Shortcomings of Mainstream Thought

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One of the characteristics of mainstream discourse concerning political, social and economic problems is that it frequently proceeds to examine only the surface phenomena of these issues. Court intellectuals and the mainstream media apply their thoughts to just a single order of logic by concentrating only on what is front of their faces. In part this problem is the same as the one identified by Henry Hazlitt in Economics in One Lesson – that there is a perennial failure to examine both the seen and unseen consequences of a particular act or proposal. However, while Hazlitt focussed his attention on economists and economic policy, we will demonstrate here that such thinking permeates a much wider area of thought. While we will not necessarily draw any specific conclusions, we will raise some challenges to some of society’s most rigidly held beliefs and dogmas on its own terms.

Beginning in Hazlitt’s arena, the first such area we will examine is whenever someone appears on the television or in the newspaper, usually brandishing the statistical results of some “study”, in order to declare that “the government must do more to help X”. X, as it turns out, could be almost anything – the elderly in need of care; rural bus frequencies; lowering cancer deaths; children with dyslexia; conservation of trees – any kind of apparently suboptimal situation which the study and its authors have declared is in dire need of address. The particular situation may, of course, be anything from regrettable to tragic, especially when it involves either poverty, illness or death. Nevertheless the only thing that these studies and pronouncements ever achieve is to point out that we do not live in the Garden of Eden; that we live in a world of scarcity where desires remain unfulfilled and where we have to choose which of those unfulfilled desires and purposes to devote what are, at any single point in time, a finite quantity of wealth and resources. The real question we face is not whether more should be done for problems A, B or C – in an ideal world of infinite wealth we would do everything for A, B, C and every other letter of the alphabet and beyond. Rather, because we have only a limited amount of wealth and resources, our difficulty is in choosing which of problems A, B or C should receive funding at the expense of any other. If you have only one hundred pounds in your pocket and ten people turn up each demanding one hundred pounds in order to resolve all of their various ailments and hardships then it is clear that, should you be kind enough to make a donation, you can only ever satisfy one of them at the expense of the other nine. Implicitly, of course, each of these ten people is suggesting that their particular causes are more deserving than any other. Seldom, however, do all of these studies and statistical reports state explicitly why one end should be funded as opposed to another. This is not to suggest, of course, that the state does not spend an awful lot of money on things which, even from a statist’s point of view, could be regarded as wasteful. Merely that, if we accept the mainstream position that the state can improve society (as opposed to the libertarian position where the state should do nothing whatsoever and, preferably, cease to exist), the fact of a finite quantity of resources at the state’s disposal at any one time is completely ignored.

Peculiarly, however, the fact of a finite quantity of resources is tacitly recognised when considering the overall quantity of resources which should be at the state’s disposal – namely, arguments over the rate of taxation. All “soak the rich” arguments and any calls for the increased taxation of higher earners are all based on the premise that if the wealthy are allowed to keep more of their money then, consequently, there will be less money for the government to spend on healthcare, public transport, and keeping us safe from terrorists. Again, however, by examining only what is obvious in front of their faces, the peddlers of such arguments fail to grasp the dynamic (as opposed to the static) nature of economising action. Yes, it is true that if you raise taxes today then you will, right now, have a greater quantity of money to devote to whatever you think the government should spend it on. In the long run, however, such higher taxes result in a lower rate of investment in capital goods, a lower rate of production of consumer goods, and hence higher prices for those goods. In other words, the increased amount of money taken as tax revenue will be able to buy increasingly less and so the aim will be self-defeating. It would be far better to lower taxes in order to encourage investment and economic progress so that the lower amount of money taken as tax revenue could buy infinitely more than the larger quantity of money could at the higher tax rate. You are not wealthy if you possess a million pounds when the price of a loaf of bread is one million pounds; yet you are exceptionally well off if, for instance, just one thousand pounds could buy you food, shelter clothing and transport for an entire year.

