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These Widespread Shortages Can’t Be Explained by Supply Constraints Alone

Poorer markets can still clear. So why won’t they?


All sorts of shortages are now popping up in our economy. At the head of the list is undoubtedly infant formula, but there are literally dozens of other items in short supply. There are so many of them that I feel constrained to mention them in alphabetical order, lest I inadvertently miss one or engage in double counting.

Here they are, as best I can list them: aluminum, avocado, bicycles, blood collection tubes, blood for transfusions, canned vegetables, cat food, chlorine, Christmas trees, coal, coins, commercial air tickets, computer chips, cream cheese, dye used in CT scans, eggs, fuel oil, garage doors, gasoline, girl scout cookies, hand sanitizer, home covid tests, infant formula, juice boxes, liquor, lithium, lumber, maple syrup, meat, motorcycles, natural gas, paper towels, pet food, potatoes, semiconductors, soap, soda, sunflower oil, toilet paper, tomato paste and wine. Peanut butter has not yet been mentioned in this regard but will soon, undoubtedly, be added prominently to this list.

I’m not kidding: each and every one of these items has been mentioned in this regard in the major media. What is going on here? Has the economy gone crazy, or what? According to several headlines, that is just about what is occurring. Here are a few of them: “The world is still short of everything; get used to it.” “America is running out of everything.” “Product shortages and soaring prices reveal fragility of U.S. supply chain.”

If the shortage list is long, the presumed causes of this economic malfunction are almost as large. For peanut butter, it will be a recall due to contamination; a salmonella outbreak. But this is an input into many other products, such as fudge, chocolates and peanut butter sandwiches, which will also soon be hard to find. For many items on the list the antecedent is the Coronavirus, which has led to supply chain problems. Paying workers to stay home and earn as much or more than their salaries, a few months ago, also contributed. Blame was also laid at a harsh winter. Imports from abroad have been subject to sudden border closures. Ships stuck at harbors on the west coast have been vulnerable to shortages of truck drivers and regulations. Computer chips have been susceptible to supply inelasticity; new offerings as a result of higher prices take a great amount of time to become forthcoming. Consumers have been castigated for hoarding. Staffing problems have been held responsible for commercial air travel disruptions. Drought, the bird flu and the Ukraine war have been held culpable.

But we have had all of these things before, war, pestilence, disease, bad weather, ill health, government regulations, before. However, massive shortages, not of everything under the sun, but almost pretty close, have never before disrupted the economy to anything like the degree we are presently experiencing (apart from the two world wars, of course).

Where is the much-vaunted free enterprise system in all of this? Nowhere, that is where. Has it succumbed to so-called “market failure?” Not a bit of it. Rather, the difficulty is that public policy has made capitalism operate with one arm tied behind its back, and it has not been able to function when hemmed in by a plethora of restrictions, limitations and regulations.

Basic introductory Economics 101 teaches us that a shortage occurs when demand for an item exceeds its supply. What invariably occurs then? Why, prices rise. When this takes place, businesses are incentivized to produce more, buyers to purchase less. Voila, the shortage ends. Why doesn’t this occur under the Biden Administration? Why do we have so many shortages?

One possibility not at all in the public eye is that business firms are afraid to raise prices lest they be charged with price gouging. And why in turn might this be the case? The Bidenites are not exactly friends of the free enterprise system. Yes, to be sure, prices have indeed been rising. But are they increasing fast enough so as to quell shortages? Evidently not. Why not? This is possibly due to fear of being accused of gouging, and being subject to antitrust attentions. Wages, too, are on the incline. But likely not sufficiently so as to overcome the supply inelasticity difficulty. Why not? Firms may well be leery of so doing, in case they have to be decreased later on, and will be accused of exploiting, or victimizing laborers, or some such.

Prices and wages are typically somewhat sticky; that is, they are not instantaneously and fully flexible. But an anti-business philosophy of the sort now prevailing in Washington D.C. makes them even less able to perform the tasks for which we need them, than would otherwise be the case.

