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Government Shouldn’t Decide Who Uses Which Bathroom by Doug Bandow

There’s Simply No Single Right Answer.

The North Carolina legislature voted in March to require that people use the bathroom designated for their biological sex. The state was criticized for violating gay and transgender rights. The Obama administration may cut federal education, housing, and transportation aid to North Carolina in response.

Bathroom use has been an issue in other states, including Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Dakota. Legislation proposed and passed differs by state on how to define gender — ranging from chromosomes to birth certificate to anatomical sex. Obviously, people can’t change their chromosomes. They can, however, change their gender identity and its associated physical traits, which is where the controversy begins.

The president’s position appears to be that people have a legal right to use the bathroom of their choice, regardless of their gender, however defined. With the club of federal funding, he is attempting to socially engineer America.

This is central planning run riot.

Good people should approach anyone in the midst of gender change with humility and compassion. For most of us, it is unimaginable what would cause someone to desire to shift genders. It is a personal issue of the most profound nature. It shouldn’t be debated and decided in the public square.

And politicians aren’t doing a good job addressing the question. It may not make sense to most people for someone who looks like a guy to use the ladies room, however he sees himself, but neither does it seem right to force someone who looks like a guy to use the ladies room because he was born female. And it certainly makes no sense to let one person or group of people force everyone else to comply with their preference, even when that group is a majority of voters.

Bathroom use shouldn’t be a question for bureaucrats, politicians, lawyers, or judges to answer.

Who should use which bathroom? If it’s in your home, you decide. Likewise, a private company or other private organization should set the rules for its building. What does the owner want? What do customers or members prefer? What is the best way to balance competing interests given the community’s dominant moral sense?

Most people in most places probably believe that people should use the bathroom that matches their physical characteristics, whether changed or not. And we know from the current debate that many (if not most) people prefer not to share a bathroom with someone who appears to be of the other sex, irrespective of the gender with which he or she identifies.

However, one can imagine a “progressive” individual, business owner, or group deciding otherwise. And whether that decision reflected special solicitude for vulnerable individuals or a desire to shape public attitudes, it would be no cause for complaint.

There’s simply no single right answer — and no justification for government to intervene in such intimate, private decisions.

What about bathrooms in public facilities, such as a government office, school, airport, or military base? These are all theoretically “owned” by everyone. Everyone has a stake in the issue — and thus a “right” of some sort — but there’s no accepted, overarching principle that determines with whom you must share a bathroom. A local majority may need to rule in such cases, but someone will always be unhappy with the result, especially if the relevant decision-makers are far away, protected from the consequences.

For Washington pols to insist that, say, teenage girls in a small town in downstate Illinois accept as a bathroom mate a child who appears to be a boy is an act of extraordinary chutzpah. The girls’ refusal to do so does not necessarily reflect malevolent discrimination; it may simply be an understandable reaction to basic biology. Politicians have no right to impose their particular agenda.

Of course, differing opinions don’t justify ignoring the interests of those in the midst of gender change, whether it involves surgery or not. Access to a bathroom is critical for almost everything people do — going to school, working outside your home, going shopping, and traveling. Some kind of accommodation should be made. But what kind?

Again, there’s no single solution that fits every public establishment, let alone private entity, across the country. Larger buildings could offer more options, such as separate bathrooms, like family-friendly single facilities. Communities and student bodies differ in attitudes and openness. Even those who are transgender may desire different outcomes in different circumstances.

Most important, all participants need to demonstrate understanding and sensitivity. No one of goodwill wants to add to the distress of someone changing gender. At the same time, those going through the process should not try to use government to impose their preference on schoolmates, neighbors, coworkers, and others. People should look for alternatives and compromises to work it out. Compromise, compassion, private property rights, and decentralized decision-making are enough to resolve this issue.

Politicians already control education, manage health care, provide social services, and underwrite businesses — and now they even decide who should use which bathroom. It’s time to return life’s most important decisions to the people. A good place to start would be keeping government out of our bathrooms.

Doug BandowDoug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.

RELATED ARTICLES:

New Democrat Party: The Red-Green-Rainbow Troika

What will happen when a Muslim girl showers with a male who thinks he’s a girl?

Three reasons why Trump’s support of transgender bathrooms is wrong

EDITORS NOTE: Congressman Vern Buchanan (FL-District 16) did an email survey of constituents on the issue of transgender bathrooms. Here is the question and responses as of May 16th, 2016:

Do you support the new Obama administration directive requiring all public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice?
  • Strongly support
 23.16%
  • Somewhat support
  8.39%
  • Somewhat oppose
  5.59%
  • Strongly oppose
 62.84%

California’s Statewide $15 Minimum Wage Will Horribly Backfire for Poorer Cities by Mark J. Perry

I wrote earlier this month about one of the potentially fatal flaws of California’s recently enacted $15 an hour statewide minimum wage: a one-size-fits-all uniform $15 minimum wage for the entire state of California is really a “one-size-fits-none” minimum wage, given the huge variations in the cost of living around the country’s most populous state.

While a high-wage, high cost-of-living city like San Francisco might be able to absorb a $15 minimum wage without experiencing significant negative employment effects, that same $15 wage could inflict serious economic damages and result in job losses for many of the state’s 500 cities that are in low-wage, low cost-of-living areas.

To help understand how the “one-size-fits-all” approach of a $15 an hour state minimum wage will have a disproportionately adverse impact on low-cost communities in California, the table below displays the “living hourly wages” for California’s 26 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), based on data from MIT’s Living Wage Calculator for the year 2014 (most recent year available).

According to the MIT website, the cost-of-living adjusted living wages are the “hourly rates that individuals must earn [in a given MSA] to support their family [and cover basic family expenses], if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2,080 hours per year).” Living wages for adult workers with 1 to 3 children are also displayed in the table.

The living wage data shown above reveal huge differences in the cost-of-living between low-cost California MSAs like Yuba City, El Centro, Chico, and Merced (living wages are below $10 an hour) and high-cost cities like San Francisco and San Jose, where the cost-of-living adjusted living wage is 38% higher.

If $15 an hour is an appropriate minimum wage for San Francisco, it should be less than $11 an hour in MSAs like Yuba City and El Centro, where the cost-of-living is significantly lower. It’s also important to note that all four of those low-cost MSAs had jobless rates above the state average in February, and three of them (all except Chico) had double-digit unemployment rates in February, with El Centro having the distinction of once again being the MSA with the highest jobless rate in the entire country at 18.6%.

Therefore, many MSAs in California (like Yuba City, El Centro, Chico and Merced) not only have costs-of-living way below the state average, but they also have jobless rates that are way above the state average, and it’s those MSAs that will be adversely impacted by the imposition of a uniform state minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Bottom Line: As I concluded before, even supporters of a $15 an hour minimum wage in California would have to concede that a one-size-fits-all, uniform $15 an hour state minimum wage, without any adjustments for the significant differences in the cost-of-living across the Golden State, will disproportionately affect unskilled and limited-experience workers in low-cost MSAs like Yuba City and El Centro, and also in hundreds of other low-cost, low-wage cities (that are not part of an MSA) throughout the state.

In other words, a one-size-fits-all minimum wage for all 500 cities in California is really a “one-size-fits-none” minimum wage, and will inflict very serious and long-lasting economic damage in most parts of the state outside of the large metro areas on the coast (LA, San Francisco, and San Diego).

The clumsy, top-down, ham-handed approach of government imposed wage controls like a $15 an hour statewide minimum wage in California, without allowing for any adjustments to accommodate the significant differences in cost-of-living and labor market conditions, is one of the main reasons the Golden State’s risky experiment with a $15 wage will likely backfire and be “not-so-golden” in practice.

In contrast, one of the significant advantages of market-determined wages is that they can naturally and automatically adjust to the market conditions of local areas. For example, we might expect that the starting wages for national chains like McDonald’s (1,165 stores in California) and Starbucks (2,000 locations) would vary around the state of California based on local labor market conditions and the local cost-of-living, and would be higher in San Francisco than in cities like El Centro.

But a government mandated price control like the $15 an hour uniform minimum wage in California that outlaws adjustments to fit the customized needs of the 500 individual city-level labor markets in the state is a public policy destined to fail — especially in the state’s low-wage, low cost-of-living cities with high jobless rates that are the most vulnerable to the “one-size-fits-none” awkwardness and clumsiness that is the $15 statewide minimum wage in California.

Related: See my article with AEI colleague Andrew Biggs titled “A National Minimum Wage Is a Bad Fit for Low-Cost Communities.

Bonus Question: I included the living wages above that MIT calculated would be necessary to support an adult-headed household with either one, two or three children so that I could feature the question posed below by Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog in his post titled “Some Questions for Living Wage Advocates” (h/t Don Boudreaux):

If you believe employers owe employees a living wage, do you think that an employer has a moral duty to pay an employee more just because [he or] she has more children?

Reprinted with the permission of the American Enterprise Institute.

Mark J. PerryMark J. Perry

Mark J. Perry is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus.

The House That Uncle Sam Built by Peter J. Boettke & Steven Horwitz

The Great Recession (or the Great Hangover) that began in 2008 did not have to happen. Its causes and consequences are not mysterious. Indeed, this particular and very painful episode affirms what the best nonpartisan economists have tried to tell our politicians and policy-makers for decades, namely, that the more they try to inflate and direct the economy, the more damage the rest of us will suffer sooner or later. Hindsight is always 20-20, but in this instance, good old-fashioned common sense would have provided all the foresight needed to avoid the mess we’re in.

In this essay, originally published December 2009, we trace the path of the recession from its origins in the housing market bubble to the policies offered to cure the aftermath.

Download the PDF.

Listen to the audio file (MP3).


