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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Executive Pay

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Within the firing line of public vitriol, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, is the issue of executive remuneration, the rewards and incentives paid to executives and directors of large corporations in return for their productivity. Specifically, of course, we mean remuneration that is deemed to be excessively high in relation to the resulting output that these rewarded executives create. Needless to say the level of remuneration in the financial services sector – the proximate cause of the seemingly endless depression we are enduring currently – has been singled out for its apparent injustice. Why should executives, motivated by their greed and lust for riches, get to walk off with pots of gold when they are responsible for so much entrepreneurial failure while the rest of us are left to suffer job losses, redundancies and unemployment? Indeed there is even the accusation that executive remuneration is the primary cause of the financial crisis, fuelling the fire of so-called “irrational exuberance”.

There are many typical free-market responses to this sort of criticism – that high levels of remuneration are simply a function of supply and demand; that talented bosses would just go elsewhere if a firm did not offer competitive remuneration, and so on. Indeed, many of the same responses are made to criticisms of egregiously low pay in developing countries and the call is always to leave things alone and let “the market” determine the figures. While this is all true, it is only so in a genuine free market and not in the heavily managed and distorted economy with which we are cursed today. It is only by analysing and understanding the influences on wage rates in the economy as it actually exists that we can propose any solution, should one be needed. To simply dismiss the problem leaves it vulnerable to alternative (and false) explanations that lead to the danger of equally false solutions. Indeed, one of these current incorrect analyses is that there is a natural (rather than a deliberately engineered) tendency for the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, with all economic development fundamentally being a struggle of rich against poor. As libertarians and “Austrian” economists we must examine the root causes of social phenomena and not assume that everything is alright simply because the proximate social relations appear to be voluntary. Let us, therefore, proceed with this task.

Theoretically, executive remuneration is no different from the remuneration of every other type of employee – all workers, from bosses to bin men, earn their marginal revenue product. Bonus payments, an aspect of executive remuneration that seems to particularly grate in the public mind, can even save a firm money in a given year. A firm might agree to pay an executive a £1m bonus if and only if he achieves £1m or more worth of productivity; if he delivers £0-£999K worth then he gets nothing; if he delivers £2m worth then the firm is paying only £1m for double that amount in net income. In both cases the firm receives a level of productivity without having to make a corresponding pay out. However, this idyllic description is not the situation in the economy where the government distorts price signals, causing the delivery of false income during the boom years only to have it all come crashing down at the bust. The basic problem with executive pay lies in understanding the influence of government credit expansion on the economy, and particularly on the financial services sector.

The starting point of the business cycle, as understood by “Austrians”, is the expansion of credit and the lowering of the rate of interest. Not only does this falsely incentivise all firms to enter longer term investment projects but, crucially, this new money enters through the financial system. It is, therefore, the firms most closely connected to the source of new money – large banking and investment operations – that will experience the largest distortionary gains first. Hence, remuneration in these firms will rise fastest and strongest, in line with the false profits made from all of the doomed loans and investments that they happily make in blissful ignorance. Everything at this point looks fine, executive remuneration for apparently successful operations going without mainstream criticism. Yet, once the taps are turned off and the flow of new money dries up, the bust sets in and it is exactly those same firms that benefitted the most in the boom – those closest to the source of new money and ploughed it into unsustainable assets – that have the most to lose. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that the entire financial system would have collapsed in 2008 had central banks not intervened to prop up asset prices and hence keep financial firms nominally solvent. Executive pay, therefore, is not a cause but merely a symptom of a deeper, underlying problem that is caused by governments and central banks. Anticipation of higher profits does not appear because executives are paid more; rather, it is the false anticipation of future profits caused by the distortions of credit expansion that leads to rising executive pay.

