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“Green Banks” Will Drown in the Red by Jonathan Bydlak

Why does federal spending matter? There are many reasons, but perhaps the most fundamental is that free markets allocate resources better than governments because markets rely on price instead of politics. Many industries show this observation to be true, but the emerging field of “green banks” offers perhaps one of the clearest recent examples.

A green bank is a “public or quasi-public financing institution that provides low-cost, long-term financing support to clean, low-carbon projects by leveraging public funds…to attract private investment.” Right now, only a handful of green banks are scattered across Connecticut, California, New York, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.

Free marketers rightly doubt whether public funds should be used to finance private startups. But regardless of where one stands in that debate, the states’ struggles serve as a valuable testing ground for future investments.

The State of Connecticut operates under a fairly significant budget deficit. California has been calculating its budgets without taking unfunded pension liabilities into account, and it’s gambling with its ability to service its debt. New York continues to live beyond its means. Rhode Island’s newest budget does little to rehabilitate its deficit spending addiction, and, despite having a balanced budget clause in its state constitution, Hawaii has a pattern of operating at a deficit.

In fact, a state solvency report released by the Mercatus Center has each of these five states ranked in the bottom third of the country, with their solvency described as either “low” or “poor.”

This all raises the question of whether these governments are able to find sound investment opportunities in the first place. Rhode Island couldn’t even identify a bad investment when baseball legend Curt Schilling wanted $75 million to make video games about something other than baseball!

Recently, though, there have been calls to extend the struggling green banking system to the federal level. Mark Muro and Reed Hundt at the Brookings Institute argued in favor of federal action in support of green banks. Somewhat paradoxically, they assert that demand for green banking institutions and the types of companies they finance is so strong that the existing state-based green banks cannot muster enough capital to meet demand.

Wherever there is potential for profit and a sound business plan, lending institutions are likely to be found, willing to relinquish a little capital for a consistent and reasonable rate of return. So where are the private lenders and other investment firms who have taken notice and are competing for the opportunity to provide loans to such highly sought-after companies and products?

Even assuming that there is demand for green banking services, recent experience shows that a federally-subsidized system would likely lead to inefficiency, favor trading, and failure. For instance, the Department of Energy Loan Program is designed to facilitate and aid clean energy startup companies. Its portfolio exceeds $30 billion, but following a series of bad investments like Solyndra, Inc., new loan guarantees have been few and far between. The program has already lost over $700 million.

Even the rosiest measurements do not show particularly exciting returns from this system. The Department of Energy itself estimates that over the lifetime of the loans it’s guaranteed, there exists the potential to see $5 billion in profit. However, those estimates also depend on the peculiar accounting methods the DoE itself employs.

This problem is apparent in other government sectors. For instance, determining how much profit the federal government makes off of student loans depends on who is asked. Some say none, while others say it’s in the billions. Gauging the economic impact or solvency of government programs is notoriously difficult, and different methods can yield what look like very different results. Add to that the consistently uncertain nature of the energy market, and profits are hardly guaranteed.

Examples abound of wasteful federal spending, and the growing green technology and renewable energy industry is no exception. The DoE Loan Program has already faced issues that go well beyond Solyndra: Abound Solar, a Colorado-based solar panel manufacturer, was given a $400 million DoE loan guarantee, only to later file for bankruptcy, potentially costing taxpayers $60 million. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a 175,000 unit heliostat array in California, received a $1.6 billion federal loan and, because it failed to produce the amount of power estimated, was forced to later request more than$500 million in federal grants from the Treasury Department. A recent Taxpayers Protection Alliance study showed that risky investments in heavily subsidized solar energy could even lead to a bubble similar to the disastrous 2008 housing bubble.

Those who want to expand the government’s role in green banking likely want to see more clean and renewable energy reach the consumer market, and a lot of people probably applaud that goal — but the real question is whether the proposed means can reliably achieve that end. A wise manager with a solid business plan can find investors who will willingly take a chance. Considering the struggles of several states, trusting the federal government to build an even bigger system would exponentially increase that risk.

In contrast, the market offers opportunity to entrepreneurs in the green technology and renewable energy industries. For instance, GreatPoint Energy, a company specializing in clean coal, successfully went the route that other companies do: Design a product or service, find investors, and compete in the marketplace.

SolarCity, a California-based and publicly traded corporation of over 2,500 employees, entered the industry before many government loan programs were established. Thanks to a sound business model and subsequent horizontal and vertical expansion, it has become a leader in the industry. SolarCity’s success, however, cannot be touted by the Department of Energy’s Loan Program, which declined to invest in the company, leading SolarCity to try — and succeed — in finding private investment.

If GreatPoint or SolarCity had failed, only those who willingly participated in the startup would suffer the consequences. The issue with green banking — and indeed government “investments” more generally — is that taxpayers are not party to the negotiations but are the ones ultimately on the hook for failures.

In absolute terms, these billions of dollars are a lot of money. But in the grand scheme of government spending, the amount of money invested in green banks and renewable energy production is relatively small. If Social Security is the Atlantic Ocean, and wasteful defense appropriations are the Mediterranean, then green energy investments fall somewhere in the range of the Y-40 pool: easily measurable but certainly not insignificant.

Your odds of drowning may be smaller in the pool than the ocean, but that doesn’t make the drowning itself any more pleasant. The federal government is already under water; adding new liabilities on the hope that politicians can guess the future of energy is merely a step towards the deep end, not the ladder out.


Jonathan Bydlak

Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Institute to Reduce Spending and the Coalition to Reduce Spending.

The Politics of Nostalgia: Why Does the Left Want to Take Us Backwards? by Steven Horwitz

One of the more curious developments in the last couple of years has been left-wing nostalgia for the economy of the 1950s.

Don’t political progressives usually portray themselves as being on “the right side of history” — representing, as the term suggests, the march of “progress”?

Not when it comes to the economy.

Paul Krugman has written a number of columns over the last decade about how much better things were in the middle of the 20th century. More recently, we have presidential candidate Hillary Clinton making a major economic policy statement in which she longs for a time like the 1950s when workers had the structure of the corporate world and unions through which to lobby and negotiate for pay and benefits, rather than the so-called “gig” economy of so many modern freelance employees, such as Uber drivers. “This on-demand or so-called gig economy is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation,” Clinton said, “but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protection and what a good job will look like in the future.”

To protect Americans from the uncertain future, Clinton promised she would “crack down on bosses that exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors or even steal their wages.”

In an economy where technology has enabled people to have a great deal more flexibility with their workdays and independence with their work choices, it’s now the “progressives” who are complaining about the economic organizations that have been agents of more efficient resource use, expanded choice for workers, and cheaper goods for consumers.

In short, the progressives are complaining about what would otherwise be called progress.

And let’s not let the conservatives off the hook here either, as they demonstrate their own nostalgia for an economy of the past, with cheers for Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-trade tirades and for his general love of dirigiste policies. Immigration and trade have also expanded the range of work available, lifted millions out of poverty through better-paying jobs in the United States, and enriched the rest of us through more affordable goods and services.

What’s particularly amusing about both sides, but especially the progressives, is how wrong they are about life for the average American being better back in the 1950s, including how much more secure they were. In a terrific paper for the Cato Institute, Brink Lindsey effectively demolished Krugman’s nostalgia with some actual data about the economy of the 1950s. He pointed out that the increase in income inequality since then noted by so many progressives is largely overstated, and that the economy they are nostalgic for is one that restricted competition in a variety of ways, mostly to the benefit of the politically influential. Limits on immigration and trade, in particular, prevented the 1950s economy from achieving the reductions in cost and increase in variety that we associate with our economy today.

Does anyone really want to go back to the stagnant, conformist, more poverty-stricken world of the 1950s?

It is more than a little ironic that modern progressives are nostalgic for the very economy that GOP front-runner Donald Trump would appear to want to create.

As I argued in a recent paper, when we look at the cost of living in terms of the work hours required to purchase basic household items, most goods and services are far cheaper today than in the 1950s. The equivalents of those items today are also of higher quality: think about the typical household TV or refrigerator in 1955 versus 2015. These substantial decreases in cost have had another effect. They have made these goods increasingly accessible to the poorest of Americans. American households below the poverty line are far more likely to have a whole variety of items in their homes than did poor families in the 1950s. In fact, they are more likely to have those things in their houses than was a middle-class American family in the 1970s.

When you also consider the number of goods that weren’t even available in the 1970s or 1950s, from technology like computers and smartphones, to innovative medicines and medical procedures, to various forms of entertainment, to a whole number of inventions that have made us safer, healthier, and longer-lived, it’s difficult to argue that things were better “back then.”

The effect of all of this change driven by increased competition is that our world is one in which the middle class and poor are better off, and the gap between poor and rich as measured by what they consume has narrowed substantially. Does anyone really want to go back to the stagnant, conformist, more poverty-stricken world of the 1950s?

Politicians do. And here’s one reason why: back then, it was easier to influence and control people’s economic lives. Progressives with a desire to shape their ideal economy aren’t happy with the world of freelancers, Uber, and independent contractors.

The economy of the 1950s and 1970s had organizational focal points where politicians could exercise leverage and thereby influence the lives of large numbers of citizens.

I’m thinking here of the auto companies in the 1950s, the oil companies in the 1970s, and any number of industries where large firms were created by restrictions on domestic and foreign competition, which were easy points of contact for politicians with a desire to control, and which had corporate leaders who were happy to reap the benefits of corporatism.