AUTHOR

Walter Block

Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

19 Nuggets of Wisdom from the Best Economics Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

Americans would do well to make up the deficit in their knowledge of the works of Arthur Seldon and his “life for liberty.”


May 29 marks the birth of Arthur Seldon. While too-little known to American readers, he was editorial director of the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs for more than thirty years, during which, The Economist wrote, it “brought to the lay reader the ideas of all the leading free-market economists and thinkers of the day.”

Seldon produced a seven-volume set of collected works, including books, monographs, essays and articles, as well as editing hundreds of papers, monographs, and pamphlets.

In such a vast body of work, one cannot easily winnow out the best of Arthur Seldon’s insights. Therefore, consider some of the wisdom in just one of his books—Capitalism—winner of the Fisher Arts Literary Prize and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year:

  1. “Capitalism…creating high and rising living standards for the masses without sacrificing personal liberty speaks for itself. Only the deaf will not hear and the blind will not see.”
  2. “Even bad men are led by the market process to do good, but good men are induced by the political process to do harm. [So] discipline the writ of politics to the bare minimum.”
  3. “Private property is a potent working institution. Public ownership is…political power cornered by handfuls of irresponsible non-ownerships.”
  4. “Capitalism…allows individuals to take the risks of living their lives as they see best.”
  5. “The capitalist market…puts power–effective purchasing power–directly into the hands of the common man and woman for them to use where they wish…That is why the market is more essentially democratic than government.”
  6. “Changing private identifiable property into public unidentifiable property is to destroy the incentives to protect, conserve, improve and render it productive by using it profitably in making goods and services for which consumers will pay.”
  7. “Pricing is the peaceful way of resolving argument and conflict.”
  8. “It was the development and refinement of the law of private property rights that explains… modern progress.”
  9. “That in practice markets are imperfect has obscured the more fundamental truth that they are the best-known way of enabling individuals to meet for mutual benefit . . . World practice and experience…show no better, less imperfect, mechanism.”
  10. “As government has been inflated…It has undermined the instrument that could have done more for the common man.”
  11. “Capitalism embraces the self-correcting mechanisms of open discussion in free society to identify error and open competition in free markets to apply the corrections.”
  12. “The market does not require people to be good: it takes people as they are and induces them to do good by using their capabilities to provide what others want.”
  13. “Wherever it is used, government is so disappointing or worse—inefficient, unaccountable and corrupt—that it is best not to use it at all except for functions where all its faults have to be tolerated to obtain the services required…In short, the price of government is so high that it should be avoided wherever possible.”
  14. “The state has shown itself the false god of all who have looked to it.”
  15. “Capitalism…requires the eventual withdrawal by government from most of its accumulated activities.”
  16. “The inducements of capitalism compel the money-makers to do good; the inducements of socialism enable the power-holders to do harm.”
  17. “The political process…has become the master rather than the servant of the people.”
  18. “Individuals are smothered by collective decisions in the political process.”
  19. “The market of capitalism treats people as individuals; the political process of socialism herds them into categories. Capitalism makes for harmony, socialism for friction.”

Americans would do well to make up the deficit in their knowledge of the works of Arthur Seldon and his “life for liberty,” as his biographer, Colin Robinson, described it. As the IEA website put it, “Seldon highlights the improvements of mankind which came about not through some central plan or social organization but through individuals recognizing an opportunity to produce goods and services which met a need expressed by the demand in the market.”

In so doing, he advanced every individual’s potential, which is expanded by private property and voluntary market arrangements, but constricted when political power hinders the freedom and cooperation they engender.

AUTHOR

Gary M. Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network. In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Cost-Plus Lunch! Who’s really to blame for rising prices?

Why are restaurants adding “inflation fees” to their checks?


A group of friends had just finished a meal at Romano’s Macaroni Grill in Honolulu when one of them noticed something odd about the check. As a local television news station reported in April, a “Temporary Inflation Fee” of $2.00  was nestled inconspicuously between the $4.50 Flavored Tea and the $14.00 Spinach & Artichoke Dip.

