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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Free Choices or Coerced Choices?

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The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which apparently is a “united front” of the medical profession, says its doctors are seeing the consequences of unhealthy diets every day and that it has never come together on such an issue before. Needless to say a whole raft of interventionist measures are recommended to curb this apparent problem:

  • A ban on advertising foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt before 9pm;
  • Further taxes on sugary drinks to increase prices by at least 20%;
  • A reduction in fast food outlets near schools and leisure centres;
  • A £100m budget for interventions such as weight-loss surgery;
  • No junk food or vending machines in hospitals, where all food must meet the same nutritional standards as in schools;
  • Food labels to include calorie information for children.

We will set aside for the moment the issue of whether it can be said that there are “right” choices for people to make when it comes to what they want to do with their own bodies (why, for example, should people prefer a longer life to the enjoyment provided by a burger and fries washed down with a pint of coca-cola?). Instead, the problem here is rather more grievous which is that, whenever members of the public make choices about how they want to live their lives there is the ever present assumption that, as these choices are made with apparent freedom, that it is the free market that has failed in preventing the emergence of the “undesired” outcome. What is never discussed or even raised is the possibility that people’s choices are already constrained or influenced by existing Government interference to the extent that, not only is it impossible to say that the choices made would be the same as those that would be made on a genuine free market, but that Government intervention is itself causing the undesirable choices to be made. And, lo and behold, blinded by such ignorance, the call is always for more Government intervention to augment that which we already have to put up with.

The present author has examined in detail why socialising healthcare will lead to greater ill health. There is little need to repeat all of this here except to say that people prefer doing that which comes at a lower cost, all else being equal. So that if you lower or remove the cost of becoming ill then, relatively, you will have more people who lead lifestyles that will result in ill health.

But the same fallacy is advanced in all cases where the proximate cause of a problem is people’s apparent free choices. Let’s examine some of the most popular:

“There is not enough food in the world! If the free market has brought such widespread hunger then Governments much intervene!”

The allegation here is usually some variant of the rich world refusing to share its wealth with the poor world. Leaving aside the fallacious belief that one person having means that another must not have, just why is it that we have widespread poverty in the age of the iPad? The plight of poor nations has nothing to do with being unable to understand technological development, nor are they in anyway lacking a rich diversity of raw materials. Rather it stems from the lack of capital investment per head of the population compared to the West. In the West, we have more machines and better tools that can churn out more and better goods per person than they can in poor nations. So yes, investors and capitalists have not invested in poor countries. The free market has not reached these nations, it must have failed! But the precise reason why the West has benefited from the free market is that it has long cherished institutions that have allowed to the free market to flourish, in particular strong legal rights to private property and relative political freedom. These are precisely the conditions that are lacking in poor nations, conditions that cause entrepreneurs to seek other havens for their investments. At the back of their minds, no doubt, is also the mass expropriation of foreign investment in the post-colonial era. Why should anyone bother investing in a poor nation if their wealth will just be pinched by the Government? To make matters worse, poorer nations began to model themselves on their Western role models just at the point when the latter started to turn away from a social order based on private property towards interventionism and social democracy with the result that the wrong lessons are being learnt. A product of this tide has been that Western governments now heavily interfere in world food markets, whether it be through such wicked and wasteful outfits as the Common Agricultural Policy, subsidies for farmers to devote farmland to ethanol production, or the vast regulatory network that impedes food production at the behest of a few powerful lobbyists. The recent scandal of horse meat appearing in processed beef products sold in UK supermarkets should be viewed in this context.

Poverty and hunger are therefore a failure of Government, not of the free market.

“The forests are disappearing! The free market, seeking ever greater profits, is decimating our natural resources! The Government must stop it”

Let’s go even further: add to the list fish stocks, elephants, whales, and any other of the countless number of “endangered” species that you like. Yes, there is a great problem, and yes, looking at the issue at face value, it appears that capitalists are running down these resources.

But this raises the question of why has the free market not produced similar shortages of other things? The dairy industry, for instance, exploits cows for profit but we never hear of a shortage of cows. Nor do we seem to be in short supply of chickens to supply us with eggs on our breakfast plates. So why is it only some resources that seem to be in danger of depletion? What is the difference between the endangered group and all the others?

The reason is that people are not permitted to own the capital value of forests, parts of the sea, elephants, tigers, etc. If one is able to own the capital value of the resource then exploiting it for present revenue has to be balanced against the loss of capital value in doing so (a full explanation of this is available here). But if one does not own the capital value then the only concern is for present revenue – there is no cost to exploiting resources to their fullest now. In fact the only cost is that someone will get there before you. So instead of all the myriad of Government restrictions and regulations concerning these depleted resources in order to “cure” the alleged free market ravaging all that is needed is to extend full private property rights to these resources and they will be conserved. Once again the problem is not too much free choice but the fact that people have been prevented by the strong arm of the Government from having a reason to make the “right” choices.

And let us conclude with the most pertinent of all alleged market failures, the phenomenon of “boom and bust”:

“Free market greed has caused capitalists to invest in wasteful projects! Clearly they need the Government to give them speed limits!”

Once again, looking at only the proximate causes of boom and bust will reveal that entrepreneurs invested too heavily in a particular sector, inflating a bubble that eventually pops, causing widespread misery and unemployment. In the 2007-8 financial crisis, the effects of which are lingering with the current malaise, a summary of the charge is that greedy bankers had lent money to people who could not afford to pay it back. End of story. But what is not told by peddlers of this narrative such as Paul Krugman is the moral hazard created by the so-called “Greenspan put” which had the effect of financial institutions expecting their profits to be retained and their losses to be borne by an influx of monetary liquidity during any risk of collapsing asset prices (i.e. in short paid for by inflation). If one can keep one’s profits and socialise one’s losses is it any wonder that people took wild risks? If there is only ever an upside then wouldn’t you? This is before we consider the fact that credit expansion is the cause of the business cycle in the first place that will always lead, by falsifying the societal time preference rate, to the expansion of unsustainable investment projects that must be rendered wasteful as soon as the inflation stops.

Therefore, next time you read that the “free market” has caused this, that, or the other, stop and think as to precisely what the options of the free market participants were. More often than not you will trace the source of the bad decision to some kind of Government interference.

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