In a world of Uber, Airbnb, and all the rest, there are no central points of leverage. Facebook produces no content, Uber owns no cars, Alibaba owns no inventory. More important: Uber has no employees, only contractors. If you are Clinton or Trump, or even Krugman, there’s nowhere to go to exercise your power or to drum up support from workers in one place. There’s nothing to grab hold of. There are just people trading peacefully with each other, enriching everyone in the process.

The real irony, once again, is that what this decentralized economy has produced is more freedom and more flexibility for more workers. The same progressives who railed against the conformism of the 1950s a decade later are now nostalgic for what their predecessors rejected and are rejecting exactly the “do your own thing” ethos their 1960s heroes fought for.

The “gig” economy works for people who want options and who want flexible hours so they can pursue a calling the rest of the day. Or perhaps they want to spend a few hours a week driving an Uber because Obamacare caused their employers to cut their hours at their other job.

Whatever the reason, this economy offers the freedom and flexibility for workers, and the benefits for consumers, that represent the progress progressives should love. That progressives (and conservatives) with power are fighting against it tells you that they are much more concerned with power than with progress.

Nostalgia is a dangerous basis for making policy, whether left or right.


Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

Why Is Economics “the Dismal Science”? The Reason May Surprise You! by David R. Henderson

In an otherwise excellent post responding to Noah Smith about economic growth, my Hoover colleague and friend John Cochrane makes a mistake in the history of economic thought.

John writes:

They do not call us the “dismal science” because we think the current world is close to the best of all possible ones, and all there is to do is haggle over technical amendments to rule 134.532 subparagraph a and hope to squeeze out 0.001% more growth.

Usually, the role of economists is to see the great possibilities that every day experience does not reveal. (“Dismal” only refers to the fact that good economics respects budget constraints.)

Actually, that’s not what dismal refers to. David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart write:

Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle, who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus’s gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor.

Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact–that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty–that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”

They go on to write:

Carlyle disagreed with the conclusion that slavery was wrong because he disagreed with the assumption that under the skin, people are all the same. He argued that blacks were subhumans (“two-legged cattle”), who needed the tutelage of whites wielding the “beneficent whip” if they were to contribute to the good of society.

In a speech at Susquehanna University earlier this year, I quoted this and pointed out that it was the classical economists, John Stuart Mill, et al, who believed that black lives matter.

This post first appeared at Econlog, the blog of the Library of Economics and Liberty. © Liberty Fund, Inc., reprinted with permission.


David Henderson

David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at econlib.org.

Don’t Agree with the Mayor’s Politics? No Permits for You! by Walter Olson

Boston mayor Martin Walsh gives Donald Trump the Chick-Fil-A rush* over his immigration opinions. Via the Boston Herald:

If Donald Trump ever wants to build a hotel in Boston, he’ll need to apologize for his comments about Mexican immigrants first, the Hub’s mayor said.

“I just don’t agree with him at all,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh told the Herald yesterday. “I think his comments are inappropriate. And if he wanted to build a hotel here, he’d have to make some apologies to people in this country.”

More on the use of permitting, licensing, and other levers of power to punish speech and the exercise of other legal rights at Overlawyered’s all-new regulatory retaliation tag. (And no, I’m not exactly thrilled with Mayor Walsh for making me take Trump’s side in an argument.)

* In case you’d forgotten the infamous Chick-Fila-A brouhaha, here’s Overlawyered’s coverage:

The uproar continues, and quite properly so (earlier here and here), over the threats of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Chicago alderman Proco (“Joe”) Moreno to exclude the Chick-Fil-A fast-food chain because they disagree (as do I) with some of the views of its owner.

Among the latest commentary, the impeccably liberal Boston Globe has sided with the company in an editorial (“which part of the First Amendment does Menino not understand?…A city in which business owners must pass a political litmus test is the antithesis of what the Freedom Trail represents”), as has my libertarian colleague Tom Palmer at Cato (“Mayor Menino is no friend of human rights.”)

The spectacle of a national business being threatened with denial of local licenses because of its views on a national controversy is bad enough. But “don’t offend well-organized groups” is only Rule #2 for a business that regularly needs licenses, approvals and permissions. Rule #1 is “don’t criticize the officials in charge of granting the permissions.”

Can you imagine if Mr. Dan Cathy had been quoted in an interview as saying “Boston has a mediocre if not incompetent Mayor, and the Chicago Board of Aldermen is an ethics scandal in continuous session.” How long do you think it would take for his construction permits to get approved then?

Thus it is that relatively few businesses are willing to criticize the agencies that regulate them in any outspoken way (see, e.g.: FDA and pharmaceutical industry, the), or to side with pro-business groups that seriously antagonize many wielders of political power (see, e.g., the recent exodus of corporate members from the American Legislative Exchange Council).

A few weeks ago I noted the case of Maryland’s South Mountain Creamery, which contends through an attorney (though the U.S. Attorney for Maryland denies it) that it was offered less favorable terms in a plea deal because it had talked to the press in statements that wound up garnering bad publicity for the prosecutors. After that item, reader Robert V. wrote in as follows:

Your recent article about the [U.S. Attorney for Maryland] going after the dairy farmers reminded me a case in New York state where the Health Department closed down a nursing home in Rochester. They claim is was because of poor care, the owner claims it was because he spoke out against the DOH.

The state just lost a lawsuit where the jury found the DOH targeted the nursing home operator because he spoke out against them.

According to Democrat and Chronicle reporters Gary Craig and Steve Orr, the jury found state health officials had engaged in a “vendetta” against the nursing home owner:

Beechwood attorneys maintained that an email and document trail showed that Department of Health officials singled out Chambery for retribution because he had sparred with them in the past over regulatory issues. The lawsuit hinged on a Constitutional argument — namely that the state violated Chambery’s First Amendment rights by targeting him for his challenges to their operation.

The Second Circuit panel opinion in 2006 permitting Chambery/ Beechwood’s retaliation claim to go forward is here. It took an extremely long time for the nursing home operators to get their case to a jury; the state closed them down in 1999 and the facility was sold at public auction in 2002.

Versions of these posts first appeared at Overlawyered.com, Walter Olson’s indispensable law blog, published by the Cato Institute. 


Walter Olson

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

Lessons from the Richest Duck in the World by Robert Anthony Peters

Scrooge is an unlikely name for a hero. Since Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it has elicited thoughts of disagreeable skinflints. That all changed with Scrooge McDuck.

At first, Donald Duck’s Uncle Scrooge was quite Dickensian in character, but creator Carl Barks knew that a churlish miser would not sustain an audience’s sympathy. To really give this character legs (or wings), he would have to give him the kind of morals that resonate with readers.

It worked. Disney’s Duck universe has been popular for over 60 years. My generation enjoyed Duck Tales on TV. An older generation avidly read Uncle Scrooge comics, the first issue of which has Scrooge explaining how he earned his fortune: “I made it by being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties! And I made it square!”

Barks created a wealth of economic lessons through fables that are still enjoyed around the globe today.

A Modern-Day Aesop

Barks was born in rural Oregon to a farming family at the turn of the 20th century. Growing up, he had a hardscrabble existence. Due to several moves, living far from schools, and poor hearing from childhood measles, he had minimal education. He worked as a farmer, cowboy, swamper, railroad worker, printer, and more. His first gig as an illustrator was for a men’s humor magazine. In late 1935, he discovered an ad in the newspaper for Disney. Though the job offered only half his current pay, he decided to join the animation department and eventually the comic book publisher. Barks was a man who was willing to work hard, work well, and take a chance on great possibilities. The storytelling in these comics featured Barks’s strongly individualist outlook, his belief in the entrepreneur, and his optimism in markets resulting in human benefit.

Trade, Trade Again

Before Barks created Uncle Scrooge, he was already exploring the beneficial nature of trade in 1947’s “Maharajah Donald,” an issue of the Donald Duck comic book series, which featured Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The story begins with the boys cleaning out the garage at Donald’s behest, with the understanding that they could keep whatever he did not want. Predictably, he wanted all the things and was only willing to part with one stub of a pencil that’s “not worth a thing.” Less than thrilled, the boys keep it to trade for something else. They run into Piggy, who offers them a ball of string. Figuring it is not worse, they trade. As luck would have it, they run into a kid whose kite flying is limited by his length of string. Eager to get it really soaring, he trades them his knife for their string. One of the nephews feels a pang of guilt, but in short order, the other two chime in, “Don’t let it bother you” because “he’s happy!”

Eventually, they trade up to a pearl and decide to cash in. There happens to be a man in the jewelry store who was about to sail to India to obtain a pearl much like what they have in their hands. They exchange it for the steamboat ticket, which Donald promptly steals from them. Donald boards, the nephews stow away, and they arrive in India, only for Donald to run afoul of the local magistrate to the point of being fed to the royal tigers. While wracking their brains to find ways to save him, his nephews run over their list of assets: “We don’t know a soul we could ask for help … and we haven’t a cent for bribing the guards … we just can’t do something that is impossible.” But lo and behold, what do they spy next but an old stub of a pencil! To which the nephews declare, “We’re rich!” They then commence trading goods until they have acquired a creative solution to free their uncle from his predicament.