The restaurant chain’s website explained that the charge was added to “partially offset… operational cost increases” due to unusual economic conditions including “global supply chain shortages and ever-growing pressure from inflation.” The statement said, “we believe these burdens will eventually pass,” which is why they resorted to a temporary surcharge instead of simply raising the listed prices. An alternative explanation is that surcharges that show up on the check but not the menu are a sneaky way to try to raise prices without losing customers.

The Wall Street Journal recently cited this incident as part of a general trend:

“Lightspeed, a global developer of point-of-sale software, said fee revenue nearly doubled from April 2021 to April 2022, based on a sample of 6,000 U.S. restaurants that use its platform. The number of restaurants adding service fees increased by 36.4% over the same period.”

The Journal cited industry analysts who basically agreed with Romano’s, explaining that:

“…this wave of surcharges is mostly being driven by restaurants trying to cope with the impact of rising inflation and a tight labor market on their bottom lines.” (…)

“​​Inflation and the pandemic posed particular challenges for the restaurant industry. The average price of supplies for a restaurant operator increased by 17.5% since last year, according to NPD Group. By comparison, consumer spending at restaurants rose 5% during that time.

The increase in surcharges is a way for businesses to recoup at least some of those costs, said David Portalatin, a food-industry adviser with the group.”

In media coverage of today’s rising prices in general, this has become a prevailing narrative: “businesses are passing their rising costs onto consumers.”

While superficially plausible, this gets the economics of prices the wrong way round.

The explanation refers to “cost-plus pricing,” which is the business practice of setting prices by starting with your costs and then adding a markup.

Of course, nothing in economics says that a business owner cannot use this method to decide on a price to quote. Surely, some do exactly that. But it is only a heuristic and it is not what fundamentally drives price changes.

Just as “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (TANSTAAFL), there ain’t no such thing as a cost-plus lunch.

To explain price increases as resulting from “passing costs on to the customer” is to implicitly embrace a “cost of production” theory of value and prices, which, in a nutshell, maintains that costs determine prices.

Of course, costs are prices, too. A business’s “costs” are the prices it pays for factors of production (land, labor, and capital goods). So, in a bigger nutshell, this theory posits that “factor prices determine product prices.”

But this is the exact opposite of how an economy actually works. As Murray Rothbard wrote in his economics treatise Power and Market, “Prices, however, are never determined by costs of production, but rather the reverse is true.” In other words, it is anticipated product prices that determine factor prices: prices that determine costs, not the other way around.

This insight was one of the great discoveries that resulted from the “Marginal Revolution” of economics in the 1860s and 70s. This was a literal “revolution” in the sense that it showed the old economic paradigm to be upside-down and then turned it right-side-up.

Before the Marginal Revolution, the “classical economists” largely subscribed to Adam Smith’s cost-of-production theory of value or David Ricardo’s labor theory of value. The latter, like the former, derived the value of products from the value of factors: specifically the factor of labor. (Incidentally, Karl Marx largely based his exploitation and class war theories on Ricardo’s labor theory of value.)

For example, classical economists might have traced the high value of a bottle of fine wine to the high real estate value of the vineyard and/or the amount of labor that went into producing the wine.

But the Marginal Revolutionaries—William Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, and Carl Menger—upended that paradigm. They and their followers (especially the Austrian school of economics, founded by Menger) explained that the value of a good is based on its “marginal utility,” which is the usefulness for want-satisfaction of an additional unit of a good. And what’s useful about a factor of production is that it can help produce useful products.

For example, the utility of a wine vineyard is that it can yield wine grapes. The same goes for the utility of a vineyard worker’s labor. And the utility of wine grapes is their contribution toward producing enjoyable wine.

So Austrian economists do the opposite of what the classical economists did. Austrians trace the real estate price of the vineyard and the wages of the vineyard worker to the anticipated value of the wine at the end of the production line.

