Immigration

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The subject of immigration is keenly debated both within libertarian circles and in the mainstream, having been an important issue in the British referendum to leave or remain in the European Union on June 23rd and also in the forthcoming US Presidential election in November. This essay will outline the core libertarian theory concerning immigration before examining the key area for contention among libertarians – whether, in a world populated by states, any particular state should restrict or otherwise control movements across the border by persons who are not considered to be citizens of that particular state and whether this is in accordance with libertarian theory. We will also explore the additional question, assuming the same, worldwide condition of individual states, of which ways immigration can be said to be a “good” thing and in which ways it can said to be a “bad” thing.

In strict libertarian theory there is no treatment of immigration separate from the general libertarian approach to private property. In a libertarian world all pieces of homesteaded land would be owned by private individuals. Although the owners of neighbouring or otherwise closely situated pieces of land may share a common language, ethnicity and culture, there would be no legally defined national borders; all we would have are the borders, or rather, the boundaries of each parcel of private property marking the point where one person’s ownership ends and another person’s begins. Who, how and when other individuals cross these borders is a private matter for the property owner. It is his property and he can welcome and exclude whomever he likes and on whichever terms he likes. If the property in question is his home then his closest, most immediate family, who may also live there, are likely to have unrestricted access; more distant family and friends may be granted access at mutually agreeable times when they wish to see each other; a lodger will have access governed by a tenancy or licence agreement; and “handymen” or contractors may be granted temporary access to carry out certain work that the owner pays them to undertake. Everybody else in the world, on the other hand, is likely to be excluded. At no point, prior to any agreement or contract with the owner, does any person have a legal right to cross the border of another person’s property. An uninvited crossing is, in libertarian theory, defined as unlawful, aggressive behaviour and may be met legitimately with physical resistance. The only places where people could wander wherever they please, except for their own property, would be onto un-homesteaded or ownerless land as only in this condition would they be undertaking an action which does not interfere with the prior rights of another individual.

In a world populated by states, however, there are not just borders or boundaries between privately owned pieces of land; rather, there are borders between whole swathes of territory which form the landmass of the states. A particular stretch of land immediately on one of these borders need not be privately owned – it may be publicly owned if it is a road or a park or even ownerless if it is, say, an unkempt meadow (although the government will, of course, claim ownership over all un-homesteaded land). In such a world the question concerning immigration would not be whether immigrants would have the right to enter your home or, say, your privately owned business premises; not even the staunchest supporter of immigration contends that this should be the case and if we assume, as minarchists do, that the state has a legitimate responsibility to protect individual parcels of privately owned property from uninvited access by either foreign or domestic individuals then this stance is perfectly in accordance with libertarian theory. Rather, the issue concerns whether the state should grant, without question, prospective immigrants a right to enter the territory of the state at certain, designated  points on the border into publicly owned or ownerless territory that the state nevertheless claims is within its jurisdiction. This, necessarily, raises the further question of whether successful immigrants would be at liberty to access all publicly owned territory, such as roads, to use publicly funded facilities and to claim publicly funded welfare.

In this imperfect world of state borders the question we as libertarians have to answer boils down to how, in libertarian theory, we should treat the ownership of publicly owned land. If the government permits any foreigner to cross the border into publicly owned land can such an arrangement be equivocated with, or approximated to, an uninvited, physical invasion of owned property, in which case it would not be permitted? Or is it an action that is more equivalent to crossing into ownerless or un-homesteaded land and thus does not violate the rights of an existing owner? If we lean towards the first possibility then the resulting situation would be one of “open borders” – the de facto right of any foreigner to cross into publicly owned or ownerless territory of another state. However, if the answer is no then it does not follow that closed borders would result – it is only a quasi-invasion if foreigners cross uninvited. To listen to the mainstream arguments one would be forgiven for thinking that the immigration question needs to be met by an all or nothing answer – it is apparently a contest between liberals, or self-styled “progressives”, clamouring for fully porous borders on the one hand versus conservative, racist bigots who supposedly want to keep everyone out. We reject this false dichotomy and recognise that it is quite possible to be in favour of permitted, regulated immigration – allowing some people to cross the border as immigrants to come and live and work in the territory of the state while denying that privilege to others.

The most convincing reconciliation of this situation with libertarian theory is arrived at by asking a simple question. If the state was to dissolve itself today who, if anyone, would have the strongest ownership claim over the publicly owned land to which immigrants would gain access if they were permitted to cross the border? It is doubtful that such land can be construed convincingly as unowned given that it contains significant infrastructure – roads, railways, utility networks and so on – that have been deliberately engineered, bringing the land into a developed condition that is far from its natural, ownerless state. This infrastructure was paid for by the domestic, tax paying citizens for the benefit of domestic, tax paying citizens, and was not paid for by foreigners who have not been tax payers. It follows, therefore, that the strongest ownership claims to publicly owned land reside with the domestic, tax paying citizens of the state. As long as, therefore, the state owns and operates this land on behalf of the tax paying citizens it should be construed as the owned property of those citizens, to which non-owners can be excluded from entry in just the same way as a house owner may exclude strangers from his house. Thus it is reasonable to suggest that foreigners do not have a legitimate right to cross a state border. Moreover, if the opposite was true and libertarian theory was construed publicly owned land as ownerless then it would seemingly allow foreigners, or indeed, anyone, to homestead this land and take it out of public ownership. The suggestion that one could homestead a major road to the exclusion of the rights of those who were forced, by the state, to pay for that road’s construction, is clearly absurd.

An objection to this suggestion is that non-taxpaying domestic citizens, such as low earners and children, will be permitted access to the publicly funded infrastructure. If we are ascribing ownership of public assets to those who fund them through tax contributions then shouldn’t these domestic, non-taxpayers be excluded too? In the first place we could suggest that the taxpaying citizens – i.e. the taxpaying parents of children and taxpaying businesses who need customers to access them via public roads – have extended a quasi-invitation to non-taxpayers to use the publicly funded infrastructure. However, before we begin to contort our analogy in a tortuous fashion we have to remember that no answer we can give in this regard is going to be perfect. A world populated by states is not a perfect situation with which libertarian theory has to deal. Libertarian theory properly excludes the state entirely; however, if we have to suffer the state in some form then there is an impetus upon us to make it function in the most liberty-oriented way, an endeavour we can only accomplish by approximating ownership as it would be in a stateless society rather than by replicating it entirely. Moreover, it is probably not possible to distinguish taxpaying citizens from non-taxpayers on a public highway, whereas it is eminently possible to exclude foreigners at a frontier.

If we maintain this theme of attempting to approximate ownership in a stateless society we can also determine the situations where foreigners would be permitted to cross a border. As we noted earlier, in libertarian theory owners may invite non-owners onto their property as and when they see fit and upon whichever terms are agreed. Such an entry would not then be an invasion. The most likely way that such invitations could be extended to cross state borders would be if a foreigner is offered employment within the territory of the state, or married into a domestic family. Alternatively, perhaps, a foreigner may purchase property that is within the territory of the state. Critically, however, these invitations should initiate from private sources and private exchanges, not from quota systems or other arbitrary rules and restrictions emanating from the state. Not only does this serve more convincingly our approximation of public ownership with private ownership, but there are also sound economic reasons for stating that this should be the case. If, for example, an invitation to cross the border is dependent upon an offer of employment from a private company or individual it demonstrates that the skills possessed by the immigrant are genuinely in short supply within the domestic population as perceived by the real wealth creators. The immigrant will arrive and will be integrated into the employer’s workforce immediately, co-operating with the existing, domestic co-workers in the production of goods and services. This is less likely to exist with either unlimited immigration, or immigration defined according to government direction, where the influx of immigrants may simply be creating a greater supply of labour which pushes down the wages of existing, domestic workers, and is likely to increase racial tension and xenophobia.

