States and Corporations

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To say that the existence of the state is, in the mainstream, uncontroversial would be something of an understatement. While the precise individuals who form the state and the specific acts that they choose to do with state power often attract controversy, the existence and sustenance of the state itself is deemed to be essential for not only a functioning and orderly society (such as that which could be provided by a so-called “night watchman” state) but also to contribute, or even to cause, the economic and cultural progression of that society. This belief has become even more potent since the state, sometime in the twentieth century, became endowed with so-called “democratic legitimacy”, i.e. it is supposed to be run by representatives chosen by the people for the people.

Let us run through some of the uncontroversial and supposedly necessary aspects of the state that are barely questioned by anyone today.

First, the state possesses a territorial monopoly of the legitimised use of the initiation of force and violence. The state alone is permitted to fund itself not through voluntary exchange but through compulsory levy (i.e. taxation); people are required to pay to the state that which the state says they should pay regardless of the “service” that they receive from the state in return. The state, further, is permitted to confiscate the legitimately earned wealth and property of individuals and to hand it to other individuals in order to achieve so-called “social justice” and a reduced inequality of wealth and income. Further, the state may use this legitimised force to ban certain uses of one’s own property that in no way interferes with the person or property of anyone else. It may also use this force to compel individuals to deal with their property in certain ways specified by the state, usually at one’s own expense – a power of the state that is euphemised by the term “regulation”.

Second, the state alone is tasked with maintaining law and order and the protection of the person and property of individuals from criminals. The possession and trade of goods and services to enable individuals to accomplish this themselves – such as personal firearms – is increasingly restricted by the state to the extent that such possession or trade itself becomes a crime, even if the intent is simply to prevent criminal acts against oneself. You are therefore utterly reliant upon the state for your own protection and, moreover, you are defenceless against the state when its employees aggress against you. Nevertheless this does not prevent the state from requiring private organisations to police the populace on its behalf – such as in the collection of taxes from payrolls and the requirements of banks and other financial institutions to report on the transactions of their customers.

Third, should the state fail to maintain law and order and to protect your property from criminals, it is then the state to whom you must turn if you want a redress. For the state also enjoys over its territory the privilege of being the sole provider of the dispensation of justice in conflicts between parties, including in conflicts which involve itself. This takes place not just in state run court houses refereed by state employed judges but also (when the state or some of its members have been seen to cause an incident that results in public outrage) in so-called “independent public enquiries”. These are undertaken by a different employee (or retired employee) of the state and the funding still flows from state coffers so there is no wonder why these are almost always written off by the general public as a whitewash.

Fourth, the state alone is tasked with providing so-called “national defence” and securing the state’s borders. Although the restriction of civil liberties in the face of either a real or imagined threat against the state’s sovereignty by a foreign invader is not uncontroversial, it is hardly new and is, in fact, a hallmark of every war into which the state drags its people. More commonly, however, the state may prevent foreign visitors from entering the territory of the state even if domestic private property owners have invited them. People who wish to come to the state’s territory to create jobs and wealth, or simply those who wish to work, are forcibly restricted by the state, even if a domestic employer is willing to hire them. The state also controls, by force, the flow of trade across its borders and imposes tariffs and other restrictions on the movement of goods, regardless of whether a domestic individual or entity wishes to conduct peaceful trade with a foreigner.

Fifth, the state alone is permitted to print and issue currency in the form of paper money or electronic credits to the extent that it may create this money and use it to buy goods and services for itself without having worked to create any wealth in the first place. Other people who do this are labelled as “counterfeiters” and are subject to the full brunt of the state’s forceful retaliation. Such a power to create money is bound only by the economic consequences of price inflation and credit expansion but it permits the state to fund and grow its activities without resorting to increased taxation, instead robbing the domestic population of the purchasing power of the existing notes that they hold.

Sixth, the state forcibly maintains a monopoly over transportation networks such as roads, highways, railways and airports. If they are not nationalised outright, the state frequently contracts out the provision of other supposedly “essential” industries such as healthcare and the supply of utilities such as gas, electricity and water under the rubric of “privatisation”, yet it maintains a tight control over these industries to the extent that they are little more than a state dominated oligarchy.