The insights of the Marginal Revolution made it clear that prices determine costs (product prices determine factor prices), not the other way around, and that ultimately consumer preferences determine all prices.

(Note: Alfred Marshall tried to reconcile the classical cost-of-production theory with marginal utility theory in a “neoclassical synthesis” that has influenced mainstream economics to this day. See here for Murray Rothbard’s Austrian critique of that attempt.)

So the “cost passing” explanation of rising prices is a retrogression to a long-overthrown economic paradigm: the economic equivalent of forgetting the heliocentric Copernican Revolution of astronomy and explaining planetary movements using the archaic geocentric model of Ptolemy. Just as the sun does not revolve around the earth, consumer prices do not revolve around producer costs: quite the opposite.

Many on the political left blame corporations for “price gouging” in order to fatten their profits. But blaming rising prices on profit-seeking is like blaming a plane crash on gravity.

Gravity is always pulling down on planes. To explain a plane crash, you have to explain what happened to the factors that had previously counteracted that downward pull. Why did gravity yank the plane down to earth when it did and not before?

Similarly, businesses are always seeking profit and are always ready to raise prices if that is what will maximize profits. To explain precipitous price hikes, you have to explain what happened to the factors that had previously put a lid on that upward price pressure. Why did profit-seeking propel prices skyward recently and not in 2019?

This question is also tricky for those (including some on the political right) who blame rising prices on rising costs. If businesses can preserve profits by raising prices now that their costs are higher, why wouldn’t they have increased profits by raising prices before when their costs were lower?

A business’s customers don’t care about that business’s costs. They care about value. Based on the value they expect from a product, there is a limited price range they’d be willing to pay for any given amount of it. That translates into the market demand for the product: the quantity of a good that would be bought at any given price point. The value of, and demand for, a product does not fluctuate with its production costs.

Even businesses don’t (or at least shouldn’t) really care about past costs when it comes to pricing. Past costs are sunk. Whatever was spent to produce it, at any given moment a business has a given inventory. Its best interest is to price that inventory so as to maximize revenue given current demand. Based on that definite demand, raising prices past a certain point will result in less revenue, regardless of past costs. If the most revenue they can hope for is less than their past expenditure, that’s just the way things turned out. They can learn from that error and from those losses by spending less and/or differently in the future. But they cannot change the past or defy the economic reality of the present.

As economist Jonathan Newman told FEE in an interview:

“There is no change in costs that directly affects the revenue-maximizing price. If the prevailing market price is one that maximizes revenue for the firm, then it is impossible for the firm to ‘pass on’ costs to the consumer by increasing prices, because this would result in less revenue.”

Newman reminds us that, “factors of production are valued because they help us make consumer goods, not the other way around. What consumers are willing to pay for consumption goods determines what entrepreneurs are willing to pay for land, labor, and capital goods.” He offers an extreme example to make this point:

“Suppose that tomorrow the government decides to tax the sale of ink for ballpoint pens at $1 billion per mL. Would pen makers be able to carry on as usual and pass this increased cost on to consumers? Would consumers be willing to pay $1,000,000,000.25 for a pen? Of course not. Anticipated consumer demand is a limit on what producers will pay for inputs. More expensive inputs does not mean consumers are ready to pay a higher price for outputs.”

So if “cost passing” isn’t what’s driving up prices, what is? Newman points to monetary expansion by central banks, especially the Federal Reserve:

“I suspect that many firms will be able to get away with increased prices because of this. Even if their stated intention is to ‘pass on’ or share costs with their customers, the increased demand from the trillions of dollars that have been injected into the economy over the past couple years is what really makes their price increases both necessary and feasible.”

It is important to note that monetary price inflation is also not “passed on” from suppliers to customers, as “inflation surcharges” might lead you to believe. Again, the reality is the reverse of that. Extra money enables customers to bid up the prices charged by their suppliers, who in turn use the extra money to bid up the prices charged by their suppliers, and so on. That is how new money raises prices across the board (although, unevenly) as it circulates through the economy.

