Free Trade and the US


One of the characteristics of the anti-globalisation movement personified by US President Donald Trump is its apparent opposition to free trade. Free trade is not only associated with the globalisation agenda of the liberal elite but is also held responsible for the shipping of jobs and production overseas where cheaper labour and cheaper raw materials can be exploited, leaving at home nothing but crumbling factories and swathes of unemployed workers. Hence a considerable part of Trump’s “America First” programme appears to be devoted to distinctly anti-free trade measures, such as increased protectionism and tax penalties for firms relocating jobs overseas.

What should be the reaction of Austro-libertarians to this phenomenon? Do we not believe that free trade is almost the very essence of freedom and the fountain of prosperity? Should we not oppose any attempt to restrain trade by either tariffs or regulations? On the other hand, what are we to do when such policies are seemingly associated with nothing but destitution and misery for a significant proportion of the population?

For libertarians to simply repeat like a broken tape that trade should be left “free” runs the risk of considering only surface phenomena while failing to examine deeper, underlying problems. In the first place, of course, the association of the globalising movement with free trade is patently false. Those behind this movement are not in favour of genuine free trade; rather, they promote a heavily managed trade environment – one governed by trade agreements, trade deals, and a complex myriad of rules and regulations which favour only large corporations and the politically well connected. Indeed, trade agreements and trade deals are the antithesis of free trade, the latter of which demands a complete absence of the state from any involvement in trade. The terms “free trade agreements” and “free trade deals” are therefore nothing more than meaningless doublethink. A grave mistake that the anti-globalisation movement is likely to make is to confuse political globalisation – the consolidation of and intensified co-operation between states and state institutions, which is a relatively new phenomenon – with economic globalisation, which is private institutions trading peacefully and voluntarily on terms agreed by themselves, a situation which has existed for centuries. Political globalisation should be opposed bitterly while economic globalisation and the expansion of the international division of labour should be promoted. The bigger problem, however, is the fact that free trade today, if it is genuinely free, is carried out in a context where there is a gross, underlying violation of private property rights – in other words where the players who are demanding freedom are benefitting from the curtailment of other people’s freedom. For instance, banks are restrained from being “free” by heavy regulation and oversight because their lending activities have the tendency to blow up bubbles which lead to crippling busts. However, the reason for this tendency is that banks are, simultaneously, legally privileged (by the ability to hold only fractional reserves) and economically privileged (by being the first parties to receive new money that is freshly printed central bank – money which is itself, of course, subject to legal tender laws and of which the central bank is legally privileged as the sole issuer). It would be a travesty for Austro-libertarians to respond to any call for increased bank regulation by pointing out that such regulations are a violation of freedom. While this is true in and of itself, the real problem is clearly the state’s monopoly money and its dissemination through fractional reserve banking. To take another example, entities that are endowed by the state with a monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic privilege are normally able to charge higher prices to their customers and to pay lower prices to their suppliers. If, in response to the resulting “obscene” profits and high prices, the state proposes to regulate the prices of the entity’s products or tax away a significant portion of its profits, Austro-libertarians pointing out the pitfalls of price control and the injustice of taxation would be speaking the truth as far is goes. However, they would be ignoring the bigger, underlying problem which is the entity’s monopoly privilege, and that what is really needed is to rescind this privilege in order to open up the market to genuine competition. Only in this context is the freedom of firms to set prices both legitimate and economically beneficial.

When it comes to free trade, part of the underlying problem that is easy to ignore is that, of course, US workers are burdened by minimum wage laws and employment regulations which, to any employer, makes them relatively more expensive than workers overseas who may not be burdened by such interventions. However, the bigger “macro” problem is the fact that trade today takes place with the exchange of state-issued, paper currency which can be expanded at will, rather than with “sound” money such as gold or silver. The added complication in the case of the United States is that it is, currently, the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. What we will see is that, even without minimum wage laws and employment regulations, this would cause jobs to vanish overseas.

When the entire world is trading with “sound” money such as gold the prices of labour in the US and overseas depend upon the relative supply and demand for gold and for labour in each location. In which circumstances could labour be cheaper overseas? (By “cheaper” we mean that wages are lower per unit of production and not per hour. Wages in developed countries are higher per hour because labourers there can produce more in each hour on account of the relatively high amount of capital goods per worker – more tools, machines, factories and so on. Wages in poorer countries may be lower per hour because each worker can produce less per hour, but in equilibrium they would not be lower per unit of production). If labour is cheaper overseas then it means there is a relatively higher supply of money and a relatively lower supply of labour in the US while there is a relatively lower supply of money and a relatively higher supply of labour overseas. Employers therefore divert more of their funds to employing workers overseas in order to take advantage of the lower wages. This, however, is simply the correction of a disequilibrium which will reach its own natural limit. As money leaves the US then money there will become relatively scarcer while the amount of labour will remain the same and so US wages will fall; the new money flowing into countries overseas, on the other hand, will cause wages there to rise. At some point wages both at home and overseas will equalise. Of course, if the reverse happens – that wages are higher overseas than in the US – then the opposite process will occur, with money being drawn out of overseas countries and coming home to the US to bid up wage rates there. All of this is part of the natural process of economising behaviour which seeks to employ resources across the world by directing them to their most highly valued use. Absent any further state interference such as minimum wage laws and onerous employment regulations, all workers, both overseas and at home, will end up employed at the same wage rate (per unit of production).