Indeed, the economic cases for and against immigration are rarely stated correctly in the mainstream debate and so it is worth our while to concentrate on these for a moment. Those who advocate open borders will be keen to point out that immigrants bring productivity and skills which serve to increase the standard of living of the indigenous population. Those who argue for restriction, on the other hand, will stress that, in fact, an influx of foreign workers simply competes with domestic workers for employment opportunities, sowing the impression that foreigners are “stealing our jobs”. Both points of view contain kernels of truth yet neither is valid in all situations. Whether or not immigration is a benefit or a burden concerns whether labour and capital goods are balanced in a particular location. The applicable economic theorem in this regard is the law of returns, which states that if the quantity of a factor of production is increased while the quantities of the complementary factors are held constant, there will come a point when the increases will produce diminishing returns and, eventually, no returns at all. For example, a farmer who wishes to grow crops may take land, seeds, water and fertiliser as his factors of production. If he holds the quantity of land, seeds and water constant while increasing the quantity of fertiliser then at first he will experience increasing crop yields per additional unit of fertiliser he deploys. Eventually, however, further increases of fertiliser will produce fewer and fewer crops per additional unit deployed without further increases in land, water and seeds, until eventually there will be no additional returns at all. Finally, of course, production will cease altogether when the land becomes buried under a mountain of fertiliser. If, on the other hand, there are increases in the quantities of complementary factors of production in addition to increases in the quantity of fertiliser, it is possible for the farmer to experience an increase in crop yields per additional unit of fertiliser deployed. Exactly the same is true when the increased factor is not fertiliser on a farm, but is, rather, human labour. If labour is increased, through population increases, but it is not possible to increase the complementary factors of production then the increase in population will simply result in diminishing returns and an overall reduction of per capita real incomes. This will be particularly acute if there is a sudden influx of a particular type of labourer that requires specific types of complementary goods in order to be productive. If there is an increase in low-skilled, manual labourers then a given territory also needs to have the additional factories, machines, tools and equipment for them to use. If it does not then the existing stock of such items simply has to be used more intensively by a greater number of labourers, which, if the increase in labour is left unchecked, is the recipe for diminishing returns. There is no point in shipping in a boatload of carpenters if there isn’t enough timber for them to work on, or if there are not enough workshops to house them; it is futile to welcome more workers onto a car assembly line if the assembly line itself has not been built, or if there is a shortage of steel or aluminium. In principle, at least, this extends to highly skilled labour as well. If a state brings in from overseas a load of doctors then the additional hospitals, surgeries and medical equipment have to be available too. Obviously the situation can become dire if the incoming population cannot work at all – for example, if there are a lot of children suddenly entering a territory, or those otherwise demanding educational services, then there needs to be the additional schools and colleges, otherwise existing class sizes simply swell and the quality of education (i.e. the “returns” on inputs into education services) diminishes. All of these additional capital goods – the machines, the factories, the equipment, the raw materials and so on – are demanded right from the moment that the immigrants arrive and seek work. However, their availability is not immediate as the production of capital goods requires both time and, more importantly, savings. Therefore, if the labour is specific, i.e. specialised to only one kind of occupation, then immigration will serve simply to increase the supply of labour applied to the relevant capital goods, thus pushing down wage rates for the domestic population. If, on the other hand, the skillset of the immigrant labour is unspecific then it may be possible to put them to work in creating these capital goods – i.e. building the very factories and tools they need to increase their productivity. However, capital goods do not yield an increase in productivity until they are completed and if the immigrant population is to go to the effort of creating them then they need consumer goods to sustain them during this phase of construction, a phase which may take a number of years before the additional capital goods are able to increase the supply of consumer goods. The only source of the latter is the prior production of the indigenous population. In other words, the domestic citizens have to reduce their level of consumption today in order to save and fund the additional production of capital goods, thus lowering their standard of living. The only way to induce this voluntarily is to raise interest rates so that more people save out of their current income. However, higher interest rates are precisely what are discouraged by spendthrift governments and economists hypnotised by Keynesianism, who do everything that they can to lower interest rates and decrease the incentive to save. The domestic population therefore continues to maintain its preference for consumption over saving and so all that they see is higher prices for the very consumer goods they wish to buy and lots more people from far flung lands wanting to buy them. It was the understanding of this whole phenomenon which formed the basis of Malthusianism – that if population increases outstrip gains in productivity then society becomes, overall, poorer. For the indigenous population of a given state, the incoming population simply becomes competing consumers of existing, or a barely increasing stock, of goods and services. Indeed, some libertarians have pointed out that this may be the aim of the state in the first place – to bring in more welfare parasites and weaken the wealth and power of the indigenous population, thus expanding the size and scope of government.

On the other hand, it is clear that if there has been an increase in the non-human factors of production but not an increase in labour then these factors too will be subject to the same law, the law of returns. In other words, an increasing number of machines, tools and factories will be used by the same number of labourers, with the result that the latter become spread out more thinly over a burgeoning supply of capital goods. In this instance, an increase in population is precisely what is needed to increase productivity and to make use of the additional capital stock. So, for example, if an empty factory with nobody to operate it, and machines and tools lying idle, is filled quickly by immigrant workers then productivity can rise on account of the fact that there has been a commensurate increase in labour and capital goods. Such a situation is not unheard of in areas where there are extremely favourable reasons for creating capital goods – low tax rates, strong private property rights, good transport links, and good supplies of natural resources – except for a sufficient supply of willing labour. For example, a mining business has to open up shop where the ore it wishes to mine is located. The labour must come to the ore in order to ensure any productivity from the mine. Going back to what we said earlier, if there is an under or oversupply of either labour or resources, only private business owners and entrepreneurs should make decisions as to what moves where – whether labour should be moved to where resources are or whether resources should be moved to where labour is – for only they are in a position to judge, through pricing, profit and loss, which is the most cost effective solution in ameliorating the imbalance between labour and capital goods. Any direct action by the state in this regard will simply create surpluses and shortages either of labour or of capital goods in different areas, as government management of anything always does. Indeed, in a previous essay on “Overpopulation”, the present author argued that increasing population is generally not a concern, from an economic point of view, under conditions of an unmolested division of labour; but it does become a very acute problem when government interferes in population levels, especially in specific areas. In particular, if we look at the two most extreme positions the state could take with regards to immigration – a policy of completely open borders (or even an active pursuit of higher immigration numbers) on the one hand, and a policy of completely closed borders on the other – the former will tend to lead to a surplus of labour while the latter will tend to lead to a shortage. In a world without the state where each parcel of land was owned privately, areas with relatively high populations and low concentrations of capital goods would have higher access costs – higher prices to access roads, higher property prices, higher school prices, and so on, deterring immigrants away from an area where there are already too many people. On the other hand, areas with relatively low populations and relatively high concentrations of capital goods would have lower access costs, encouraging immigrants to move to the place where there are not enough people. Thus, through the pricing system, the market sends signals to prospective immigrants telling them which areas need them and which areas do not. In a world managed by states, however, a policy of open borders will mean that the free cost of access to state controlled territory such as roads, schools and hospitals artificially lowers the cost of immigrating, a situation which is, of course, exacerbated when immigrants have either unrestricted or lightly restricted access to welfare benefits. There will therefore be more immigrants and a higher population than the area requires. On the other hand, a policy of totally closed borders artificially raises the cost of immigration to the level of imprisonment or being shot on the frontier. Thus, while for some this cost is justified (as trying to cross the Berlin Wall was, although this border was directed at keeping people in rather than out), the overall result will be fewer immigrants and a lower population than the area requires. States with heavily restrictive immigration policies, such as the United States, can often find that their domestic companies become exasperated by the difficulty in hiring foreign talent while there will be relatively more attempts to cross the border illegally.

This leads us onto another central theme concerning immigration and that is racism and xenophobia. Any treatment of the topic of immigration cannot avoid addressing these issues, particularly given that any opposition, principled or otherwise, to a policy of “open borders” is often shouted down as racist or at least racially motivated. In the first place, libertarian theory has nothing to do with racism. Our conclusion earlier, predicated on the approximation of ownership rights with regards to publicly owned property, that states may, legitimately, restrict foreigners from crossing the border into the territory of the state says only that the state may choose to exercise such a restriction on behalf of its tax-paying citizens. It may equally choose to relax or forego any restriction. Libertarian theory says nothing about the motivations that the state, its politicians and bureaucrats, and the citizens it supposedly represent, may have for making a choice either way. It states only that they may make such a choice. Libertarian theory is emphatically not motivated by anything that could be construed as racist. Moreover, if one does cross over to a value judgment and state that immigration should be restricted in certain circumstances, as the economic concerns that we just outlined suggest is wise, then it is preposterous to assume that the motivation is necessarily racist. These economic concerns would be true in a world populated entirely by whites, entirely by blacks, entirely by Asians or whomever, all speaking the same language and all with a relative cultural homogeneity. Yet the argument – that an increase of labour without an increase in complementary capital goods would lead to diminishing returns – would still be exactly the same.