The story presents a cornucopia of economics lessons: subjective value, mutual gains from trade, and entrepreneurship. What better display of subjectivity than to have your life saved by the application of market exchange to a good that you considered worthless? Mutual gains are clear by the voluntary nature and perceived benefit of each party to the trade. (Most poignant is the Kirznerian alertness to the pencil and its use in trade.)

A Land without Greed

“Tralla La” is the tale of an exasperated Uncle Scrooge. Tired of being hounded for his wealth and time by charities, businessmen, and tax collectors, he finally snaps, telling Donald, “I want to go someplace where there is no money and wealth means nothing!” From his physician, he hears of the land of Tralla La, a land without gold, jewels, or money, deep in the Himalayas. Scrooge, Donald, and nephews set forth, and as they fly overhead, they see a land of abundance. The leader explains, “We Tralla Lallians have never known greed! Friendship is the thing we value most!”

All is serene until a farmer discovers a bottle cap that Scrooge had carelessly tossed out of the plane window. The honest peasant attempts to return it to Scrooge, who declines it, considering it worthless. Subjective value makes its appearance here, when the farmer and his fellow villagers invest this item with great desirability, leading to a bidding war that goes from 10 sheep to 20 and finally to a year’s yield of rice. When it is discovered that Scrooge has a case of bottles, all with caps, the Tralla Lallians attempt to purchase it, to no avail. Finally, the mob declares him a “meanie” and wants his taxes raised. The only solution to this problem is to call in an air strike — not of bombs, but bottle caps.

Even a humble bottle cap can spark desire because of its scarcity. Its price will be high if it is the only one around and perceived to have value. The results of “Helicopter Ben’s” strategy are on display here as well. Though the Federal Reserve may believe that it can make people wealthier by increasing the money supply, Uncle Scrooge knows that increasing the number of bottle caps will diminish their worth.

From Riches to Rags to Riches

Finally, and probably the most famous Uncle Scrooge story in economics circles, we have “A Financial Fable.” Beginning as a bucolic idyll, the story opens with  the entire Duck clan working the fields and tending the livestock. The nephews sing the praises of hard work while Donald complains, wanting money for nothing.

Scrooge investigates his new bank, a corn crib, hiding his money in plain sight. This may not have been his brightest idea: a cyclone whips through and takes all of his money, scattering it over the countryside. The nephews are distraught, but Scrooge simply replies, “If I stay here and tend to my beans and pumpkins, I’ll get it all back.”

Donald and the rest of the country quit their jobs and set off to “see the world.” Meanwhile, Scrooge and the boys continue to labor on their farm. With no one else working and nothing being produced, Donald and the rest of the world come straggling back. Scrooge is happy to feed them — at new market prices. Eggs are a million dollars apiece, cabbage is two million, and ham is a bargain at a cool trillion. With each purchase, the money from Scrooge’s corn crib trickles back and he becomes, yet again, the richest duck in the world.

With another “helicopter” scenario, we see the inflationary effects of a massive injection of money. We also get a glimpse into many aspects of wealth — how it is created, how it is maintained, and what happens when we redistribute in ways that are not related to market performance. Barks knew he was creating a morality tale of capitalism, admitting, “I’m sure the lesson I preached in this story of easy riches will get me in a cell in a Siberian gulag someday.”

Economic Tales

Economics is all around us — even in our comic books.

Now cable channel Disney XD has announced plans to relaunch Duck Tales in 2017. As long as the show sticks to the characters and stories inspired by the great Carl Barks, it will offer us plenty to enjoy — and economics lessons that are sure to fit the bill.

Robert Anthony Peters

Robert Anthony Peters is an actor, director, producer, and member of the FEE alumni advisory board.

Could Hillary Really “Restore” the Middle Class? by Donald J. Boudreaux

Eduardo Porter opens his column today by asking “Could President Hillary Clinton restore the American middle class?” (“Sizing Up Hillary Clinton’s Plans to Help the Middle Class”).

Mr. Porter illegitimately presents as an established fact a proposition that is anything but. It’s true that between 1967 and 2009 the percent of American families with annual incomes between $25,000 and $75,000 (in 2009 dollars) fell from 62 to 39 – a fact that, standing alone, might be interpreted as evidence that the middle class is disappearing.

Yet this fact does not stand alone, for it’s also true that the percent of families with annual incomes lower than $25,000 also fell (from 22 to 18) while the percent of families with annual incomes of $75,000 and higher rose significantly – from 16 to 43.*

So given these Census Bureau data – which are strong evidence that America’s middle class, if disappearing, is doing so by moving into the upper classes – to ask if President Hillary Clinton could restore the American middle class is to ask if she will make the bulk of today’s prosperous families poorer rather than richer.

This post first appeared at CafeHayek.

Donald Boudreaux

Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University, a former FEE president, and the author of Hypocrites and Half-Wits.

Should We Fear the Era of Driverless Cars or Embrace the Coming Age of Autopilot? by Will Tippens

Driving kills more than 30,000 Americans every year. Wrecks cause billions of dollars in damages. The average commuter spends nearly 40 hours a year stuck in traffic and almost five years just driving in general.

But there is light at the end of the traffic-jammed tunnel: the driverless car. Thanks to millions of dollars in driverless technology investment by tech giants like Google and Tesla, the era of road rage, drunk driving, and wasted hours behind the wheel could be left in a cloud of dust within the next two decades.

Despite the immense potential of self-driving vehicles, commentators are already dourly warning that such automation will produce undesirable effects. As political blogger Scott Santens warns,

Driverless vehicles are coming, and they are coming fast…. As close as 2025 — that is in a mere 10 years — our advancing state of technology will begin disrupting our economy in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Human labor is increasingly unnecessary and even economically unviable compared to machine labor.

The problem, Santens says, is that there are “over 10 million American workers and their families whose incomes depend entirely or at least partially on the incomes of truck drivers.” These professional drivers will face unemployment within the next two decades due to self-driving vehicles.

Does this argument sound familiar?

These same objections have sprung up at every major stage of technological innovation since the Industrial Revolution, from the textile-working Luddites destroying looming machines in the 1810s to taxi drivers in 2015 smashing Uber cars.

Many assume that any initial job loss accompanying new technology harms the economy and further impoverishes the most vulnerable, whether fast food workers or truck drivers. It’s true that losing a job can be an individual hardship, but are these same pundits ready to denounce the creation of the light bulb as an economic scourge because it put the candle makers out of business?

Just as blacksmithing dwindled with the decline of the horse-drawn buggy, economic demand for certain jobs waxes and wanes. Jobs arise and continue to exist for the sole reason of satisfying consumer demands, and the consumer’s demands are continuously evolving. Once gas heating devices became available, most people decided that indoor fires were dirtier, costlier, and less effective at heating and cooking, so they switched. While the change temporarily disadvantaged those in the chimney-sweeping business, the added value of the gas stove vastly improved the quality of life for everyone, chimney sweeps included.

There were no auto mechanics before the automobile and no web designers before the Internet. It is impossible to predict all the new employment opportunities a technology will create beforehand. Countless jobs exist today that were unthinkable in 1995 — and 20 years from now, people will be employed in ways we cannot yet begin to imagine, with the driverless car as a key catalyst.

The historical perspective doesn’t assuage the naysayers. If some jobs can go extinct, couldn’t all jobs go extinct?

Yes, every job we now know could someday disappear — but so what? Specific jobs may come and go, but that doesn’t mean we will ever see a day when labor is no longer demanded.

Economist David Ricardo demonstrated in 1817 that each person has a comparative advantage due to different opportunity costs. Each person is useful, and no matter how unskilled he or she may be, there will always be something that each person has a special advantage in producing. When this diversity of ability and interest is coupled with the infinite creativity of freely acting individuals, new opportunities will always arise, no matter how far technology advances.

Neither jobs nor labor are ends in themselves — they are mere means to the goal of wealth production. This does not mean that every person is concerned only with getting rich, but as Henry Hazlitt wrote in Economics in One Lesson, real wealth consists in what is produced and consumed: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in. It is railways and roads and motor cars; ships and planes and factories; schools and churches and theaters; pianos, paintings and hooks.

In other words, wealth is the ability to fulfill subjective human desires, whether that means having fresh fruit at your local grocery or being able to easily get from point A to point B. Labor is simply a means to these ends. Technology, in turn, allows labor to become far more efficient, resulting in more wealth diffused throughout society.

Everyone knows that using a bulldozer to dig a ditch in an hour is preferable to having a whole team of workers spend all day digging it by hand. The “surplus” workers are now available to do something else in which they can produce more highly valued goods and services.  Over time, in an increasingly specialized economy, productivity rises and individuals are able to better serve one another through mutually beneficial exchanges in the market. This ongoing process of capital accumulation is the key to all meaningful prosperity and the reason all of humanity has seen an unprecedented rise in wealth, living standards, leisure, and health in the past two centuries.

Technology is always uncertain going forward. Aldous Huxley warned in 1927 that jukeboxes would put live artists out of business. Time magazine predicted the computer would wreak economic chaos in the 1960s.

Today, on the cusp of one of the biggest innovations since the Internet, there is, predictably, similar opposition. But those who wring their hands at the prospect of the driverless car fail to see that its greatest potential lies not in reducing pollution and road deaths, nor in lowering fuel costs and insurance rates, but rather in its ability to liberate billions of hours of human potential that truckers, taxi drivers, and commuters now devote to focusing on the road.

No one can know exactly what the future will look like, but we know where we have been, and we know the principles of human flourishing that have guided us here.