What happens, however, when we are trading not with “sound” money, such as gold or silver, but, rather, with a paper money which can be issued by the state at will? If the domestic state chooses to expand the supply of money then this will cause an effect similar to that we just outlined. The supply of money at home will increase causing local prices – including wages – to rise. Prices overseas, however, will not yet have risen on account of the fact that the new money has not yet reached there. This process takes places through the complicating factor of the exchange rates between currencies, which is itself, of course, a price and is subject to the same influences. If the US prints more money but the overseas country does not then the first firms to spend the newly printed money on foreign currency will benefit from the old exchange rate and will be able to obtain more foreign currency than they otherwise would have which they can then use for purchasing goods and labour from abroad. Firms will therefore divert more of their spending to importing resources and seeking foreign labour than they would domestic labour. For the majority of countries such printing of currency can have only a very limited effect. If the inflation is a one shot affair then, eventually, increased bidding for foreign currency with the newly printed money will cause the exchange rate to adjust, strengthening foreign currencies and weakening the domestic currency. Fewer units of foreign currency can be bought with the additional supply of domestic currency and so the attractiveness of foreign goods and services diminishes, vanishing entirely when the currencies reach purchasing power parity. Currencies reach a state of purchasing power parity when the exchange rate between currencies and between goods is harmonious. For example, if an apple costs two South African Rands or one US Dollar, then in a state of purchasing power parity one US Dollar would equal two South African Rands. At this point there is no additional benefit from buying goods and services from abroad than there is from buying them at home. If, on the other hand, the inflation is continuous then such continuation comes to be expected. This expectation of inflation will in and of itself cause a much quicker adjustment to the exchange rate than previously, thus nullifying, or at least blunting, the benefits to the recipients of the newly printed money, robbing them of the power to ship jobs and the supply of resources overseas. The only thing that is experienced is domestic price rises. Of course, if the continuous inflation becomes abusive then it sows the seeds of hyperinflation as bigger and bigger doses of inflation are required in order to “cheat” inflationary expectations until the inflation reaches such a degree that such cheating is no longer possible and price rises even begin to exceed the rate of inflation. By this point, needless to say, a country has a lot more to worry about that jobs being shipped overseas. Thus what we can see is that with both “sound” money and independently issued, national paper monies mechanisms exist which prevent a permanent loss of jobs and the sourcing of supplies from overseas.

The situation is different, however, where the issuer of the paper currency happens to be the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. This is the dubiously privileged position in which the US and the US Dollar finds itself today. For when a country is the issuer of the world’s reserve currency the price adjustment mechanisms that we outlined above, which prevent the permanent loss of jobs overseas, are disrupted.

The US Dollar became the world’s reserve currency partly as a legacy of the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard, where the US pyramided the issue of US dollars on gold and the rest of the world pyramided its currencies on the US dollar. Today, however, the US dollar owes it reserve status largely to the petrodollar system – the agreement of oil exporting countries, led by their lynchpin, Saudi Arabia, to price and sell oil in US dollars – and the resulting domination of US based financial networks. The upshot of all of this is that in order the buy oil (which everybody needs) and in order to engage in international commerce pretty much everybody everywhere must buy and hold a significant quantity of US dollar reserves. And as the demand for oil has increased over the past forty years so too has the demand for the US dollar. Thus there has existed a continuously buoyant demand for the holding of US dollars which is sufficient to outstrip the increase in any supply of those US dollars. This buoyancy of demand is also maintained and strengthened by the fact that several countries, most notably China, unit recently pegged their currency to the dollar in order to fuel export driven growth. In other words, they deliberately weakened their own currency by printing more of it to buy dollars, thus pushing up dollar demand and increasing Renminbi supply. Even though China has used most of those dollars to purchase US treasury bonds, thus nullifying the increase in demand for US dollars, it would still be the case that their own currency would emerge weaker (which if, of course, the entire point of the peg). This leads us onto the next problem and one that is most relevant to the recent past – that the reserve currency becomes a “safe haven” asset. The US dollar index, which tracks the value of the dollar against a basket of other currencies, has risen since 2011, particularly as a result of crises in the Eurozone which has served to weaken the world’s second most dominant currency, the Euro. Indeed, against the US dollar, every single major currency is lower than it was five years ago. This is something that US dollar doomsayers are yet to understand. Yes, the dollar is being printed into oblivion, but so too is every other currency; the dollar just happens to be the least rotten apple in the cart.

The effects of all this are that when the Federal Reserve prints fresh, US dollars domestic prices will rise. However, because the dollar is able to maintain its strength on the world stage vis-à-vis other currencies, holders of US dollars find themselves in the continued position of being able to source goods and services cheaper from abroad than they can at home. Indeed, for several decades now the US dollar has effectively been able to buy more than it is really worth. People happily hand over goods and services in exchange for the medium with which they can trade oil and engage in international commerce. Because the US can simply buy what it needs by printing a currency which everyone wants, the result has been to turn it into a giant consumer economy rather than a producer economy – an economy which has no need for jobs. After all, why not just put all of those jobless people on welfare that can be paid for with printed dollars which will buy them Chinese goods? Indeed, in spite of the resilience of the American entrepreneurial spirit, the US is, today, a very difficult place in which to be a producer. According to a ranking by the World Bank, the US was as low as the 51st best place in which to start a business, a paltry 39th best place in which to deal with building permits, ranked only 36th for the ease of obtaining electricity, registering property and for taxes, and 35th for trading across borders. Yet, in full congruence with what we have explained here, the US was, apparently, the second best place in the world in which to obtain credit! Other rankings tell much the same story, with Forbes placing the US at 23rd overall on their list of best places to do business at the end of 2016 – not too bad, you might say, until you realise that is was ranked first just ten years ago.

Needless to say, much of the global monetary situation may now be changing, particularly with moves by China – itself a big consumer of oil – to compete with the petrodollar system and to establish alternative clearing institutions for international commerce that are not reliant upon the US dollar. What we can see from all this, however, is that, on the one hand, to blame free trade for the flight of US jobs overseas is clearly incorrect; yet it is foolish and naïve for Austro-libertarians to defend free trade on the surface when the underlying property rights are far from free. The lesson to be learnt, therefore, is that when confronting issues that threaten our freedom, Austro-libertarians should remember to examine them on the deepest possible level and not simply react to what they see in plain sight.