Rather, what we will attempt to argue here is that racism and bigotry derive from, rather than precede, a state’s policy of fully open borders and that it is such a policy which aggravates racial tension. A libertarian policy of managed borders, with invitations to cross extended to immigrations extended by private individuals and companies would, in fact, result in a relatively peaceful world where different races would co-exist without difficulty.

The key to understanding why this is so is to do with how the economic aspects we outlined above intertwine with cultural homogeneity in a given society. A society is not simply a collection of atomistic persons doing whatever they like whenever they like, even though such a society may exist hypothetically in libertarian theory. Rather, people in a society embrace a certain culture and the particular morals, rules, habits and hierarchies that are created by that culture. The reason for this is not accidental or spurious. Rather, relatively predictable, reliable, homogenous practices across the populace as a whole not only aid but may even be absolutely necessary for effective social co-operation, and it is through social co-operation – the division of labour – that people are able to raise their standard of living for themselves and for their families.  A common language is, of course, an important, if not the most important homogenous, cultural phenomenon required for social co-operation. It is no accident that in very few places in the world there is a complete mixture of different languages and that, for the most part, different languages are separated geographically. Even a country such as Switzerland, which officially speaks French, German, Italian and Romansch has different areas in which each of these languages is dominant, with only a handful of fully bilingual areas. The barriers to social co-operation if the opposite was the case are obvious. Imagine coming to work one day and finding that your boss speaks only Russian, your co-worker Chinese while the team you manage speaks a mixture of Spanish, Welsh and Punjabi. Cultural practices extend also, however, to such apparently menial aspects as the 9am until 5pm working day, or when the main meal of the day is eaten. If people stroll into the office whenever they please or vanish at 10 in the morning to enjoy a three course meal clearly social co-operation is impaired. This is not to imply, of course, that everybody has to do absolutely the same thing all the time in a given society. However, the exceptions prove the rule and different practices – such as working at night and sleeping during the day – are regarded as unusual. Moreover, there is also the fact that humans are a tribal race – we prefer to associate with those who are familiar to us, those who do what we do and those who agree with us, if only for the comfort of predictability, regularity and routine in addition to the contribution of such aspects to social co-operation. Indeed, if the benefits of cultural homogeneity for social co-operation are true then it is possible that our preference for it is an outcome of evolution, which has biased us towards desiring things, through instinct, that ensure are our survival and betterment. However, it would be a mistake to assume that most specific cultural practices emerged randomly or through simple preferences. Rather, they were shaped and formed by the challenges presented by the specific climate, geography, topography and the available resources of the particular locale. For example, the Mediterranean practice of taking a siesta in the middle of the day originated because the temperature was too hot to work at that time. Indian food makes use of a lot of spices because of the difficulties in preserving food in such a hot climate, a difficulty that was not quite so prevalent in regions further from the equator. The practice of circumcision originated out of the challenges posed to male hygiene and comfort in a hot desert environment. The creation of the family unit and sexual fidelity, which we take for granted today, originated at least in part from the need for fathers to bear the costs of raising their children when population levels in hunter gatherer communities began to outstrip resources, something which could not be managed in a culture of “free love”. The family is a cultural practice we see all over the world because the problem it solved was experienced throughout the world, whereas less universal cultural practices sought to solve only specific, local problems.

When immigrants move from one state to another they are usually moving from one culture to another – from one language, one religion, one set of social norms, one type of cuisine, and so on, to something else with varying degrees of difference. If a relatively homogenous culture is both a natural human preference, is a requirement for effective social co-operation, then it follows that cultures of both the immigrants and the indigenous population of a given state are not likely to mix naturally within the same locale and that, rather, one set of cultural practices must yield to the other. This is particularly so when the cultural practices of the immigrants were developed with regards to the challenges posed by their homeland and may be superfluous or completely contradictory to what is required in the state to which they have emigrated. When, as we outlined above, individual immigrants are invited to the state by individual persons and companies to accept an offer of employment it is because there is a pressing, economic need for their presence – there is a surplus of capital goods and equipment and a shortage of labour. The immigrants, in this instance, will begin work immediately and will mould themselves into the cultural practices and habits of the indigenous population. Furthermore, their skills and abilities, being in genuine short supply, will be recognised and appreciated by their co-workers, with whom they will be co-operating to create more wealth and a greater standard of living, rather than competing to consume an existing stock of wealth. It is true, of course, that immigrants may retain cultural practices of their homeland in the domestic situation of their own home; however, the first generation of children, born in the state to where their parents have emigrated, will become heavily surrounded by its culture. To them, this new state is their homeland and not a foreign place and they will know little to nothing of their parents’ place of origin. Thus they become even more integrated into the culture of the new state and will most likely consider themselves as citizens of the new state even if they retain an obeisance to the state from which their parents emigrated. This is not to imply, of course, that the culture of the immigrants will be completely eradicated. Indeed, in some cases, foreign cultural practices find their way into the indigenous culture. The delights of foreign cuisine, for example, are often embraced by a domestic population, as Indian and Chinese food has throughout the West. All we are saying is that at if social co-operation is to be pursued to its fullest extent, one of the cultures must become recessive and to the extent that the immigrant population form a minority it is likely to be the indigenous culture that remains dominant. The outcome, of course, is a prosperous society where immigrants and natives work together peacefully without racial tension or xenophobia.

Contrast this situation, however, with the case of where it is the government of the state which welcomes immigrants to its territory, either through a policy of open borders or according to some artificial quota system which is wholly unrelated to the genuine demand for additional labour within the state. Here, the immigrants will arrive without offers of employment but they will quickly look for them. However, because there is no demand for additional labour at the existing wage rates the effect of the arrival of the immigrants is to push existing wage rates down for the indigenous population. Thus the latter draws the perception that immigrants are simply creating a crowd, a crowd which competes for existing resources but seemingly does little to add productive value. This becomes exacerbated by minimum wage laws and other costly employment regulations that the state heaps upon employers – if wage rates drop below these levels then unemployment must result. Hence the perception that foreigners are coming over to “steal” jobs from the indigenous population, although both will be afflicted. Moreover, if the immigrants cannot find jobs then it is less likely that they will be integrated into the working practices and the cultural environment of their new state. What results, therefore, is that they form their own communities and their own local economies which, with little impetus to do otherwise, retains the cultural distinction of their homeland. Hence, the perception amongst the indigenous population, that entire towns and communities are being “invaded” by an alien culture and that one’s own homeland is being turned into an outpost of some far and distant country. The stage is set, therefore, for an increase in racial tension and xenophobia, an increase which will be exacerbated if the government follows a deliberate policy of multiculturalism – i.e. the explicit intention to create numerous cultures within the same society where one was previously dominant by inviting immigrants. Multiculturalism has rarely existed under purely voluntary conditions. The only exception is where vast swathes of immigrants from different places move to a previously uninhabited or sparsely habited area. The difference here, however, is that everyone, from wherever they have come, has moved to the new land in order to make a better life for themselves and they are attempting to do so in a place where there are few, if any, indigenous persons of a given culture seeking to preserve an existing culture. Everyone, in other words, is embracing change and the challenges that come with improving their lives, rather than attempting to defend one that already exists. Such was the early history of the United States which, of course, was populated by immigrants from all over the world.

What we can see, therefore, is that policies of open borders and forced integration are the cause of racism and xenophobia through economic and cultural clashes. They are not the solutions to these problems. However, even if there were no economic barriers to welcoming immigrants to a given state and even if the only motivation for indigenous people to exclude them was racism and xenophobia that sprung from their own minds entirely as a matter of preference, our priority is to ensure that all of the six billion people of different creeds, colours, races, and religions are able to co-exist peacefully on this small rock hurtling through space. If different peoples and cultures living in separate geographical locations achieves this whereas mixing them all together in a single place causes them to fight then it is reasonable suggest that preference should be given to the former.

Progressives often label their policy of mixing cultures in the same locale as a policy of achieving “diversity”. Yet the world as a whole already is a diverse place. Some places are hot, some places are cold, some are wet, some are dry, some have fertile soil while some are barren. As we said earlier, this diversity of geography, climate and topography, together with the unique challenges posed by each difference with which humans have to deal, is what creates diverse cultures. The forced creating of “diversity” in every single locale simply amounts to a travesty. Not only does mixing every culture everywhere in every location, in fact, create bland uniformity as opposed to diversity, it is the equivalent of trying to put a mountain, a hot desert, and a jungle all in New York City. To that extent we might say that attempting to create “diversity” is a utopian revolt against nature.