Another contributing factor to rising prices, at least in many specific industries, is today’s supply chain crisis. To an extent, Romano’s and industry analysts are right to blame rising restaurant prices on supply constraints. But they are wrong to characterize it as a matter of “passing on” or “recouping” costs. Rather, it is a matter of greater scarcity translating into a higher marginal utility of certain goods and thus higher prices.

For example, a major factor in today’s high food prices is undoubtedly the war in Ukraine. Both Ukraine and Russia were major exporters of grain. But, owing to Russia’s blockade of Ukraine and the West’s sanctions on Russia, grain exports from both countries have been throttled.

As a result, food processors have less grain to produce foodstuffs like, for example, macaroni. And as a result of that, restaurants have less macaroni to produce macaroni dishes. And when there’s less of something, its price tends to go up. That is probably one of the reasons why the Honolulu diners at Romano’s Macaroni Grill discussed above paid $11.00 for “Signature Mac & Cheese Bites.”

This phenomenon is not “passing on costs.” It is the rippling repercussions of economic destruction and impoverishment. The word “passing” implies that consumers are impoverished while producers are not. But that is not the case. Diminished production and greater scarcity impoverish everyone involved.

It is also confusing to call that “inflation,” although both academia and the media tend to lump all price increases together under that term. For any given increase in prices, part of it may be caused by monetary expansion, and another might be due to supply constraints. Personally, I think it would be clearer to call only the former, and not the latter, “inflation.” Price increases due to an increasing abundance of money should be distinguished from price increases due to a declining abundance of goods and services, although the former very frequently causes the latter (especially by creating economic bubbles and crashes).

Especially since the advent of the Covid crisis in 2020, we have suffered plenty of both. Central banks have been driving up prices with money printing sprees undertaken to finance government spending sprees. Governments have also been driving up prices by sabotaging supply chains through lockdowns, business shutdowns, wars, trade restrictions, and other policies of mass economic destruction.

As prices continue to rise and living standards continue to drop, it is important to understand how it is happening, why it is happening, and who is truly to blame.

AUTHOR
Dan Sanchez

Dan Sanchez is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in chief of FEE.org.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. All rights reserved.

The Economic Theory That Explains Biden’s Response to the Baby Formula Shortage

In a famous lecture, economist Ludwig von Mises showed how government intervention begets more intervention.


Over the last month, president Biden invoked the Defense Production Act in an attempt to fix the formula shortage. In a statement, the White House highlighted that,

“The President is requiring suppliers to direct needed resources to infant formula manufacturers before any other customer who may have ordered that good. Directing firms to prioritize and allocate the production of key infant formula inputs will help increase production and speed up in supply chains.”

In other words, the government is now engaging in what economist Don Lavoie referred to as non-comprehensive economic planning. It’s imposing rules requiring businesses to operate in a way that bureaucrats believe will quickly resolve this crisis. But the planning seems to have failed. Since Biden invoked the DPA, the number of stores out of stock has increase to 70% according to ABC news.

While some may be surprised that the US government can so quickly command industry, it should be no surprise at all. In fact, some basic understanding of government intervention shows that this sort of result is seemingly inevitable.

There have been several good articles explaining the source of this infant formula shortage. FEE’s own Jon Miltimore produced a great story on the topic. But, to keep it short, Abbott, one of the country’s largest formula producers, had a plant shut down by the FDA due to safety concerns.

But how could shutting down one plant in the whole country cause this? Well, formula production is one of the most tightly regulated industries in the US. Because of this, it’s very difficult to enter the market, so there are a few firms that  dominate the industry. So, when one has problems, the national supply is severely impacted.

One of the most harmful regulations are related to WIC and SNAP programs aimed at providing taxpayer subsidized formula to low-income consumers.