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Negative Interest Rates

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Since the 2008 financial crisis, the policy of central banks to forcibly push down interest rates, followed by the rapid expansion of their balance sheets in order to attempt to “stimulate” economic growth has, to say the least, been something of an abysmal failure. Unemployment is still high, economic growth barely makes it any higher than a rounding error and real wage rates continue to stagnate as they have done for the past ten years or more. Benefitting only Wall Street, the new money has pushed stock markets to record highs and bond yields to record lows, so much so that owning these assets over the past five years has been the closest one can get to a sure bet. Main Street, however, having had to deal with the reality of the fact that the debt-fuelled consumption mania is no longer sustainable and that real savings to grow businesses are in short supply, continues to languish in what seems like a completely separate realm from the casino operations of the financial markets. With positive interest rates now as low as they can possibly go and with little to show for it, it is no surprise that the prospect of negative interest rates in order to force everyone to spend their way into a recovery is now a real one. Indeed, it is already very much a reality in Switzerland and Denmark.

The proposal for negative interest rates rests on a typical Keynesian plea that the government and central banks did not act “drastically enough” in attempting to defibrillate the economy back to growth. Contrary to understanding the lack of any meaningful recovery as a failure of their policies, they instead turn around and say “if it is this bad now then imagine how terrible it would have been had we done nothing at all!” The patient is therefore prescribed ever greater doses of bad medicine in spite of the fact that it is the medicine that is killing him. (Has it not also been said often that the definition of insanity is to repeat an act continuously with the expectation of a different outcome?) Indeed, the economy is so saturated with debt that only paying people to get deeper into it has any prospect expanding the volume of spending.

Negative interest rates are, of course, a praxeological absurdity and could not come about through anything except government force. It is tantamount to placing a premium on future goods as opposed to present goods, so that the prospect of receiving £100 today is less valuable than receiving £100 in a year’s time. Practically, what this means is that, if you deposit £100 in the bank today with an interest rate of -5%, you will have only £95 in one year’s time. You are, therefore, quite literally paying the bank to borrow your money, a proposition absurd to anyone except a tenured professor of economics. Since when, to invert a popular proverb, has a bird in the bush been worth two in the hand? The idea, of course, is that you will be so keen to avoid the interest charges that you will cease to be an “evil” saver and rush out to spend all of your money as soon as you can. Thus the magical Keynesian multiplier will burst into life, restoring us to the land of milk and honey. What’s more, they hope that it will encourage a flurry of borrowing as all the excess reserves piling up in bank vaults (or, rather, on their computer screens) are now lent out to those eager to be paid to hold cash. Traditionally, of course, banks earn their revenue by paying depositors a lower interest rate than they charge to borrowers. With negative interest rates it seems as though the situation will reverse: the bank will make its money by charging its depositors more than it has to pay its borrowers.

Such a ridiculous idea does, of course, run into the unfortunate fact that every unit of money has to be in someone’s cash balance and if all cash balances attract a negative interest rate there can only be an incentive to borrow if the rate on your deposit account is less than the terms of the loan – in other words, you have to pay less to hold the cash than you get paid for taking out the loan. Further, if someone can only get rid of their cash by passing it onto someone else and that latter person can then only do the same then the logical end of the proposal is hyperinflation. That aside, however, what will be the likely effects of the introduction of such a policy?

The first likelihood is that, with bank deposits now charging an interest levy, holding hard cash under the mattress becomes an attractive alternative. In both inflationary and deflationary environments it will lose less and gain more than a bank deposit. Indeed, at first blush, libertarians should welcome this possibility. After all, it is free deposit banking that has resulted in people willingly stashing all of their cash in fractional reserve banks, enabling them to pyramid loan upon loan on top of them and thus causing the disastrous business cycle. When money consisted of gold or silver stored in full reserve banks it was natural for banks to levy a charge for this storage service. People could either choose to accept the charge in return for the safekeeping of their assets, or prefer to keep the cash in their own storage provisions at no cost. Viewed this way, negative interest rates give the appearance of a return to something more akin to cash handling as it would be in a libertarian world. Unfortunately, of course, the negative interest rate is an arbitrary figure and does not represent the true value of storage services to holders of deposit accounts, and having been accustomed to the provision of such services for free anyway a mass withdrawal will be the most likely response. Indeed, it would not be unsurprising if something akin to Gresham’s Law emerged where, legally, bank deposits and cash notes trade at par but where undervalued cash becomes hoarded and people keep only a minimum amount of overvalued bank deposits with which to use for their exchanges. Such an outcome would, of course, utterly defeat the purpose of negative interest rates which is to swell the volume of spending through electronic exchange. In other words, the point at which negative interest rates begin a flight into cash will mark the true limits of monetary policy in creating a spending splurge.

Needless to say, of course, the likely government response is to restrict cash holding with a view to eliminating cash altogether in order to concentrate as much money as possible in commercial bank deposits. Such an end has, in and of itself, been a cherished aim of government, as it permits oversight of and control over every single financial transaction. Under the guise of “combating terrorism” such restrictions have already been tightened recently in France, where, from September of this year, cash payments in excess of €1000 will be illegal. Similar restrictions have appeared, in the last few years, in Spain, Italy, Russia and Mexico. Where cash remains less restricted, any attempts to convert deposits into cash may be met with refusal and obstinacy, as a Swiss pension fund discovered recently when it attempted to switch its deposits to paper notes stored in a vault. Indeed all of this harkens back to the era when banks overinflated on a monetary base of redeemable gold. Back then, redemption in gold was restricted to concentrate people’s cash holdings in paper notes. Now, redemption in paper notes is restricted to concentrate cash holdings in deposits.

The likely reaction to this is that, with deposits and fixed income securities losing value in both nominal and real terms, people will abandon these assets in pursuit of safer stores of value – probably gold and silver. In other words, shorn of the ability to withdraw hard cash, people will keep on deposit only the amount they need to meet their current expenditures while the rest of their savings will be ploughed into harder assets. A flight out of debt instruments would trigger a deleveraging and usually, in such circumstances, the safe home for such funds would be cash. But if cash will also be subject to a negative interest rate and with no ability to withdraw paper notes, then movement of the money into gold would cause the gold price to rise. We would therefore have the peculiar effect of increasing asset prices during an era of deflation. Such are the ways in which monetary policy can turn the world upside down.