This is not the end of the matter however. For the very same problem – credit expansion – produces an endemic and seemingly endless price inflation, price inflation we are told is the natural consequence of growing economies. Indeed central banks even maintain price inflation targets (the Bank of England’s being 2%) as a result of the false (or perhaps dishonest) impression that price inflation is required for economic growth. The result of this is that anyone who holds cash for an extended period of time can watch the real value of their wealth diminish. This has several important impacts upon the financial services sector. First, companies opt to switch from equity financing to debt financing as it is cheaper, in real terms, to fuel growth through servicing a loan rather than from revenue reserves. Secondly, the need to hold appreciating assets rather than depreciating cash has meant that the average saver – i.e. someone who wishes to put money away for retirement – now has to invest in stocks or bonds rather than simply save cash. Indeed it was once possible to fund one’s retirement simply by hoarding gold coins, the coins appreciating in real value through a gradual price deflation caused by increased productivity. Now, however, everyone has to entrust their hard earned savings to money managers and speculators who, having taken a fat percentage cut, will probably be barely able to keep up with price inflation anyway. Both of these aspects cause a vast swelling of the demand for financial services and, consequently, an increase in executive pay in that sector.

The latter aspect, however – that of investing in order to fund one’s retirement – also has another important consequence. Executives serve their shareholders and are employed to meet the needs of those shareholders by “executing” the purpose for which the shareholders formed the enterprise. They are the delegates, the servants of the shareholders and their scope of activity and their remuneration for the same is bound by that which the shareholders desire. Taking a part ownership of an enterprise as a shareholder, therefore, is an important and active responsibility, one that requires the focus of one’s attention and is not a mere hobby or pastime. It was once the case that most companies and corporations were privately owned by a handful of active investors rather than publically traded on stock exchanges like they are today. Yet, because of the necessity to invest one’s money to keep a pace with inflation, we are now in the position where the majority of beneficial owners of businesses are passive investors, merely entrusting their money to a fund manager who will spread it across a vast array of businesses – probably following an index of shares such as the Dow or S&P 500. The result of this is that there is no one keeping an active eye on executives, or at the very least the capacity for doing so is greatly diminshed. Indeed, the most popular base index for tracker funds in the UK – the FTSE All-Share Index – is comprised of around one thousandcompanies. No single beneficial owner of the companies in that fund can hope to maintain a keen interest in even a significant minority of those organisations. With executives left alone to run the shop entirely, their ends begin to take precedence over the ends of shareholders. The primary preoccupation of the latter is to grow, sustainably, the capital value of the business, investing assets in productive services that meet the needs of consumers. Executives, however, are mere “caretakers” of those assets who can derive a gain from the enterprise only so long as they are in charge. Not only, therefore, will they have the incentive to increase present income as fast as possible at the expense of long term capital growth, but they will attempt to milk the business as much as possible for all they can get during their tenure – the primary method of doing this being through their remuneration packages. This incentive is always present in any business of course, but the lack of shareholder oversight presents an enhanced opportunity for it to be fulfilled. Indeed, most boards – who, nominally regulate the activities of the executive on behalf of the shareholders – are usually made up of other executives in the same or related industries and will, therefore, largely defer to and be empathetic towards the management rather than the shareholders. This is not to imply that executives are only looting businesses for all they can get. There are, of course, many brilliant and competent managers who richly deserve their rewards for growing, sustainably, complex and important operations that serve the needs of consumers. However where all other outcomes are equal and it comes to a basic choice between maximising long term growth on the one hand and increasing present income on the other we can see quite clearly that executives will plump for the latter. Some attempt has been made to rectify the situation by paying bonuses in shares or options and creating longer-term incentive plans – in other words, turning bosses into part-owners – but it does not remove the fundamental problem which is the lack of keen oversight from the beneficial owners.

What we have learned therefore is that excessive executive remuneration, especially in the swollen financial services sector, is not a cause of financial collapse but merely another unhappy consequence of underlying problems – that of government and central bank interference in the economy through meddling with the rate of interest and expanding the volume of credit. If we want to return to executive pay that accurately reflects the creation of long term growth in sustainable businesses then we need to do away entirely with government interference and establish a genuine free market economy.

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