Conclusion

To summarise what we have concluded here:

  • In a world where the existence of states is assumed, the ownership of state property should be approximated to the ownership of the state’s tax paying citizens, thus ruling out a right, in libertarian theory, for non-taxpaying foreigners to cross the border;
  • That invitations to cross the border should be made to prospective immigrants by private companies and individuals;
  • Such a policy would prevent the relative surplus or shortage of labour experienced when the state actively manages immigration policy; labour and capital goods would be channelled, through pricing, profit and loss to where they are most needed;
  • That it is relative surpluses of labour through policies of open borders, forced integration and the pursuit of multiculturalism, which are the causes, and not the solutions to, racism and xenophobia. The prevention of surpluses of labour through the method we described would also prevent such racial and cultural clashes and is more likely to create a world of peace and prosperity for all persons, regardless of colour or creed.

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Against the Welfare State – and Bank Bailouts

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The welfare state is undoubtedly one of the elements of government opposed by libertarians, not only due to its inherent injustice and economic destructiveness, but also because of its ability to provide fuel and sustenance to the growth of the metastasising state

If we are launch a critique of the welfare state we must first attempt to define it and to distinguish it from other categories of government activity. Such a task is not an immediately clear cut one as, fundamentally, all government expenditure sustains the welfare of its beneficiaries. If the government launches an invasion of a foreign country, spending on military grade weaponry, aircraft and whatever else will very much contribute to the “welfare” of armaments manufacturers yet we wouldn’t ordinarily classify this as part of the welfare state. Similarly, if the government decides to build a new road or railway line we wouldn’t usually describe this as providing “welfare” to the construction workers who undertake the leg work (although certain “job creation” schemes that simply pay people to carry out pointless work could be classified as welfare).

Whether or not a particular government outlay is classified as part of the welfare state is therefore defined more by its purpose rather than by its effect. The purpose of a foreign war is usually to gain control of valuable resources (even if it is veneered with an alternative justification such as spreading freedom and democracy). The purpose of building a road or railway is to “improve” the country’s transportation and communication networks. None of these projects is designed to provide some kind of comfortable lifestyle to those who undertake them (and, ignoring the possibility of benefiting favoured lobbyists and donors, to the extent that a government has a particular purpose in mind and wishes to achieve it efficiently it will have a desire to remunerate its suppliers as little as possible rather than as highly).

Welfare spending, on the other hand, is markedly different. Its purpose is always couched in the language of providing some kind of “help”, “care”, or “assistance” to the citizenry, as if the government is a giant nanny who appears with an equally giant milk bottle whenever one’s own teat runs dry. Given this, then, we can attempt to define the welfare state as that portion of government activity which is devoted to the sustenance of either the existing lifestyle of a particular citizen or to a lifestyle that is thought to be the minimum that is equitable in terms of wealth and income. The welfare state therefore provides a cushion or relief from events that may intercede in that lifestyle so, for example, if you get sick, the government will provide you with either free or subsidised healthcare; if you lose your job you will be entitled to unemployment benefit; and if you have baby the government will give you some money so that you are able to take care of it and give it an “adequate” upbringing. Granted, this definition if the welfare state is not precise and it will overlap with many other types of expenditure – few government outlays have a single purpose, even if some of these purposes are not made public – but we can be satisfied that it is reasonably accurate.

In spite of the fact that the welfare state is a moral issue and that its proponents believe that its existence is justified by the fact that the able should take care of the less able (“from each according to his means to each according to his needs”) it is arguable that the strength of its cause derives more from a misunderstanding of economics and that an amelioration of these misunderstandings is likely to weaken the foundations of the welfare state most effectively. Rather, therefore, than elaborating on the fact that the welfare state is, in a genuine free market, a morally unjustifiable confiscation and redistribution of property from its owners to non-owners respectively, let us concentrate mainly on a proper realisation of the economic effects of the welfare state in order to find the source of its undoing.

The type of welfare spending that we will focus on specifically is the bailout of the banks. This selection may appear surprising as surely most supporters of the welfare state are flat out opposed to bailing out the banks? And yet if we look closely, the qualities of bankers’ bailouts fits our definition of welfare spending all but perfectly. The financial services industry was accustomed to its business of expanding credit during the boom years and ploughing them into ultimately unsustainable malinvestments; its practitioners were richly rewarded for doing so and could afford big houses, expensive cars, private schools for their children, exotic foreign holidays, and so on. Metaphorically, they became accustomed to a lifestyle of gambling and partying fuelled by the punch bowl of monetary expansion. Following the inevitable crash that revealed the extent of the malinvestments and the huge losses that would ensue, the bailout of the banks was designed precisely to prevent the liquidation of this crumbling economic structure so that the banks could keep on making loans, keep on making profits from those loans, and so their top employees would not lose the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. It was meant to refill the punch bowl and to keep the music playing so that the party would never end. The difference, therefore, between bankers’ bailouts and what we typically regard as the welfare state is simply a matter of degree, not of kind. They each provide a taxpayer funded cushion for their respective beneficiaries that insulates their lifestyles from the effects of either their own choices or from events that are beyond their control. Indeed, the collapse of the financial services industry as we know it would also have seriously curtailed the ability of governments to retain their accustomed lifestyle of borrowing and spending. To that extent, therefore, the bank bailouts were an exercise in self-preservation. The only perceived difference between bank bailouts and the welfare state is that the beneficiaries of the former were “rich” and not “poor”, which, it must be understood, is itself a misrepresentation. Many of those affected by a collapse of the financial services sector would not necessarily have been multi-millionaires as any insolvencies and downsizing is likely to have hit those lower down the pecking order first such as local branch managers and tellers before it hit those in the penthouse offices.

We have outlined this description of bank bailouts because every single argument that welfare statists use to oppose them are, in fact, the very same arguments that apply to their conception of the welfare state. We will therefore take each of these arguments in turn and show just how both bank bailouts and the welfare state, which are both a form of welfare spending, are economically destructive.

The first argument against the bank bailouts used by its opponents is that it creates moral hazard. In other words, if the banks can privatise their gains yet socialise their losses it provides an incentive to carry on and, indeed, augment the very destructive activity that was the source of the problem in the first place. All of this is true and we can have no quarrel with it. Yet it applies equally to the welfare state as well. Proponents of the welfare state imagine that if the government throws money at all of the events that manifest themselves as pitfalls in one’s own lifestyle then these pitfalls will simply go away. However if the government simply pays for a problem when it occurs then it creates as much of a moral hazard as the bank bailouts because all you have done is simply lowered the cost to individuals of bearing these pitfalls – and lowered cost leads to a swelled demand. If you pay people when they get sick, there will be more sickness; if you pay people when they are unemployed there will be more unemployment; if you pay people when they have children people will produce more children that need a roof and need feeding. The welfare state is not the solution to the problems it seeks to resolve; it is, rather, a fertiliser for their growth and proliferation, just as bank bailouts are a fertiliser for the growth of credit expansion, malinvestment and repeated boom and bust cycles.

The second argument against bank bailouts, related to the one we just outlined, is that it shoves the cost of the bad decisions of the bankers onto the shoulders of everybody else. Yet isn’t this precisely what the welfare state does? Welfare statists imagine that nearly every unfortunate circumstance in which people find themselves is not the product of their own making and that they are therefore blameless and should be (patronisingly) pitied – in short, that people do not bear any responsibility for their own circumstances. However, this is not the case with many of the issues that the welfare state attempts to address. As was argued in a previous essay on universal healthcare, the majority of medical ailments from which people suffer are not the unfortunate result of a random, illness lottery but are, rather, directly related to their environment and lifestyle – particularly diet, exercise and consumption of alcohol, tobacco and narcotics. If, therefore, people choose to pursue a lifestyle of eating gluttonously, exercising little and smoking and drinking heavily with this resulting in sickness, then if the government picks up the tab this simply forces the cost of these bad decisions onto everyone else. People, in most cases, choose to have children, or at least to engage in the intercourse that results in children – it isn’t a random, spontaneous event that appears out of nowhere to inflict itself upon people’s lifestyles. To the extent, therefore, that people cannot afford to raise these children properly and the government intervenes then the cost of other people’s bad decisions is again shovelled onto the shoulders of everybody else. But even those aspects of the welfare state that are not necessarily the fault of the individuals concerned – such as unemployment – is usually the result of government anyway. Low employability is caused not only by inadequate state education, but also government interference in the labour market such as minimum wages and excessive regulations that cause the cost of employment to exceed that of the productivity of the lowest skilled workers. Why, therefore, do welfare statists propose a government solution to what is a government created problem? Why not just get rid of the government created problem?