The likely effects of a negative interest policy as outlined here demonstrate the limits of a monetary policy that attempts to kick the economy back into gear through spending. You can print all of the money that you like; you can lower interest rates as far as they will go; you can make it impossible for people to withdraw their cash; but like the proverbial horse to water, you cannot force people to borrow and spend. In short, you cannot cheat the market with increasingly absurd tricks that would have baffled even the monetary charlatans of yesterday. Only liquidation of the existing debt and a return to sound money with interest rates determined by the supply of and demand for saved funds will create a proper, sustainable recovery on the path to prosperity.

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Austro-Libertarianism – Three Next Steps

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Austro-libertarianism undoubtedly has a long history of scholarship of which it can proudly exemplify as not only providing a coherent body of truthful insights into the way in which the world really works, but also provides a foundation for a just and prosperous society.

However, far from resting on any laurels (and I doubt any scholar in this tradition would ever believe that we are at the stage where we can do such a thing), this essay will suggest three areas of development to which scholars in the Austro-libertarian tradition may wish to focus their research.

Pure Praxeology

The first area is to reconceive “Austrian” economics as a pure (or at least “purer” theory) of praxeology. Although “Austrian” economics is noted for deriving its laws from the theory of individual human action, economics traditionally – not least because concepts such as exchange, production, prices, money, and so on are the complex phenomena that we wish to study and understand the nature of – concentrates only on action above the level of the bilateral exchange of wares for a money income. Our economic categorisations and concepts therefore rest on that limitation. “Austrian” treatises, although they begin quite properly by explaining how economic theory is derived from the action axiom (together also with extremely useful chapters on unilateral or “Robinson Crusoe” exchange), soon begin to espouse their theories in terms of these more aggregative concepts, only occasionally returning to individual action in order to emphasise a particular point1.

A simple example to illustrate this point is the economist’s approach to the classification of goods. A “consumer good” is one that is purchased by a consumer for money without any further sale for money expected. Bread, for example, is treated as a consumer good because it generally goes through no further monetary exchange prior to being consumed. At the individual level, however, the bread may only be a capital good in making, say, a sandwich. Labour is combined with the bread and other goods – say cheese and tomatoes – in order to produce the final consumer good of a cheese and tomato sandwich. We can say the same thing about cutlery and crockery, paper and ink and so on. All of these goods are used at the level below that of exchange for money by individuals to produce further goods. “Land”, on the other hand, is treated as the natural resources which are a gift to all humans, not just an individual human being. However, a good produced by another human being may, to the individual who happens to stumble upon it, comprise “land” in the sense that it is a free gift to him and that he has not had to exert any productive effort in order to bring it into the condition in which he finds it. If, for example, I find an abandoned car in perfect working order and (assuming there are no competing ownership claims), even though the car is a produced good, as far as my action and my computation of costs and benefits towards that action goes, the car is a gift of nature and is in exactly the same condition as, say, a tree that has grown naturally.

It is easy to see why any loss of the connection to individual action can quickly lead economists in the “Austrian” tradition and their fellow travellers down wrong paths. Murray N Rothbard provides an extensive critique of W H Hutt’s aggregative concept of “consumer sovereignty” – the idea that all consumers are sovereign over producers and that the latter exist only for the benefit of the former and not for themselves2. The market place is where everybody seeks to benefit himself through voluntary exchange, and there is not, in fact, a distinct class of labourers, of producers and of consumers with one being “sovereign” over the other. Rather, everybody at differing points of the day (even from minute to minute) participates in a different economic category – a man is a labourer when he goes to work; he is a consumer when he stops by at the shop on his way home; he is a capitalist if he purchases some shares for his pension, and so on. Questions of “sovereignty” – the boundaries of rule – concern only the political arena. Concentration on the basis of economic law in individual human action would have avoided any fallacy and prevented a resort to parcel phenomena into homogenous, collective blocks. However, Rothbard hardly escapes the same danger to which Hutt succumbed, building his entire theory of production using the economic fiction of the Evenly Rotating Economy (ERE), an economy in which all economic activity is repeated and known. Thus, entrepreneurial profit and loss is eliminated. This model allows (or, perhaps, forces) Rothbard to conclude that capital goods earn no net rents and that all rents are paid back to the original factors of production – land and labour – a theme that is oft repeated throughout his entire treatise. It is submitted here, however, that regardless of how such an approach may be helpful in illustrating the complexity of the structure of production, any firm or even implied conclusions drawn from it are likely to be grossly misleading and can only lead to error. The most dangerous false step from this presentation is to assume that the ownership of land – as an original factor – provides essentially free income to those who happen to hold it. Needless to say Rothbard takes great pains to rebut this conclusion, but his attempt could be condensed, with a slight modification, to a single paragraph:

As the only income to ground land that is not profit or interest, we are left with the original gains to the first finder of land. But, here again, there is capitalization and not a pure gain. Pioneering—finding new land, i.e., new natural resources—is a business like any other. Investing in it takes capital, labor, and entrepreneurial ability. The expected rents of finding and using are taken into account when the investments and expenses of exploration and shaping into use are made. Therefore, these gains are also capitalized backward in the original investment, and the tendency will be for them too to be the usual interest return on the investment. Deviations from this return will constitute entrepreneurial profits and losses. Therefore, we conclude that there is practically nothing unique about incomes from ground land and that all net income in the productive system goes to wages, to interest, and to profit3.

The correct position, therefore, is that “things” do not “earn” anything. All actions, whether they involve the dispensation of labour, land or capital goods, require the sacrifice of one state of affairs (“costs”) in the pursuit of another state of affairs. It is hoped that the ends brought about are more valuable than the ends given up. The creation of this value if the action is successful (or its destruction if it is not) is the product of entrepreneurial judgment. All income from any action is therefore paid out to cover costs, interest or entrepreneurial profit and loss. All net rents in the economy accrue only to this latter element – successful entrepreneurial judgment with the means at one’s disposal, whether this is your labour, land that you own, or a capital good that you hold. All of these things that can be bought or sold for more or less money than is sufficient to cover their costs plus interest. It is only by remaining firmly anchored to action at the individual level that this realisation can remain in focus4.