As reported in Time, Congress, in a supposed attempt to limit the cost of this program, made each state select one company to have formula which can be bought with WIC and SNAP in 1989. Since up to two thirds of formula is purchased with WIC and SNAP, the winners of these bids are able to crush competition.

Furthermore, until recently, the FDA banned importation of formula that listed ingredients in an order not prescribed by US bureaucrats. This limit on imports further restricts competition on a basis unrelated to health.

Meanwhile Fortune highlights research that shows despite European brands meeting safety regulations by and large, the FDA still restricts these imports due to the instructions being confusing.

Economist Alex Tabarrok highlights how price controls may be playing a role in the shortage as well.

Policy analyst Gabriella Beaumont-Smith examines the trade restrictions on baby formula, which includes tariffs of up to 17.5 percent.

In short, the industry is tangled in a web of intervention which is killing competition.

It’s this abundance of regulation that makes Biden’s use of the Defense Production Act so unsurprising.

In 1950, economist Ludwig von Mises gave a lecture titled “The middle of the road policy leads to socialism.” In this lecture, Mises expounded upon a theory now known by many as “the dynamics of interventionism.”

Mises uses an example of the dairy industry to show how intervention unfolds dynamically. Imagine the government decides that the price of milk is too high for poor people to afford it. In order to remedy the problem, the government passes a price control. For example, “milk cannot cost more than $2/gallon.”

But another problem arises. At this lower price, dairy farmers can no longer sell their milk at a high enough price to make a profit. Instead, they would be better off exiting the industry. But if dairy farmers exit, there will be less milk to buy. If the government wants to continue to make milk affordable and accessible, they’ll have to bail out the dairy industry. One way they could do this is by setting a price control on feed for cows.

But then producers of cattle feed will make losses. So, the interventions must occur again.

Intervention begets intervention.

This dynamic is exactly what is occurring in the formula industry. FDA regulations have made it impossible in the current industry for sufficient competition to arise.

This lack of competition combined with FDA shutdowns exacerbates the possibility of shortages like this. The shortages lead to the executive branch using the Defense Production Act to control the industries which provide imports to the formula industry.

Again, intervention begets intervention.

Some may accept the argument but argue that now that we have a crisis, we need to use things like the Defense Production Act to end it.

I disagree.

Government bureaucrats have insufficient knowledge and incentives to craft regulations which actually help. The Defense Production Act won’t help, because the government does not effectively plan the economy.

Need proof? The Abbot formula plant was shut down in February. The politicians and bureaucrats in Washington had from February to May to create and carry out a plan which would prevent this crisis. They failed.

Rather than solve the problem by using the same means that created it, central planners would be wise to lay down their Excel spreadsheets and let the market solve problems.

Allowing consumers to give their money and provide profits to companies which best solve their needs is how babies get fed.

Time to clean up the web of intervention.

AUTHOR

Peter Jacobsen

Peter Jacobsen is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ottawa University and the Gwartney Professor of Economic Education and Research at the Gwartney Institute. He received his PhD in economics from George Mason University, and obtained his BS from Southeast Missouri State University. His research interest is at the intersection of political economy, development economics, and population economics. His website can be found here.

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EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

How Socialism Discourages Work and Creates Poverty

Socialism diminishes people’s incentive to work to improve their circumstances by depriving them of the fruits of their effort.


Advocacy for “socialism,” which the Socialist Party USA defines as a “social and economic order in which workers and consumers control production,” has made a comeback in American politics in recent years. Public figures such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sing its praises. But the truth is that socialism deeply undermines people’s ability (and motivation) to improve their own living conditions. The misery socialism has caused for millions of people refutes its promises—horrifically.

Socialism, advocates claim, will bring prosperity and better living conditions for everyone, a claim also made for communism, in which the government controls the means of production and the distribution of the results. British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that socialism is “calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race.” As have its advocates throughout history, the now-defunct Socialist Labor Party of America depicted socialism as utopian, writing: “Under socialism our farmlands would yield an abundance without great toil; the factories, mines and mills would be the safest, the most modern, the most efficient possible and productive beyond our wildest dreams—and without laborious work.” The website doesn’t specify how such magic would occur.