The third argument against bank bailouts is that they perpetuate what we might call a crony “corp-tocracy” where taxpayers’ money is siphoned off into the hands of the government’s favoured millionaire chums. Yet this is precisely the result of the welfare state also. Although the nominal beneficiaries of the welfare state are individual people, someone has to be paid in order to carry out the work of the welfare state. Not only does a welfare state require the creation and sustenance of a vast, leeching bureaucracy to administer it all but particular parts of the welfare state have to be contracted out to individual specialists. For example, public housing schemes need to find construction companies, hospitals need to find doctors and they need to purchase medicines from drug companies. The interests of these suppliers to the welfare state is to ensure that their compensation for carrying out their tasks is as high as possible; indeed, one of the reasons why the welfare state is such a burgeoning expense is because the disconnect between the consumer that pays and the supplier that is paid results in spiralling costs for the services of the latter, with the result that the majority of welfare spending goes not to the individual people but straight into the bank accounts of large corporations and contractors. Moreover, the welfare state is not usually a fixed pool of services that are provided by the government, but includes also private organisations and charities that lobby the government for money in order to solve the particular societal “problems” and grievances that they happen to have identified. Much of this money is simply wasted, as suggested by the recent collapse of Kids Company, a UK children’s charity, around a week after it received a £3 million grant from the government. Indeed, in the UK – when the chief executives of high profile charities are paid six figure salaries and they have been chastised for “aggressive” funding raising strategies that were recently attributed, at least in part, to the death of a pensioner – the substantive difference between a charity on the one hand and a corporation on the other is becoming increasingly questioned.

The fourth argument against bank bailouts is that they distort the economy, shovelling excess funding into the financial services sector and expanding their profits at the expense of other industries. Again, nothing about this is untrue and, indeed, as “Austrian” economists we would make an even more detailed case about how the resulting credit expansion distorts the consumption/investment ratio in order to result in unsustainable malinvestments across the entire economy. Yet the welfare state distorts the economy also, only in a more incremental and pacing manner. In the first place, the increased incentive caused by the welfare state to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to solve, such as sickness and unemployment, reduces the capacity of the labour market and thus shrinks the extent of the division of labour that would otherwise have been possible. Second, the burgeoning cost of the welfare state caused by an artificially inflated demand for welfare requires more and more resources to be confiscated by the government in order to fund it. Thus, the areas of the economy that are devoted to providing welfare are swollen at the expense of other areas of the economy which must correspondingly shrink. Third, this is compounded by the fact that a large, government pot of gold encourages rent seeking behaviour, which in the case of welfare means (as we stated above) large numbers of special interest groups lobby the government each with a claim that they have identified some societal affliction that is ripe for resolution by government spending. Governments are eager to attract this kind of attention for more government spending means not only more power and prestige but also provides another outlet with which to bribe citizens with their own money when making election “promises”. The result of this, again, is that the total portion of the economy that is devoted to welfare spending is artificially inflated compared to what consumers would otherwise prefer.

The final argument against bank bailouts that we will consider is that they create a feeling of bitterness and resentment in the general population, a fissure of hate, contempt and distrust between the bankers and the people whom they supposedly serve. Again, all of this is true. However, it applies just as readily to the welfare state. Its proponents usually justify the imposition of the welfare state by stating that it is morally good for us to care and look after one another as if we are all one big family. This may be true enough, but the welfare state does not create that situation. In order to become a morally better person I have to choose to care and to look after my fellow man – I have to decide to do it voluntarily. I am looked upon with admiration because in spite of all of the personal luxuries I could have spent my money on, I willingly deprived myself of them and was happy to give the money to a person in need. The welfare state, however, does not give me any choice in this regard – it just forces me to do it regardless of what I want. The action, therefore, is not as the result of any personal sympathy or empathy for the plight of the less fortunate, nor of any aspiration to moral heights. Instead, the void left by an absence of sympathy and empathy is likely to be filled by bitterness and resentment as my hard earned money has just been confiscated from me to go to people who I believe may not deserve it, particularly if it goes to some cause that I may disagree qualifies for welfare spending (such as breast enhancement surgery on the NHS or unemployment benefits to those who are just workshy). The welfare state therefore creates the opposite of any charitable feeling whatsoever and destroys any notion of brotherhood or family. When this is coupled with the welfare state’s encouragement of the afflictions it seeks to solve then the result is a society with a lower, rather than higher, moral standing. This is exacerbated by the interdependent relationship between bank bailouts on the one hand and the welfare state on the other. Bank bailouts mean that the banks take the money of the taxpaying public and plough it into assets so that the income of anyone who owns these assets – i.e. the bankers themselves – is swollen while the incomes of those who do not stagnates. The resulting price inflation lifts the affordability of assets such as houses and basic necessities, such as food, out of the grasp of those on low incomes. The consequence is another artificially swollen demand for welfare to give ordinary people somewhere to live and something to eat. Thus, the poorest in society demand increased taxes on the rich – i.e. the very bankers who were bailed out – in order to fund increased welfare spending. The result, therefore, is a toing and froing of mutual theft, a circle of robbery where bankers demand taxpayers’ money to continue their casino operations, after which everyone else demands some of it back to ameliorate the resulting effects. Far from being a moral and harmonious society all we end up with is hating each other and trying to grab whatever we can out of each other’s pockets.

What we can see from this brief comparison of the welfare state to bank bailouts, therefore, is that there is very little qualitative difference between the two and that the arguments that are used to oppose bank bailouts apply just as easily to the welfare state. The amelioration of welfare demand is achieved not through the redistribution of a fixed pool wealth but through the raising of real incomes by increasing the productive output per person. In order to achieve this we need to eliminate both the bank bailouts and the welfare state so that we can return to a genuine economy where everyone serves each other rather than engages in mutual plunder. The rich would have to earn their wealth by directing and increasing the productive capacity of the economy to best meet the needs of the consumer; the poor earn their money by providing the labour to bring about this direction, with their wages being able to buy more and more goods as a result of the increased output. Not only would this create a more prosperous society where poverty has truly been consigned to the history books, but the vanquishing of hatred, resentment and antagonism would create a morally superior one too.

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British Election Headlines

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The UK is currently enduring the general election campaigns of its political parties prior to the vote on May 7th. Needless to say this is provoking the usual raft of daily daft headlines where the balloted buffoons attempt to outdo each other in promising us endless rounds of goodies paid for with our own money. This is exacerbated by the fact that the total lack of fundamental ideological difference between the main contenders makes a hung parliament the most likely result. This essay comments on a number of them that have appeared over the past few weeks.

Healthcare

“We’ll find £8bn more for the NHS!” (Conservative)

£8bn makes for a pretty fantastic headline. Unfortunately the only thing that the NHS will be nursing with it is itself, as this crippled corner of the welfare state experiences spiralling costs which claim an increasing proportionate share of the UK’s GDP and whose waiting times for operations have hit a seven year high this month.

Taxes

“End the non-dom status!” (Labour)

This refers to the non-domiciled tax status where certain foreign UK residents can exclude their non-UK income from their tax liability. The allowance is seen to be a bone of contention among the less well-off British public who had the misfortune to be born in the UK and hence have to pay tax on all of their worldly income. Needless to say, creating “tax fairness” is about increasing the taxes of the rich instead of just cutting them for everyone else. Talking of tax loopholes…

“Labour will raise an extra £7.5bn a year through closing tax loopholes and imposing bigger fines on tax avoiders”

Politicians seem to be promising endlessly to “close tax loopholes” in order to either increase revenue or induce tax equality. By their own standards, we have to wonder what is taking them so long to do this. Aren’t we going to run out of loopholes at some point? Or maybe if you set up a compulsory monopoly of violence the wealthy will always have the greater wherewithal to infiltrate it and tune it to its benefits. Yet again there is also the blurring of the legal distinction between tax evasion, which is illegal, and tax avoidance which is legal. So a Labour government would believe that it is OK to fine you for behaving legally.

“Raise the inheritance threshold to £1m for family homes” (Conservative)

Undoubtedly the reduction of any tax should be applauded, particularly the especially egregious inheritance tax as it is a charge on accumulated capital. You can tax income all you want but so long as there is enough left over to replenish the capital stock then the standard of living will be maintained. When you start taxing that capital stock itself, however – as any kind of wealth tax does – you destroy the very machinery of production. This measure by the Conservatives would therefore appear to be welcome, although not quite as welcome as abolishing the entirety of wealth taxes altogether. Unfortunately, it is designed to be “revenue neutral” and will be “paid for” by reducing tax relief on the pension contributions of people earning more than £150K. Although this proposal is supposed to alleviate the fiscal drag of rising house prices, it is likely that inflation will push those who benefit from it into the £150K tax bracket anyway.