Coupled with this endeavour of better preserving the link between the complex phenomena in the economy with individual action is a greater emphasis on “Austrian” methodology not as a separate topic but one to be espoused during the course of the treatise. The reason for this is that a “vulgar” conception of “Austrianism” would state that all economic theory and all of the laws of economics are deduced logically from the action axiom and one or two subsidiary axioms. Truths derived empirically have little or no place in “Austrian” economics. This is not, however, altogether true. Only the core theory concerning the action axiom and its immediately related categories, in addition to some of the more fundamental laws (such as the law of marginal utility) are deduced logically. However, there is a great body of “Austrian” economic law that requires the ascertainment of empirical facts. We cannot, for example, derive economic laws of bilateral exchange without ascertaining the existence of more than one human being, an endeavour which any individual cannot simply deduce. We cannot have an “Austrian” approach to the economic effects of taxation unless one group of persons had, in fact, attempted to tax another group. We cannot have an “Austrian” business cycle theory without first assuming the existence of banks, the practice of fractional reserve banking, a loan market and even money itself must be presupposed. Although the regression theorem, for instance, is a valid praxeological law5, it would only exist if we first of all knew that money existed and that people had chosen to use a good as a general medium of exchange. Now it is true, of course, that these laws would remain valid and true even if the substantive human choices upon which they rely had not been made. If we imagined a world without money, for example, and pondered its existence merely as a hypothetical we could still derive “Austrian” laws concerning it without it ever actually existing. The actual phenomena in existence simply direct our interest to them as those are the areas that matter in our lives and hence are the things we wish to study and understand. No doubt it is also quite impossible to try and “imagine” alternative institutions and choices that have never existed and to apply to them the core “Austrian” theory, especially as our own experience of real concepts such as money, exchange, prices, banking and so on often provides an illustrative tool to our theoretical insights. However, it is more accurate to speak of the entire endeavour of “Austrian” economics not solely as a body of economic law that is deduced logically, but as the application of the core theory, deduced from the action axiom, to the substantive institutional choices that humans have made, the existence of which is verified empirically6. More prominent highlighting of the “Austrian” method and the source of each parcel of knowledge during the course of a treatise would aid greatly any misunderstanding in this regard.


The second area of fertile development in “Austro-libertarianism” is the necessity to sever or more sharply delineate the relationship, often casually assumed not only in political philosophy but also in the opinions of lay persons, between legal norms and moral norms. That is, the question of what should be legal – in other words, those norms which may be enforced by the imposition of violence – should be separated from the question of what is good, worthy or preferable. It is submitted that this is one of the greatest barriers to a proper understanding of the role of violence in interpersonal morality, and has been dealt with in detail by the present author here, here and here. Many people happily recognise the illegitimacy of the legal (violent) enforcement against themselves of norms that other people value as moral ends which, as the hapless victims of this enforcement, they themselves do not (or at the very least, they would complain about it). But, because of the prevalence of the legitimising effect of democracy and the blurring of any distinct line between the governors and the governed, most would not think twice to advocacy of the legal (violent) enforcement of ends that they deem good against other people. Indeed, the criterion for what should be legally enforced boils down to little more than what most people think should be legally enforced. Libertarians need to create an understanding that the proper role of violent enforcement is restricted to preserving the physical integrity of each individual’s person and property – and as moral agency requires such integrity in order for a person to choose and act, such an insight is crucial for any proper understanding of interpersonal morality. The examination of whether something is bad, unpleasant or a vice must be separated from the question of whether its prevention should be enforced legally; and, equally and oppositely, the examination of that which should be peacefully permitted by the law should be separated from the question of whether such acts are good and noble things. In addition to aiding moral and political philosophy, this would be of a benefit to libertarianism specifically as it would render inert the perceived support for all of those bad and unpleasant things – drugs, prostitution, gambling, blackmail, and so on – which are non-violent but are nevertheless not necessarily things that we would wish to see in our society7.


The final area for development in Austro-libertarianism, this time in the field of economic history and anthropology, is to engage in a rigorous study of the effects of inflation and inflationism throughout history. “Austrian” scholars have certainly charted well the purely economic effects but, in the opinion of the present author, an exhaustive study of the social, cultural, political, and aesthetic effects of inflation is yet to be written, at least in the “Austrian” tradition. As Henry Hazlitt notes:

[Inflation]…discourages all prudence and thrift. It encourages squandering, gambling, reckless waste of all kinds. It often makes it more profitable to speculate than to produce. It tears apart the whole fabric of stable economic relationships. Its inexcusable injustices drive men toward desperate remedies. It plants the seeds of fascism and communism. It leads men to demand totalitarian controls. It ends invariably in bitter disillusion and collapse8.

Apart from the wide “macro” effects of inflation – not least of which include the birth of odious ideological movements and regimes and their ability to fund wars and conflict – also of interest is how inflation effects us at the individual level. For example, how many of our day-to-day products that we enjoy today are the result of genuine development by a capitalist economy and how many are simply substitutes developed in an era of inflation to enable people to attempt to salvage some of their previous standard of living? Products such as instant coffee, condensed milk; synthetic clothing; plastic bottles; and so on. How many genuine labour saving products were developed not because people genuinely wanted to save time but because inflation had either reduced their income to such a degree that time came at a premium or because inflation had induced impatience and a present-oriented fervour? Indeed the latter may have had distinct ramifications beyond the economic – the birth of adolescence as a distinct demographic; the sexualisation of society; the preference for entertainment ahead of learning; the attraction to style rather than to substance; the prominence of sound bites and “tweets” rather than in-depth analysis; the emphasis on youth and adaptability to an ever changing world rather than on age and accumulated wisdom. All of these things have significant consequences for which inflation much at least be partly responsible. Further, how much does inflation distort our views of reality and of what is possible? Inflation, as Hazlitt noted, makes speculation rather than production profitable – the image of productivity and wealth creation rather than the very thing itself. It makes big or easy wins more attractive than patient investment in a lifelong endeavour. But at the extreme we might say that we have attempted to replace reality itself with dreamed ideals. Government, has taken over and replaced real money (gold and silver) with a fake paper counterfeit. Having replaced reality with one form of fakery, we expect government to be able to legislate to replace reality with our pseudo visions, to carry out the miracle of transforming stones into bread. Thomas Nast’s cartoon, Milk Tickets for Babies in Place of Milk (below), concerning the inflation during the American Civil War, perhaps captures the foundation of this mindset in artistic form. The cartoon contains representations of reality that are passed off, for example, by Acts of Congress as reality itself. As English professor Paul A Cantor explains:

