Altruism, Freedom and Economic Progress

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The virtue of altruism is held in immeasurably high esteem in our society today. Selfless benevolence at one’s own expense is regarded as the pinnacle of human endeavours, with societies and cultures often reserving their most coveted honours and elevations for people who have apparently undergone acts of selflessness and generosity. Contrary to mainstream thought (and contrary to the thought of some free market proponents), there is nothing in either libertarianism or free market economics that disputes this view. It is true that, strictly speaking libertarians qua libertarians neither promote nor condone any voluntary act; rather, they simply take the position that such acts should not be countered with violent repressions. Whether such acts are good in and of themselves is another matter. Further, free market economists will note that although voluntary exchanges create net wealth (including gift giving in which the donor never “loses” as such but, rather, gains a psychic profit that, to him, must be worth more than what he gave up), there is no part of their science in and of itself that compels them to promote or encourage giving any more than they are required to promote any other type of exchange (although economists may of course note also that increased wealth creation usually goes hand in hand with increased generosity). Nevertheless, as a private individual, it is possible for libertarians and free market economists to regard such specific, overt acts of kindness and generosity – especially those that cause the donor to incur at least the risk of a great material cost, such as wading into a strong river to save a drowning child – as worthy of praise and adulation and that the congratulation of such individuals is far from being out of place.

On the other hand, mainstream thought has extrapolated, erroneously, from these individual, voluntary acts the conclusion that economic progress, the vanquishing of poverty and the path towards a greater and better society are themselves dependent upon altruism and self-sacrifice to the extent that these virtues can cohere into a social system – a system, that is of course, managed by state fiat, such as the welfare state. This belief is dependent upon a further error which is that, in the free market order, the fundamental interests of each member of society are pitted against each other and that one person’s profit must automatically transform into another person’s loss. In other words, the profit and loss system results in benefits to the few (or, at most, some) at the expense of the many. From this incorrect assumption one naturally leads to the conclusions that the only way to benefit more or the many is if these profits (or the wealth that is possessed by the few) are turned over to the many. It is these conclusions with which libertarians and, in particular, free market economists disagree. If that was not bad enough, however, we shall also see that the implementation of systemic methods of wealth distribution is, in fact, completely antithetical to and destructive of altruism and generosity.

This error is similar in nature to another error encountered in mainstream economics – that of supposed shortages of “demand” on an economy-wide sale. In the particular situation of an individual firm or industry, a withdrawal of demand from the firm’s products will result in a slowdown of business for that firm. If the firm is to recover then it is obvious that a recovery of demand for its goods and services is necessary. However, from this entirely correct conclusion regarding a particular circumstance is extrapolated the utterly false conclusion that increases in demand must benefit the economy as a whole. Or, in other words, that where there is a general economic malaise the effective response is to encourage a general increase in demand for an alleged “glut” of supply. As we know from Say’s Law, however, demand and supply are opposite sides of the same coin – the demand for one product is formed by the supply of another. Therefore, one cannot increase general demand without also increasing general supply, i.e. the production of real products. Simply printing more money or lowering borrowing costs does nothing to increase demand; it simply raises the prices of what is already available and shifts the purchasing power over these existing resources from the last or later recipients of the new money to the first or earlier recipients. The real problem in an economic bust is a relative glut of some products, namely, capital goods that are further up the chain of production, and a relative shortage of other products, namely consumer goods and capital goods lower down the chain of production. So too is a similarly false conclusion drawn with regards to altruism and self-sacrifice – that what may be good in one, specific situation is good for society as a whole; and so good, moreover, that the state should systematically force us all towards altruism and self-sacrifice. Let us now explore the reasons why this is false.

First, with particular, individual acts of kindness or generosity it is possible for a bystander to appreciate and form judgments concerning the variables that are weighed in the consideration of whether someone has performed a virtuous deed; the initial helplessness or the “worthiness” of the recipient; the magnitude of relief that the voluntary act of kindness provides; and the magnitude of at least the material cost to the donor. One can therefore form a personal judgment, based on empathy, of the positions of the particular giving and receiving parties as to whether the act of altruism is a good thing. On an economy-wide scale in a society of tens (may be even hundreds) of millions of people, however, it is not possible to form such judgments with any degree of specificity, and much blunter tools such as “income” are needed in order to judge who should be donors and who should be recipients. But such blunt tools tell us nothing about why, for example, someone’s income is low, whose responsibility it is and who should bear the burden of doing something about it. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that someone who has a “high” income necessarily has cash to spare and does not have other commitments for those funds which the government wishes to redistribute – commitments which, even to others, may be valued as worthy, such as investing in his children’s education.

Second, in the long run massive transfers of wealth from the class of “haves” to the class of “have nots” does not benefit the latter in the long run. One of the most serious misconceptions concerning the ownership of wealth is that one must own it in order to benefit from it and thus only divesting wealth from those that have it and giving it to those that do not have it can ameliorate the plight of the poor and needy. What benefits the latter, however, is not the turning over of wealth to their hands so that it can be consumed and lost forever. Rather, what really hauls the poor up from the depths of despair is the investment of wealth in capital goods which are then able to produce more and more products and services at increasingly lower prices so that the poor can afford to buy them. We can illustrate this by adapting a well-known proverb: give a man a fish and he will feed himself for a day; invest that fish in a business that will produce fishing tackle that the man can afford and he will feed himself for a lifetime. The man in need never owned that original fish nor the capital goods that were produced from consuming it, yet it is clear that his life benefitted from its investment in a productive enterprise to a far greater extent than if he had ever gotten his hands on it directly.