Seventh, the state tasks itself with the “education” of the children who are born and/or raised within the state’s territory, mandating, through the threat of punishment, attendance at certain ages dictated by the state, regardless of what children may prefer to be doing or better at doing. The state employs the teachers, sets the curriculum, determines the standards to be achieved through examination (i.e. sets the grades) and is responsible for inspecting its own schools and institutions. Private education is possible but, apart from being monitored closely by the state, is nearly always prohibitively expensive and thus is seen, with some resentment, as being the preserve of the wealthy and privileged. Thus the majority of people have little choice but to turn to the state to provide the education of their children. Furthermore, the state takes it upon itself to interfere in the general upbringing of children, with state run schools often tasked with policing parents and dispensing lessons such as “citizenship” and “personal, social and health” education in order to make up for supposed parental shortfalls.

Finally, the state is supposed to protect us and to provide for us in our hour of need – such as if we lose our job or when we retire. State provided retirement benefits are little more than a giant Ponzi scheme. Funds confiscated by taxation from the earliest “beneficiaries” to provide for their retirement were not saved and invested by the state; rather, they were consumed in current expenditure. Instead, it is the current tax confiscations of younger generations that pay for the pensions of today’s retirees. The state forcibly prevents private individuals and companies from engaging in such a scheme as it ultimately results in collapse and losses for the later investors, and those that do offer such a service are thrown by the state in jail. The state’s own scheme is, as we are beginning to see today, susceptible to such a fate yet the state exempts itself from having to follow its own rules.

No doubt readers can think of many other “uncontroversial” aspects of the state that are held dear among mainstream views. Each of these aspects could be demolished in separate, longer treatments and many libertarian writers have, of course, done just that. What we wish to do here, however, is to ask our fellow citizens who do not counter these “functions” of the state a very simple question: if you accept with gladness or even celebrate these aspects of the state that we have just listed, can you imagine also permitting a private corporation to do the same things that the state does? Can you imagine a private corporation being able to initiate the use of force and violence against other people? Would a private company be allowed to force you to do what it wants with your own property? If you get into a contractual dispute with AT&T should AT&T be allowed to judge the outcome of the conflict? If American Airlines assaults or kills your family should American Airlines sit both in the dock and on the judge’s throne? Should Microsoft be tasked with national defence and arm itself with nuclear weapons? Should McDonalds be able to tell you which foreigners and which goods and services can cross the border even if you want them to come and visit you? Could we imagine a world in which Google or Walmart can print paper money and force people to accept it in return for goods and services? Or a world in which Facebook builds all of the roads and runs all of our utilities? Would it be possible for, say, Apple to be able to force our children to attend its schools? And finally, should we allow Bank of America or J P Morgan Chase to force investors to participate in Ponzi schemes? Most lay persons are likely to recoil in horror at the thought of any private corporation being able to do all of these things. Yet, bizarrely, they either accept or defend the fact that the state should participate in these activities.

One likely retort to this is that the state is supposed to govern for “the people” whereas companies are interested in making profits for their shareholders. Indeed, the state uses its self-proclaimed subservient and altruistic nature to exempt itself from all of the proper behaviour that is required of private citizens, who are supposed to be interested in only their own gain. While it is true that companies are primarily interested in making a return for their shareholders (why else would the shareholders have invested in the business?), it is also true that companies can only achieve these profits by serving the needs of their customers. It is the customers who decide, through their choices to spend or not to spend money with the corporation, whether those profits are made. In any case, however, we might point out that an odious act does not transform into a good one simply on account of for whom it is done. If I steal your money this act is rightly viewed as wrong, regardless of whether I intend to keep the money for myself or whether I intend to give it to someone else who may, in my opinion, “need” it more than you do. Similarly, therefore, if the state confiscates your money through taxation and distributes it via the welfare state the fact that it goes to “the people” makes this act no more moral than if the bureaucrats kept it all themselves (which, of course, they often do – not only are the administrative costs of the welfare state frequently underestimated but most of the money disappears into the hands of the state’s favoured contractors and suppliers rather than directly into the bank accounts of the poor). Moreover, we don’t even have to go so far as to cite strictly moral or immoral acts to illustrate this point. Monopolies, for example, are viewed as being bad because they tend to reduce quality and raise costs over time; this fact does not change simply because it is the state that runs a monopoly over say, healthcare, rather than a private corporation.