The two areas we just outlined are very concentrated examples of where mainstream thought fails to think laterally – namely in regards to economic and fiscal policy. However, we can observe the same failing with regards to much wider areas of discussion. For example, it is fashionable these days for liberal elites and popular intellectuals – such as Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling – to be atheists and/or critical of organised religion, declaring themselves to be “free thinkers” who are beyond what they regard as the mindless adherence to mere superstition. The two main arguments buttressing their point of view, which are joined at the hip, is that there is a complete lack of evidence for the existence of God, and that organised religion is and has been the cause of so much suffering and oppression in the world – the latter being summed up by the popular phrase “the root of all evil”. Needless to say this evil is made all the more tragic on account of the first argument – that it is all in service of a complete illusion or fantasy. If we accept (which the present author does not) that the lack of evidence for the existence of God is sufficient to invalidate a belief in God, then yes, it would follow that all adherences to a deity and all organised religion is, indeed, ridiculous and the pain and suffering it might cause would be regrettable. However, once again this is only true when one focusses on what is in front of one’s very nose – in other words, the things that we see of religion rather than the things that we do not see from an absence of religion. Is it not the case that, beginning with the French Revolution, the struggle to fill the ideological void left by the decline of religion in the West (in tandem with the increasing faith in human reason and design in the sociological arena) has led to a degree of evil and terror far worse than that which can be blamed on organised religion? If we just look at the pure numbers then the biggest killer in history has been the thoroughly anti-religious communism, and for the survivors of both communism and all such collectivist regimes life was utterly miserable and impoverished. Of course, an absence of religion does not necessarily mean that humans are unable to attain moral enhancement through reason or reflection. However, the ideologies that have served to replace religion – having dislodged God and the will of God as their primary focus – have been shorn of any reference to what is good and what is evil other than the contents of the ideologue’s own mind. Hence, the magnitude of all creation – including every other human being who, devoid of his sanctified state as a child made in God’s image, can be safely relegated to the status of a public slave – simply becomes a means or, even a plaything, for the ideologue to realise his grand vision. In other words, the ideologue elevates himself to the role of God and it is him who now throws the thunderbolts down to Earth. Hence, the costs of pursuing these ideologies, heaped onto everyone else, are either casually disregarded – such as crusades for democracy and “regime change” – or viewed as proud achievements when they exterminate political dissenters (the Great Purges), the racially inferior (the Holocaust), or any trace of a class and culture which represented an outdated and contrarian society (the Cultural Revolution). Indeed, the arrival of secular ideologies has truly given birth to the worst type of criminal zealot – the person who commits evil when he thinks he is pursuing good. Those who perform evil deeds with the full knowledge that they are evil, however much they may revel in what they have done, might at least possess some inkling of guilt or conscience. For the secular fanatic, however, the bodies piled high and the rivers of blood neither move nor shake him – they are unquestionably necessary ends towards a bright and happy future. In some ways, however, the casual disregard for the costs and consequences of a particular crusade can be more pernicious than actively pursuing the celebration of death and destruction. For example, the secular crusade to make the world “safe for democracy” during and after World War I fostered the deeply unstable situation in Central Europe which led to the rise of further secular ideologies such as Fascism and Nazism resulting, of course, in the horror of World War II. A typical liberal intellectual today might tell you that removing Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were necessary because these men were “dictators”. Yet what he fails to consider, as the architects of interwar Europe failed to consider, is that in their own particular situations the rule of such despots was probably the least bad option, and that their removal has unleashed a whole catalogue of horrors that far exceed those experienced under their aegis. The same attitude is taken towards the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. The one line narrative, yet again, is that he is an evil dictator and so should be forcibly removed from power. Yet not only has the attempt to do so resulted in the Western support for and arming of dangerous terrorists and fanatics (the chickens of which are coming home to roost in the form of terrorist atrocities on Western soil), but Assad is supported by Russia and any collision with him risks – as a worst case scenario – war with Russia, which is a nuclear power. Is the removal of this “dictator” really worth risking the incineration of all life on Earth?