Introduction

The theme of “The House that Uncle Sam Built: The Untold Story of the Great Recession of 2008” is that government policy, not a failure of free markets, caused the economic trauma we have been experiencing. We do not live in a free market. We live in a mixed economy. The mixture varies by industry. Technology is primarily free. Financial Services is primarily government. It is not surprising that the most government regulated and controlled segment of the economy, financial services, experienced the biggest problems. These problems were created by actions by the Federal Reserve combined with government housing policy (especially the government- sponsored enterprises – Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae). Misguided government interference in the market is the real culprit in laying the foundation for the Great Recession.

This paper provides a “common sense” and understandable outline of fundamental causes and cures. The analysis is based on long proven economic laws. Despite the wishes and hopes of politicians, economic laws are just as immutable as the laws of physics. If you jump off a ten story building, hitting the ground will not be pleasant. If the Federal Reserve holds interest rates below the natural market rate by rapidly expanding the money supply (“printing” money) as Alan Greenspan did, individuals and businesses will make bad investment decisions and there will be negative consequences to our long term economic well-being. There are no free lunches.

When a doctor misdiagnoses a disease, his treatment will likely make the patient sicker. If we misdiagnose the causes of the Great Recession, our treatment will reduce our long term standard of living. While the U.S. economic system is highly resilient, and we will likely have some form of economic recovery, almost every significant government policy action taken in response to the Great Recession will reduce the quality of life in the long term. Understanding that failed government policies, not market failure, caused our economic challenges is critical to defining the appropriate cures. Since government created the problem, i.e. caused the disaster, it is irrational to believe that more government is the cure. We owe it to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren to take these issues very seriously.

John Allison, Chairman, BB&T

The House That Uncle Sam Built

The man who parties like there is no tomorrow puts his body through an “up” and a “down” course that looks a lot like the business cycle. At the party, the man freely imbibes. He has a great time before stumbling home at 2:00 a.m., where he crashes on the sofa. A few hours later, he awakens in the grip of the dreaded hang- over. He then has a choice to make: get a short-term lift from another drink or sober up. If he chooses the latter and endures a few hours of discomfort, he can recover. In any event, no one would say the hangover is when the harm is done; the harm was done the night before and the hangover is the evidence.

The Great Recession (or the Great Hangover) that began in 2008 did not have to happen. Its causes and consequences are not mysterious. Indeed, this particular and very painful episode affirms what the best nonpartisan economists have tried to tell our politicians and policy-makers for decades, namely, that the more they try to inflate and direct the economy, the more damage the rest of us will suffer sooner or later. Hindsight is always 20-20, but in this instance, good old-fashioned common sense would have provided all the foresight needed to avoid the mess we’re in.

In this essay, we trace the path of the recession from its origins in the housing market bubble to the policies offered to cure the aftermath.

There is no better way to understand a crisis that began in the housing sector than to begin by thinking about a house.

A house must be built on a firm, sustainable foundation. If it’s slapped together with good intentions but lousy materials and workmanship, it will collapse prematurely. If too much lumber and too many bricks are piled on top of a weak support structure, or if housing material is misallocated throughout the house, then an apparently solid structure can crumble like sand once its weaknesses are exposed. Americans built and bought a lot of houses in the past decade not, it turns out, for sound reasons or with solid financing. Why this occurred must be part of any good explanation of the Great Recession.

But isn’t home ownership a great thing, the very essence of the vaunted “American Dream”? In the wealthiest country in the world, shouldn’t everyone be able to own their own home? What could be wrong with any policy that aims to make housing more affordable? Well, we may wish it were not so, but good intentions cannot insulate us from the consequences of bad policies.

Politicians became so enthralled with home ownership and affordable housing – and the points they could score by claiming to be their champions – that they pushed and shoved the economy down an artificial path that invited an inevitable (and painful) correction. Congress created massive, government-sponsored enterprises and then encouraged them to degrade lending standards. Congress bent tax law to favor real estate over other investments. Through its reckless easy money policies, another creation of Congress, the Federal Reserve, flooded the economy with liquidity and drove interest rates down. Each of these policies encouraged too many of the economy’s resources to be drawn into the housing sector. For a substantial part of this decade, our policy-makers in Washington were laying a very poor foundation for economic growth.

Was Free Enterprise the Villain?

Call it free enterprise, capitalism or laissez faire – blaming supposedly unfettered markets for every economic shock has been the monotonous refrain of conventional wisdom for a hundred years. Among those making such claims are politicians who posture as our rescuers, bureaucrats who are needed to implement the rescue plans and special interests who get rescued. Then there are our fellow academics – the ones who add a veneer of respectability – trumpeting the “stimulus” the rest of us get from being rescued.

Rarely does it occur to these folks that government intervention might be the cause of the problem. Yet, we have the Federal Reserve System’s track record, thousands of pages of financial regulations, and thousands more pages of government housing policy that demonstrate the utter absence of “laissez faire” in areas of the economy central to the current recession.

Understanding recessions requires knowing why lots of people make the same kinds of mistakes at the same time. In the last few years, those mistakes were centered in the housing market, as many people overestimated the value of their houses or imagined that their value would continue to rise. Why did everyone believe that at the same time? Did some mysterious hysteria descend upon us out of nowhere? Did people suddenly become irrational? The truth is this: People were reacting to signals produced in the economy. Those signals were erroneous. But it was the signals and not the people themselves that were irrational.

Imagine we see an enormous rise in the number of traffic accidents in a major city. Cars keep colliding at intersections as drivers all seem to make the same sorts of mistakes at once. Is the most likely explanation that drivers have irrationally stopped paying attention to the road, or would we suspect that something might be wrong with the traffic lights? Even with completely rational drivers, malfunctioning traffic signals will lead to lots of accidents and appear to be massive irrationality.

Market prices are much like traffic signals. Interest rates are a key traffic signal. They reconcile some people’s desire to save – delay consumption until a future date – with others’ desire to invest in ideas, materials or equipment that will make them and their businesses more productive. In a market economy, interest rates change as tastes and conditions change. For instance, if people become more interested in future consumption relative to current consumption, they will increase the amount they save. This, in turn, will lower interest rates, allowing other people to borrow more money to invest in their businesses. Greater investment means more sophisticated production processes, which means more goods will be available in the future. In a normally functioning market economy, the process ensures that savings equal investment, and both are consistent with other conditions and with the public’s underlying preferences.

As was made all too obvious in 2008, ours is not a normally functioning market economy. Government has inserted itself into almost every transaction, manipulating and distorting price signals along the way. Few interventions are as momentous as those associated with monetary policy implemented by the Federal Reserve. Money’s essence is that it is a generally accepted medium of exchange, which means that it is half of every act of buying and selling in the economy. Like blood circulating in the body, it touches everything. When the Fed tinkers with the money supply, it affects not just one or two specific markets, like housing policy does, but every single market in the entire economy. The Fed’s powers give it an enormous scope for creating economic chaos.

When central banks like the Federal Reserve inflate, they provide banks with more money to lend, even though the public has not provided any more savings. Banks respond by lowering interest rates to draw in new borrowers. The borrowers see the lower interest rate and believe that it signals that consumers are more interested in delayed consumption relative to immediate consumption. Borrowers then begin to invest in those longer-term projects, which are now relatively more desirable given the lower interest rate. The problem, however, is that the demand for those longer-term projects is not really there. The public is not more interested in future consumption, even though the interest rate signals suggest otherwise. Like our malfunctioning traffic signals, an inflation-distorted interest rate is going to cause lots of “accidents.” Those accidents are the mistaken investments in longer-term production processes.

“I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation toward subsidized housing.” – Barney Frank, 2003

Eventually those producers engaged in the longer processes find the cost of acquiring their raw materials to be too high, particularly as it becomes clear that the public’s willingness to defer consumption until the future is not what the interest rate suggested would be forthcoming. These longer-term processes are then abandoned, resulting in falling asset prices (both capital goods and financial assets, such as the stock prices of the relevant companies) and unemployed labor in sectors associated with the capital goods industries.

So begins the bust phase of a monetary policy-induced cycle; as stock prices fall, asset prices “deflate,” overall economic activity slows and unemployment rises. The bust is the economy going through a refitting and reshuffling of capital and labor as it eliminates mistakes made during the boom. The important points here are that the artificial boom is when the mistakes were made, and it is during the bust that those mistakes are corrected.

From 2001 to about 2006, the Federal Reserve pursued the most expansionary monetary policy since at least the 1970s, pushing interest rates far below their natural rate. In January of 2001 the federal funds rate, the major interest rate that the Fed targets, stood at 6.5%. Just 23 months later, after 12 successive cuts, the rate stood at a mere 1.25% – more than 80% below its previous level. It stayed below 2% for two years then the Fed finally began raising rates in June of 2004. The rate was so low during this period that the real Federal Funds rate – the nominal rate minus the rate of inflation – was negative for two and a half years. This meant that, in effect, banks were being paid to borrow money! Rapidly climbing after mid-2004, the rate was back up to the 5% mark by May of 2006, just about the time that housing prices started their collapse. In order to maintain that low Fed Funds rate for that five year period, the Fed had to increase the money supply significantly. One common measure of the money supply grew by 32.5%. A lot of economically irrational investments were made during this time, but it was not because of “irrational exuberance brought on by a laissez-faire economy,” as some suggested. It is unlikely that lots of very similar bad investments are the resut of mass irrationality, just as large traffic accidents are more likely the result of malfunctioning traffic signals than lots of people forgetting how to drive overnight. They resulted from malfunctioning market price signals due to the Fed’s manipulation of money and credit. Poor monetary policy by an agency of government is hardly “laissez faire”.