Another likely response to our question is that the state is under the supposed “democratic control” of the people and that if the state uses these powers “illegitimately” or irresponsibly then they will be booted out at the ballot box. Apart from the fact that, again, an illicit act does not become moral simply on account of who controls those who are doing it, a citizen has the right of voting between a bare handful of carefully selected and screened candidates only once every four or five years. Moreover, a person cannot choose with any specificity which policies and manifestos to support. Rather, he has to throw what little weight he has behind a single candidate (or party) and all of that candidate’s stances on a wide spectrum of issues, from whether we should continue funding wars in the Middle East down to whether a person may light up a joint in his own home. And once elected the successful candidate can simply abandon whatever promises he made in return for your vote straight after. As if that wasn’t bad enough, what if your preferred candidate does not get elected? You still have to suffer the implementation of the odious policies of an alternative candidate whom you may utterly despise. With a private corporation, however, you can choose to vote or to not vote for them with your wallet every single minute of every single day. You don’t have to wait for a few years if you want to switch from Tesco to Sainsbury. Moreover these choices are very specific. If you change your grocery supplier you are not also changing your telephone provider. If you ditch Ryanair and start flying EasyJet you can still get your clothes from Debenhams. If a corporation takes your vote, i.e. your money, then breaks its promises it made before you handed it over it is called “breach of contract” and for this the company can be sued. And finally, your choice to shop at Sainsbury’s or Tesco is not dependent upon a majority of other people wishing to do so – both are able to trade regardless of whether they are supported by a majority of consumers.

What we can take from all of this is that if a private corporation possessed every single right and function of the state except the power to tax and demand your patronage, then you would have more control over it than you do over the state. The situation we have produced, therefore, is, on the one hand, a society of corporations over whom each individual has a high degree of control yet which are required to abide by all of the laws and at least a basic code of morality, and on the other hand a state which no one can control yet can, for the most part, do whatever it likes. It seems to me that if we are to suffer the illicit and illegitimate powers of the state at all they would be far safer in the hands of a private corporation rather than the state.

Of course our goal is that nobody should have the right to carry on these acts that we outlined in the first part of this essay – that they should be illegal regardless of who does them and in whose name. No one should have the power to tax, to confiscate the income and wealth of other people; no one should be able to print money; nobody should be able to arm themselves with all manner of horrific weaponry while forcibly disarming everyone else; and no one should be able to run a Ponzi scheme. When you take all of these characteristics of the state and ask yourself what life would be like if anyone else was allowed to do them, you rightly begin to shudder with fear. So why should we ennoble the state with the dubious privilege of being able to do them?

Hopefully what we have outlined here is a useful point with which a libertarian can turn a debate with a statist or state-biased lay person, and to cause that person to reconsider either his active or his tacit support for the state and its actions.

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Economic Myths #11 – The Mixed Economy

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The world’s political systems today are, generally, neither fully despotic on the one hand, nor are they completely anarchical on the other. Instead most of us languish under so-called “social democracy”, a curious mixture in which a degree of sovereignty in the form of voting rights reside in the citizenry while political leadership and control remains distinct in the form of various functionaries such as Presidents, Prime Ministers, Congressmen and Members of Parliament. A libertarian might contend, of course, that such a social democratic system is worse for individual liberty than a dictatorship or monarchy, but the important point is that the ideological extremes have been blended into a kind of soup which is, at least from the de jure point of view, really neither total freedom on the one hand nor total despotism on the other. In exactly the same way, neither do our economic systems (which amount to pretty much the same thing as political systems) represent any ideological purity. We are neither fully capitalist nor are we completely socialised but, rather, have to put up with some kind of “mixed” economy with capitalistic and socialistic elements.