If a belief in God and an adherence to an organised religion are based upon superstitions and illusions then it is beyond the scope of this essay to determine whether or not it is, ultimately, a good thing for an individual to live his life and base his moral fervour upon such an illusion. Nevertheless, there is a strong case to be made for the assertion that secular do-gooders, blinded by their own hubris, either deliberately or ignorantly push us onto paths on which we experience far more death, destruction and misery than that caused by any inquisition – and that it may be better to suffer an inquisition based upon an illusion rather than an apocalypse based upon reality.

The final area we will consider, which is equally broad, is the type of state or government that is preferable, should we have to suffer one at all. Although libertarians would prefer for there to be no state or government, they can, of course, distinguish different types of regime as being more or less compatible with liberty. However, this question can also be asked from the point of view of the mainstream – that is, which type of regime is more likely to promote a general peace and prosperity which even the mainstream at least claims to desire? The almost universal answer to this question, by anyone who wishes to be taken seriously, is democracy. Once more, however, this belief is based only upon a very superficial analysis of what is immediately observable. Monarchies are denigrated as being “unfair” because, by pure accident of birth, specific and immovable individuals are blessed with the ability to wield the power of the state while just about everybody else is shut out from such power. Now this is, of course, true enough on the face of it – no human being should be born with any legal rights or privileges that are possessed by no other. Yet by removing such “unfairness” and spreading the ability to access state power to everybody, as we have done in a democracy, we have only served to make things worse. A king, however divinely endowed he might consider himself to be, is still one man, possessing all of the frailties and failings of one man. He personally cannot force all of his subjects to do anything at all; rather, he can only wield his power if he maintains, at the very least, the tacit acceptance of the majority of the population (and very often he need only upset far fewer to lose either his throne or his head – revolutions, rather than being the product of anger and fury among the masses, are, in fact, often triggered by the fact that the monarch failed to keep the upper crust, i.e. the aristocracy, on his side). This fact, therefore, serves to maintain a check on the extent of the power that the king can wield in practice. If he steps too far out of line – by raising taxes too high, by interfering in other people’s lives too much, or by dispensing biased justice – then he will find himself deposed. With democracy, however, all such check on the expansion of state power is eliminated because democracy not only (at least in theory) opens up the corridors of power to every citizen but also serves to offer a veneer of legitimacy for the power that the state wields. In other words, because people believe that they are choosing their leaders or choosing their policies then whatever it is that these leaders do with their power has the backing of the people and “must”, therefore, be legitimate. Needless to say, this if of course, nonsense – theft, for instance, does not suddenly become okay simply because we all band together and the majority choose someone to do all of the stealing from the minority. But the perception that it does has served to increase the growth of the state enormously, turning it into an engine of taxation, welfare and warfare that far eclipses anything achieved by a king or emperor. To take just one instance, a world populated by monarchs never managed to persuade their populations to accept worthless pieces of paper printed out of thin air in exchange for real goods and services – they only ever got as far as coin clipping. Yet a world of democracy achieved this in full by 1971 and it is this that has enabled, more than anything else, the funding of perpetual welfare and warfare, with none of the world’s major conflicts and programmes of socialisation would having been possible without it. The question we are posing here, therefore, is might it not be better to put up with one singular account of unfairness – the hereditary privilege of monarchs – as opposed to the whole, disastrous catalogue of state growth? As with all of the issues we have raised here, we are seeking not to answer this question – merely to raise it in the first place and to demonstrate that what seems to be so blindingly obvious and straightforward in the majority of mainstream discourse might not be so after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Anti-War and Anti-State

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The furore over the recent attempt of the UK government to commit military force in Syria in concert with the US government revealed a widespread popular opposition to war that appears to span the entire political spectrum. Indeed, libertarians must admit that the ideological left, with its anti-imperialist and anti-war profiteering motive, has often been a louder voice in castigating the warmongers and interventionists in conflicts past and present.