What About Housing?

With such an expansionary monetary policy, the housing market was sent contradictory and incorrect signals. On one hand, housing and housing-related industries were given a giant green light to expand. It is as if the Fed supplied them with an abundance of lumber, and encouraged them to build their economic house as big as they pleased.

This would have made sense if the increased supply of lumber (capital) had been supported by the public’s desire to increase future consumption relative to immediate consumption – in other words, if the public had truly wanted to save for the bigger house. But the public did not. Interest rates were not low because the public was in the mood to save; they were low because the Fed had made them so by fiat. Worse, Fed policy gave the would-be suppliers of capital – those who might have been tempted to save – a giant red light. With rates so low, they had no incentive to put their money in the bank for others to borrow.

So the economic house was slapped together with what appeared to be an unlimited supply of lumber. It was built higher and higher, drawing resources from the rest of the economy. But it had no foundation. Because the capital did not reflect underlying consumer preferences, there was no support for such a large house. The weaknesses in the foundation were eventually exposed and the 70-story skyscraper, built on a foundation made for a single-family home, began to teeter. It eventually fell in the autumn of 2008.

But why did the Fed’s credit all flow into housing? It is true that easy credit financed a consumer-borrowing binge, a mergers-and-acquisitions binge and an auto binge. But the bulk of the credit went to housing. Why? The answer lies in government’s efforts to increase the affordability of housing.

Government intervention in the housing market dates back to at least the Great Depression. The more recent government initiatives relevant to the current recession began in the Clinton administration. Since then, the federal government has adopted a variety of policies intended to make housing more affordable for lower and middle income groups and various minorities. Among the government actions, those dealing with government-sponsored enterprises active in mortgage markets were central. Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) are the key players here. Neither Fannie nor Freddie are “free-market” firms. They were chartered by the federal government, and although nominally privately owned until the onset of the bust in 2008, they were granted a number of government privileges in addition to carrying an implicit promise of government support should they ever get into trouble.

Fannie and Freddie did not actually originate most of the bad loans that comprised the housing crisis. Loans were made by banks and mortgage companies that knew they could sell those loans in the secondary mortgage market where Fannie and Freddie would buy and repackage them to sell to other investors. Fannie and Freddie also invented a number of the low down-payment and other creative, high-risk types of loans that came into use during the housing boom. The loan originators were willing to offer these kinds of loans because they knew that Fannie and Freddie stood ready to buy them up. With the implicit promise of government support behind them, the risk was being passed on from the originators to the taxpayers. If homeowners defaulted, the buyers of the mortgages would be harmed, not the originators. The presence of Fannie and Freddie in the mortgage market dramatically distorted the incentives for private actors such as the banks.

The Fed’s low interest rates, combined with Fannie and Freddie’s government-sponsored purchases of mortgages, made it highly and artificially profitable to lend to anyone and everyone. The banks and mortgage companies didn’t need to be any greedier than they already were. When banks saw that Fannie and Freddie were willing to buy virtually any loan made to under-qualified borrowers, they made a lot more of them. Greed is no more to blame for these bad mortgages than gravity is to blame for plane crashes. Gravity is always present, just like greed. Only the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy and Congress’ housing policy can explain why the bubble happened when it did, where it did.

Of further significance is the fact that Fannie and Freddie were under great political pressure to keep housing increasingly affordable (while at the same time promoting instruments that depended on the constantly rising price of housing) and to extend opportunities to historically “under-served” groups. Many of the new mortgages with low or even zero-down payments were designed in response to this pressure. Not only were lots of funds available to lend, and not only was government implicitly subsidizing the purchase of mortgages, but it was also encouraging lenders to find more borrowers who previously were thought unable to afford a mortgage.

Partnerships among Fannie and Freddie, mortgage companies, community action groups and legislators combined to make mortgages available to many people who should never have had them, based on their income and assets. Throw in the effects of the Community Reinvestment Act, which required lenders to serve under-served groups, and zoning and land-use laws that pushed housing into limited space in the suburbs and exurbs (driving up prices in the process) and you have the ingredients of a credit-fueled and regulatory-directed housing boom and bust.

All told, huge amounts of wealth and capital poured into producing houses as a result of these political machinations. The Case-Shiller Index clearly shows unprecedented increases in home prices prior to the bust in 2008. From 1946-1996, there had been no significant growth in the price of residential real estate. In contrast, the decade that followed saw skyrocketing prices.

It’s worth noting that even tax policy has been biased toward fostering investments in housing. Real estate investments are taxed at a much lower rate than other investments. Changes in the 1990s made it possible for families to pocket any capital gains (income from price appreciation) on their primary residences up to $500,000 every two years. That translates into an effective rate of 0% versus the ordinary income tax rates that apply to capital gains on other forms of investment. The differential tax treatment of capital gains made housing a relatively better investment than the alternatives. Although tax cuts are desirable for promoting economic growth, when politicians tinker with the tax code to favor the sorts of investments they think people should make, we should not be surprised if market distortions result.

Former Fed chair Alan Greenspan had made it clear that the Fed would not stand idly by whenever a crisis threatened to cause a major devaluation of financial assets. Instead, it would respond by providing liquidity to stem the fall. Greenspan declared there was little the Fed could do to prevent asset bubbles but that it could always cushion the fall when those bubbles burst. By 1998, the idea that the Fed would always bail out investors after a burst bubble had become known as the “Greenspan Put.” (A “put” is a financial arrangement where a buyer acquires the right to re-sell the asset at a pre-set price.) Having seen the Fed bailout investors this way in a series of events starting as early as the 1987 stock market crash and extending through 9/11, players in the housing market had every reason to expect that if the value of houses and other instruments they were creating should fall, the Fed would bail them out, too. The Greenspan Put became yet another government “green light,” signaling investors to take risks they might not otherwise take.

As housing prices began to rise, and in some areas rise enormously, investors saw opportunities to create new financial instruments based on those rising housing prices. These instruments constituted the next stage of the boom in this boom-bust cycle, and their eventual failure became the major focus of the bust.

Fancy Financial Instruments – Cause or Symptom?

Banks and other players in the financial markets capitalized on the housing boom to create a variety of new instruments. These new instruments would enrich many but eventually lose their value, bringing down several major companies with them. They were all premised on the belief that housing prices would continue to rise, which would enable people who had taken out the new mortgages to continue to be able to pay.

Mortgages with low or even nonexistent down payments appeared. The ownership stake the borrower had in the house was largely the equity that came from the house increasing in value. With little to no equity at the start, the amount borrowed and therefore the monthly payments were fairly high, meaning that should the house fall in value, the owner could end up owing more on the house than it was worth.

“If it ain’t broke, why do you want to fix it? Have the GSEs ever missed their housing goals?” – Maxine Waters, 2003

The large flow of mortgage payments resulting from the inflation-generated housing bubble was then converted into a variety of new investment vehicles. In the simplest terms, financial institutions such as Fannie and Freddie began to buy up these mortgages from the originating banks or mortgage companies, package them together and sell the flow of payments from that package as a bond-like instrument to other investors. At the time of their nationalization in the fall of 2008, Fannie and Freddie owned or controlled half of the entire mortgage market. Investors could buy so-called “mortgage-backed securities” and earn income ultimately derived from the mortgage payments of the homeowners. The sellers of the securities, of course, took a cut for being the intermediary. They also divided up the securities into “tranches” or levels of risk. The lowest risk tranches paid off first, as they were representative of the less risky of the mortgages backing the security. The high risk ones paid off with the leftover funds, as they reflected the riskier mortgages.

Buyers snapped up these instruments for a variety of reasons. First, as housing prices continued to rise, these securities looked like a steady source of ever-increasing income. The risk was perceived to be low, given the boom in the housing market. Of course that boom was an illusion that eventually revealed itself.

Second, most of these mortgage- backed securities had been rated AAA, the highest rating, by the three ratings agencies: Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch. This led investors to believe these securities were very safe. It has also led many to charge that markets were irrational. How could these securities, which were soon to be revealed as terribly problematic, have been rated so highly? The answer is that those three ratings agencies are a government-created cartel not subject to meaningful competition.

In 1975, the Securities and Exchange Commission decided only the ratings of three “Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations” would satisfy the ratings requirements of a number of government regulations.Their activities since then have been geared toward satisfying the demands of regulators rather than true competition. If they made an error in their ratings, there was no possibility of a new entrant coming in with a more accurate technique. The result was that many instruments were rated AAA that never should have been, not because markets somehow failed due to greed or irrationality, but because government had cut short the learning process of true market competition.

Third, changes in the international regulations covering the capital ratios of commercial banks made mortgage-backed securities look artificially attractive as investment vehicles for many banks. Specifically, the Basel accord of 1988 stipulated that if banks held securities issued by government-sponsored entities, they could hold less capital than if they held other securities, including the very mortgages they might originate. Banks could originate a mortgage and then sell it to Fannie Mae. Fannie would then package it with other mortgages into a mortgage-backed security. If the very same bank bought that security (which relied on income from the mortgage it originated), it would be required to hold only 40 percent of the capital it would have had to hold if it had just kept the original mortgage.

These rules provided a powerful incentive for banks to originate mortgages they knew Fannie or Freddie would buy and securitize. The mortgages would then be available to buy back as part of a fancier instrument. The regulatory structure’s attempt at traffic signals was a flop. Markets themselves would not have produced such persistently bad signals or such a horrendous outcome. Once these securities became popular investment vehicles for banks and other institutions (thanks mostly to the regulatory interventions that created and sustained them) still other instruments were built on top of them. This is where “credit default swaps” and other even more complex innovations come into the story. Credit default swaps were a form of insurance against the mortgage-backed securities failing to pay out. Such arrangements would normally be a perfectly legitimate form of risk reduction for investors but given the house of cards that the underlying securities rested on, they likely accentuated the false “traffic signals” the system was creating.