The website further insists that socialism would improve virtually every aspect of life, stating: “Our natural resources would be intelligently conserved. Our schools would have the finest facilities and they would be devoted to developing complete human beings, not wages [sic] slaves who are trained to hire themselves out for someone else’s profit. Our hospitals and social services would create and maintain the finest health and recreational facilities.”

But socialist policies, when enacted, have catastrophic effects on the lives of the people living under them. To enforce such policies, governments must take control of people’s property—whether by fully nationalizing businesses, mandating what and how much a company must produce, or seizing and distributing their products—thereby violating people’s right to the product of their own effort. The victims include entrepreneurs who have built or purchased businesses, landlords who maintain and manage properties, and everyone who earns a wage, from construction workers to artists.

By violating these rights, socialism diminishes people’s incentive to work to improve their circumstances by controlling or taking away the results of their effort. However hard you work, whatever you achieve, whatever value you create—it won’t be reflected in your earnings.

The novelist Ayn Rand dramatized the effects of such a doctrine in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, a small town factory enacted Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” as policy, so that each person’s pay depended on what managers considered as their level of need compared to their colleagues’. They did this based on such factors as the number of children the employees supported, family members’ illnesses, and so on. People began to spend more time sharing their woes with the management than working, and many of the best employees left the company entirely. Within four years, the factory closed. One character explained the hopelessness the policy created: “What was it we were supposed to want to work for? For the love of our brothers? What brothers? For the bums, the loafers, the moochers we saw all around us? And whether they were cheating or plain incompetent, whether they were unwilling or unable—what difference did that make to us? If we were tied for life to the level of their unfitness, faked or real, how long could we care to go on?”

He explained that the company had once been a thriving one that people were proud to work for, but now hard times were the status quo: “We were beasts of burden struggling blindly in some sort of place that was half-hospital, half-stockyards—a place geared to nothing but disability, disaster, disease—beasts put there for the relief of whatever whoever chose to say was whichever’s need.”

This story, although fictional, points to an important fact about human nature: If people can’t change their situation, they won’t try to. Knowing the outcome in advance, they will feel no motivation to make Herculean efforts for miniscule or nonexistent rewards. As economist Ludwig Von Mises put it:

To make a man act, uneasiness and the image of a more satisfactory state alone are not sufficient. A third condition is required: the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness. In the absence of this condition no action is feasible. Man must yield to the inevitable. He must submit to destiny. [emphasis added]

Socialist policies severely restrict individuals’ ability to improve their conditions, so productivity suffers and living conditions plummet. Historical examples of socialism, as well as modern-day Venezuela and North Korea, show the misery that results.

In Soviet Russia, the government attempted to distribute the results of sixty years of steady GDP growth equally by seizing personal fortunes and dictating wages. But buying power for the average person dropped sharply, and whether a person could actually spend his or her wages was largely dependent on knowing the right people. Economist Mark Harrison explains: “The distribution of consumer goods and services was characterized by shortage and privilege. Every Soviet adult could count on an income, but income did not decide access to goods and services – that depended on political and social status.”

People who lived under the Soviet regime and now live in modern Russia appreciate that they have more opportunities to improve their lives than they used to. Back in 2007, interviewers asked Russians about their memories and opinions of life under the Soviet regime; many of them recalled that the USSR had “fewer possibilities.” One respondent explained, “Now there are so many chances. You can earn enough money even to buy an apartment. Certainly it is very, very difficult, but possible.” Another participant elaborated, “Now I can earn money and there are many ways of doing so. . . . In the Soviet Union, engineers and other technical employees of middle and high rank did not have [a] right to a second job. People who had the time and energy and wanted to provide more for their families could not do it.”

In other words, people were willing to work extremely hard to improve their conditions—but weren’t allowed to.