Nevertheless it must be emphasised that if one is to be truly anti-war then that commitment alone is, regrettably, not sufficient. For war is always propagated by states, between states and for the benefit of states. Libertarians often point out that “war is the health of the state”, permitting the government to suspend the status quo and enact all manner of heinous oppression and control that would be unthinkable in a time of peace, measures that, curiously, do not disappear as soon as the alleged enemy is vanquished. But as much as it is true that war feeds the state so too does the state feed war, not only siphoning off resources from the productive sector towards the creation of bombs and missiles, but, crucially, the very desire to create a bigger state makes war more likely. Many anti-war activists of the left have no problem with government metastasising to whatever size in economic and social matters, creating alleged “fairness” and “equality” and whatever other emotive but elusive goals happen to sound most appealing. The aims may be innocently honourable enough but it is ridiculous to think that the means of the state can ever be used peacefully, let alone to believe that a large state can be the promoter and preserver of peace. There are three key reasons for this.

First, the state always means conflict. The precise means at the states disposal, the only means that it can use – violence – results in the constant diversion of scarce resources away from the ends of their owners and towards the ends of others. The state is effectively engaged in a constant war on its own citizens, forever plundering and pillaging them to fund their lavish lifestyles and to line the pockets of their friends under the guise of wasteful socioeconomic programmes. Foreign war, fundamentally, is no different and every motivation for it ultimately reduces to a battle over resources. It is therefore somewhat bizarre that anti-war activists are content to allow a government to war against its own citizens but, for some reason, as soon it comes to doing the same against foreign nations then all hell breaks loose. However correct this latter reaction may be, not only is it hypocritical but it is also dangerously naïve to expect the state to restrict itself to peace and harmony abroad when it will never even do so at home. Nazi Germany, for example, was met with such ambivalent dithering in the interwar period precisely because its ideology – big government control and intervention – was of no particular distinction from that which prevailed everywhere else at the time. The only difference was that it was prepared to take this ideology to its logical end, additionally piling on racial dogmas and nationalistic overtones that resulted in crimes which, however horrific and unforgettable, obscures the basic similarity between Hitler and, say, Roosevelt.

Secondly, big states attract the attention of control freaks and the greedy. The more money that is stashed in the government and can be leeched away by bloodsuckers and parasites then the more alluring it becomes to try and take a slice of that pie – and once that slice is taken, how wonderful it would be to take another slice, and then another after that! Finally when government intervention naturally starts to stifle productivity and there are no more pies left to be eaten, the siren song of war becomes ever sweeter to governments and their sponsors, not only as a distraction from their own economic mismanagement but as a way forward to secure a flow of resources from abroard and to tighten their grip on the domestic citizenry through lasting wartime or “emergency” measures. Neither must we forget that there is, among the political class, an alluring quality to being a wartime leader or “warrior”. Seeing off an alleged terrible enemy and apparently saving one’s people from invasion (although it doesn’t even need to get this far) is judged as being more heroic and worthy of the highest honours and decorations whereas creating “mere” peace and prosperity is apparently rather dull and uninspiring. Indeed, the most highly rated leaders all made their mark during wartime or were at least warmongering – Lincoln during the War between the States, Roosevelt and Churchill during World War II, and Reagan and Thatcher during the Cold War, for instance. Only when a conflict is so obviously pointless, futile and/or unjustified – such as those in Vietnam and Iraq – does this strategy backfire, as it did upon Johnson, Nixon and the younger Bush.

Finally, the degree of government intervention necessary to create alleged social or economic ends have only been met during a legacy of wartime control. The New Deal, for example, was modelled upon the wartime regime of Woodrow Wilson; World War II on the New Deal; and the post-war “Great Society”, the fight against poverty and the Civil Rights era all came after these wartime regimes were firmly in place. The citizenry have to be “united” (or worn down) by something such as war before they can ever begin to accept the degree of interference necessary to promote big government measures during peacetime. Ironically, therefore, a lot of the cravings of the anti-war left are reliant upon war if they ever have the hope of seeing the light of day.