“I set an ambitious goal. It’s one that I believe we can achieve. It’s a clear goal, that by the end of this decade we’ll increase the number of minority homeowners by at least 5.5 million families. Some may think that’s a stretch. I don’t think it is. I think it is realistic. I know we’re going to have to work together to achieve it. But when we do, our communities will be stronger and so will our economy. Achieving the goal is going to require some good policies out of Washington. And it’s going to require a strong commitment from those of you involved in the housing industry.” – President George W. Bush, 2002

By 2006, the Federal Reserve saw the housing bubble it had been so instrumental in creating and moved to prick it by reversing monetary policy. Money and credit were constricted and interest rates were dramatically raised. It would be only a matter of time before the bubble burst.

Deregulation, a False Culprit

It is patently incorrect to say that “deregulation” produced the current crisis [See Appendix A]. While it is true that new instruments such as credit default swaps were not subject to a great deal of regulation, this was mostly because they were new. Moreover, their very existence was an unintended consequence of all the other regulations and interventions in the housing and financial markets that had taken place in prior decades. The most notable “deregulation” of financial markets that took place in the 10 years prior to the crash of 2008 was the passing during the Clinton administration of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, which allowed commercial banks, investment banks and securities firms to merge in whatever manner they wished, eliminating regulations dating from the New Deal era that prevented such activity. The effects of this Act on the housing bubble itself were minimal. Yet, its passage turned out to be helpful, not harmful, during the 2008 crisis because failing investment banks were able to merge with commercial banks and avoid bankruptcy.

The housing bubble ultimately had to come to an end, and with it came the collapse of the instruments built on top of it. Inflation-financed booms end when the industries being artificially stimulated by the inflation find it increasingly difficult to buy the inputs they need at prices that are profitable and also find it increasingly difficult to find buyers for their outputs. In late 2006, housing prices topped out and began to fall as glutted markets and higher input prices due to the previous years’ race to build began to take their toll.

Falling housing prices had two major consequences for the economy. First, many homeowners found themselves in trouble with their mortgages. The low- or no-equity mortgages that had enabled so many to buy homes on the premise that prices would keep rising now came back to bite them. The falling value of their homes meant they owed more than the homes were worth. This problem was compounded in some cases by adjustable rate mortgages with low “teaser” rates for the first few years that then jumped back to market rates. Many of these mortgages were on houses that people hoped to “flip” for an investment profit, rather than on primary residences. Borrowers could afford the lower teaser payments because they believed they could recoup those costs on the gain in value. But with the collapse of housing prices underway, these homes could not be sold for a profit and when the rates adjusted, many owners could no longer afford the payments. Foreclosures soared.

Second, with housing prices falling and foreclosures rising, the stream of payments coming into those mortgage-backed securities began to dry up. Investors began to re-evaluate the quality of those securities. As it became clear that many of those securities were built upon mortgages with a rising rate of default and homes with falling values, the market value of those securities began to fall. The investment banks that held large quantities of securities were forced to take significant paper losses. The losses on the securities meant huge losses for those that sold credit default swaps, especially AIG. With major investment banks writing down so many assets and so much uncertainty about the future of these firms and their industry, the flow of credit in these specific markets did indeed dry up. But these markets are only a small share of the whole commercial banking and finance sector. It remains a matter of much debate just how dire the crisis was come September. Even if it was real, however, the proper course of action was to allow those firms to fail and use standard bankruptcy procedures to restructure their balance sheets.

“I think this is a case where Fannie and Freddie are fundamentally sound, that they are not in danger of going under.” – Barney Frank, 2008

The Recession is the Recovery

The onset of the recession and its visible manifestations in rising unemployment and failing firms led many to call for a “recovery plan.” But it was a misguided attempt to “plan” the monetary system and the housing market that got us into trouble initially. Furthermore, recession is the process by which markets recover. When one builds a 70-story skyscraper on a foundation made for a small cottage, the building should come down. There is no use in erecting an elaborate system of struts and supports to keep the unsafe structure aloft. Unfortunately, once the weaknesses in the U.S. economic structure were exposed, that is exactly what the Federal government set about doing.

One of the major problems with the government’s response to the crisis has been the failure to understand that the bust phase is actually the correction of previous errors. When firms fail and workers are laid off, when banks reconsider the standards by which they make loans, when firms start (accurately) recording bad investments as losses, the economy is actually correcting for previous mistakes. It may be tempting to try to keep workers in the boom industries or to maintain investment positions, but the economy needs to shift its focus. Corrections must be permitted to take their course. Otherwise, we set ourselves up for more painful downturns down the road. (Remember, the 2008 crisis came about because the Federal Reserve did not want the economy to go through the painful process of reordering itself following the collapse of the dot.com bubble.) Capital and labor must be reallocated, expectations must adjust, and the economic system must accommodate the existing preferences of consumers and the real resource constraints that producers face. These adjustments are not pleasant; they are in fact often extremely painful to the individuals who must make them, but they are also essential to getting the system back on track.

When government takes steps to prevent the adjustment, it only prolongs and retards the correction process. Government policies of easy credit produce the boom. Government policies designed to prevent the bust have the potential to transform a market correction into a full-blown economic crisis.

No one wants to see the family business fail, or neighbors lose their jobs, or charitable groups stretched beyond capacity. But in a market economy, bankruptcy and liquidation are two of the primary mechanisms by which resources are reallocated to correct for previous errors in decision-making. As Lionel Robbins wrote in The Great Depression, “If bankruptcy and liquidation can be avoided by sound financing nobody would be against such measures. All that is contended is that when the extent of mal- investment and over indebtedness has passed a certain limit, measures which postpone liquidation only tend to make matters worse.”

Seeing the recession as a recovery process also implies that what looks like bad news is often necessary medicine. For example, news of slackening home sales, or falling new housing starts, or losses of jobs in the financial sector are reported as bad news. In fact, this is a necessary part of recovery, as these data are evidence of the market correcting the mistakes of the boom. We built too many houses and we had too many resources devoted to financial instruments that resulted from that housing boom. Getting the economy right again requires that resources move away from those industries and into new areas. Politicians often claim they know where resources should be allocated, but the Great Recession of 2008 is only the latest proof they really don’t.

The Bush administration made matters worse by bailing out Bear Sterns in the spring of 2008. This sent a clear signal to financial firms that they might not have to pay the price for their mistakes. Then after that zig, the administration zagged when it let Lehman Brothers fail. There are those who argue that allowing Lehman to fail precipitated the crisis. We would argue that the Lehman failure was a symptom of the real problems that we have already outlined. Having set up the expectations that failing firms would get bailed out, the federal government’s refusal to bail out Lehman confused and surprised investors, leading many to withdraw from the market. Their reaction is not the necessary consequence of letting large firms fail, rather it was the result of confusing and conflicting government policies. The tremendous uncertainty created by the Administration’s arbitrary and unpredictable shifts – most notably Bernanke and Paulson’s September 23, 2008 unconvincing testimony on the details of the Troubled Asset Relief program – was the proximate cause of the investor withdrawals that prompted the massive bailouts that came in the fall, including those of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Bush bailout program was problematic in at least two ways. First, the rationale for such aggressive government action, including the Fed’s injection of billions of dollars in new reserves, was that credit markets had frozen up and no lending was taking place. Several observers at the time called this claim into question, pointing out that aggregate new lending numbers, while growing much more slowly than in the months prior, had not dropped to zero.

Markets in which the major investment banks operated had indeed slowed to a crawl, both because many of their housing-related holdings were being revealed as mal-investments and because the inconsistent political reactions were creating much uncertainty. The regular commercial banking sector, however, was by and large continuing to lend at prior levels.

More important is this fact: the various bailout programs prolonged the persistence of the very errors that were in the process of being corrected! Bailing out firms that are suffering major losses because of errant investments simply prolongs the mal-investments and prevents the necessary reallocation of resources.

The Obama administration’s nearly $800 billion stimulus package in February of 2009 was also predicated on false premises about the nature of recession and recovery. In fact, these were the same false premises which informed the much-maligned Bush Administration approach to the crisis. The official justification for the stimulus was that only a “jolt” of government spending could revive the economy.

The fallacy of job creation by government was first exposed by the French economist Bastiat in the 19th century with his story of the broken window. Imagine a young boy throws a rock through a window, breaking it. The townspeople gather and bemoan the loss to the store owner. But eventually one notes that it means more business for the glazier. And another observes that the glazier will then have money to spend on new shoes. And then the shoe seller will have money to spend on a new suit. Soon, the crowd convinces them-selves that the broken window is actually quite a good thing.

The fallacy, of course, is that if the window was never broken, the store owner would still have a functioning window and could spend the money on something else, such as new stock for his store. All the breaking of the window does is force the store owner to spend money he wouldn’t have had to spend if the window had been left intact. There is no net gain in wealth here. If there was, why wouldn’t we recommend urban riots as an economic recovery program?

When government attempts to “create” a job, it is not unlike a vandal who “creates” work for a glazier. There are only three ways for a government to acquire resources: it can tax, it can borrow or it can print money (inflate). No matter what method is used to acquire the resources, the money that government spends on any stimulus must come out of the private sector. If it is through taxes, it is obvious that the private sector has less to spend, leading to losses that at least cancel out any jobs created by government. If it is through borrowing, that lowers the savings available to the private sector (and raises interest rates in the process), reducing the amount the sector can borrow and the jobs it can create. If it is through printing money, it reduces the purchasing power of private sector incomes and savings. When we add to this the general inefficiency of the heavily politicized public sector, it is quite probable that government spending programs will cost more jobs in the private sector than they create.