“The Liberal Democrats will eliminate the deficit by 2017/18 by raising taxes by an additional £12bn, cutting public spending by 12bn and cutting welfare by £3bn.”

Kudos to the Lib Dems for at least making the (probably empty) promise that spending cuts will exceed tax rises. Unfortunately the figures are altogether too miniscule. The problem is not just the deficit – the discrepancy between the government’s revenue and expenditure in any fiscal year. It is the enormous debt to which that deficit contributes. The UK government’s official debt is £1.56trn. The total saving of £27bn from this proposal amounts to a mere 1.7% of that debt. Even if we were to assume that this figure will amount to a budget surplus, it will still take another two generations to pay off the debt. However, that is not what the Lib Dems are proposing and it also ignores the unfunded liabilities that do not form a part of the official debt.

Housing

“George Osborne [Chancellor of the Exchequer] promises to get 2.4m first-time buyers onto housing ladder with property ‘revolution’ (Conservative)”

Will this so-called “revolution” involve cutting the incessant inflation of the money supply that blows up housing bubbles? Probably not. Labour’s turn…

“£5bn for funding 125K homes” (Labour)

It seems that both parties feel that a government solution is necessary for a government created problem. Far better to remove the source of the problem.

Transport

Freeze Rail Fares for Five Years” (Conservative)

This will be the same railway that is nominally privatised but whose track, signalling and infrastructure is owned by a statutory corporation and the train operating companies are geographic monopoly franchises that are parcelled out to private companies by the government. In economics it is of course a travesty that a good can be both overpriced and overcrowded, yet somehow government – including a £4bn subsidy from the taxpayer – manages to achieve this and so the age old remedy of price fixing is brought out of retirement. Making the railways a true free market enterprise by selling them off completely is not considered.

Jobs

“We’ll create a 1000 new jobs every day” (Conservative)

They’ve been in government for five years – why haven’t the been doing it already? That aside however, will these be genuine, productive, free enterprise jobs that genuinely meet the needs of consumers? Or will they be a part of the bloated public sector and paid for through loot mulcted from taxpayers?

“An end to zero-hours contracts” (Labour)

Apart from the fact that zero hours contracts (previously known as “casual labour”) are likely to be a beneficial arrangement for some employers and employees, perhaps their abundance is less to do with corporate greed and more to do with the fact that the government has made it so ridiculously expensive to hire low skilled workers for a committed number of hours per week?

UKIP has proposed a UK-controlled fishing zone to replace involvement in the EU Common Fisheries Policy to revive the British fishing industry”

What would benefit the British fishing industry is government leaving it alone and opening areas of the sea to private ownership so that fish stocks can be cultivated through a genuine aquaculture industry. Although UKIP’s replacement of the words “EU controlled” with “British controlled” may appeal to voters it doesn’t hide the fact that an industry will be still be subject to the stifling interference of government.

“£800m to protect 10,000 police jobs (Labour)”

Why? How do we know that these jobs are needed? Does Labour have any profit and loss statement to show that these jobs in the security industry benefit the consumer through their protection?

And Finally…

“Lib Dems promise £1bn to ‘build a better Wales’”

As we noted above, the Tories are dredging up £8bn for the NHS. The Liberal Democrats think that one eigth of that figure is enough for an entire country.

Give “respect” to teachers” (Labour)

This stunningly innovative piece of education policy alludes to the alleged breakdown in the relationship between education ministers and teachers. Far better would be for that relationship to be severed altogether rather that the government have any further wherewithal to indoctrinate the next generation of voters.

“UKIP hopes to woo women with plan to scrap the Tampon tax”

No doubt all of Britain’s female voters will be delighted to learn that UKIP believes that the contents of their underwear is the most pressing political issue burning away in women’s minds. It is no small wonder that, amongst other things, UKIP is seen to be sexist.

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Economic Myths #15 – Unemployment

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One of the key indicators of the economic “performance” of any given country is its rate of unemployment. Low rates of unemployment are understood as a sign of prosperity while high rates are taken as a sign of recession and stagnation. Indeed, during the Great Depression, unemployment reached as high as 25% in the United States. Politicians are particularly keen to monitor the rate of unemployment as low unemployment lends credence to the economic policies of those in power while high unemployment stocks the arsenal of those in the opposition. Given also that entire economic dogmas such as the so-called trade-off between full employment and inflation, not to mention the generation-long post-war Keynesian consensus are, at least, part rooted in the concept of unemployment, one would expect unemployment to be a unique and important category in economic theory.

This short essay will not explore in detail the government induced causes or aggravations of unemployment such as the minimum wage and excessive regulations heaped upon the shoulders of employers. Such topics have been examined countless times over by many economists, “Austrian” or otherwise. Rather, what we wish to concentrate on here is the validity of the very term “unemployment” itself and to determine whether it is really a useful concept in shaping so-called “economic policy” or whether it is really redundant and meaningless.

In the first place, as “Austrians” we must be highly suspicious of any concept that is an aggregation and is not explicitly linked to any notion of individual human action. All voluntary actions are, as we know, the result of the best choice of ends available with scarce means. A man who has several million pounds stashed in his bank account may be content to spend all of his time in leisure and would be “unemployed”. Yet aside from any moral wrangling over the worth of such a lifestyle we would hardly view this as a problem. But what about those lesser privileged folk – the ones who are not working but nevertheless have the outward appearance of needing an income from some kind of employment? Shouldn’t we classify these people as “unemployed” and doesn’t this state of unemployment indicate an egregious case of market failure?

The question turns on whether employment at the terms of the available opportunities is worthwhile for the individual person. If there are jobs available yet he refuses to accept them then it indicates that he is not satisfied with the terms of those opportunities. Perhaps it is the wrong industry, it is in wrong the place, or – most likely – the wage offered isn’t high enough for him. He therefore chooses to abstain and holds out for a better opportunity to appear in the future. From the point of view of individual satisfaction with the scarce means available, the outcome of seeming “unemployment” is therefore optimal. Indeed, labour, like anything else, is a resource that is available for an individual to use. Not all resources are deployed 100% of the time as it would be wasteful to do so. Everyone, for example, owns possessions that are not being used at the current moment – food in the fridge, clothes in the wardrobe, books and DVDs on the shelf, etc. Clearly it would be wasteful – nay, ridiculous – to try and use all of these “unemployed” resources at once. They are more valuable being kept in abeyance ready for utilisation when an opportune moment appears, i.e. when the person believes that use of them would yield more benefit than leaving them idle. More widely, there are always buildings to let, oil in the ground, trees that are left standing, water in lakes and reservoirs, and so on. All of these resources remain idle because an opportunity valuable enough for deploying them has not yet arisen. Indeed, consistent requirement for all resources to be utilised would mean that shops should be empty of all goods as they have already been purchased and consumed, and ultimately everything in the world should be consumed right now. To put it at its most basic, a person actively searching for the right job is not, in his mind, unemployed in the sense of carrying out a wasteful activity.

The inability to see labour as a resource that is deployed at the choosing of the individual labourer leads to many related fallacies and reveals the dangers of looking only at surface phenomena and appearance. An individual does not view employment as an end itself – work for work’s sake. Rather, all employment is action aimed at diverting scarce means available to their most highly valued ends. Employment per se is not a goal or achievement. No one would dig a hole in the ground and fill it up again unless the act of doing so led to a valuable end. Governments and people succumb to the illusion of economic activity brought about by “employment” and the apparent lack of it by “unemployment”, with any focus on providing “full employment” never stopping to ask whether the activity in which employment will be created is worthwhile or is wasteful. The most grievous example of this this is, of course, the forced lowering of interest rates to provoke an artificial investment boom. There will be lots of employment, everyone will be engaged in lots of activity and wages will be rising rapidly. But it is clear that everyone’s endeavours are ultimately wasteful and lie on a doomed path. So-called full employment policies are therefore nothing more than a surface coating to prevent social unrest, to make people feel as though they are doing something worthwhile and to put money into their hands that they can spend. To the extent that these actions create no new wealth, however, they should properly be regarded as welfare and not as employment. The wheels may be turning but the carriage goes nowhere and it is simply expending fuel on motionless activity. Far more difficult would be for governments to concentrate on policies that promote full production instead of full employment as this would, of course, require a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of government power and interference.