If society is a car, trade is the engine — and technology is the gas. It drives itself. Enjoy the ride.

Will Tippens

Will Tippens is a recent law school graduate living in Memphis.

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Bernie Sanders Thinks the Middle Class Is Deteriorating: He’s Wrong! by Corey Iacono

Sen. Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist running for President of the United States, and his passionate populist message has won him many admirers on the left. His willingness to push for radical progressive policies (such as top income tax rates of 90 percent), which mainstream Democrats are too moderate to embrace, is steadily eroding Hillary Clinton’s dominance of the Democratic primary field.

There are several “facts” upon which Sanders has built his campaign. Probably the most important is the claim that the American middle class has been declining for quite some time. According to Sanders’s website:

The long-term deterioration of the middle class, accelerated by the Wall Street crash of 2008, has not been pretty…

Since 1999, the median middle-class family has seen its income go down by almost $5,000 after adjusting for inflation, now earning less than it did 25 years ago.

The situation is clearly dire, and the right man for the momentous job of saving the middle class is Sen. Sanders. Well, at least that’s [the] message his campaign seeks to convey.

But what if the middle class isn’t becoming worse off over time? What if the American middle class is actually doing as well as ever? Would Sanders’s supporters be as likely to endorse his more radical ideas if they weren’t convinced that the middle was becoming poorer over time — and that only progressive policies could reverse this trend?

It’s worth taking the time to examine Sanders’s claim that the middle class is worse off now than in the past. He doesn’t cite a source for his statistic, but it seems to rely on looking at the median household income over time and adjusting for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

This is a problematic methodology because it does not control for the well-known fact that the median household has itself grown smaller over time. Even if median income stayed the same over time, a decline in the number of people in the median household over time would lead to an increase in income per household member.

Additionally, Sanders’s statistic looks at income before taxes and transfers. Transfer payments and tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit) make up a significant portion of income for many lower-income families. Not controlling for these factors understates their true economic well-being.

The figures cited by Sanders also fail to take into account the fact that a larger proportion of worker compensation comes in the form of non-cash benefits (such as health insurance) now than in the past.

According to research published by the National Tax Journal, “Broadening the income definition to post-tax, post-transfer, size-adjusted household cash income, middle class Americans are found to have made substantial gains,” amounting to a 37 percent increase in income over the 1979-2007 period.

Similarly, in 2014, the Congressional Budget Office found that adjusting for changing household size and looking at income after taxes and transfers, households in all income quintiles are much better off than they were a few decades ago.

The incomes of households in the three middle income quintiles grew 40 percent between 1979 and 2011. Somewhat surprisingly, given the histrionics about the state of America’s poor, income in households in the lowest quintile was 48 percent higher in 2011 than it was in 1979.

Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis comes to even more optimistic conclusions.

The Consumer Price Index is widely understood to overstate inflation — among other reasons, by failing to accurately account for improvements in quality and consumer substitutions for newer or cheaper goods — which is why the Federal Open Market Committee uses an alternative measurement for inflation, the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index, which includes more comprehensive coverage of goods and services than the CPI.

If the CPI does, in fact, overstate the extent to which prices rise over time, then it also consequently understates the growth in real, inflation-adjusted incomes over time.

Indexing median household income (post taxes and transfers) to inflation using the PCE, rather than the CPI, and adjusting for the long-run decline in household size shows that median incomes have “increased by roughly 44 percent to 62 percent from 1976 to 2006.”

Moreover, the focus on statistical categories ignores what is happening at the level of individuals and households, which may move up or down the income ladder, through different income quintiles. And studies have consistently shown that this income mobility has not changed in decades.

While the rate of growth for some income categories in recent years has been sluggish, the claim that middle incomes are declining precipitously is false. Based on these findings, it seems appropriate to conclude that Sanders’ claim that there exists a “long-term deterioration of the middle class” is patently untrue.

Learn more about wage “stagnation” from former FEE president Don Boudreaux:

Corey Iacono

Corey Iacono is a student at the University of Rhode Island majoring in pharmaceutical science and minoring in economics.

Capitalist Theory Is Better Than Socialist Reality by Sandy Ikeda

Tell someone on the left that crony capitalism is not the same as the free market and they’ll often respond that capitalism as it really exists is crony capitalism. They will say that there has never been an instance of capitalism in which government-sponsored or government-abetted cronyism didn’t play a substantial role — either through war, taxation, or slavery — in a market economy. As a result, the failings of crony capitalism — corruption, privilege, oppression, business cycles — are simply the failings of capitalism itself.

One correct response is to show that the less intervention there has been, the less corrupt, privileged, oppressive, and unstable the socioeconomic order also has been. Many would simply reiterate that, historically, laissez-faire capitalism has never existed, nor could it exist, without interventionism. They simply will not or cannot distinguish the free market from state capitalism, corporate capitalism, or other forms of the mixed economy.

Which is perhaps why some on the left have adopted the term “neoliberalism,” a perfectly good word that has come to represent an imbroglio of vaguely market-cum-corporativist views. They can’t imagine how markets could work without some form of state intervention holding it all together. And that’s probably because they reject what economist Peter Boettke calls “mainline economics,” or economics in the tradition of Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, and Carl Menger, among others.

It’s frustrating, but there are two points I’d like to make. The first is that in our libertarian critiques of collectivism, we often make an argument that sounds similar to the one people on the left make. But, second, if libertarians are careful, they may be more justified in doing so.

What Is the Turnabout?

Most socialists today have abandoned their earlier claim that socialism generates greater material prosperity, but many on the left still insist that under a pure collectivist system, greater justice and equality would prevail. Socialism, in other words, is a far more humane socioeconomic order than capitalism.

How do libertarians respond to such a claim?

Sometimes we react with contempt or with disbelief that anyone could be so stupid or so evil or both as to argue such a thing. I hope no reader of theFreeman would react that way, although I’m afraid some do. Sometimes we react with slightly more civility by aiming our dismissive contempt not at the person but at the leftist ideas she holds. I will only say that we should take to heart what John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty about so-called bad ideas and opinions:

Every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of truth which the common opinion omits, ought to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion that truth may be blended.

There are other responses to the claim that socialism is more just and humane than capitalism, but I would like to focus on the one that I’ve often used: socialism in practice has always and everywhere tended to lead, to the degree that it is consistently applied, not to freedom and material well-being, but to tyranny and want. In other words, while socialism in theory may be all good things to all good people, the more government has practiced collectivism and central planning to achieve its goals of justice and equality, the farther it has fallen short of those goals. (And if you think countries such as Sweden are the exception, you might read my March 2013 Freeman article, “The New Swedish Model.”)

How is that different from the left’s position that legal privilege, oppression, and other problems are part and parcel of capitalism in practice? Each side seems to be arguing that the historical failings we’ve witnessed in each system are necessary to that system and not exceptions — features, not bugs.

A Possible Resolution

Clearly, the die-hard socialist and the die-hard libertarian argue from different fundamental principles. While there are many varieties of socialism, all are suspicious to a fairly high degree of private property, prices, and profit as the central ordering forces of society. Libertarians, too, are diverse, but I believe we all share strongly opposite views to those on the left on private property, prices, and profit as necessary (and for some libertarians, mistakenly I believe, sufficient) for a civil and prosperous society.

Socialists and indeed interventionists of all stripes also seem confident that the intentions of government authorities (especially those who have been elected) are virtuous enough and their knowledge reliable and complete enough to succeed in promoting the general welfare. In this, I think, it boils down to the underlying economics.

As a rule, libertarians use mainline economic theory to reach their conclusions about socialism and the perverse dynamics of interventionism. (There are, of course, ethical and philosophical approaches, as well.) And while interventionists and perhaps even some collectivists may believe that mainline economic theory does an okay job of framing some questions and of finding some answers to those questions, they also believe that mainline economics is far too limited to address a significant proportion of economic issues.

But the problem with such a view is that there’s no principled way to say in what circumstances mainline economics has failed. Sure, no theory of the economic system, mainline or otherwise, gets it right in every instance. We then have to look to historical evidence to clarify when, under what circumstances, and to what extent mainline economics holds up. And the historical evidence is indeed on the side of the libertarian interpretation of what collectivism and various degrees of central planning are, and of what laissez-faire capitalism is.

Indeed, the historical evidence overwhelmingly shows that social mobility, innovation, prosperity, per capita income, and per capita wealth are all tightly and positively correlated with economic freedom. And contrariwise, to the extent that economic freedom is lacking, social and economic stagnation, want, and shrinking civil rights have followed. (See, for example, the most recent publication of FreetheWorld.com.)

Someone might retort that correlation is not causation, and they would be right if there wasn’t a causal theory linking economic freedom with all those great things. But libertarians do have such a theory, and it’s called mainline economics.

Those on the left, however, don’t have a coherent theory of the mixed economy. Indeed, no such theory exists. There are several theories of so-called “market failure,” but they do not together constitute a coherent theory. What does exist is a critique of the mixed economy that is based on the realization that the ordering principle of the free market and the ordering principle of collectivist central planning are logically incompatible. One is based on open-ended entrepreneurial competition, the other on some form of constraining central planning. Interventionist approaches that attempt to combine them aren’t really systems at all. They are literally incoherent, and what makes them incoherent is the absence of a consistent ordering principle.

(My contribution to this volume [PDF] delves into this topic more deeply.)