“This [Government Sponsored Housing] is one of the great success stories of all time…” Chris Dodd, 2004

The Japanese experience during the 1990s is telling. Following the collapse of their own real estate bubble, Japan’s government launched an aggressive effort to prop up the economy. Between 1992 and 1995, Japan passed six separate spending programs totaling 65.5 trillion yen. But they kept increasing the ante. In April of 1998, they passed a 16.7 trillion yen stimulus package. In November of that year, it was an additional 23.9 trillion. Then there was an 18 trillion yen package in 1999 and an 11 trillion yen package in 2000. In all, the Japanese government passed 10 (!) different fiscal “stimulus” packages, totaling more than 100 trillion yen. Despite all of these efforts, the Japanese economy still languishes. Today, Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is one of the highest in the industrialized world, with nothing to show for it. This is not a model we should want to imitate.

It is also the same mistake the United States made in the Great Depression, when both the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations attempted to fight the deepening recession by making extensive use of the federal government and only made matters worse. In addition to the errors made by the Federal Reserve System that exacerbated the downturn that it created with inflationary policies in the 1920s, Hoover himself tried to prevent a necessary fall in wages by convincing major industrialists to not cut wages, as well as proposing significant increases in public works and, eventually, a tax increase. All of these worsened the depression.

Roosevelt’s New Deal continued this set of policy errors. Despite claims during the current recession that the New Deal saved us from economic disaster, recent scholarship has solidly affirmed that the New Deal didn’t save the economy. Policies such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act only interfered with the market’s attempts to adjust and recover, prolonging the crisis. Later policies scared off private investors as they were uncertain about how much and in what ways government would step in next. The result was that six years into the New Deal, unemployment rates were still above 17% and GDP per capita was still well below its long-run trend.

In more recent years, President Nixon’s attempt to fight the stagflation of the early 1970s with wage and price controls was abandoned quickly when they did nothing to help reduce inflation or unemployment. Most telling for our case was the fact that the Fed’s expansionary policies earlier this decade were intended to “soften the blow” of the dot.com bust in 2001. Of course those policies gave us the inflationary boom that produced the crisis that began in 2008. If the current recession lingers or becomes a second Great Depression, it will not be because of problems inherent in markets, but because the political response to a politically generated boom and bust has prevented the error-correction process from doing its job. The belief that large-scale government intervention is the key to getting us out of a recession is a myth disproven by both history and recent events.

The Future That Awaits Our Children

Commentators have had a field day adding up the trillions of dollars that have been committed in the Bush bailout, the Obama stimulus, and the administration’s proposed budget for 2010. The explosion of spending and debt, whatever the final tab, is unprecedented by any measure. It will “crowd out” a significant portion of private investment, reducing growth rates and wages in the future. We are, in effect, reducing the income of our children tomorrow to pay for the bills of today and yesterday. Large government debt is also a temptation for inflation. In order for governments to borrow, someone must be willing to buy their bonds. Should confidence in a government fall enough (China, notably, has expressed some reluctance to continue buying our debt), it is possible that buyers will be hard to come by. That puts pressure on the government’s monetary authorities to “lubricate” the system by creating new money and credit from thin air.

So, even if the economy gets a lift in the near-term from either its own corrective mechanisms or from the government’s reinflation of money and credit, we have not recovered from the hangover. More of what caused the Great Recession of 2008 – easy money, regulatory interventions to direct capital in unsustainable directions, politicians and policy-makers rigging financial markets – is not likely to produce anything but the same outcome; asset price inflation and an eventual “adjustment” we call a recession or depression. Along the way, we will accumulate monumental debts which accentuate the future downturn and saddle us with new burdens.

Unless we can begin to undo the mistakes of the last decade or more, the future that awaits our children will be one that is poorer and less free than it should have been. With politicians mortgaging future generations to the tune of trillions, running and subsidizing auto and insurance companies, spending blindly and printing money hand- over-fist – all while blaming free enterprise for their own errors, we have a great deal to learn.

As Albert Einstein famously said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. The best we can hope for is that we learn the right lessons from this crisis. We cannot afford to repeat the wrong ones.

“The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn’t a typical postwar slump…. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback… Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.” Paul Krugman, 2002

Appendix A: The Myth of Deregulation

Appendix B: Government Interventions During Crisis Create Uncertainty

Appendix C: Suggested Readings

Cole, Harold and Lee E. Ohanian. 2004 New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis, Journal of Political Economy 112: 779-816.

Friedman, Jeffrey. 2009. A Crisis of Politics, Not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance, and Policy Failure, Critical Review 21: 127-183.

Higgs, Robert. 2008. Credit Is Flowing, Sky Is Not Falling, Don’t Panic, The Beacon, available at http://www.independent.org/blog/?p=201.

Marenzi, Octavio. 2008. Flawed Assumptions about the Credit Crisis: A Critical Examination of US Policymakers, Celent Research, available at http://www.celent.com/124_347.htm

Prescott, Edward and Timothy J. Kehoe (Editors). 2007. Great Depressions of the Twentieth Century, Minneapolis. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Taylor, John. 2009. Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged, and Worsened the Financial Crisis, Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Woods, Thomas. 2009. Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, Washington, DC: Regnery.

Biographies

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education – www.fee.org – and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He has been a visiting scholar at Bowling Green State University and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Peter J. Boettke is the Deputy Director of the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center, and a professor in the economics department at George Mason University.

John Allison served as the Chief Executive Officer of BB&T Corp. until December 2008. Mr Allison has been the Chairman of BB&T Corp., since July 1989. He serves as a Member of American Bankers Association and The Financial Services Roundtable.

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Peter J. BoettkePeter J. Boettke

Peter Boettke is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

RELATED ARTICLE: Housing Policies That Led to 2008 Collapse Still in Place, Says Freddie Mac Economist – PJ Meda June, 2017

Capitalists Have a Better Plan: Why Decentralized Planning Is Superior to Bureaucracy and Socialism by Robert P. Murphy

To early 20th-century intellectuals, capitalism looked like anarchy. Why, they wondered, would we trust deliberative, conscious guidance when building a house but not when building an economy?

It was fashionable among these socialist intellectuals to espouse “planning” as a much more rational way to organize economic activity. (F.A. Hayek wrote a famous essay on the phenomenon.) But this emphasis on central planning was utterly confused both conceptually and empirically.

Ludwig von Mises made the most obvious rejoinder, pointing out that there is “planning” in the market economy, too. The difference is that the planning isdecentralized in a market, spread out among millions of entrepreneurs and resource owners, including workers. Thus, in the debate between socialism and capitalism, the question isn’t, “Should there be economic planning?” Rather, the question is, “Should we restrict the plan design to a few supposed experts put in place through the political process, or should we throw open the floodgates and receive input from millions of people who may know something vital?”

This second question came to be known as the “knowledge problem.” Hayek pointed out that in the real world, information is dispersed among myriad individuals. For example, a factory manager in Boise might know very particular facts about the machines on his assembly line, which socialist planners in DC could not possibly take into account when directing the nation’s productive resources. Hayek argued that the price system in a market economy could be viewed as a giant “system of telecommunications,” rapidly transmitting just the essential bits of knowledge from one localized node to the others. Such a “web” arrangement (my term) avoided a bureaucratic hierarchy in which every bit of information had to flow up through the chain of command, be processed by the expert leaders, and then flow back down to the subordinates.

Complementary to Hayek’s now-better-known problem of dispersed knowledge, Mises stressed the calculation problem of socialist planning. Even if we conceded for the sake of argument that the socialist planners had access to all of the latest technical information regarding the resources and engineering know-how at their disposal, they still couldn’t rationally “plan” their society’s economic activities. They would be “groping in the dark.”

By definition, under socialism, one group (the people running the state, if we are talking about a political manifestation) owns all of the important productive resources — the factories, forests, farmland, oil deposits, cargo ships, railroads, warehouses, utilities, and so on. Thus, there can be no truly competitive markets in the “means of production” (to use Karl Marx’s term), meaning that there are no genuine prices for these items.

Because of these unavoidable facts, Mises argued, no socialist ruler could evaluate the efficiency of his economic plan, even after the fact. He would have a list of the inputs into a certain process — so many tons of steel, rubber, wood, and man-hours of various types of labor. He could contrast the inputs with the outputs they produced — so many houses or cars or bottles of soda. But how would the socialist planner know if this transformation made sense? How would the socialist planner know if he should continue with this operation in the future, rather than expanding it or shrinking it? Would a different use of those same resources produce a better result? The simple answer is that he would have no idea. Without market prices, there is no nonarbitrary way of comparing the resources used up in a particular process with the goods or services produced.

In contrast, the profit-and-loss test provides critical feedback in the market economy. The entrepreneur can ask accountants to attach money prices to the resources used up, and the goods and services produced, by a particular process. Although not perfect, such a method at least provides guidance. Loosely speaking, a profitable enterprise is one that directs scarce resources into the channel that the consumers value the most, as demonstrated through their spending decisions.

In contrast, what does it mean if a particular business operation isunprofitable? It means that its customers are not willing to spend enough money on the output to recoup the monetary expenses (including interest) necessary to buy the inputs. But the reason those inputs had certain market prices attached to them is that other operations were bidding on them, too. Thus, in Mises’s interpretation, an unprofitable business enterprise is siphoning away resources from channels where consumers would prefer (indirectly and implicitly) that the resources be deployed.

We must never forget that the economic problem is not to ask, “Will devoting these scarce resources to project X make at least some people better off, compared to doing nothing with these resources?” Rather, the true economic problem is to ask, “Will devoting these scarce resources to project X make people better off compared to using the resources in some other project Y?”