We submit, therefore, that unemployment is a meaningless concept at least when applied to the unfettered free market. It may have some relevance in economies where governments impede the ability of the supply of labour to meet demand through minimum wages and the like. Apart from shutting out a good number of low-productive persons from the labour market entirely, such interferences ultimately distort people’s views as to which terms of employment are achievable – they hold out for high wages because there is the illusion that that is what their labour is worth. They do not realise, however, that supply is unwilling to meet demand at that inflated level and hence their search for employment is in vain. All of this, however, is simply a particular application of price theory. If the price of any good is fixed too high it will remain unemployed. There is, therefore, no special concept of unemployment applying only to labour that attracts a different body of theory. Furthermore, the whole question of “nominal rigidity” or so-called “sticky wages” is beside the point when it comes to economic theory. If the demand for a particular good – in this case, labour – should drop it is entirely open for the particular labourers to express incredulity at this fact and to stubbornly hold out for wages that will never meet a willing demand. This is not, however, evidence of the market’s “failure to clear”. It is simply that the supply curve remains stuck to the left. There is an misconception that the market is “efficient” because it “values” everything correctly – a doctrine that underpins so-called “efficient market hypothesis”. But the “efficiency” of the market – the  nexus of voluntary exchanges between individual people – comes from its superior ability to channel goods to where they are most highly valued; it has nothing to do with whether a good should be valued or whether any particular valuation is correct. A good could be utterly useless but if a significant enough people chase a small supply it will command a relatively high price. The market will place this ware in the hands of those who value it the most, but the source of that value is the human mind and this valuation can be and often is erroneous. If people remain unemployed, holding out for unrealistically high wages, the fault lies in their incorrect assessment of the value of their labour, not in any market’s failure. Needless to say, however, the causes of these erroneous valuations are government interferences. It is because government creates such macroeconomic calamity that price bubbles and collapses occur and so-called “sticky prices” are a phenomenon associated with post-boom deflations. Having become accustomed to high wages, it is natural for workers to become frustrated and resistant when supply for these wages suddenly dries up and they not only have to face the prospect of lower wages but also a mass shift out of the capital goods industries – where they may have developed significant, specialist skills in the meantime – to consumer goods industries. In a genuine free market it is highly unlikely that workers would be faced with these problems. However, none of this really has much to do with economic theory, the purpose of which is to expound the formal characteristics of human action rather than the substance of those actions. Rather, sticky wages is more a topic for psychology, the field of human action that studies why people make the valuations that they do.

We conclude, therefore, by emphasising that there is no special category of “unemployment” as it applies solely to labour. Any “unemployment” of labour is explained either as the willing choice of the individual worker to withhold his labour from the market (and thus, to him, the best possible outcome), or as the result of government price fixing which is merely a particular instance of the economic effects of that wider category of interference.

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Economic Myths #3 – We Need More Jobs!

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During the economic malaise one of the most frequently watched figures in the economy is the number of jobs that are either created or destroyed. Government makes “job creation” a central plank of its economic policy to put people back to work and the impression that more people are being hired and fewer are being fired buoys their hubristic impression that we must be on the road to recovery.

Unfortunately this obsession with jobs is another example of the error of looking at an isolated aspect of economic achievement rather than at the entire picture – much like trying to boost consumption in order to further growth which we explored in myth #2. Jobs (or work, or labour) are simply what we have to do in order to achieve our valuable ends with the scarce resources available. It is the toil and suffering that we have to undertake in order to get to what we want because we do not live in the Garden of Eden. Our ideal situation is to have everything we want without having to have any jobs at all and economic growth fuelled by greater capital investment permits us to have more and more of what we desire for less effort. Our focus, therefore, is not on jobs per se but, rather, on what these jobs produce – the outcome of our labour and not that labour itself.

The most oft-cited example of useless job creation is government paying people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again. The unemployment figures would go down; the stock market would probably rally; the currency would strengthen. And yet these “jobs” have produced absolutely nothing whatsoever. All of the time and effort put into administering and fuelling them simply depleted the world of resources rather than added to it. In the real world, what this looks like is government providing artificial stimulus or subsidies to industries that are not otherwise economically viable; government “job creation” programmes; and not to mention, of course, the endless ream of bureaucrats that the government employs directly. Creating artificial jobs that do nothing funded by a government payroll simply papers over the cracks of an unsound economy. Yes, more people feel better as they have dollars in their hands and are probably not worrying about where the next meal will come from; but all that has happened is that those who were already working are now being forced to subsidise those whose employment creates no productivity.

A related fallacy is that if somebody somewhere is carrying out some kind of economic activity and the more of that activity there is then, so it is concluded, the better the economy is doing. To the central planners it doesn’t matter whether there is a housing boom, a construction boom, a tech boom or a stock market boom as long as there is lots of stuff going on, regardless of whether people actually want the products that are churned out by those enterprises. It is for this reason why we have the business cycle in the first place. Obsessed by creating some kind of “output” the artificial stimulus of credit expansion pushes the economy onto a path which, while brimming with activity, is ultimately not in harmony with the desires of consumers.

Job quality is more important than job quantity. The correct focus of any economic policy should be to ensure that we are labouring to direct the scarce resources available to the ends that we desire – and not simply on wasting those resources by doing some kind of fundamentally useless activity just to make government look good. “Full production” and not “full employment” should be our mantle.

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Response to Petition: “Raise the Minimum Wage…”

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The author was invited to sign the following petition that recently appeared on change.org. This post is a response to this petition.

Petition:

“Every hardworking American deserves to earn a LIVING WAGE. Every small business needs CUSTOMERS. By raising the minimum wage, we create more customers for business–like Henry Ford did when he paid his workers the unheard-of wage of $5.00 a day so that they could afford to buy Ford cars. With every employed adult earning a living wage, we reduce the ranks of those on WELFARE and increase SELF-RESPECT. We protect FAMILIES by reducing divorce and dysfunction at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Instead of taxing people to pay for welfare, customers pay for this benefit through a slight rise in the price of goods and services they purchase from those with minimum wage jobs.”

Response:

Your aims are noble enough, to a) reduce the number of persons who receive assistance from the welfare state, b) to reduce the tax burden of the same, and c) to create more customers for business. Your proposed method of achieving these wonderful aims is, however, far from satisfactory.

Every hardworking American deserves to earn a LIVING WAGE.

Even if the concept could be defined objectively there is no such thing as a “living wage”. There is only what has been produced and this may be below, at or above the amount “necessary” on which to “live”. Nobody works for a money wage but rather for the goods and services that it can buy and a minimum quantity of these do not magically fall from the sky and present themselves for consumption.  Nor can The Congress make them appear by waving the legislative wand – they have to be worked for by someone.

Consider first of all an economy where I produce goods for only myself. If I bake three loaves of bread in a day then three loaves of bread is what I have. If, however, I bake eight loaves of bread in a day then eight loaves of bread is what I have. Assume for argument’s sake that the former situation is barely sufficient to keep me alive and the latter allows me to live comfortably. If I have produced only three loaves then three is what I have to enjoy at the end of the day. If this causes me to live at near-starvation point then nothing except more productivity on my part can change that. If, on the other hand, I have produced eight and can live handsomely from them then again it is only because I produced them.

This fact does not change when I do not produce goods for myself but instead offer them in exchange for other goods. If I swap my three loaves of bread for steak then the steak is now my “wages” for having worked to produce the bread and the bread is now the butcher’s “wages” for having produced the steak. But if the three loaves that I have paid the butcher is barely enough to keep him alive then why should I expect a quantity of steak in return that will do any more for me? Why do I “deserve” to earn a “living wage” when I can barely offer the same to the person producing it for me? Does he not “deserve” it also? Where does his “living wage” come from if I haven’t produced it?

None of this changes in a highly complex, industrial society where goods are not exchanged directly but for money. My wage is paid out of my employer’s revenue and his revenue is achieved only as a result of the productivity of the employees. Therefore if I am to earn a given wage then my productivity must enable my employer to earn at least that much in additional revenue as a result of employing me (and often much more as the total cost of employing a person is often much more than the wage paid). If the costs of my employment equal additional revenue then employing me is a break-even business and, while my employment is barely sustainable, there is no incentive for the employer to continue it. If the costs are greater than revenue then I am making a loss for the employer and I will have to be laid off.