In sum, therefore, to be anti-war but pro-state is the epitome of all dangerously ill-informed and contradictory positions, giving birth to the very thing it seeks to destroy. Rather, to be anti-war one must also be thoroughly and unreservedly anti-state, recognising this evil entity for precisely what it is – perpetual and endless conflict and violence. Only when we are well and truly rid of this scourge will there ever be a chance for peace.

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The Ethics of Interventionism

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With the US government’s current attempt to carry out some kind of military intervention in Syria as a result of the alleged use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, libertarians once again face the question of what their correct stance towards such a proposal should be.

To be libertarian is to believe that the initiation of violence, in any circumstance, is inherently immoral. This belief, termed the non-aggression principle, we have discussed and justified elsewhere. Libertarians recognise, of course, that this does not proscribe the right to self-defence, or the right to provide defence services towards someone else who is the victim of aggression. There are two key elaborations to make to this principle. First, libertarianism itself does not state that someone has the violently enforceable obligation to defend himself or to rush to the defence of other people. There may, however, by some other standard be a moral obligation to do so but this obligation cannot be violently enforceable as this would itself breach the non-aggression principle. It is quite consistent, therefore, to state that someone should help a person who is the victim of aggressive violence but that he should not be forced to do so. Secondly if you do decide to respond to an act of aggression then you do not have the right to inflict aggressive violence on any other person, whether it be forcing them to assist you or by making them the victims of so-called “collateral damage”. One would not launch a nuclear warhead and slaughter the population of entire landmass in order to neutralise a single murderer, for example.

It is these aspects that must be remembered by the libertarian in any debate concerning the ethics of interventionism. The mainstream debate is an all or nothing question – should we all intervene or should we all not intervene. Libertarians for too long have been seduced into accepting the terms of this debate and the resulting lack of unity from the libertarian (or the generally freedom-oriented) camp owes itself to the fact that, on the face of it, the question can be answered on either side from a libertarian-veneered point of view. Let us discuss briefly the problems with each of these responses.

Those who answer in the affirmative, that we should intervene, have rightly recognised that defence may be used in such a situation because the non-aggression principle has been violated by another party. But what they are overlooking is the fact that the funds to be directed towards military intervention are extracted forcibly by the government through tax revenue – in other words, that people are being forced to fund intervention. They are mistaking the right to intervene with a violently enforceable obligation to do so. But this violently enforceable obligation itself is a breach of the non-aggression principle and is, therefore, anti-libertarian and immoral. Such people are most welcome to criticise other people from the point of view of moral standards that are separate from, but compatible with, libertarianism. When, for example, William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, stated that any non-response by “the world” to the use of chemical weapons would be “alarming” he is quite welcome to hold that view (in spite of the fact that there has already been wide scale bloodshed in Syria for two years and that Western governments seem to be remarkably selective on what they choose to be outraged by). Indeed he is most welcome to contribute his own legitimately earned wealth (if he has any) and that of everyone he can persuade to join him voluntarily in the venture towards intervening in Syria. But what he does not have the right to do is to force other people, to extract funding by taxes (or to enforce conscription, if it ever came to that), for the same.

Those, however, who answer in the negative – that we should not intervene – rightly recognise that we cannot force people to participate in intervention. But now they seem to be making the opposite mistake of preventing people who do want to intervene from doing so. If someone is genuinely outraged by the infliction of violence by one person against another and believes that assistance against such heinous acts is a worthwhile devotion of his own funds then he is quite within his rights to contribute those funds accordingly, or even to voluntarily join a defence group and personally provide defence support for the victims. To stop someone from doing this if that is what they want is as much an affront to the non-aggression principle as forcing them to do so if they do not want. Once again we must emphasise that it may not be a good thing, by some standard exogenous to libertarianism, for a person to engage in intervention but that does not mean that he may be violently prevented from doing so.