To answer this question, we need a way of reducing heterogeneous inputs and outputs into a common denominator: money prices. This is why Mises stressed the primacy of private property and the use of sound money as pillars of rational resource allocation.

Robert P. Murphy
Robert P. Murphy

Robert P. Murphy has a PhD in economics from NYU. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism and The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Great Depression and the New Deal.

Hillary Clinton’s Ideological Vortex of Power and Planning by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Just trust her. Truly, just trust her: to know precisely how much energy we ought to use, where it should come from, how it should be generated, how we should get from here to there, and the effects that her plan will have on the global — the global! — climate, not just in the near term but decades or a century from now.

If you do this, you will have embraced “science,” “reality,” “truth,” and “innovation,” and, also, “our children.” If you don’t go along, you not only reject all those good things; you are probably also a “denier,” the catch-all epithet for anyone doubtful that the brilliance of Hillary Clinton and her czars know better than the rest of humanity how to manage their energy needs into the future.

Hillary’s campaign seems designed to prove that F.A. Hayek was a prophet.

That brilliant economist spent 50 years explaining, in book after book, that the greatest danger humanity faced, now and always, was a presumption on the part of intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats that they know better than the emergent and evolving wisdom of social forces.

This presumption might seem like science but it is really pretense. Civilization arises from, is protected by, and advances through the dispersed knowledge of billions of individual decision makers and the institutions that arise from them.

Hayek called the issue he was investigating the knowledge problem. Society needs to know how to use scarce resources, how to navigate a world of uncertainty, how to form rules that turn struggle into peace. It is a problem solved through freedom alone. No ruler, no scientist, no intellectual can substitute for the evolving process of decentralized decision making and trial and error.

The message is bad news for people like Hillary, who is supposed to embody the ideology called “liberalism” in America. Yet it is anything but liberal. It seems to know only one way forward: more top-down control. That’s a tough sell in times when everything good so obviously comes from anything but government, and, meanwhile, governments are responsible for every failing sector from health to education to foreign wars.

But here’s the problem. People like Hillary Clinton are stuck in an ideological vortex with no way out. Government planning is their thing, and they refuse to recognize its failures. So they press on and on, even to the point of preposterous implausibility, such as the claim that government can know everything that is necessary to know in order to plan the entire energy sector with the aim of managing the climate of the world.

Economist Donald Boudreaux puts matters this way: “why should someone who cannot ensure the proper use of a single private server be trusted with the colossal power necessary to design and to oversee the remaking of a trillion-plus dollar sector of the U.S. economy (a sector, by the way, in which this person has zero experience)?”

With this presumption comes the inevitable hypocrisy.

After unveiling her plan to ration energy use and plaster the country with solar panels, Ms. Clinton boarded a private jet that uses more fuel in one flight hour than I use in a year. “The aircraft, a Dassault model Falcon 900B, burns 347 gallons of fuel per hour,” wrote the muckraker who did a public service in exposing this. “The Trump-esque transportation costs $5,850 per hour to rent, according to the website of Executive Fliteways, the company that owns it.”

Notice how rarely it is mentioned that the US military, with hundreds of bases in over a hundred countries, is the worst single polluter on the planet. If we really believe in human-caused climate change, this might be a good place to start cutting back. But no, there’s not a word about this in any of Hillary’s plans. Government gets to do what it must do. The rest of us are supposed to pay the price, bicycling to work and powering our homes with sunshine and windmills.

When I first read about her energy plan, my response was: Why would any self-interested politician make the need for reduced living standards a centerpiece of her campaign? After all, her speech was made in a setting piled high with bicycles (oddly reminiscent of Mao’s China), while demanding a precise path forward for energy and everything that uses it (oddly reminiscent of Lenin’s first speech after he took control of Russian economic life).

As it turns out, people aren’t that interested. Sure, most people tell pollsters that they favor renewable energy to stop climate change. You have to say that or else risk being denounced as a denier. On the other hand, it seems like very few people really care enough to forgo the benefits of modern life, which is probably what will save civilization itself from plans like hers. Note that days after release, her pompous video only had only 54K views — pathetic given her celebrity and how much money her campaign is spending, but encouraging that nobody seems to put much stock in her plan for our future.

It’s extraordinary how quickly one branch of the political class has leapt from the delicate and ever-changing science of climate monitoring to the absolute certainty that extreme and extremely specific application of government force is the way to deal with it. Writes Max Borders: “The sacralization of climate is being used as a great loophole in the rule of law, an apology for bad science (and even worse economics), and an excuse to do anything and everything to have and keep power.”

The last point is critical. Everything done in the name of public policy in our lifetimes has become a handful of dust, yielding little more than unpayable debts and unworkable programs, and leaving in its wake an apparatus of compulsion and control that robs society of its inherent genius.

What to do? Give up? That’s not an option for these people. Instead, they find a new frontier for their schemes, a new rationale to sustain a failed model of social and economic organization.

I can think of no better words of rebuke but the closing of Hayek’s Nobel speech in 1974:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.

He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will.

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Yes, it surely ought to.


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. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

“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.

5 Unintended Consequences of Regulation and Government Meddling by Robert P. Murphy

Voters frequently support measures that sound noble and beneficial but end up causing serious mischief — and often hurt the very groups the measures were intended to help.

A well-known example is price controls, which include minimum wage laws and rent control. These can cause unemployment among low-skill workers and apartment shortages for those without connections.

But that’s not all. Not by a long shot.

Here are five more examples of unintended consequences.

1. “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up”

The Endangered Species Act and other laws restrict how landowners can use their property if it is discovered that their actions may adversely affect vulnerable wildlife. Besides the injustice of violating property rights, this regulation produces perverse results.

Imagine a landowner in the Midwest who had plans to sell to an outside developer who wanted to build a shopping mall. One morning, a few days before closing the deal, the man is sipping coffee and looking off his back porch into the woods. He suddenly sees a woodpecker that he recognizes as a protected species. What will the man do, if he follows pecuniary incentives? Is he going to call up federal bureaucrats and tell them the good news?

No. The man will probably go get his gun and shovel and never speak of this incident to anyone.

2. Seat Belt Legislation Kills

In the typical debate over seat belt mandates — in which drivers can be heavily fined if caught driving without buckling up — advocates of liberty tend to stress individuals’ “right to be stupid” while others claim that public safety trumps absolute freedom. Ideology aside, do such laws make us safer?

Economist Sam Peltzman looked at the evidence after some states enacted seat belt legislation, while others did not. He found that drivers did buckle up more frequently because of the government penalties but that traffic fatalities were roughly unchanged.

True, the probability of dying in a car crash went down, if you were in a crash, because wearing a seat belt definitely helps you survive a typical accident. However, the states that passed the seat belt legislation saw anincrease in rates of traffic accidents. Because people felt safer, they drove just a little more recklessly. No individual driver wakes up and says, “I’m going to get in a fender bender today,” but with millions of people driving hours per day, 365 days per year, we will definitely see more accidents in the aggregate if people are even slightly more aggressive on the margin.

Peltzman found that total fatalities were about the same. The death rate for motorists crept down, but this was offset by a higher death rate among pedestrians and cyclists hit by cars. Some groups obviously did not benefit from the higher prevalence of seat belt usage.

3. Stricter Vehicle Fuel Economy Mandates Do Little for the Environment

The federal government imposes minimum corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards on certain vehicles. Some states wanted to “do more” for the environment, so they passed tighter mandates. In other words, states like California imposed higher mile-per-gallon requirements on cars sold in California than the federal government insisted on.

But the way the states structured their rules led to a significant “leakage.” If a car manufacturer increased the average fuel economy for its vehicles sold in California, for example, then those cars counted as part of its “fleet” in calculating the average fuel economy for its cars sold in the nation as a whole. The manufacturer could then get away with selling cars that had lower fuel economy in the states that did not supplement the federal rule, and they were still satisfying both state and national standards. Thus, the California rule as originally designed led to fewer emissions per vehicle-mile in California — but not nearly as much in the nation as a whole. Some economists estimated this “leakage” to be as high as 74 percent. The hodgepodge of standards simply raised the total costs of vehicles while doing little to reduce total US emissions.

4. Jane Jacobs Combats City Planning

Fans of Austrian economics should not be surprised to learn that Jane Jacobs, the champion of the American city, found several flaws with typical bureaucratic city planners. For example, zoning regulations broke up the spontaneous growth of cities into “residential” and “commercial” sections, spawning crime and other social ills.

Originally, apartments were interspersed with shops, so that the owners could always keep an eye on their businesses and on their children. This “natural surveillance” was destroyed with zoning and other regulations, not to mention the interstate highways that would rip neighborhoods apart and the austere “housing projects” that placed most adults far away from the street and thus unable to monitor and shoo away unsavory characters. Zoned neighborhoods became unsafe neighborhoods.

5. Three Strikes Mean You’re Out

In an understandable reaction to “liberal” judges who would give slaps on the wrist to repeat offenders, the 1990s saw a wave of automatic sentencing legislation to take away judges’ discretion. This included California’s famous 1994 “Three Strikes and You’re Out” rule (Proposition 184), where someone convicted of a third felony would get 25 years to life. Currently, 24 states have some form of “three strikes” legislation.

One problem with these rules is that many acts are felonies that most people would consider petty, such as bringing a smoke bomb to high school. In California, one man with two prior felony convictions was sentenced to 25 years to life for being with a friend who got caught selling $20 of cocaine to an undercover cop.

An unintended consequence of the “three strikes” rules is that someone with two prior felony convictions now has a serious incentive to evade arrest for a third. And in fact, empirical studies of Los Angeles data suggest that more police officers have been killed because of this effect.