Nast’s illustration brilliantly captures [the confusion of] things with representations of things. Like Magritte [in the painting The Treachery of Images], Nast reminds us that a picture of a cow is not actually a cow, but he is not making a merely aesthetic statement. He is drawing a more serious analogy between the duplicity involved in artistic representation and the duplicity involved in the government printing money and forcibly establishing it as legal tender, an analogy embodied in the parallel “This is a Cow By Act of the Artist” and “This is Money by the Act of Congress”9.

Given that “Austrians” lead in the way in a providing a genuine understanding of the definition and effects of inflation it would be appropriate for an historian versed in “Austrian” theory to undertake a full study along the lines that we have suggested here.

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1It is also the case that most “Austrian” scholars writing today received their initial education in the mainstream economics tradition and only later “turned” to “Austrianism”. Thus one senses a tendency, if not a persistency, to lapse into the comfort of aggregative and pseudo-concepts, at best obscuring the essential connection to individual human action, and at worst completely losing it and ending up in the rhetoric of collectivist and societal-oriented action.

2Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy and State with Power & Market, p. 631-6

3Ibid., p.530, emphasis added.

4The present author is not enthusiastic about the excessive use of equilibrium constructs and they should, at the most, be used as a tool in order to distinguish one concept from another, an endeavour that would be impossible without such a construct. Nevertheless, it is possible that a dynamic equilibrium – a fiction in which there is change and entrepreneurial profit and loss but where all forecasts of the particular entrepreneur in the model are correct – together with a focus on the costs of land acquisition and of the dispensation of labour would have created a better illustration than the ERE. But whatever model is used, it is submitted that the illustration of every stage of production, whether it is with land, labour or capital, necessitates the elements of costs, interest and entrepreneurial judgment and that, contra to Rothbard’s assertion that the mental construction of the ERE is necessary in explaining the structure of production, a much clearer grasp of reality can be and, indeed, is attained without omitting any of the crucial elements.

5Although this is disputed. See Gary North, The Regression Theorem as Conjectural History, Ch. 7 in Jörg Guido Hülsmann (ed.), The Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media – Essays in Celelbration of the Centennial.

6If anyone should doubt this and remain steadfastly wedded to the idea that “all” of “Austrian” economics is deduced logically this then he should attempt to present an “Austrian” treatise written in formal logic.

7The present author has dealt with the so-called “thick” or “thin” libertarian debate here.

8Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, p.157.

9Paul A Cantor, Hyperinflation and Hyperreality: Thomas Mann in Light of Austrian Economics, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1994), 3-29.

Economic Myths #5 – Banking is Capitalist

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By both mainstream economists and the general public alike the cycle of “boom and bust” is believed to be a tendency inherent in any capitalist economy. The fact that the latest such cycle, resulting in the seemingly endless stagnation that we are enduring now, originated in the banking sector and that large banks and bankers ratcheted up huge earnings and bonuses only to cause disaster has implicated banking to represent the very worst aspects of capitalism, motivated by uncontrollable greed that ends in destruction.

Unfortunately this popular view of the mainstream could not be further from truth. In fact with its intimate ties to government and its special, legal privileges it is hard to imagine a less capitalistic industry than banking. Part of the deception – wilfully inflamed by politicians and their lackeys – is one that engulfs other industries subject to government meddling such as energy; that simply because the participants in the industry are private individuals or entities and are not officially part of the government means that the enterprise must be classified as part of the free market and saddled with all of the supposed flaws of that system. Very often however private companies and brands are simply the public facing part of what is essentially a government operation or a government controlled cartel. Britain’s railways, for example, are owned by Network Rail, a statutory corporation with no shareholders; the train operations are parcelled out into geographic monopoly franchises that are awarded to private bodies by the government. The network is, therefore, under the de facto control of the government. And yet when you are stranded for two hours on a crowded platform because of delays whose logo is it you see everywhere at the station? Whose name is embossed proudly along the side of the train that you’ve been waiting for and who – and, by extension, which economic system – gets all of the blame for the problems? This is just as true in the banking sector as it is in the railways. Banking is nothing more than a government run cartel operated in front of the public by private bodies.

The supporting pillar of this government cartel is the central bank. Although this body is not always government owned it possesses a key legal privilege which is to be the sole producer of the nation’s money supply. Since 1971 (but in practice much earlier) all of this money in the world has been paper money, irredeemable and unbacked by any precious metal or market-chosen commodity. This is a very hefty privilege indeed for who wouldn’t want to have the legal ability to just print the very thing that can be exchanged for valuable goods and services? The central bank can manipulate interest rates (the most important prices in the economy) and control the volume of money either by changing the reserve requirements of the commercial banks or by making open market purchases (usually of government bonds but since 2008 pretty much any asset) with freshly printed cash. At the very bedrock of the banking system, therefore, is an institution that is blessed not by the voluntary purchases and exchanges of individuals but rather by the aegis of government. This institution would not exist in a genuine, capitalist economy as its powers rely not upon free exchange but upon government enforcement. Money would not be a centralised, government issued ticket on worthless paper nor would anyone have monopoly control over its production. Rather, money would be a commodity such as gold or silver. No one would be able to simply wave a wand and make gold appear in the way that central banks can make paper money appear, nor could anyone simply do the equivalent of no productive work in order to purchase valuable assets. Rather they, like anyone else, would have to earn their money through productivity that serves consumers. The volume of money in the economy would be regulated not by the central bank’s fiat but by the demand for freshly mined gold from the ground. Interest rates would be set by the demand for and supply of loanable funds and not by the arbitrary decree of monetary policy.

