to bequeath. Many of the buildings, factories and infrastructure we have today were created not in our own lifetimes but were handed down to us from past generations. And it is further possible that capital accumulation and technological progress, which Reisman himself stresses enhances the ability to produce capital goods, will enable the production of capital goods that last further and further into the future. People would not even need to create capital goods that last so long with the purpose that they do so – in other words they could be perfectly limited in their own time horizons and yet still produce capital goods that yield a product well after the elapse of this time horizon. Let’s say, for example, that the current rate of time preference means that the produce from all assets appearing after thirty years hence is fully discounted to zero. In other words, only what the assets can produce in the next thirty years is valuable to present persons. If a capital good was created that could yield produce for sixty years, after the elapse of each year, another year’s discounted produce would be capitalised as this year is drawn into the thirty year time horizon. Therefore, such assets will provide a continued source of credits to business equity (and, thus, profits) without corresponding business costs. This is precisely the case with some of the most valuable patches of urban land which, for all intents and purposes, will go on producing well beyond the lifetimes and time horizons of any living person. Thus there is no reason for net-investment to be so limited in its contribution to aggregate profits in the environment of unchanging money. Moreover, we can see in this way how accumulating, aggregate profits that are capitalised for longer and longer periods is the hallmark of an economically progressing society – one where more and more capital is invested for longer – while the opposite, aggregate losses, represents retrogression through capital consumption.

Finally, as we noted above, there is no reason to discount saving by labourers a source of investment funds. This would divert spending from business revenue as the funds would be lent to businesses who would then spend it on “productive expenditure”. Without any corresponding business revenue the rate of profit would fall. (Thus we can see why increased funds that are made available for lending must be made at increasingly lower rates of interest).

There are one or two further disagreements we can cite here. First, “Austrian” business cycle theory, the jewel in the crown of “Austrianism”, is never explained at length and instead takes its place in a wider treatment of the effects of inflation. Second, his treatment of neoclassical price theory is too aggregative and does not explain how individual bidders and suppliers bring about a harmony between the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied. Third, as in his critique of the time preference theory of interest, Reisman often perceives differences or disagreements where there are none, such as that alleged between his productivity theory of wages and the marginal productivity theory of wages, the latter of which he describes incorrectly. And finally, in spite of having been the translator of Mises’ Epistemological Problems of Economics, Reisman has little to say concerning method – something which perhaps descends from his rejection of economics as the science of human action, which underpins Mises’ methodological dualism that divides economics from the natural sciences.

Overall, therefore, the question of whether Reisman’s approach to economics has successfully synthesised the “Austrian” and classical schools, and, moreover provided a progressive outlook for the science of economics must, regrettably, be answered in the negative. Rather, Reisman’s positive economic theory in this treatise comes across more as a restatement and re-polishing of classical economics (with some corrections to that school of thought), peppered with insights from neoclassicism and the “Austrian” school. Reisman’s rejection of the primacy of human action as the subject matter of economics has been at the expense of not only losing a great deal of theoretical understanding in the wertfrei science that this affords, but also weakening any positive promotion for capitalism and freedom.

Nevertheless, while this review has been mainly been critical of Reisman’s positive economic theory, we must end by celebrating the fact that our author has, in this treatise, many great things to say concerning socialism, environmentalism, interventionism, inflationism, Keynesianism and all other manner of false doctrines rejected by “Austrians” and libertarians alike. What Reisman has put to paper here are among the finest critical analyses of these areas ever written and, even if one cannot agree with Reisman’s specific, economic outlook, these contributions alone place Reisman in the top rank of economists whose work should be studied avidly.

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Prices and Cost of Production

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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.

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

Capitalism – the Real “Third Way”

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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.

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Against the Welfare State – and Bank Bailouts

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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.

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Gender, Race and Sexual Orientation – The Problem with Single Issue Groups

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Although the state has always constituted a mantle of unjustified oppression of and invasion into the lives of every person who has had to suffer its yoke, it is undeniable that certain groups of individuals who possess a common identity have been singled out for persecution. Laws that criminalise homosexual behaviour, or sought to set up “caste” systems such as the “Jim Crow laws” in the certain US states single out certain people, who possess a common characteristic, for a heightened degree of state aggression compared to other citizens. This common characteristic can consist of either their private, consenting behaviour with other adults or on some kind of characteristic that they are not able to help such as their gender or their skin colour. In order to oppose this, political movements to champion the rights of these (at least allegedly) legally persecuted individuals have appeared, such as the suffragette movement and the feminists for women, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement for blacks, and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement. These groups have, to varying degrees of success, achieved a relaxation of legal discrimination against their intended beneficiaries.