Instead, what you’re left with, given the cognitive limits of the human mind and the spontaneous complexity of real-world systems, is expediency. Each problem is addressed not on the basis of principle, but in ad hoc fashion according to the prevailing interests of the moment. In the case of capitalism, while opportunism and cronyism do constantly pull in the direction of expediency, the force resisting that pull is entrepreneurial competition. That’s because cutting corners opens opportunities for one’s rivals to do a better job.  Moreover, that competition operates more effectively to resist and absorb all forms of intervention, crony or otherwise, the less interventionist the system is.

So while the form of the critiques of the left and of libertarians may sound similar, they are vastly different in substance.


Sandy Ikeda

Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

Does “I, Pencil” Need a Pro-Government Update? by George C. Leef

In a book I recently read, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers, I was surprised to find a chapter entitled “I Pencil Revisited.” Yes, they meant Leonard Read’s famous essay showing how market prices and competition work to coordinate production in a way that no single person, however powerful or intelligent, possibly could.

The authors aren’t exactly hostile to Read’s message but say that it leaves out something important — the role of government.

They write,

For me to be produced, someone had to protect the property rights upon which the market is based, someone had to guarantee that the contracts between individuals would be enforced, and someone had to be on the lookout for lead, for the safety of machines, and similar problems, which if not addressed might well lead to a society to undermine the institutional structure that produced me.

And, again writing through the voice of a pencil, Colander and Kupers say,

The reason I, Pencil downplayed government’s role is that he was afraid its inclusion would lead some people to expand the role of government to solve the inevitable problems that come about in coordinating production.

I believe that they are mistaken on that. The reason why Leonard Read focused exclusively on the remarkable story of voluntary market cooperation and did not expand the piece to discuss the proper role of government was that he figured most people already had some understanding of the need to protect property, enforce contracts, and settle disputes.

What very few people had any comprehension of was the way individuals all across the globe are brought into cooperation by the market for pencils.

Going into the role of government in the essay would have been like Mozart adding a few extra movements to his Jupiter Symphony.

Here is why the authors make this argument. They don’t like what they call the “market fundamentalism” of Leonard Read, former FEE president Don Boudreaux, and others (like me) who argue that the people of any society will be the most productive, happiest, and best able to deal with the problems they see if the government is kept only to the functions of protecting the rights of life, liberty, and property.

Instead of laissez-faire, Colander and Kupers favor what they call “laissez-faire activism.”

In short, they want us to believe that there is an ideal middle ground between unsophisticated “market fundamentalism” and top-down government planning and control of the economy. The latter, they understand, is bad because such authority will squelch innovation and competition, but the former supposedly doesn’t do enough to allow people to realize their “collective goals.” Here is a crucial passage:

What simplistic or fundamentalist free market advocates sometimes miss is that a complex system works only if individuals self-regulate, by which we mean that they do not push their freedom too far, and that they make reasonable compromises about benefiting themselves and benefiting society.

Of course, the common law framework that thinkers in the Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Leonard Read line advocated does put limits on individual action. Rights and the sphere of legitimate action are clearly established, and to the extent that people have collective goals, they are free to pursue them voluntarily. But Colander and Kupers think government can and should do just a bit more.

One of their ideas is that government should adopt policies that will “nudge” people to do what they “really want to do,” but can’t sufficiently discipline themselves to do. They extol the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, which purports to show how government can “encourage” people to act in preferable ways, without dictating behavior to them.

But why can’t we rely entirely on voluntary efforts by concerned individuals and organizations to do that encouraging? Churches, for example, have been encouraging people to behave better for millennia; Alcoholics Anonymous has been helping people recover from alcohol abuse since 1935; parents have been “nudging” children to make wiser decisions since time immemorial. Why look to government policy?

Sometimes, the reason why people seem to need “nudging” is that current government policy encourages undesirable behavior. Few Americans save much these days, for instance. But instead of trying to “nudge” them to save more, why not change the tax laws that discourage thrift? Going back towards “laissez-faire fundamentalism” would solve or ameliorate many of our problems.

Moreover, Colander and Kupers ignore the great and, I maintain, insuperable problem of keeping government interference within bounds. If the state has the authority to “nudge” people, what keeps politicians from ratcheting up the power if it doesn’t work? Nudging turns into pushing, then shoving. Interest groups will importune politicians with arguments for policies they favor, crafting them as merely helping “the people” to realize the social goals they “really” favor.

They way democratic politics tends to be captured by interest groups is the big message of Public Choice theory, but Colander and Kupers never think to explain how they’d prevent their “laissez-faire activism” from turning into plain old activism.

After reading Complexity and the Art of Public Policy, I fail to see how government can improve upon capitalism combined with the host of voluntary organizations that spring up in a free society. I, Pencil does not need to be revisited.

George C. Leef

George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Gays Need the Freedom to Discriminate by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Gaining the right to be married is a win for liberty because it removes a barrier to free association. But how easily a movement for more freedom turns to the cause of taking away other freedoms!

Following the Supreme Court decision mandating legal same-sex marriage nationwide, the New York Times tells us that, “gay rights leaders have turned their sights to what they see as the next big battle: obtaining federal, state and local legal protections in employment, housing, commerce and other arenas.”

In other words, the state will erect new barriers to freedom of choice in place of the old ones that just came down!

To make the case against such laws, it ought to be enough to refer to the freedom to associate and the freedom to use your property as you see fit. These are fundamental principles of liberalism. A free society permits anything peaceful, and that includes the right to disassociate. Alas, such arguments seem dead on arrival today.

So let us dig a bit deeper to understand why anti-discrimination laws are not in the best interests of gay men and women, or anyone else. Preserving the ability to discriminate permits the market system to provide crucial information feedback to a community seeking to use its buying power to reward its friends and noncoercively, nonviolently punish those who do not share its values.

Ever more, consumers are making choices based on core values. Does this institution protect the environment, treat its workers fairly, support the right political causes? In order to make those choices — which is to say, in order to discriminate — consumers need information.

In the case of gay rights, consumers need to know who supports inclusion and who supports exclusion. Shutting down that information flow through anti-discrimination law robs people of crucial data to make intelligent buying decisions. Moreover, such laws remove the competitive pressure of businesses to prove (and improve) their commitment to community values, because all businesses are ostensibly bound by them.

A market that permits discrimination, even of the invidious sort, allows money and therefore success and profits to be directed toward those who think broadly, while denying money and profitability to those who do not. In this way, a free market nudges society toward ever more tolerant and inclusive attitudes. Money speaks far more persuasively than laws.

Notice that these proposed laws only pertain to the producer and not the consumer. But discrimination is a two-edged sword. The right can be exercised by those who do not like some groups, and it can be exercised by those groups against those who do not like them.

Both are necessary and serve an important social function. They represent peaceful ways of providing social and economic rewards to those who put aside biases in favor of inclusive decision making.

If I’m Catholic and want to support pro-Catholic businesses, I also need to know what businesses don’t like Catholics. If I’m Muslim and only want my dollars supporting my faith, I need to know who won’t serve Muslims (or who will put my dollars to bad use). If a law that prohibits business from refusing to serve or hire people based on religion, how am I supposed to know which businesses deserve my support?

It’s the same with many gay people. They don’t want to trade with companies that discriminate. To act out those values requires some knowledge of business behavior and, in turn, the freedom to discriminate. There is no gain for anyone by passing a universal law mandating only one way of doing business. Mandates drain the virtue out of good behavior and permit bad motivations to hide under the cover of law.

Here is an example from a recent experience. I was using AirBnB to find a place to stay for a friend. He needed a place for a full week, so $1,000 was at stake. The first potential provider I contacted hesitated and began to ask a series of questions that revolved around my friend’s country of origin, ethnicity, and religion. The rental owner was perfectly in his rights to do this. It is his home, and he faces no obligation to open it to all comers.

On the other hand, I found the questions annoying, even offensive. I decided that I didn’t want to do business with this person. I made a few more clicks, cancelled that query, and found another place within a few minutes. The new renter was overjoyed to take in my friend.

I was delighted for two reasons. First, my friend was going to stay at a home that truly wanted him there, and that’s important. Force is never a good basis for commercial relationships. Second, I was able to deny $1K to a man who was, at best, a risk averse and narrow thinker or, at worst, an outright bigot.

Declining to do business with him was my little protest, and it felt good. I wouldn’t want my friend staying with someone who didn’t really want him there, and I was happy not to see resources going toward someone whose values I distrusted.

In this transaction, I was able to provide a reward to the inclusive and broad-minded home owner. It really worked out too: the winning rental property turned out to be perfect for my friend.

This was only possible because the right to discriminate is protected in such transactions (for now). I like to think that the man who asked too many questions felt a bit of remorse after the fact (he lost a lot of money), and even perhaps is right now undergoing a reconsideration of his exclusionary attitudes. Through my own buyer decisions I was actually able to make a contribution toward improving cultural values.

What if anti-discrimination laws had pertained? The man would not have been allowed to ask about national origin, religion, and ethnicity. Presuming he kept his room on the open market, he would have been required under law to accept my bid, regardless of his own values.

As a result, my money would have gone to someone who didn’t have a high regard for my friend, my friend would have been denied crucial information about what he was getting into, and I would not be able to reward people for values I hold dear.

This is precisely why gay rights leaders should be for, not against, the right to discriminate. If you are seeking to create a more tolerant society, you need information that only a free society can provide.