The reason why private banks appear to be the epitome of greed is that they are the channel through which the central bank’s deeds flow. They are the recipients of new money from open-market operations and of new loan-issuing powers when reserve requirements are altered. Credit expansion under the business cycle therefore affects the banking industry first and it is this industry that demonstrates the largest paper gains – all of those huge profits and hefty bonuses – and, consequently, the most catastrophic losses when the inflation stops. And yet the only method of making the fraudulent and destabilising fractional reserve system work, at least for a time, is the monopoly issuance of paper money by a central authority, robbing people of the ability to redeem notes that are over-issued and allowing the banks to inflate continually in concert. Furthermore, under this system banks are endowed with a special legal privilege in that they do not have to time their assets in line with their liabilities. When the disaster of “borrowing short” to “invest long” finally unravels who is that steps in to save the day? Why, the cartel-managing central bank of course, in its role as a lender of “last resort”, permitting the private banks to privatise their gains and socialise their losses. Once this fact – recognised in the US as the infamous Greenspan put – is understood by the private banks it will serve only to inflame risky and reckless business ventures. After all, why bother with prudence when you know that someone else will mop up the mess? None of this would be possible in a genuine, capitalist economy where each bank would have to suffer its losses and take full responsibility for its risky ventures.

This short description indicates that banking is woefully far from being a capitalist industry. Rather it is an industry that is well and truly in bed with government, relying on government for its profits, for the sustainability of its operations and for the absorption of its losses. “Private” banks they may be but a part of the free market? Absolutely not!

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Money – the Root of all (Government) Evil?

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In addressing the evil and parasitic nature of the state, libertarians focus on many of the state’s specific characteristics in order to demonstrate its destructive effects upon civilisation – whether it is nationalised industries, market interference, the minimum wage, anti-discrimination and egalitarian pursuits, the business cycle, or whatever, there is a treasure trove of libertarian literature available that explains and elaborates the deleterious effects of these particular state endeavours. However, a less addressed question is which of these areas, if any, are the most important? Which of them amount to mere nuisances that can be circumvented or otherwise put up with and which, if any, of them amount to a significant transfer of wealth and power to the state with seemingly permanent effects? Furthermore, is there any one issue that libertarians should stress above all others if we are to deliver a real and significant puncture to the state’s ever-inflating balloon?

One prime candidate for this title is war and international conflict. With war comes every glittering prize that the state could ever dream of – mass mobilisation of labour and industry towards a common purpose dictated by the state; control of all markets; mass propaganda; control of communications; suspension of free speech and possibly of habeas corpus; and not to mention the bogeyman of the supposed enemy to which to channel the attention and hatred of the average citizen. Indeed Murray Rothbard, relatively in his career, recognised that while libertarians had some very profound things to say about the state’s mismanagement of, for example, the post office, focussing on war was the real key to unravelling the state’s power and oppression of the population.

Nevertheless, while a permanent and lasting degree of state power and control is enabled by war there is another contender for the top spot. That is the government’s control of money and, specifically, the ability to create an endless supply of paper money distributed to itself and its favoured outlets, as opposed to the rigour and discipline imposed by a “hard money” standard such as gold. Ultimately it is the state’s ability to fund itself that is at the root of all of its other absorption of power and control – even war.

In order to demonstrate this let us look at what the situation would be if government was constrained by a denationalised, “hard” money such as gold. In the first place, government would be wholly reliant upon the tax receipts of its individual citizens for funding and would be unable to resort to extensive deficit spending or inflation. The plainness and visibility of that confiscation places a much lower limit upon the state’s coffers. Put simply, when too much money is taken out of your hands physically you are likely to revolt much sooner. Indeed, in the past, war itself was an expensive operation and battling kings often struggled to raise funds to maintain campaigns. Strategic brilliance was often not accomplished by an all-out destruction of the enemy but, rather, by out-manoeuvring your opponent and preserving for as long as possible expensively-trained soldiers and equipment. In many cases funding had to come from external sources. The genesis of the aristocracy was in those who were rewarded with titles to the conquered land in return for funding the war – in other words the ruler had to parcel out parts of the new territory to those who had helped him grab it. Indeed even the English parliament itself and the Magna Carta­ – famed as the genesis for two cardinal principles of liberty, no taxation without consent and no trial without due process – resulted in part from the reliance of the king upon his relationship with the barons for support and funding. Hard money therefore not only physically restricts the amount the state can spend but has been the indirect cause of the enshrinement of restrictions upon the state’s despotic power.

In more recent times, however, the ability to provide funding from a non-stop printing press has permitted the state to expand its activities without having to account for them through tax receipts. People do not see the money disappearing from their pay packets or from their bank accounts; all they see is the prices they have to pay for goods and services rising and squeezing their purchasing power, a fact that can be easily blamed on greedy businessmen and shareholders. It is possible for a libertarian to be sympathetic with the view that as long as you know how much the government is taking from you then it has a reasonable degree of tolerability. But when government resorts to the smoke and mirrors trick of robbing not the money in your hand but, rather, its purchasing power then it must be opposed emphatically. In comparison to earlier conflicts, the wars of the twentieth century were so prolonged and destructive precisely because government could resort to the printing press. Had they relied solely upon tax receipts “war-weariness” would have set in much sooner among the population and they would have demanded a swift end to hostilities. Hence all of the overreaching effects of the state’s engagement in war flows directly from its ability to control the supply of money. If we wish to end the consequences of war upon the state’s metastasised growth then we need to attack the root of its ability to fund it.