The Upshot

Incentives matter. It’s not enough for voters to endorse legislation that has a nice title and promises to do something good. People need to think through the full consequences of a policy, because often it will lead to a cure worse than the disease.

Robert P. Murphy

Robert P. Murphy is senior economist with the Institute for Energy Research. He is author of Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action (Independent Institute, 2015).

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.

Real Heroes: Homeschool Parents — Home Education Inspires a Love of Learning by Lawrence W. Reed

The hero in this story is not any one person but rather nearly two million Americans — moms and dads who go the extra mile and who, often at great sacrifice to themselves, are rescuing children in a profoundly personal way. They are the homeschoolers, parents who give up time and income to directly supervise the education of their children. They teach, they arrange learning experiences within their home and elsewhere in cooperation with other parents, and they inspire an appetite for learning.

Of all the ingredients in the recipe for education, which one has the greatest potential to improve student performance?

No doubt the teachers unions would put higher salaries for their members at the top of the list, to which almost every school reformer might reply, “Been there, done that!” Teacher compensation has gone up in recent decades, while indicators of student performance have stagnated or fallen.

Other standard answers include smaller class size, a longer school year, more money for computers, or simply more money for fill-in-the-blank. The consensus of hundreds of studies over the past several years is that these factors exhibit either no positive correlation with better student performance or only a weak connection. On this important question, the verdict is in and it is definitive: The one ingredient that makes the most difference in how well and how much children learn is parental involvement. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parental involvement.

When parents take a personal interest in their children’s education, several things happen. The child gets a strong message that education is important to success in life; it isn’t something that parents dump in someone else’s lap. Caring, involved parents usually instill a love of learning in their children — a love that translates into a sense of pride and achievement as their students accumulate knowledge and put it to good use. As one might expect, time spent with books goes up and time wasted in the streets goes down, but there’s so much more to the homeschooling experience, as explained by Marianna Brashear, curriculum development manager at the Foundation for Economic Education:

Much time is spent not just in books, but seeing the world and participating in field trips with hands-on learning. There is so much knowledge that is gained through real-world exposure to a vast array of subjects far more lasting than reading out of a textbook. The word “schooling” in homeschooling is misleading because education takes place in and out of formal lessons. The biggest waste of time in schools comes not just from indoctrination, but also from “teaching to the test,” where kids memorize, regurgitate, and forget.

American parents were once almost universally regarded as the people most responsible for children’s education. Until the late 19th century, the home, the church, and a small nearby school were the primary centers of learning for the great majority of Americans.

In more recent times, many American parents have largely abdicated this responsibility, in favor of supposed “experts.” The context for this abdication is a compulsory system established to replace parental values with those preferred by the states and now, to an increasing degree, by the federal government. (It’s important to remember how much the current system was established as a reaction to immigrants, especially Catholics. See Robert Murphy’s “The Origins of the Public School” in the Freeman, July 1998.)

Twenty years ago, a report from Temple University in Pennsylvania revealed that nearly one in three parents was seriously disengaged from their children’s education. The Temple researchers found that about one-sixth of all students believed their parents didn’t care whether they earned good grades, and nearly one-third said their parents had no idea how they were doing in school. I can think of no reason to believe things have improved on this front in the two decades since.

Homeschooling is working — and working extraordinarily well — for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.

Teaching children at home isn’t for everyone. No one advocates that every parent try it. There are plenty of good schools — private and many public and charter schools, too — that are doing a better job than some parents could do for their own children. And I certainly praise those parents who may not homeschool but who see to it that their children get the most out of education, both in school and at home. Homeschooling almost always goes the extra mile, however, and it is working extraordinarily well for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.

This outcome is all the more remarkable when one considers that these dedicated parents must juggle teaching with all the other demands and chores of modern life. Also, they get little or nothing back from what they pay in taxes for a public system they don’t patronize. By not using the public system, they are in fact saving taxpayers at least $24 billion annually even as they pay taxes for it anyway.

In the early 1980s, fewer than 20,000 children were in homeschools. From 2003 through 2012, the number of American children 5 through 17 years old who were being homeschooled by their parents climbed by 61.8 percent to nearly 1.8 million, according to the US Department of Education. That’s likely a conservative estimate, but it equals 3.4 percent of the nation’s 52 million students in the 5–17 age group.

Parents who homeschool do so for a variety of reasons. Some want a strong moral or religious emphasis in their children’s education. Others are fleeing unsafe public schools or schools where discipline and academics have taken a backseat to fuzzy, feel-good, or politically correct dogma. Many homeschool parents complain about the pervasiveness in public schools of trendy instructional methods that border on pedagogical malpractice. Others value the flexibility to travel, often with their children for hands-on, educational purposes; the ability to customize curricula to each child’s needs and interests; and the potential to strengthen relationships within the family.

“When my wife and I first decided to homeschool our three children,” says Bradley Thompson, a political science professor who heads the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University, “we did it for one reason: we wanted to give them a classical education — the kind that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson might have received when they were young boys.” He adds,

Within a couple of years, we added a second reason: we didn’t want our children exposed to the kind of socialization that goes on in both government and some private schools. Over time, however, we added a third reason: homeschooling became a way of life for our family, a way of life that was irreplaceable and beautiful. By the time our third child goes to college, we will have been homeschooling for 18 years. Those years have been, without question, the most important of my life.

Homeschool parents are fiercely protective of their constitutional right to educate their children. In early 1994, the House of Representatives voted to mandate that all teachers — including parents in the home — acquire state certification in the subjects they teach. A massive campaign of letters, phone calls, and faxes from homeschool parents produced one of the most stunning turnabouts in legislative history: by a vote of 424 to 1, the House reversed itself and then approved an amendment that affirmed the rights and independence of homeschool parents.

The certification issue deserves a comment: we have a national crisis in public education, where virtually every teacher is duly certified. There is no national crisis in home education.

Critics have long harbored a jaundiced view of parents who educate children at home. They argue that children need the guidance of professionals and the social interaction that comes from being with a class of others. Homeschooled children, these critics say, will be socially and academically stunted by the confines of the home. But the facts suggest otherwise.

Reports from state after state show homeschoolers scoring significantly better than the norm on college entrance examinations. Prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale, accept homeschooled children eagerly and often. And there’s simply no evidence that homeschooled children (with a rare exception) make anything but fine, solid citizens who respect others and work hard as adults. Marianna Brashear informs me thus:

More and more early college and dual enrollment programs are available for rising 9th through 12th graders, and these programs, too, are quite eager to admit homeschoolers for their ability to take responsibility and to self-motivate, for their maturity, and for their determination to learn and succeed. For example, my 14-year-old daughter will be starting with a nearby technical institute in August and will receive high school and college credit simultaneously. She will be in a class with other high school students, and they are on track to receive AA degrees before graduating high school.

Homeschool parents approach their task in a variety of ways. While some discover texts and methods as they go, others plan their work well before they start, often assisted by other homeschoolers or associations that have sprung up to aid those who choose this option. Writing in the Freeman in May 2001, homeschool parent Chris Cardiff observed that because parents aren’t experts in every possible subject,

families band together in local homeschooling support groups. From within these voluntary associations springs a spontaneous educational order. An overabundance of services, knowledge, activities, collaboration, and social opportunities flourishes within these homeschooling communities.

My FEE colleague, B.K. Marcus, also a homeschool parent, identifies this natural “socialization” as a critically important point:

Homeschooling produces communities and participates in a division of labor. Homeschooling is social and cooperative, contrary to the stereotype of the overprotected child under the stern watch of narrow-minded parents. Traditionally schooled kids show far fewer social skills outside their segregated age groups.

A quick Internet search reveals thousands of cooperative ventures for and between homeschoolers. In Yahoo Groups alone, as of June 2015, about 6,300 results pop up when you search for the keyword “homeschool.” More than 800 show up in Google Groups. Facebook is another option for locating a plethora of local, regional, and national homeschool groups, support groups, events, co-ops, and communities.

In every other walk of life, Americans traditionally regard as heroes the men and women who meet challenges head-on, who go against the grain and persevere to bring a dream to fruition. At a time when more troubles and shortcomings plague education and educational heroes are too few in number, recognizing the homeschool champions in our midst may be both long overdue and highly instructive.

Common to every homeschool parent is the belief that the education of their children is too important to hand over to someone else. Hallelujah for that!

For further information, see:

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Is Michelle Obama a Brilliant Experimental Economist? by B.K. Marcus

A consensus is emerging among advocates of personal freedom and economic literacy that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010 with the support of Michelle Obama, is a typical failure of the nanny state.

Reason’s Robby Soave writes, “Like so many other clumsy government attempts to make people healthier by forbidding the consumption of things they like, the initiative is a costly failure.”

But I’d rather imagine the first lady is conducting a sophisticated empirical test of economic theory. All she needs are a few more interventions to correct the “unintended consequences” of the 2010 law, and we’ll be swimming in data.

As Ludwig von Mises explained in “Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism,” each round of intervention into voluntary exchange leads to consequences the interventionists find undesirable. Over and over, the officials are confronted with a choice: undo the initial intervention or initiate the next round of laws and regulations in an attempt to undo the effects of the previous round. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, school administrator John S. Payne from Hartford City, Indiana, told Congress about some of the supposedly unintended consequences in evidence at his area’s public schools.

“Perhaps the most colorful example in my district is that students have been caught bringing — and even selling — salt, pepper, and sugar in school to add taste to perceived bland and tasteless cafeteria food.”

“This ‘contraband’ economy,” says Payne, “is just one example of many that reinforce the call for flexibility” on the part of local government officials.