The problem with single issue movements is that they do not always understand the principles upon which their complaints are based – or at least, those principles are not applied consistently. Strictly speaking, when it comes to legal rights there are no such things as “gay rights”, “women’s rights”, or “rights of blacks”. There are only rights that apply to every individual by virtue of his status as a rational, human being. According to libertarians, these rights consist of the right to self-ownership and the right to own private property unmolested by the physical interference of any other individual. It follows, therefore, that the attempt by single issue groups to remove genuinely invasive incursions by government into their lives is entirely legitimate. So that, for example, decriminalising sexual relations between two members of the same sex, and removing any legally enforced segregation of blacks from whites would be a perfectly legitimate cause. In other words, so long as these movements seek to achieve the right to be left alone and to be able to interact peacefully with whomever they wish, on a par with every other citizen, their aims are perfectly merited and, indeed, should be encouraged. Unfortunately, in seeking to promote the interests of merely a narrow group of particular people, these groups end up proceeding beyond this point and begin to invade the rights of others in order to provide not just the negative right to be left alone but a positive right or benefit to the favoured group that invades the rights of other people. Thus, having begun in the position of the oppressed the beneficiaries of a particular movement become, in turn, the oppressors, and having achieved their own right to be left alone start to erode that right when it comes to others.

In light of recent judicial decisions in Ireland and the US concerning the legality or constitutionality of gay marriage, we will concentrate, by way of example, on the gay rights movement. However, what we say here is applicable to any single issue movement such as those promoting the interests of a particular race or gender. The political oppression of gays throughout the world is still active in many countries, particularly in those that are deeply religious such as many Middle Eastern states, and they can still prove to be a struggle in countries that are heavily divided on the issue such as the United States. Nevertheless, we can state in countries such as Great Britain that gays have achieved a high degree of political equality with heterosexuals. Gays may engage in sexual intercourse with members of the same sex without legal molestation; institutions set up specifically to attract gay customers such as gay bars, clubs, dating sites and so on are perfectly legal. Moreover, a gay individual may now marry another gay individual on the same footing as heterosexual couples.

However, in spite of having accomplished the ejection of the state’s interference from their bedrooms, the gay rights movement is now attempting to co-opt the state into furthering the interests of homosexuals by invading the rights of other people. The typical case that arises is one of alleged “discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation”, where a heterosexual individual, or group of individuals, chooses not to do business with a homosexual. For example, if a gay couple wishes to stay at a bed and breakfast the owner denies them lodging because they do not wish homosexuals to stay in their institution. A court case usually follows, the result of which is that business owner is forced to pay damages to the aggrieved gays for “discriminating” against them.

Regardless of whether one is libertarian or not, this attitude is nothing short of rank hypocrisy. Gays reserve the right for themselves to do whatever they want with their own bodies on their own property, but through crying “discrimination” they deny these rights to other people. Moreover, a quick google search reveals that there are hundreds, if not thousands of gay hotels, resorts, cruises, bars, clubs, bathhouses, and dating sites that describe themselves as “gay only” and market their products and services to those of a specific sexual orientation, even if this does not explicitly exclude those of other sexual orientations. How much of a furore would there be if a hotel stated on its website that it was “straight-only”? Ironically, however, there have been complaints from the owners of gay establishments that anti-discrimination laws will negatively impact their operations as their entire business model is based upon serving, exclusively, the needs of gays.

According to libertarians gays most certainly do have the right to do whatever they want with their own bodies with other consenting adults on their own property, as they possess the rights to self-ownership and to private property. And there is absolutely no problem in libertarianism with gays, or anyone else for that matter, setting up businesses and establishments that cater only to gays. But so too, therefore, does everyone else have the right to set up businesses that prefer to cater only to heterosexuals. In reality, though, matters never usually proceed to that level. In the case of a dispute with a bed and breakfast, the owner was happy to do business with the gay couple but was simply not willing to book them a double, as opposed to a twin room. In a more recent case involving a bakery, the latter did not refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple but merely refused to decorate it with a message supporting gay marriage.