You need to know who is ready to serve and hire gay men and women, so they can be rewarded for their liberality. You also need to know who is unwilling to hire and serve so that the loss part of profit-and-loss can be directed against ill-liberality. Potential employees and customers need to know how they are likely to be treated by a business. Potential new producers need to know about business opportunities in under-served niche markets.

If everyone is forced to serve and hire gays, society is denied important knowledge about who does and does not support enlightened thinking on this topic.

Consider the prototypical case of the baker who doesn’t want to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. He is within his rights. His loss of a potential customer base is his own loss. It is also the right of the couple to refuse to give this baker business. The money he would have otherwise made can be redirected towards a baker who is willing to do this. It is equally true that some people would rather trade with a baker who is against gay marriage, and they are within their rights as well.

Every act of discrimination, provided it is open and legal, provides a business opportunity to someone else.

How does all this work itself out in the long run? Commerce tends toward rewarding inclusion, broadness, and liberality. Tribal loyalties, ethnic and religious bigotries, and irrational prejudices are bad for business. The merchant class has been conventionally distrusted by tribalist leaders — from the ancient to the modern world — precisely because merchantcraft tends to break down barriers between groups.

We can see this in American history following the end of slavery. Blacks and whites were ever more integrated through commercial exchange, especially with the advance of transportation technology and rising incomes. This is why the racists turned increasingly toward the state to forbid it. Zoning laws, minimum wage regulation, mandatory segregation, and occupational licensing were all strategies used to keep the races separate even as the market was working toward integration.

The overwhelming tendency of markets is to bring people together, break down prejudices, and persuade people of the benefits of cooperation regardless of class, race, religion, sex/gender, or other arbitrary distinctions. The same is obviously and especially true of sexual orientation. It is the market that rewards people who put aside their biases and seek gains through trade.

This is why states devoted to racialist and hateful policies always resort to violence in control of the marketplace. Ludwig von Mises, himself Jewish and very much the victim of discrimination his entire life, explained that this was the basis for Nazi economic policy. The market was the target of the Nazis because market forces know no race, religion, or nationality.

“Many decades of intensive anti-Semitic propaganda,” Mises  wrote in 1944, “did not succeed in preventing German ‘Aryans’ from buying in shops owned by Jews, from consulting Jewish doctors and lawyers, and from reading books by Jewish authors.” So the racists turned to the totalitarian state — closing and confiscating Jewish business, turning out Jewish academics, and burning Jewish books — in order to severe the social and economic ties between races in Germany.

The biggest enemy of marginal and discriminated-against populations is and has always been the state. The best hope for promoting universal rights and a culture of tolerance is the market economy. The market is the greatest weapon ever devised against bigotry — but, in order to work properly, the market needs to signaling systems rooted in individuals’ freedom of choice to act on their values.

And, to be sure, the market can also provide an outlet for people who desire to push back for a different set of values, perhaps rooted in traditional religious concerns. Hobby Lobby, Chick-Fil-A, In-and-Out Burger, among many others, openly push their religious mission alongside their business, and their customer base is drawn to them for this reason. This is also a good thing. It is far better for these struggles to take place in the market (where choice rules) rather than through politics (where force does).

Trying to game that market by taking away consumer and producer choice harms everyone. Anti-discrimination laws will provide more choices at the expense of more informed choices. Such laws force bigotry underground, shut down opportunities to provide special rewards for tolerance, and disable the social learning process that leads to an ever more inclusive society.

New laws do not fast-track fairness and justice; they take away opportunities to make the world a better place one step at a time.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.

The Ex-Im Bank Is Dead — But Watch Out for Corporate Welfare Zombies by Daniel J. Ikenson

At midnight, the gears of crony capitalism ground to a halt at 811 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.

After 81 years of funneling taxpayer dollars to favored companies, projects, and geopolitical outcomes under the guise of advancing some vague conception of the “U.S. economic interest,” the Export-Import Bank of the United States will end its financing operations at midnight tonight.

No more subsidies to Fortune 100 businesses. No more siphoning revenues from unwitting U.S. firms and industries. No more loan guarantees to wealthy, autocratic foreign governments. No more crowding out of private lending. No more taxpayer exposure to a Fannie Mae-like fiasco. No more bribery and corruption scandals. No more collaboration and lending to China’s Export-Import Bank – you know, the entity whose support for Chinese companies is alleged to threaten U.S. exporters and jobs, and is the most frequently cited imperative for reauthorizing Ex-Im.

No more of any of this… for now.

Champions of small government and market capitalism should savor this rare victory. It was won with solid arguments, including over 20 years of analyses from Cato Institute scholars including Ian Vasquez, Aaron Lukas, Steve Slivinsky, Chris Edwards, Doug Bandow, Sallie James, and – perhaps most comprehensively and tirelessly – Veronique de Rugy.

It was won because of columnist/scholar Tim Carney’s persistence in focusing the public’s attention on the corruption bred of corporate welfare and because of the analytical contributions of Heritage’s Diane Katz, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Young, and others who continued to make compelling arguments for shuttering the Bank, despite steep odds against that outcome.

It was won because certain libertarian groups and conservative activists made the issue a priority, recognizing that corporate welfare is as great a threat to liberty as is the Welfare State, and that reining it in should be a priority because success there would lend greater credibility to the effort to rein in the Welfare State.

It was won against great odds, including vast political expenditures and arm-twisting by U.S. business interests on Capitol Hill, a mainstream media that is reflexively unsympathetic to any cause associated with “Tea Party Types,” and a general aversion among establishment organizations to any challenges to the status-quo.

Radical and reckless, excessive and extreme, ideological and idiotic have been the characterizations assigned by media, politicians, and Boeing lobbyists in their attempts to discredit legitimate efforts to purge “crony” and make “market” the new brand of capitalism.

And it was won because House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, knowing the case against Ex-Im reauthorization was more substantive than the New York Times would allow, made good gatekeepers by putting the onus on Ex-Im proponents to answer the critics – a task at which they failed.

So, at midnight, the Export-Import Bank ceased in its capacity to issue new financing. That is something to cheer. It may also be short-lived.

Proponents of the Bank have been regrouping and strategizing to move legislation to reauthorize the Bank at the soonest possible chance. In fact the White House is hosting a conference call for the purpose of advancing that outcome. Here’s the text of the email:

Dear Friend,

Please join us for a conference call on Tuesday, June 30th, at 2:35 PM with President Barack Obama, Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, and Director of the National Economic Council, Jeff Zients, to discuss the importance of reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

The Export-Import Bank is a critical tool to help U.S. businesses and workers succeed in global markets and grow their exports – it supports high-quality jobs, is a vital tool for small businesses, and doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny. Its reauthorization is vital to U.S. competitiveness and leveling the playing field for American small business owners and workers. …

This call is off the record and is not for press purposes nor amplification on social media.

Thank you,

The White House Business Council

The battle may be over but the war continues. Given the sway that conservatives have had on this issue, it will be interesting to see whether and how Speaker Boehner tries to circumvent Hensarling’s committee to get a reauthorization bill to the floor. Majority Leader McConnell believes there’s enough support in the Senate for reauthorization, but most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have expressed opposition to reauthorization.

It seems to me that if Ex-Im reauthorization resurfaces in the weeks and months ahead, it will be an issue that provides Republicans with yet another opportunity to demonstrate commitment to limited government, free market principles. Maybe this time they’ll see the value in reclaiming that brand.


Daniel Ikenson

Dan Ikenson is director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, where he coordinates and conducts research on all manners of international trade and investment policy.

EDITORS NOTE: A version of this post first appeared at Cato.org.

Neoliberalism: Making a Boogeyman Out of a Buzzword by Max Borders

After Salon.com stopped being interesting, they needed a way to drive traffic. Competition for eyeballs is tough, after all. In the dog-eat-dog world of attracting eyeballs, you’ve got to find clever ways to pull in new readers.

One way to drive traffic is to poke people you know disagree with you. And by poking, I mean turning them into a Voodoo Doll.

This variation on beating up a Straw Man has the benefit of the Internet’s sharing magic. That is, if you pick on some group they will feel it. Then they will turn around and express their outrage by sharing your stuff! Voila: instant Internet gold.

In making Voodoo Dolls, you don’t always have to pick on a specific person. You can go for a worldview. Salon has given libertarianism a lot of flak, of course. But now they’re going for an even bigger boogeyman, because the idea is to paint as many people as you can with the same tarbrush.

What better place to go for a big, sweeping label than the academy?

Here’s UC-Berkeley political science professor Wendy Brown talking “neoliberalism” in a Salon interview.

And how do you define neoliberalism? It’s not uncommon for me to experience people I’d consider neoliberals telling me the term is meaningless.

I think most Salon readers would know neoliberalism as that radical free-marketeering that comes to us in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the Reagan-Thatcher revolution being the real marker of that turn in Euro-Atlantic world. It means the dismantling of publicly owned industry and deregulation of capital, especially finance capital; the elimination of public provisions and the idea of public goods; and the most basic submission of everything to markets and to unregulated markets.

So free enterprise is its clarion call, and even though it requires a lot of state intervention and state support, the idea that goes with it is usually also minimal state intervention in markets. Even if states are needed to prop or support or sometimes bail out markets, they shouldn’t get into the middle of them and redistribute [wealth]. That’s all true. That’s certainly part of what neoliberalism is.

