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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Economic Myths #13 – Wealth Inequality and “The 1%”

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The inequality of wealth and income has been in the news again lately. According to the Daily Telegraph, 1% of the world’s population will own half of its wealth by next year. The Executive Director of Oxfam, who provided the figure, said that “an explosion of inequality was holding back the fight against poverty”, asking the rhetorical question “do we really want to live in a world where 1% own more than the rest of us combined”?

The mainstream debate over this issue fails to understand the true nature of the problem. The pro-free market side are wont to point out that such inequality “doesn’t matter” and governments should not do anything to interfere with the progress of business. The likely call from the opposite side, however, is for increased taxation and redistribution and, indeed, Oxfam itself stressed the need for a greater crackdown on tax avoidance by large, multinational corporations. However, the reality is much more subtle than simply left vs. right and, indeed, the debate produces a false dichotomy between “pro-business” and “pro-government/anti-poverty”.

On the one hand, we can agree that wealth inequality does not, on its own, create any problems for the generation of wealth and the reduction of poverty. The common attitude towards the rich appears to assume that someone like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates has tens of billions of dollars lying around in a bank account for them to spend and enjoy. The reality is that these figures represent the value of capital goods – machines, tools, factories and so on – that are invested in producing goods and services that everyone wants to buy. If these resources are in the hands of just a few people – say, “the 1%” – who most accurately devote them to the most urgently desired needs of consumers, then there is nothing economically deleterious with wealth inequality. Indeed, wealth inequality, in this scenario, is exceedingly good as any attempt to reduce it would divert resources into the hands of those less capable of directing them to the ends that people desire, or into those who would consume them. It is capital investment – more capital invested in more production processes to churn out more products that people need – and not taxes and redistribution that solves the plight of poverty.

However, this scenario is conditional upon the crucial aspect that resources must be in the hands of those who are best suited to serving the needs of consumers. In other words, those who are rich must have become so by meeting those needs. However, it is patently obvious that the current ownership structure does not reflect the voluntary choices of consumers. Rather, it is the product of crony capitalism, of cheap printed money that is ploughed into malinvestments and of taxpayer funded bail outs when it all collapses. The growth in wealth inequality is due not to the fact that consumers are voluntarily choosing to place that wealth in the hands of a few select people; it is because the government is throwing cheap money at this tiny elite so they can steal all of the world’s assets.

What, then, is the solution to this problem? Taxation and redistribution would clearly compound the economic evils rather than solve them. And, in any case, in spite of the hullaballoo about tax avoidance, the rich will always be able to influence tax policy to their benefit and to arrange their affairs so as to avoid it as much as possible. Rather, what is needed is a wholesale withdrawal of government from either supporting or hindering anyone in the pursuit of gaining wealth. All wealth should be obtained through the voluntary nexus of serving the needs of consumers and everyone should gain their wealth through their abilities and not through their political connections. What might such a world look like? Would it encourage wealth inequality or would such inequality be unlikely? One the one hand, it is arguable that wealth would still be highly concentrated. Genuine entrepreneurship is a rare talent and is likely to always remain so. However, if that is the case it is also likely that those particular individuals who own the world’s resources will rotate relatively quickly, with the top dogs remaining on the pedestal for only a short time. Indeed one aspect of the current wealth divide that is ignored is whether the same people remain stuck within their wealth/income group or whether there is relatively fluid movement between the different groups. Successful entrepreneurs make their biggest successes when they are small, nimble and contrarian. Once they have achieved their wealth, however, and their enterprises have morphed into large, multinational companies, they become large, unwieldy, inefficient and complacent. A former rebel becomes a part of the establishment who then becomes vulnerable to the insights of later entrepreneurs. Part of this can perhaps be seen with the technology industry where no, single player has managed to dominate each successive era. Microsoft put a PC into everyone’s home in the 1980s-90s; Google was the number one in internet search; Facebook was on top with social networking; and we are now, seemingly, entering a fourth phase where Apple seems to dominate smartphone technology. No single outfit has been able to carry through its dominance from one era to the next. Corporate dynasties and everlasting companies controlling everything will certainly not be a feature of a genuinely free market. Even a stock investor such as Warren Buffett, who has profited from a great many businesses in numerous decades, would be unlikely to achieve the wealth that he has done. Buffett’s mantra of value investing relies upon the price of a stock to become undervalued relative to the underlying value of the business, and for the price to then reach parity with, or exceed, that value. But the large distortions in stock prices – both up and down – have been precisely because of central bank flooding the markets with cheap, freshly printed money that results in excessive booms and busts. It is unlikely that Buffett, in a genuine free market, would have been able to buy and sell at such favourable prices as he was able to do in recent decades. On the other hand, however, it is also possible that a free market would reduce wealth inequality. As wealth creation ensues and the standard of living rises, ordinary people will find themselves with increasing amounts of disposable income that they may decide to divert into saving rather than increased consumption. Such funds, through savings accounts and the bond market, may form the backbone of investment funds that are ploughed into productive use. Thus, ultimate ownership of wealth may be more diverse than it is at present. Either way, however, we can be sure that the resulting structure of production and ownership will be one that best serves the desires of consumers and changes and adapts as the tastes of consumers change. Ultimately, it will always be the everyday folk, through their purchasing habits, who decide on the level of wealth inequality – not governments and central banks handing out favours to their political cronies.