While laissez-faire liberals may call for the scrapping of government-managed school lunches altogether, and federalists might join Payne in advocating the efficacy of decentralized, local authority over dietary central planning from Washington, DC, those who care more about economic science than nutrition or freedom should look forward to the next several rounds of loophole-closing, ratcheting coercion, and other adjustments needed to isolate students from their remaining lunchtime alternatives.

Currently, according to Payne, some of the parents in his district are signing their children out in the middle of the school day and taking them out for a quick fast-food meal. Those without the option of escape simply choose to eat less during the day. “Whole-grain items and most of the broccoli end up in the trash,” Payne told the subcommittee.

While exit and abstention are of some interest to economic theorists, the real intellectual treat is in seeing what happens when an isolated and otherwise powerless community is reduced to black markets and barter.

In “The Economic Organisation of a POW Camp” in the November 1945 issue of Economica, former prisoner of war R.A. Radford described the economic laboratory of German prison camps:

POW camp provides a living example of a simple economy which might be used as an alternative to the Robinson Crusoe economy beloved by the text-books, and its simplicity renders the demonstration of certain economic hypotheses both amusing and instructive.

In Radford’s camp, everyone received the same rations from both the prison and the Red Cross. Some prisoners also received private parcels, but these were less reliable. At first, barter exchange among the prisoners made them all subjectively better off: the lactose-intolerant smoker will feel richer from trading his tinned milk for the nonsmoker’s cigarettes.

While those who weren’t hooked on tobacco were at first happy to trade their extra smokes for more appealing products, over time, “cigarettes rose from the status of a normal commodity to that of currency.”

This means that all goods could be exchanged directly for cigarettes. There was no longer any need to find another prisoner who both (1) had a surplus of exactly what you needed and (2) wanted just what you had in excess. Everything took on a “price” in cigarettes, eventually listed on “an Exchange and Mart notice board in every bungalow, where under the headings ‘name,’ ‘room number,’ ‘wanted’ and ‘offered’ sales and wants were advertised.”

The public and semi-permanent records of transactions led to cigarette prices being well known and thus tending to equality throughout the camp, although there were always opportunities for an astute trader to make a profit from arbitrage.

Cigarettes were the best money in the context of a POW camp. A good commodity money is valuable, countable, and fungible — divisible in such a way that it retains proportional value. A half an ounce of gold, for example, is worth about half the value of a full ounce of gold. Cutting a diamond in half is not only difficult; it could render two smaller stones whose combined value is far lower than the one you began with.

Cigarettes are somewhere in between gold and diamonds: a single cigarette isn’t as easily divisible, but a half carton probably trades for half the value of a full carton. And the cigarette itself plays the same role with its tobacco contents as coinage does with precious metals: it establishes a countable unit that makes trade more convenient and prices easier to establish and track. And in a POW camp, where the supply is limited and relatively predictable, price inflation isn’t a problem.

Today’s Hartford City schools have not yet developed the economic sophistication of Radford’s German stalag. Students smuggle in packets of salt, pepper, and sugar, and trade them directly for consumption. But if a few more rounds of intervention can reduce students’ lunch options, we can expect to see a new medium of exchange emerge. I’m betting on salt, which already has a long history as commodity money throughout the ancient world.

But if the nanny-state nutritionists are forced to back off and allow either more flexibility or more freedom, we will lose an excellent opportunity to study the evolution of basic monetary economics in a controlled setting.

Won’t someone please think of the science?

B.K. Marcus

B.K. Marcus is managing editor of the Freeman.

Hillary Staffers Can’t Afford New York’s Government-Controlled Housing Market by David Boaz

The New York Times reports:

For decades, idealistic twenty-somethings have shunned higher-paying and more permanent jobs for the altruism and adrenaline rush of working to get a candidate to the White House. But the staffers who have signed up for the Clinton campaign face a daunting obstacle: the New York City real estate market….

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign prides itself on living on the cheap and keeping salaries low, which is good for its own bottom line, but difficult for those who need to pay New York City rents….

When the campaign’s finance director, Dennis Cheng, reached out to New York donors [to put up staffers in their apartments], some of them seemed concerned with the prospective maze of campaign finance laws and with how providing upscale housing in New York City might be interpreted.

Here are some words that don’t appear in the article: rent control, regulation, zoning.

But those are among the reasons that housing is expensive in New York. As a Manhattan Institute report noted in 2002:

New York City and State have instituted policies that severely distort the dynamics of housing supply and demand. Only 30 percent of the city’s rental units, for instance, are subject to market prices.

These distortions — coupled with Rube-Goldbergian environmental and zoning regulations — have denied New York the kind of healthy housing market enjoyed by most other major cities.

And a report by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko for the Federal Reserve Board of New York Economic Policy Review suggests that “homes are expensive in high-cost areas primarily because of government regulation” that imposes “artificial limits on construction.”

As I’ve said in other contexts: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the government to control rents and impose regulatory costs on the building of housing, then you can expect to see less housing and thus more expensive housing. Welcome to your world, Hillary Clinton staffers.

This post first appeared at Cato.org.

Related: Jim Epstein notes that fully one third of Manhattan, and 33,000 buildings and 114 entire districts across the city, are “encased in a life-sized historical diorama,” unable to be modified or demolished thanks to the city’s “landmark preservation” law.


David Boaz

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. He is the editor of The Libertarian Reader, editor of The Cato Handbook for Policymakers, and author of The Politics of Freedom.

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

What Can the Government Steal? Anything It Pays For! by Daniel Bier

“…Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” – Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 

On Monday, I wrote about the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Horne v. USDA, in which the Court ruled almost unanimously against the government’s attempt to confiscate a third of California raisin farmers’ crops without paying them a dime for it.

The confiscation was part of an absurd FDR-era program meant to increase the price of food crops by restricting the supply; the government would then sell or give away the raisins to foreign countries or other groups.

Overall, this ruling was a big win for property rights (or, at least, not the huge loss it could have been).

But there’s one issue that’s been overlooked here, and it relates to the Court’s previous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the eminent domain case that also just turned 10 horrible years old yesterday.

In Horne, eight justices concluded that physically taking the farmers’ raisins and carting them away in trucks was, in fact, a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment that requires “just compensation.”

That sounds like common sense, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the seizure wasn’t a taking that required compensation because, in their view, the Fifth Amendment gives less protection to “personal property” (i.e., stuff, like raisins or cars) than to “real property” (i.e., land).

The Court thankfully rejected this dangerous and illogical premise.

But while eight justices agreed on the basic question of the taking, only five agreed on the matter of just compensation.

The majority concluded that the government had to pay the farmers the current market value of the crops they wanted to take, which is standard procedure in a takings case (like when the government wants to take your home to build a road).

Justices Breyer (joined by Ginsburg and Kagan) wrote a partial dissent, arguing the federal government’s claim that the question of how much the farmers were owed should be sent back to the lower court to calculate what the farmers were owed.

Their curious reasoning was that, since the government was distorting the market and pushing up the market price of raisins, they should be able to subtract the value the farmers were getting from the artificially inflated price from the value of the raisins that were taken. The government argued that the farmers would actually end up getting more value than was taken from them, under this calculation.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, derided this argument: “The best defense may be a good offense, but the Government cites no support for its hypothetical-based approach.”

But the most interesting part of this subplot came from Justice Thomas. Thomas fully agreed with Roberts’ majority opinion, but he wrote his own a one-page concurrence on the question of how to calculate “just compensation,” and it went right at the heart of Kelo.

In Kelo, a bare majority of the Court ruled that the government could seize people’s homes and give them to private developers, on the grounds that the government expected more taxes from the new development.

Marc Scribner explains how the Court managed to dilute the Fifth Amendment’s “public use” requirement into a “public purpose” excuse that allows the government to take property for almost any reason it can dream up.

Thomas’s concurrence disputes Breyer’s argument about calculating “just compensation” by pointing out that, had Kelo had been correctly decided, the government wouldn’t be allowed to take the farmers’ crops at all — even if it paid for them.

Thomas wrote (emphasis mine),

The Takings Clause prohibits the government from taking private property except “for public use,” even when it offers “just compensation.”

And quoting his dissent in Kelo:

That requirement, as originally understood, imposes a meaningful constraint on the power of the state — ”the government may take property only if it actually uses or gives the public a legal right to use the property.”

It is far from clear that the Raisin Administrative Committee’s conduct meets that standard. It takes the raisins of citizens and, among other things, gives them away or sells them to exporters, foreign importers, and foreign governments.

To the extent that the Committee is not taking the raisins “for public use,” having the Court of Appeals calculate “just compensation” in this case would be a fruitless exercise.

Unfortunately, Chief Justice Roberts is already writing as though the “public use” requirement was a dead letter, writing at one point in his opinion: “The Government correctly points out that a taking does not violate the Fifth Amendment unless there is no just compensation.”

But that isn’t true. A taking violates the Fifth Amendment, first and foremost, if it is not taken for “public use.” And confiscating raisins and giving them to foreign governments in order to keep the price of raisins in the United States artificially high does not, in any sane world, meet that standard.

What Thomas didn’t say, but clearly implied, was that the Court should have struck down the raisin-stealing scheme entirely, rather than just forcing the government pay for the crops it takes.

The Horne decision was good news, but it didn’t go far enough by actually imposing a meaningful limit on what counts as “public use.” The Court could have done that in this case, by overturning Kelo or at least adding somelimitations about what governments can lawfully take private property for.

Happily, Justice Thomas isn’t throwing in the towel on Kelo, and Justice Scalia has predicted that the decision will eventually be overturned.

So can the government still take your property for no good reason? Yes, for now. But at least they have to pay for it.

That’s not nothing. And for raisin farmers in California, it’s a whole lot.


Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.