Okay, let’s see if we can make heads or tails of this magician’s patter.

Start with Professor Brown’s concern that people have criticized the term neoliberalism as being meaningless. This doctrine, Brown says, “requires a lot of state intervention and state support, the idea that goes with it is usually also minimal state intervention in markets.”

Huh? If neoliberalism isn’t exactly libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism — because these doctrines certainly do not include or require state intervention and support of markets — then we might say she’s talking about cronyism. And certainly if someone were to build a doctrine around cronyism, that would not be meaningless.

It turns out such a doctrine does exist. But it’s not neoliberalism; it’s corporatism — and it’s a progressivist ideology.

According to Nobel laureate Edmund S. Phelps, quoted in the Freeman:

The managerial state has assumed responsibility for looking after everything from the incomes of the middle class to the profitability of large corporations to industrial advancement. This system . . . is . . . an economic order that harks back to Bismarck in the late nineteenth century and Mussolini in the twentieth: corporatism.

Phelps says,

In various ways, corporatism chokes off the dynamism that makes for engaging work, faster economic growth, and greater opportunity and inclusiveness. It maintains lethargic, wasteful, unproductive, and well-connected firms at the expense of dynamic newcomers and outsiders, and favors declared goals such as industrialization, economic development, and national greatness over individuals’ economic freedom and responsibility.

Today, airlines, auto manufacturers, agricultural companies, media, investment banks, hedge funds, and much more has [sic] at some point been deemed too important to weather the free market on its own, receiving a helping hand from government in the name of the “public good.”

But where does this idea come from? Contra Brown, it’s not from the “free marketeers”. Economist Thayer Watkins says:

In the last half of the 19th century people of the working class in Europe were beginning to show interest in the ideas of socialism and syndicalism. Some members of the intelligentsia, particularly the Catholic intelligentsia, decided to formulate an alternative to socialism which would emphasize social justice without the radical solution of the abolition of private property.

The result was called Corporatism. The name had nothing to do with the notion of a business corporation except that both words are derived from the Latin word for body, corpus.

To be fair, Brown might protest, arguing that she would subsidize, cartelize, and manage the right industries, such as finance. At least she laments the liberalization of these industries, citing Thatcher as an example of neoliberal excess, despite what a basket case Britain had been under prior governments.

So which industries would she leave private and which “require a lot of state intervention”? And what sort of magic makes any such scheme immune to rent-seeking and capture?

It appears state support of business originated among certain less-communist advocates of social justice. But surely this is not something the more moderate progressives had in mind.

After all, says Brown, “What’s more, if those of us who oppose neoliberalism misinterpret it as simply another word for capitalism, we make the job of fighting it even more difficult. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a capitalist, after all. But a neoliberal, he most certainly was not.”

Libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan says it’s time to point fingers and name names. In a rare polemic called “Dear Left: Corporatism is Your Fault” he writes,

America is suffering from rampant, run-away corporatism and crony capitalism. We are increasingly a plutocracy in which government serves the interests of elite financiers and CEOs at the expense of everyone else.

You know this and you complain loudly about it. But the problem is your fault. You caused this state of affairs. Stop it.

But the moderate left didn’t want radical socialism. They just wanted regulatory agencies to rein in the excesses of the market. They wanted the government to subsidize or own areas that ought to be considered public goods, like healthcare, transportation, education, and the environment. But good intentions are not enough, writes Brennan.

We told you this would happen, but you wouldn’t listen. You complain, rightly, that regulatory agencies are controlled by the very corporations they are supposed to constrain. Well, yeah, we told you that would happen. When you create power—and you people love to create power—the unscrupulous seek to capture that power for their personal benefit. Time and time again, they succeed. We told you that would happen, and we gave you an accurate account of how it would happen.

You complain, perhaps rightly, that corporations are just too big. Well, yeah, we told you that would happen. When you create complicated tax codes, complicated regulatory regimes, and complicated licensing rules, these regulations naturally select for larger and larger corporations. We told you that would happen. Of course, these increasingly large corporations then capture these rules, codes, and regulations to disadvantage their competitors and exploit the rest of us. We told you that would happen.

Brennan was probably a little upset when he wrote this, but fairly so. People like Wendy Brown have been trying to emblazon corporatism on the tunics of free marketeers and liberalizers for a while now. And they’re generally pontificating from the academy, rather than from the brothels of K St. in Washington, or Venezuela’s Ministry of Planning and Finance.

No one who calls herself a political science professor should have earned her letters without having read public choice theory. No, it’s time to admit that all progressive attempts to stitch together old scraps of socialism with markets will create perverse effects and corruption of one form or another.

Maybe Prof. Brown is okay with “corporatizing” some industries while leaving others in private hands, a la FDR. Hers seems to be an attempt to synthesize the heart of Marx with the will of the people. She says:

“Demos kratia” — “people rule” — is really the term that, however differently it’s been interpreted over different variations of democracy and different centuries, is one that we all cherish on some level. Demos is important because it’s the body, it’s the people, that we imagine are in control of the basic conditions and laws that govern our lives.

Ah, yes “the body,” the corpus. Haven’t we heard that one before? We’re supposed to cherish democracy, because, well, it’s as American as apple pie. Any more reflection would require admitting that the “demos” disagrees about stuff. And that’s a slippery slope to individualism and recognizing the need for tolerance and personal autonomy. This is the fact of pluralism that even the liberal philosopher John Rawls starts with.

Whenever you hear the world neoliberalism, be wary. It could be completely meaningless filler, but it’s always as squishy as silly putty. It’s a label that’s designed to demonize those who would never support it — a word to be accompanied by a sneer. It is a means of defining oneself as against something — preferably a nice soft Straw Man — rather than doing the hard business of coming out ideologically and defending your ideas.

When you realize that accepting degrees of state intervention is a problem of degree and not of kind, it becomes clear the Wendy Browns have nowhere to run but to nebulous concepts like “demos.” That is because between corporatism and communism there is no magical third way, only shades of state coercion, justified by a flimsy majoritarian facade. The choice between nationalized or regulated industries is binary, so the ideological choice set is really only between communism and corporatism. But communism screwed things up. Corporatism screws things up. All the variations screw things up because each permutation involves power and business forming unholy alliances.

People like Wendy Brown and her Salon interviewer Elias Isquith aren’t stupid. And like most people, they have good intentions. They are committed to a particular theory of angels. Demos, that golden calf, is the tired old notion that if we could just blur the peculiarities, individuality, and desires of 300 million people into a single prayer and send it up through the voting booth, what will come out the other side — in Washington, D.C. — is a kind of secular salvation. But this sort of thinking turns on hypostatization, that timeless fallacy of ambiguity that seduces people into collectivism.

We have to look them squarely in the face and say: “You caused this state of affairs. Stop it.”


Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Driverless Money by George Selgin

Last week I was contemplating a post having to do with driverless cars when, wouldn’t you know it, I received word that the Bank of England had just started a new blog called Bank Underground, and the first substantive post on it had to do with — you guessed it — driverless cars.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried that Bank Underground had stolen my fire. The post, you see, was written by some employees in the Bank of England’s General Insurance Supervision Division, whose concern was that driverless cars might be bad news for the insurance industry.

The problem, as the Bank of England’s experts see it, is that cars like the ones that Google plans to introduce in 2020 are much better drivers than we humans happen to be — so much better, according to research cited in the post, that “the entire basis of motor insurance, which mainly exists because people crash, could … be upended.”

Driverless cars, therefore, threaten to “wipe out traditional motor insurance.”

It is, of course, a great relief to know that the Bank of England’s experts are keeping a sharp eye out for such threats to the insurance industry. (I suppose they must be working as we speak on some plan for addressing the dire possibility — let us hope it never comes to this — that cancer and other diseases will eventually be eradicated.)

But my own interest in driverless cars is rather different. So far as I’m concerned, the advent of such cars should have us all wondering, not about the future of the insurance industry, but about the future of…the Bank of England, or rather of it and all other central banks.

If driverless cars can upend “the entire basis of motor insurance,” then surely, I should think, an automatic or “driverless” monetary system ought to be capable of upending “the entire basis of monetary policy,” as such policy is presently conducted.

And that, so far as I’m concerned, would be a jolly good thing.

Am I drifting into science fiction? Let’s put matters in perspective. Although experiments involving driverless or “autonomous” cars have been going on for decades, until as recently as one decade ago, the suggestion that such cars would soon be, not only safe enough to replace conventional ones, but far safer, would have struck many people as fantastic.

Consider for a moment the vast array of contingencies such a vehicle must be capable of taking into account in order to avoid accidents and get passengers to some desired destination. Besides having to determine correct routes, follow their many twists and turns, obey traffic signals, and parallel park, they have to be capable of evading all sorts of unpredictable hazards, including other errant vehicles, not to mention jaywalkers and such.

The relevant variables are, in fact, innumerable. Yet using a combination of devices tech wizards have managed to overcome almost every hurdle, and will soon have overcome the few that remain.

All of this would be impressive enough even if human beings were excellent drivers. In fact, they are often very poor drivers indeed, which means that driverless cars are capable, not only of being just as good, but of being far better —  90 percent better, to be precise, since that’s the percentage of all car accidents attributable to human error.