If a business does so choose to cater only to straights, this decision may be based on anything from reactionary bigotry and irrational homophobia to deeply held moral or religious convictions (although some would probably say there is little difference between all of those things). Whatever the cause, however, the business accepts the risk that it will lose the money of gay customers. If, therefore, the owners of a bed and breakfast turn away a gay couple, they already incur the penalty of lost revenue for taking this course of action. The gays are denied a room for the night but they do not pay the owners a single penny of their money. The owners therefore risk going out of business sooner compared to other establishments that are not so discriminating and are happy to accept the custom of gay couples. It is for this reason that, for the most part, the competition of the marketplace eradicates discrimination on merely spurious, personal grounds (grounds which we may indeed identify with prejudice and bigotry) but it does not eradicate a choice for the owner to deal with his property as he sees fit. Moreover, the marketplace permits such discrimination to flourish where it is appropriate for customers who are distinguished by a certain characteristic and are interested in purchasing products and services that are designed for people with that characteristic – such as gays. Indeed, there is no specific culture or community that identifies itself as “straight” to which businesses can specifically market their services – there are very few explicitly straight bars, straight hotels and straight clubs etc. Hence the incidence of businesses that may, privately, choose to exclude gay customers are scattered and heterogeneous. But because the quality of being gay is an acknowledged common identity and has generated its own community and culture, the proliferation of gay businesses that discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation is vast compared to the scattered number of non-gay businesses that do so. And no one should have the right to stop these gay-only businesses from flourishing any more than one should have the right to stop a bed and breakfast from catering only to straights.

One also has to shake one’s head in bemusement at the extreme pettiness at some of these cases that are brought in the west. Apart from the common libertarian complaint of our own governments looting and exploiting the populace on a prolific scale, even without this we live in a world in which there are heinous human rights abuses against women, ethnic minorities, and gays alike involving assault, mutilation, stoning and killing. And yet we in the west are worried about whether a gay couple can get a cake iced. In the fight for any cause, it is true that the smallest of gestures may be better than the grandest of intentions. But when the grandest of intentions have, in fact, already been accomplished, couldn’t they have easily found someone else on the same street to decorate an item of confectionary?

The ongoing issue of gay marriage appears to be the pinnacle of the attempt by the gay rights movement to nest its cause firmly within the bloated bosom of the state. Hitherto there has been nothing to stop to people of the same sex from hiring a venue, gathering all their friends and family, exchanging vows and rings and declaring their union that will forevermore be recognised by their community. The swat team was never about to break down the door after the committal “I do”. The real problem is the lack of legal recognition of the marriage by the state and the denial of the dubious benefits deriving from the state’s use of marriage as a shorthand for creating different legal rights and obligations between the two partners. Thus the issue has never really been about affirming one’s love for another person in front of your friends and relatives; it has been about achieving the state’s sanctifying blessing. Indeed, even after Ireland legalised gay marriage in May of this year the response across the spectrum was less about marriage and more about “acceptance”, “vindication”, “validation”, “recognition”, etc. – as if one needs the state to live one’s lifestyle with confidence. Gay pride seems to have turned into gay diffidence. Far better, to achieve a genuine equality, would be for the state to remove its invasive usurpation of all marriage and return it to its rightful origin as a religious or community affair.

It is sometimes true that if a particular group has been burdened with legal oppression for decades or even centuries then they are, as a whole, left with the “unfair disadvantages” of lower standards of education and employment prospects than the un-oppressed groups. This has been used to justify the government’s intervention to furnish the oppressed group with positive benefits, for example, so-called “affirmative action” for blacks in the United States. Apart from the fact that it is unjust to force everyone else to pay for the oppressive acts of their ancestors, disadvantages are not solved overnight by pretending they do not exist and trying to force an outcome by government fiat. Indeed, they have simply had the opposite effect. Forced economic relations have served only to keep past discriminations kindled and measures such as the minimum wage have excluded blacks from the entire productive system. Arguably, the economic plight of blacks today after half a century of affirmative action is worse than it was before the civil rights era. Only the market place can bring to formerly oppressed groups the opportunities for the development of skills, employment, education, saving, capital accumulation, and entrepreneurship, a process that might have elevated their position to that of others within one or two generations.

All of this goes to show that, while the plight of an individual group or community can be illustrative of a denial of rights, a true understanding of the matter is likely to come only from a consideration of which rights apply to all people everywhere regardless of their particular creed and colour. To approach the matter otherwise simply turns the oppressed into the oppressors. As libertarians we know that only the rights to self-ownership and private property of everyone is the only way to lift the burden of oppression from the shoulders of all groups everywhere so that everyone is free to live their lives as they see fit.

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The Myth of Overpopulation

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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”.

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

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