Third, the very motivation towards altruism is most often dependent upon a close family or friendly relationship between donor and recipient where the welfare of the latter is of great importance to the former. Such a motivation is destroyed when your money disappears into a bureaucrat-run black hole. The result is that, as people lose their ability to spend their money in ways that they want, the motivation to producing wealth in the first place is destroyed. There is therefore less wealth to distribute anyway. Critics may, of course, argue that such a result is owing to the alleged “selfish” and self-centred nature of humans and that surely we – i.e. the state – has a duty to attempt to overcome this? There are at least two responses to this. First, it is part of the natural condition of humans that the primary ends and values that they hold are concerned with their immediate environment – that is, the welfare of themselves, their friends and their family; in other words, people whom they know, care about and have the ability to form empathetic judgments about. It is the stimuli from these sources that most potently determine our desires and choices. Everything else that goes on in the world is, for the most part, out of sight and out of mind, or at least very remote and can be brought to us only electronically through the media. But one does not even need to go that far, as most people are unlikely to even be able to appreciate the conditions, needs and desires of people in another neighbourhood in the same town – or even in the same street. People do, of course, devote themselves to causes that aim to help people far away about whom they may know very little; but these are specific causes towards which one may have a specific motivation. Wealth redistribution, however, aims at ameliorating hundreds, if not thousands of afflictions across many millions of faceless people. It is simply not possible for any human to form empathetic appreciations of all of those individual circumstances and, thus, neither will they be able to appreciate any kind of amelioration of these afflictions if they happen hundreds of miles away (this is before we get into any discussion of whether wealth distribution does, in fact, accomplish such ameliorations). Therefore, it is not possible for the typical human to motivate himself towards striding towards providing for a giant pot that aims to solve these problems, or at least not to the same degree he motivates himself towards providing for ends of his choosing. Moreover, we may ask whether a person with the ruddiest bleeding heart would, if it came to a choice, prefer to work towards contributing to the tax pot ahead of, say, caring for his sick and dying mother. Second, the very fact that wealth redistribution is forced (by the threat of imprisonment) rather than undertaken voluntarily does nothing to promote altruism in any way at all. Indeed, we might say that genuine altruism and selfless behaviour worthy of praise and recognition relies upon the fact that someone could have chosen, freely, to have done something “worthy” with his time and money. When I am forced to hand over my money, however, I have in no way “behaved” altruistically; in fact I haven’t really “behaved” at all – rather the money was simply taken from me. Further, rather encouraging any feelings of generosity the forced appropriation of my property it is likely to make me bitter and resentful and, moreover, to curb any desire to be generous with the remainder of the funds that I have left. To make matters worse, the welfare state does not leave the recipients of welfare spending as kindly and grateful beneficiaries who feel they were lucky to have avoided misfortune. Rather, the welfare state begets a sense of “entitlement” and dissolution of personal responsibility – that it is the state’s responsibility to provide for their needs and that they have a right to the state’s assistance. Ironically, therefore, the welfare state itself increases antagonism and selfishness rather than promoting their antitheses.

The attitude of selfless altruism can also be seen also in the elevation of those who devote themselves to so-called “public service” above those who compete in the allegedly greedy and grubby business of the private marketplace. Although positive views of politicians have soured considerably in the past generation, it is still widely believed that private industry is where people go to make lots of money to keep for themselves, while those who seek public office shun such squalid and base motivations and, with their visions of a “greater” society, can almost single-handedly make everyone better off without a thought of any benefit to themselves. Indeed, to the present author, it beggars belief that people are gullibly hypnotised by the illusion that all of their hopes and dreams are dependent upon a tiny minority, or even (when you witness the almost messianic reverence devoted to presidential candidates) a single person out of a society of millions gaining a job ahead of somebody else. It is in no doubt true, of course, that many people seek to enter politics with the desire, albeit the naïve one, to help people and to improve society. It may also be true that they could have amassed greater private fortunes by seeking employment in the private sector. Nevertheless, all political accomplishments (other than the few and far between measures that seek to roll back the interference of the state) necessarily produce a negative sum result – negative because what is given by government to one set of people must be taken by government from another, minus a cut to pay the salaries of the politicians and bureaucrats. This is before we consider the destruction of the incentives to create wealth that we outlined above. Even if, therefore, we stretched credulity and viewed politicians as truly angelic and selfless they would still not accomplish anything that would produce a net gain to society.

It is not the aim of our discussion here to suggest that a society distinguished by capitalism and free enterprise would suddenly create some kind of utopia where rank selfishness is without any negative consequences. Rather, it is simply to point out that, in the long run, the vanquishing of poverty is achieved by the investment of more capital goods in order to make more products affordable to people with the existing money that they earn themselves; not through giving them more money that is earned by and forcibly confiscated from somebody else. In such a society the high incidence of people needing the help of others would be prevented, not just cured. Nevertheless we might also note that it is a society that is highly prosperous and without a systematic welfare state that encourages rather than obliterates charitable endeavours. Overwhelmingly this is because people simply have more to give – it is no great mystery as to why most of the world’s great charitable foundations and societies originated in the nineteenth century, the era of the relatively most capitalistic progress and the least intervention by a formal welfare state. Ironically, it is the welfare state that has squeezed out private charity and genuine altruism from having any mainstream role in society. Additionally, however, in the absence of a compulsory so-called “social safety net” people rely on maintaining good relationships based on trust, reliability and selflessness with family and friends precisely so that they may be there for each other to cushion the consequences of the occasional unforeseen circumstance. Far from provoking any atomistic and individualistic existence freedom promotes and encourages a strong community and family spirit. If the virtue of altruism is to be nurtured then there cannot be a better place for it than there.

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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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Economic Myths #14 – Share the Wealth

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

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

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

And summing up the welfare state:

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

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

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

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

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

2Ibid. p. 76.

Economic Myths #9 – Social Safety Nets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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