Human beings are bad drivers for all sorts of reasons. They have to perform other tasks that take their mind off the road; their vision is sometimes impaired; they misjudge their own driving capabilities or the workings of their machines; some are sometimes inclined to show off, while others are dangerously timid. Occasionally, instead of relying on their wits, they drive “under the influence.”

Central bankers, being human, suffer from similar human foibles. They are distracted by the back-seat ululations of commercial bankers, exporters, finance ministers, and union leaders, among others. Their vision is at the same time both cloudy and subject to myopia.

Finally, few if any are able to escape altogether the disorienting influence of politics. The history of central banking is, by and large, a history of accidents, if not of tragic accidents, stemming from these and other sorts of human error.

It should not be so difficult, then, to imagine that a “driverless” monetary system might spare humanity such accidents, by guiding monetary policy more responsibly than human beings are capable of doing.

How complicated a challenge is this? Is it really more complicated than that involved in, say, driving from San Francisco to New York? Central bankers themselves like to think so, of course — just as most of us still like to believe that we are better drivers than any computer.

But let’s be reasonable. At bottom central bankers, in their monetary policy deliberations, have to make a decision concerning one thing, and one thing only: should they acquire or sell assets, and how many, or should they do neither?

Unlike a car, which has numerous controls — a steering wheel, signal lights, brakes, and an accelerator — a central bank has basically one, consisting of the instrument with which it adjusts the rate at which assets flow into or out of its balance sheet. Pretty simple.

And the flow itself? Here, to be sure, things get more complicated. What “target” should the central bank have in mind in determining the flow? Should it consist of a single variable, like the inflation rate, or of two or more variables, like inflation and unemployment? But the apparent complexity is, in my humble opinion, a result of confusion on monetary economists’ part, rather than of any genuine trade-offs central bankers face.

As Scott Sumner has been indefatigably arguing for some years now (and as I myself have long maintained), sound monetary policy isn’t a matter of having either a constant rate of inflation or any particular level of either employment or real output. It’s a matter of securing a stable flow of spending, or Nominal GNP, while leaving it to the marketplace to determine how that flow breaks down into separate real output and inflation-rate components.

Scott would have NGDP grow at an annual rate of 4-5 percent; I would be more comfortable with a rate of 2-3 percent. But this number is far less important to the achievement of macroeconomic stability than a commitment to keeping the rate — whatever it happens to be — stable and, therefore, predictable.

So: one goal, and one control. That’s much simpler than driving from San Francisco to New York. Heck, it’s simpler than managing the twists and turns of San Franscisco’s Lombard Street.

And the technology? In principle, one could program a computer to manage the necessary asset purchases or sales. That idea itself is an old one, Milton Friedman having contemplated it almost forty years ago, when computers were still relatively rare.

What Friedman could not have imagined then was a protocol like the one that controls the supply of bitcoins, which has the distinct advantage of being, not only automatic, but tamper-proof: once set going, no-one can easily alter it. The advantage of a bitcoin-style driverless monetary system is that it is, not only capable of steering itself, but incapable of being hijacked.

The bitcoin protocol itself allows the stock of bitcoins to grow at a predetermined and ever-diminishing rate, so that the stock of bitcoins will cease to grow as it approaches a limit of 21 million coins.

But all sorts of protocols may be possible, including ones that would adjust a currency’s supply growth according to its velocity — that is, the rate at which the currency is being spent — so as to maintain a steady flow of spending, à la Sumner. The growth rate could even be made to depend on market-based indicators of the likely future value of NGDP.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t any challenges yet to be overcome in designing a reliable “driverless money.” For one thing, the monetary system as a whole has to be functioning properly: just as a driverless car won’t work if the steering linkage is broken, a driverless monetary system won’t work if it’s so badly tuned that banks end up just sitting on any fresh reserves that come their way.

My point is rather that there’s no good reason for supposing that such challenges are any more insuperable than those against which the designers of driverless cars have prevailed. If driverless car technology has managed to take on San Francisco’s Lombard Street, I see no reason why driverless money technology couldn’t eventually tackle London’s.

What’s more, there is every reason to believe that driverless money would, if given a chance, prove to be far more beneficial to mankind than driverless cars ever will.

For although bad drivers cause plenty of accidents, none has yet managed to wreck an entire economy, as reckless central bankers have sometimes done. If driverless monetary systems merely served to avoid the worst macroeconomic pileups, that alone would be reason enough to favor them.

But they can surely do much better than that. Who knows: perhaps the day will come when, thanks to improvements in driverless monetary technology, central bankers will find themselves with nothing better to do than worry about the future of the hedge fund industry.

Cross-posted from Alt-M.org and Cato.org.

George Selgin

Inequality: The Rhetoric and Reality by James A. Dorn

The publication of Thomas Piketty’s bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century has led to widespread attention on the rising gap between rich and poor, and to populist calls for government to redistribute income and wealth.

Purveyors of that rhetoric, however, overlook the reality that when the state plays a major role in leveling differences in income and wealth, economic freedom is eroded. The problem is, economic freedom is the true engine of progress for all people.

Income and wealth are created in the process of discovering and expanding new markets. Innovation and entrepreneurship extend the range of choices open to people. And yet not everyone is equal in their contribution to this process. There are differences among people in their abilities, motivations, and entrepreneurial talent, not to mention their life circumstances.

Those differences are the basis of comparative advantage and the gains from voluntary exchanges on private free markets. Both rich and poor gain from free markets; trade is not a zero- or negative-sum game.

Attacking the rich, as if they are guilty of some crime, and calling for state action to bring about a “fairer” distribution of income and wealth leads to an ethos of envy — certainly not one that supports the foundations of abundance: private property, personal responsibility, and freedom.

In an open market system, people who create new products and services prosper, as do consumers. Entrepreneurs create wealth and choices. The role of the state should be to safeguard rights to property and let markets flourish. When state power trumps free markets, choices are narrowed and opportunities for wealth creation are lost.

Throughout history, governments have discriminated against the rich, ultimately harming the poor. Central planning should have taught us that replacing private entrepreneurs with government bureaucrats merely politicizes economic life and concentrates power; it does not widen choices or increase income mobility.

Peter Bauer, a pioneer in development economics, recognized early on that “in a modern open society, the accumulation of wealth, especially great wealth, normally results from activities which extend the choices of others.”

Government has the power to coerce, but private entrepreneurs must persuade consumers to buy their products and convince investors to support their vision. The process of “creative destruction,” as described by Joseph Schumpeter, means that dynastic wealth is often short-lived.

Bauer preferred to use the term “economic differences” rather than “economic inequality.” He did so because he thought the former would convey more meaning than the latter. The rhetoric of inequality fosters populism and even extremism in the quest for egalitarian outcomes. In contrast, speaking of differences recognizes reality and reminds us that “differences in readiness to utilize economic opportunities — willingness to innovate, to assume risk, to organize — are highly significant in explaining economic differences in open societies.”

What interested Bauer was how to increase the range of choices open to people, not how to use government to reduce differences in income and wealth. As Bauer reminded us,

Political power implies the ability of rulers forcibly to restrict the choices open to those they rule. Enforced reduction or removal of economic differences emerging from voluntary arrangements extends and intensifies the inequality of coercive power.

Equal freedom under a just rule of law and limited government doesn’t mean that everyone will be equal in their endowments, motivations, or aptitudes. Disallowing those differences, however, destroys the driving force behind wealth creation and poverty reduction. There is no better example than China.

Under Mao Zedong, private entrepreneurs were outlawed, as was private property, which is the foundation of free markets. Slogans such as “Strike hard against the slightest sign of private ownership” allowed little room for improving the plight of the poor. The establishment of communes during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958–1961) and the centralization of economic decision making led to the Great Famine, ended civil society, and imposed an iron fence around individualism while following a policy of forced egalitarianism.

In contrast, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping allowed the resurgence of markets and opened China to the outside world. Now the largest trading nation in the world, China has demonstrated that economic liberalization is the best cure for broadening people’s choices and has allowed hundreds of millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Deng’s slogan “To get rich is glorious” is in stark contrast to Mao’s leveling schemes. In 1978, and as recently as 2002, there were no Chinese billionaires; today there are 220. That change would not have been possible without the development of China as a trading nation.

There are now 536 billionaires in the United States and growing animosity against the “1 percent” — especially by those who were harmed by the Great Recession. Nevertheless, polls have shown that most Americans think economic growth is far more important than capping the incomes of the very rich or narrowing the income gap. Only 3 percent of those polled by CBS and the New York Times in January thought that economic inequality was the primary problem facing the nation. Most Americans are more concerned with income mobility — that is, moving up the income ladder — then with penalizing success.

Regardless, some politicians will use inflammatory rhetoric to make differences between rich and poor the focus of their campaigns in the presidential election season. In doing so, they should recognize the risks that government intervention in the creation and distribution of income and wealth pose for a free society and for all-around prosperity.

Government policies can widen the gap between rich and poor through corporate welfare, through unconventional monetary policy that penalizes savers while pumping up asset prices, and through minimum wage laws and other legislation that price low-skilled workers out of the market and thus impede income mobility.

A positive program designed to foster economic growth — and leave people free to choose — by lowering marginal tax rates on labor and capital, reducing costly regulations, slowing the growth of government, and normalizing monetary policy would be the best medicine to benefit both rich and poor.


James A. Dorn

James A. Dorn is vice president for monetary studies, editor of the Cato Journal, senior fellow, and director of Cato’s annual monetary conference.