Minimum wages therefore place a threshold of productivity which the worker must achieve before he can be legally employed; for if my ability or skill means that I cannot produce enough to enable my employer to earn enough revenue to pay me the minimum wage then I will simply not be hired. Highly skilled and experienced workers will have little problem in achieving this threshold (unless the minimum wage is set very high). But low-skilled or inexperienced workers, the very ones whom you appear to be saying are in need of help, may find it next to impossible. All you do is raise the bar over which they have to jump to get a job without improving their means to do so. Indeed, you totally impede any path to them gaining such means for the worker cannot use price as a bargaining tool. If he was unskilled or inexperienced he might happily say to a prospective employer “yes, you would pay $8/hour for someone with experience. How about I, not yet blessed with experience, do it for $5?” If the employer accepts he/she is compensated for the lack of ability or experience by the reduction in price; the worker, on the other hand, gains employment during which he may learn a valuable trade or skill that may enable him to progress to higher levels of productivity and, hence, higher wages at a later date. Even if he doesn’t quite achieve that, at least he is employed and such employment is likely to mould him into a responsible adult with self-respect. However, with an imposed minimum wage above $5 (in this example) this option is closed to both the employer and employee. The worker will simply not be hired.

The absurdity of the minimum-wage is highlighted even more when you consider what its advocates are really arguing. Presumably you think that if am not employed by an employer (i.e. I do work with a value of $0) it is fine for that employer to pay me $0? And also, if your ideal minimum wage is set at $8/hour and I do $8 worth of work for the employer, it is fine for me to earn $8/hour? But if I work to produce anything between $0 and $8 suddenly that is evil and immoral and should be outlawed. Why this lacuna? Why is producing $0 or $8+ fine but producing $4.50 is not? Is $4.50 not worth $4.50 in the same way that $0 is $0 and $8 is $8? Why is it that if I produce $0 it is moral and proper for me to be paid $0 yet if I produce just $0.01 for my employer the latter should be forced to pay me the “living wage” of $8? Further if I am not being paid for my productivity but instead am being paid a legally enforced form of charity then aren’t I in just the same position as if I was on welfare?

Finally, it is the fact that minimum wage legislation impacts upon the low-skilled or inexperienced that makes it so destructive. For these people are likely to be any combination of young, “unprivileged”, with few educational merits, or disabled – in short the most vulnerable in society who are more likely to succumb to a life of delinquency or welfare-dependency when faced with no other option. Such a person is likely to respond rather coolly to your demands for a “living wage” if he can’t get any wage at all.

By raising the minimum wage, we create more customers for business

If it is that easy then why not have an infinitely high minimum wage? Why stop at $6 or $8, why not raise it to $20, $100, or $1 000? In fact, why just not make everyone millionaires? Think of all those millions that will be spent in small businesses around the country!

Your proposal rests upon the fallacious theory that workers need enough “purchasing power” in order for businesses to expand production. The causal relationship is precisely the other way round – it is increased productivity that permits an expansion of purchasing power. Going back to the example of bread, if I bake three loaves of bread what I have is three loaves of bread with which to barter. If I bake eight loaves of bread I now have eight loaves of bread with which to barter. Eight loaves of bread will trade for more than three loaves of bread. I have more “purchasing power” because I have been more productive.

What, then, will be the effect of your proposal upon achieving your stating aims?

Regarding first of all those adults who are unemployed and are fully supported by assistance from the welfare state, why will raising the cost of employing them induce employers to do so? If they were not prepared to employ them to do a certain job at a lower rate, why on earth would they suddenly, all else being equal, be inspired to do so at a higher rate? Let’s say you go to the grocery store and see chicken on sale for $5/unit, having never bought it before. You decide that at that price it is too expensive for the benefit it will give you and you decline to purchase it. Suddenly, the Government decrees that everywhere chicken producers are not earning a “living wage” and decrees a minimum price for chicken of $8/unit. Hurrah, the plight of the exploited chicken farmers is over! But if you did not purchase the product at $5/unit why would you be any more inclined to purchase it at $8/unit? It’s the same thing, only now more expensive. Has the minimum price helped the chicken farmers vis-à-vis you in anyway whatsoever? If anything, wouldn’t lowering the price be the correct thing to do induce you to buy chicken? Exactly the same is true for businesses hiring employees. The same amount of productivity on offer for a higher price induces no new purchasing whatsoever. It seems impossible, therefore, that your petition would reduce the ranks of the unemployed who are dependent upon welfare.

For people who are both employed but remunerated at a rate below what you would call a “living wage” and who are partial recipients of welfare, raising the minimum wage will (if their current wages are below the proposed threshold) increase the costs to business of achieving the same amount of productivity. Employers have only the same stock of goods to sell to customers but now they must pay more for their employers to produce them. Revenue therefore remains equal while costs increase. How might employers respond?

First, they might gradually replace the employees with capital equipment (i.e. machines and tools). For now, with the cost of labour increased, the cost of capital relative to labour is lowered and it becomes more profitable to replace workers with labour-saving devices. However, as there has been no genuine saving (by necessity the cost of capital must be between the old wage and the new wage – if it was lower than the old wage then capital will already have replaced labour without your proposed minimum wage; if it is higher than the new wage then labour will remain employed) there are no spare funds with which to employ these workers elsewhere. So workers that were formerly partially employed would now be fully unemployed as a result of your proposal and, furthermore, will have increased the burden to the welfare state and its associated tax demands rather than have caused a decrease to either. An analogy is that if you were a purchaser of chicken at $5/unit, the new price of $8/unit you find to be too high and you switch to cheaper substitutes.

Second, the employing business may decide to absorb the extra cost from profit. But what if the increased wage completely consumes the profit margin so that the business now makes a loss? A business that loses money will have to close shop and the workers will, once again, simply have to join the ranks of the unemployed. If profit margins are so slim it means the employees were barely affordable before and their employers were no doubt straining to control costs to stay afloat which would – crucially – keep those people employed. But along you come to forcibly raise their costs thus destroying their profit margin and guaranteeing nothing to the workers but unemployment.

But assuming that a profit remains and the business can stay afloat, a lower profit margin means decreased funds for investment which the business can use to expand. It is such expansion that requires the business to increase its demand for workers, and increased demand results in increased wages. If they cannot do this then wages cannot be increased naturally. Furthermore, in the economy as a whole not all businesses will be affected in the same way. Labour-intensive industries will be the hardest hit while capital-intensive industries will suffer more lightly. Investment funds will therefore be withdrawn from the labour-intensive industries and diverted to the now more profitable capital-intensive industries; or the labour intensive stages of production will disappear overseas and the US will be left only with capital-intensive industries – plus an increased amount of unemployment from the displaced workers.

However, your proposal appears to indicate that businesses will attempt to pass these costs on to their customers. If the customers who have to bear the burden of the increased costs are the same people who have received the new, higher, wage, then you are not any step closer to weaning them off the welfare state. If their income increases but so do their costs then in real terms they are in exactly the same position as they were before. What are you going to tell them? “Congratulations, your wages have been doubled! But now you have to pay twice as much for everything as you did before!”

If, however, the burden is borne by those who do not receive an increased wage then, all else remaining equal, the customers can only do one of two things. Either they will reduce the quantity they purchase from the business, or they must divert spending from elsewhere in order to meet the added cost. If the former, then while the business’s nominal revenue may remain the same the quantity of goods needed to achieve that revenue is reduced. Reduced production therefore requires downsizing and downsizing means workers will be laid off. If customers divert spending from elsewhere then the businesses from where they withdraw funds will suffer from reduced revenue and they will lay off workers. The result in either case is increased unemployment and increased dependency upon the welfare state. Furthermore, the poor customers will have to suffer both from the increased costs of their purchases and from increased taxes to fund the now expanding welfare state.

Finally, regarding your desire to help small businesses, which type of businesses are more likely to be disadvantaged by a minimum wage? Large, multinational businesses which huge reserves of capital or the new start-up with limited investment and an unestablished market? Which of the two benefits more from being able to hire employees cheaply and which is likely to struggle from being forced to pay more for those same workers? Minimum wages, like all employment regulation, are a boon to large, established and politically connected businesses that can more easily absorb the increased costs while forcing their smaller rivals, the ones you are trying to help, out of business.

It is clear, therefore, that this proposal will not fulfil its noble intentions and, worse, will have the very opposite effect of exacerbating the very problems that it seeks to eliminate. For these reasons (aside from the fact that I am neither a US citizen nor resident) I cannot accept your invitation to support your petition and I urge you and everyone else whom you invited to abandon it.

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