It is true, of course, that there may be something of a chicken and egg story when it comes to war and paper money. Does paper money cause government to engage in war or does war cause government to print paper money? Either way, however, even if government was previously respectful of a hard money standard which it does not abandon until the outbreak of a war, it is this power of printing paper money in and of itself that fuels the extent of its belligerence. And in any case, the ease with which government can suddenly suspend a hard money standard only comes about because they have arrogated to themselves monopolistic control of the operation of money issuance. It would be much harder for government to print un-backed notes and force their acceptance when others are issuing notes fully redeemable in gold. Whatever comes first, however, either the paper money or the war and the growth of the state power, if you wish to prevent the flood then you must turn off the taps.

In more peaceful times hard money also disciplines the citizenry into realising that government is not the fountain of all wealth. The state has grown so much under democracy because, apart from the veneer of legitimacy that popular elections lend to the state, politicians are able to bribe the electorate with endless goodies that they do not believe that they have to pay for. The resulting borrowing and inflation – now reaching an eye-watering level in the West – which does not touch the citizen directly gives the impression of government as an endless stock of resources, the only difficult task being to elect someone who will give them to you rather than worrying about the more trifling matters of production and enterprise. Indeed, public discourse rarely seems to acknowledge the fact of scarcity, usually focussing on single issues and concluding with an explosion of outrage about how government isn’t “doing more” to combat the alleged societal ill. The more difficult question of the expense that we would endure, what should be given up as a result and which goods cannot be brought into being because of the new expenditure diverted to cure the problem complained of is overlooked. To the citizen there is always more money, more resources and more of everything that government can acquire from somewhere other than himself. However, in exactly the same way as a hard money standard would induce “war-weariness” in belligerent times so too would it induce “state-weariness” in peaceful times. People would soon tire of having their pay packets robbed to fund goods for other people; and people would soon realise that many of the things they would otherwise want from government for free simply cannot be afforded and must be worked for by themselves.

Let us turn next to the whole problem of the business cycle. Although panics existed before the advent of modern central banking many of these occurred precisely because hard money rules were casually abandoned, with issuing institutions expanding the volume of credit beyond the stock of monetary gold and government happily stepping in and relieving them of the obligation to redeem their notes in specie. But whatever the characteristics of pre-central banking business cycles it is undeniable that they reached a depth, severity and prolongation in the twentieth century that was not seen before. There are two reasons for this. First, government’s enhanced control over the supply of money induces a more serious degree of malinvestment than would otherwise be the case where the supply of money is checked by the stock of redeemable gold. In both of the biggest collapses of the last one hundred years – 1929 and 2008 – credit expansion ran for the best part of a decade or more. The longer the false signals towards entrepreneurs are continued the more they will borrow and invest in unsustainable capital projects and the further those projects go the more difficult they will be to unwind. When the bust finally comes, therefore, the situation is far more serious than it otherwise would have been. This brings about the second factor – that it lends credibility to the argument that the government should step in and “do something” to combat the malaise. The reason why the Great Depression endured for years (and why we are still enduring the current one) is not because of the initial collapse – it is because government did everything it could to maintain the existing structure of production, wages and prices. Fittingly enough President Hoover often invoked the language of war in describing the threat of the downturn and the culmination of this in the New Deal – the complete cartelisation of industry and agriculture into a fascistic economy – was achieved by the resurrection of World War One era departments and programmes. It is supremely ironic that government-caused depressions give rise to ever more invasive government intrusions, an irony that turns truly into tragedy when we consider that what followed the Great Depression was the carnage and destruction of World War II. With the current belligerence of the US in provoking tension with Russia and China another war is something that cannot be ruled out as a result of the present crisis; and we all know how destructive war is to freedom.

What we can see therefore is that government control of money is a prime contender for the top spot of issues that libertarians should consider as the most serious when combatting threats to liberty. If this should be doubted then one has to question why the mystery of central banking and its ability to pull the monetary strings from a shady, secretive outlet has been a political non-issue for decades. Politicians only bring into debate the relatively “easy” problems that do not upset the apple cart. While they are keen to oust their immediate, political opponents they never provide the public with any serious choice that would restrict the power and growth of government as a whole. At least democracy – another cause of government growth and legitimacy – gets praised and lauded from time to time, if only ever to justify the government’s military crusades against foreign tyrants. But before the last few years central banking and monopoly issuance of money was hardly even mentioned – not even to give it a blessing. It seems as though government is fine with brainwashing its citizens into embracing the justice of elections by voting but it is far too scared to even make them aware of its power over money. Although this is now beginning to change and there is a greater enquiry into and scrutiny of the US Federal Reserve (not least because of ex-Congressman Ron Paul’s emphasis of the issue) the acceptance of and absence of discussion of these evil institutions has pervaded for too long. This is where government would be truly and irredeemably hurt. It could enact as many reams of invasive and destructive legislation as it liked, yet they would be of zero threat if government was starved of funding to enforce them.

It is appropriate to end with the words of Ludwig von Mises who recognised everything we have been saying here in his first major treatise on the subject of money:

Defense of the individual’s liberty against the encroachment of tyrannical governments is the essential theme of the history of Western civilization. The characteristic feature of the Occident is its peoples’ pursuit of liberty, a concern unknown to Orientals. All the marvellous achievements of Western civilization are fruits grown on the tree of liberty.

It is impossible to grasp the meaning of the idea of sound money if one does not realize that it was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights. The demand for constitutional guarantees and for bills of rights was a reaction against arbitrary rule and the non-observance of old customs by kings. The postulate of sound money was first brought up as a response to the princely practice of debasing the coinage. It was later carefully elaborated and perfected in the age which—through the experience of the American continental currency, the paper money of the French Revolution and the British restriction period—had learned what a government can do to a nation’s currency system.


Thus the sound-money principle has two aspects. It is affirmative in approving the market’s choice of a commonly used medium of exchange. It is negative in obstructing the government’s propensity to meddle with the currency system.

The sound-money principle was derived not so much from the Classical economists’ analysis of the market phenomena as from their interpretation of historical experience. It was an experience that could be perceived by a much larger public than the narrow circles of those conversant with economic theory. Hence the sound-money idea became one of the most popular points of the liberal program. Friends and foes of liberalism considered it one of the essential postulates of a liberal policy1.

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1 Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, p 414.