The correct libertarian position, then, can be summarised as follows:

  • No person has the right to initiate violence (aggression) against any other person in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so;
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties, likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (security services) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

All of this is, of course, the most fundamental libertarian theory towards intervention and we have provided no detailed analysis of how “war is the health of the state” and so on. But these critical aspects must be remembered by a libertarian if he is to take the fundamentally, i.e. most basically correct moral position and serves to only form the bedrock of more elaborate analyses. Whatever he, in accordance with the last principle laid out above, believes of the merits of a specific act of intervention should be informed by and exist in harmony with these principles.

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Optimism for Liberty

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Taking a look at a single day’s page of the Libertarian website, one would think that the world is about to collapse. Indeed it is hard to not be pessimistic when confronted with the following type of line-up:

  • The bankruptcy of Western nations, particularly the US;
  • Increasing wars and overseas intervention; the expansion of imperialism;
  • Increased Government invasion into privacy;
  • Economic stagnation, endless money printing, the recommended flight into previous metals;
  • The dangers of Government medicine;
  • The dangers of Government schooling;
  • The lack of integrity of the political class; official lies and corruption.

This is just a selection of the most frequent topics and some days one feels like it is enough to engender complete despair about the future of the world in which we live. Such a feeling would not be unjustified; indeed the website, apparently the best read Libertarian website in the world, is almost unique in drawing attention to these important aspects.

Nevertheless it is vital not to lose optimism in the face of such adversity. And while it may seem that the state is increasing its stranglehold to choking point on the average citizen, there are several key reasons that give cause for optimism.

The first is the increased ability to disseminate information with ease; the growth of the internet left Government control behind and now that it is firmly out of the bag it is unlikely that it will ever be brought under the Government’s heel. Within seconds it is possible to communicate information at very low cost from one side of the world to the other and at the very least for those who want to become educated and to find the true reasons for the way the world turns the ability is that much greater. In some quarters it is true that this aspect does tend to be overplayed. Technological development can also serve opposing ideologies just as it can serve the cause of freedom and there is also the tendency that people will go looking for the answers they want rather than for the truth. Nevertheless this development cannot be overlooked on the road towards liberty.

The second and greater reason, however, is that today we are still enjoying a standard of living that is the fruit of two centuries worth of relative economic freedom. The accumulation of capital that could take place in this epoch is unique in history and whereas pre-Industrial generations could only accept their meagre lot in life as serfs it is difficult to comprehend how this attitude could be repeated today. For today’s average citizen lives far more luxuriantly than did a king of the Middle Ages; not only is our time that of the PC, the iPhone, and communications gadgets but also of such “humbler” luxuries such as cars, refrigerators, supermarkets stacked full of food, clothes shops, and an almost endless array of products that can be bought from some outlet somewhere for relatively a modest price. This standard of living requires the maintenance and growth of its underlying capital structure, a structure that we know, from “Austrian” Economics, can only be produced and nurtured under a condition of free-market capitalism. Indeed so powerful has been this productive tendency of free-market forces that they have even been more than able to mask statist interference. During the 1920s for example productivity was so high that prices still managed to decline in the face of excessive increases of the money supply. And even today the fact that the world still holds together suggests that capitalism and freedom are for the most part still being allowed to work. But more important than that it is very unlikely that a rapid descent of the standard of living could occur without exciting a revolution. When people have become accustomed to living as they do then it would be a “brave” politician indeed who would bring about the destruction of that standard. In the back of their minds I happen to think that this is realised; that they know that freedom is what produces the goods we enjoy today and that, in any case, it is only when free individuals are able to become so productive that the Government has a source of wealth that it can confiscate.

For this reason, therefore, I remain an optimist for the cause of freedom – optimistic that the capitalistic structure of the Western world has not yet totally collapsed and optimistic that, should it come close to doing so, our “leaders” will have the angry masses, pitted and plundered to the hilt, with which to contend.

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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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