Although the relationship between economic and political systems is one joined at the hip, the justification of social democracy on the one hand and of the mixed economy on the other appears to come from different directions. Democracy, rightly or wrongly, is believed to a good and noble thing in its own right – a positive and independently justifiable improvement over any other option. The mixed economy, however, appears to be based on little more than the intellectually slothful adage that “the truth lies somewhere in the middle”. Capitalism, it is alleged, while bringing massive economic growth and improvement in the standard of living, leads to unstable business cycles and encourages greed, selfishness and extensive inequalities in wealth and income. Socialism, on the other hand, may make things “fairer” and more equal yet it totally decimates the productive capacity of a nation and the standard of living stagnates or even reverses. The “correct” system “must”, so the argument goes, lie in between these two points, somewhere that can seemingly take the best of both systems while avoiding the alleged pitfalls. Hence we end up with the mixed economy.

The first question we might as well ask when tackling this fallacy is that if we adopt a position somewhere in between these two alleged extremes what argument is there to suggest that we will end up with the “best” aspects of each system rather than the worst? In spite of the socialistic element income inequality and wealth concentration in the hands of a few elites seems to be worsening, not getting better; and in spite of the capitalistic element we have failed to have any meaningful growth since 2008. May be it is the alleged good parts of each system that are cancelling each other out and not the bad? The fundamental flaw, however, is that the assessment of the characteristics of capitalist and socialist economies that identifies their good and bad aspects are partly wrong and it is the wrongly diagnosed parts that are exaggerated in making the case for a mixed economic system. The good aspects of capitalism, private property and free exchange – such as economic growth and marked increases in the standard of living – are, as we know from “Austrian” economics, true; the bad aspects, on the other hand – selfishness, inequality, greed, the business cycle, and so on – are largely false or misstated. Capitalism does not encourage anyone to be greedy or selfish at all – it just gives you the freedom to be as greedy or altruistic as you like, provided that you fulfil those ends through voluntary trade and do not engage in outright theft or fraud. What opponents of capitalism don’t like is that people, when set free, usually choose to pursue their material welfare as the first priority, while also overlooking the fact that the resulting productivity usually reduces poverty anyway. Even if it didn’t, however, it confers upon people the wherewithal to be more charitable out of choice and it is no mystery that many of the great charitable foundations – such as the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the Scout Movement and the Rotary Club – were founded in the nineteenth century or early twentieth centuries, the relatively most capitalistic period in history. Moreover, the business cycle, as we know, is not an inherent feature of a free market economy, but is caused by credit creation, something that is only sustainable with government and central bank sponsorship. Yet when justifying the “mixed” economy it is these bad aspects that are cited and emphasised in an attempt to cajole people into accepting a blended economic system. Turning to socialism, we know that such a system would obliterate all productivity and the standard of living would sink far below that to which we are now accustomed. Its bad aspects are, therefore, all true. Yet the good aspects – greater equality, fairness, and anything that can be categorised under the current, in-vogue term of “social justice”, are all patently false. Socialism does not create any equality at all; it does not mean that every portion of wealth in existence will be carved up into equal shares for everyone to then enjoy. Instead, it transfers the power over whole resources from private producers, who must maintain their ability to satisfy consumers in order to retain that privilege, to politicians and bureaucrats. Nationalising an industry does not give you, the average citizen, any greater access to the goods and services tied up in that industry. Rather you are left even more at the bottom of the heap than before as the political lords and masters decide what that industry will produce, what prices you will pay, what level of service you will receive and you are stuck with whatever they decide to give you – providing that the inefficiency and waste of state run industries has anything left to give. The very reason why property rights and ownership exist is precisely because there is no agreement on how resources should be used. This problem exists under socialism as it does under capitalism and one person’s decision must, at some point, overrule all others; any equal “voting” influence that you might have in this regard may be restricted to a one off, catch-all election every four or five years and in the meantime you have to suffer whatever it is that the electoral victors throw down from their table. Under capitalism, however, your voting influence is felt all the time in a highly specific manner through your spending habits. If a producer fails to produce what you want at a price you can pay he loses you there and then. Not so under socialism where you have to put up with whatever the upper elite, controlling all resources, decides will be produced. Furthermore, providing social safety nets and welfare states in pursuit of some kind of “social justice” does not result in a society that is more caring and sharing. If anything, the adage “from each according to his means to each according to his needs” completely disintegrates any moral fervour. By separating individual productivity from individual reward, wealth creation is turned into an stockpile to which a person contributes that which he is able according to his “means” then takes out according to his “needs”. Unsurprisingly, every person seeks to minimise the amount he has to put in through toil and sweat and maximise what he can take out in goods and services that he can sit back and enjoy without effort. This results in a population that fails to cultivate its talents towards increasing wealth such as hard work, responsibility and self-reliance and replaces them with characteristics that make them needy and pitiful, with an added layer of laziness, corruption and freeloading. This is precisely the problem faced by our bloated welfare states today and why they are completely bankrupt – demand has swollen to such an extent while supply has been hopelessly dwindled. None of this is exactly the antidote to “greed” and “selfishness” that advocates of the mixed economy might expect. Additionally, the resulting scarcity usually spawns black markets and underground trade, increasing the scope of legally defined criminality and, in worst case scenarios, penalising the population for attempting to acquire what should be every day goods and services.

A further fallacy is the assertion that private enterprise does some thing” better than government while government does other things better than private enterprise and we should look to the “evidence” to decide who should do what. But by what standard do you conclude that something is being done better by one or by the other – and by what standard do we judge whether a certain activity should be carried on at all? Private enterprises make this judgment through the profit and loss test; the quantity and quality of resources devoted to production of a good and service is rationed by its ability to make a profit, indicating the height of its demand by consumers. A service will be of low quality or unavailable to certain sections of the population simply because consumers are not willing to support a more extensive level of production in that particular industry. The reason why broadband internet was not, in the UK, extended to all rural communities without the force of government was not evidence of “market failure”. It simply meant that the more extensive resources necessary when compared to urban areas were required more urgently to produce other goods and services that people wanted to buy. Any “evaluator” who determines from the “evidence” that government is needed for rural broadband cabling is necessarily substituting his own value judgments for everyone else’s, denying them the goods that they really demanded and giving them those that are not. Nor can we fall back on the assertion that government should run “essential” industries for there is no such thing as an “essential” industry. Humans do not evaluate goods and services in whole, homogenous concepts such as “fire services”, “health services”, “utilities” and so on – rather they are demanded in specific quantities in specific times and places. What is most highly valued by an individual changes from moment to moment. While we may think of “medicine” as “important” we can easily imagine ourselves in a situation where we would prefer to do something “unimportant” like watch television rather than produce another bottle of penicillin – and some people may not want medicine at all if they maintain their health. Precisely the point where we stop devoting resource to the production of penicillin and move them towards producing televisions can only be judged by the profit and loss test of the free market. Any other judgment is necessarily arbitrary and at variance with the demands of consumers. In any case, as libertarians, we might also ask if an industry is really critical why on earth would you want it in the hands of the government where it can be royally screwed up? And why would it even need to be? If it is heavily in demand then profit opportunities will abound and private entities will have no problem meeting it – it is the unessential industries with low demand that struggle to stay afloat without government support.

The real reason, of course, why we have ended up with this system is, in fact, pragmatic rather than intellectual. Capitalism is the goose that has laid the golden egg and any decimation of capitalism would very quickly destroy the standard of living of the citizenry, prompting a swift revolution. Yet government yearns for power and control and cannot be content with letting things be; it therefore has to paint capitalism as this necessary evil which, like a dangerous pet, somehow brings good things when controlled in the right way. Ironically, of course, it is government interference in an attempt to provide a socialistic element that brings about the chaos and injustice that is blamed on capitalism. We have boom and bust because of government-sponsored credit creation, and the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer because the government bails out these cronies from the resulting disarray at the expense of the rest of us. Indeed, having a “safety net” against the alleged “sink or swim” nature of capitalism has turned out very well if you are an investment banker. None of this would happen in a genuine, capitalist economy.

The mixed economy is therefore nothing but an unjustifiable charade, built upon alleged weaknesses of capitalism and supposed strengths of socialism that simply do not exist.  Genuine economic prosperity for everyone in a fair and just society populated by morally healthy individuals can only come through unfettered private property and free exchange – not through government’s attempt to meddle with it.

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