In Venezuela, socialism has driven a once-prosperous country into the ground. University professors juggle multiple jobs to keep food on the table. Others try to escape a desperate situation; more than six million have fled in recent years, and in 2017 the suicide rate was nearly double the global average. Venezuelans are willing to work to improve their circumstances—but the socialist regime’s oppression and economic destruction consistently frustrate their efforts.

North Korea was conceived as a communist nation following the Second World War, but formally switched to a form of “self-reliant” socialism following the Korean War. The leadership of the Worker’s Party of Korea has brought widespread misery in the form of horrific rights violations, including torture, severe censorship, forced labor, and arbitrary detention. Their policies have also led to nearly half the country suffering from inconsistent access to food and water—in stark contrast to their far more capitalist neighbor, South Korea, which has flourished in recent decades.

Advocates of socialism protest that historical examples of socialism were not “true socialism” or “the right kind of socialism.” But it is socialism—people giving government control of producing things—that undermines people’s ability and willingness to produce and provide for themselves in all these examples.

With free markets, by contrast, people are free to own private property and run businesses without the government dictating production or distribution. People are rewarded for their hard work and ability. By innovating, excelling at work, and creating more and better products or services, they can make more money, which they can use to pay for better living quarters, education, electronics, travel, or other life-improving goods or services produced by others. Hence, in mostly free and capitalistic countries, such as the US, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Hong Kong, people have enjoyed massive economic growth, which has corresponded with a major increase in average living standards.

When human beings struggle, create, and innovate, but their efforts do not improve their own circumstances, they burn out or give up. Marx, Russell, Sanders, and other proponents of socialism and communism claim that their preferred systems are “for the people”—but the truth is that they work against the nature and needs of human beings.

AUTHOR

Angelica Walker-Werth

Angelica Walker-Werth is an Ayn Rand Fellow with FEE’s Hazlitt Project and a recent graduate of Clemson University. She is an assistant editor and writer at The Objective Standard and a fellow and research associate at Objective Standard Institute. Her hobbies include gardening and travel.

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EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

How CO2 Supply Chain Mayhem Almost Caused a Meat Shortage in Britain

In recent months, many of us have faced empty shelves, long lines, and frustrating delays as supply chains have seized up around the country, and indeed the world. Some have argued that the government should step in to fix these issues, blaming the problems on “corporate greed” and “the free market”. But while it may be tempting to blame private companies for our current woes and see the government as the savior, the reality is not that simple. Indeed, far from being the solution, government intervention in the market is arguably the primary cause of these problems in the first place.

A good case study for this issue is Great Britain. Back in September, the nation’s supply chain issues got so bad that they almost had major disruptions in their food supply. The UK government has been intervening in an attempt to fix the problems in the short run, but the situation is still extremely precarious.

So who is responsible for these issues? Well, let’s follow the supply chain link-by-link and see if it can lead us to the culprit.

The immediate problem that food producers are facing is a shortage of food-grade carbon dioxide (CO2). The meat industry is particularly affected by this shortage, since CO2 is used in many meat production processes. But aside from that, the gas also plays a key role in modified atmosphere packaging, which is used to prolong the shelf life of many food products. It’s also used in carbonated drinks (hence the name) like beer and soda, and in its solid form as dry ice it is used to keep fresh food cool during transportation.

Why is there a shortage of CO2? Well, most food-grade CO2 comes from fertilizer plants, because CO2 is a byproduct of the fertilizer manufacturing process. These plants, however, have been producing far less CO2 than normal. So to understand why there’s so little CO2, we need to investigate the fertilizer plants. This brings us to the next link in the chain.

Two of the biggest fertilizer plants in the UK are owned by a company called CF Industries. Together, they normally produce about 60 percent of the UK’s food-grade CO2. However, these plants were actually shut down for a large part of September, which drastically reduced the UK’s CO2 production.

The reason they were shut down is because natural gas, an essential part of the fertilizer process, has been very expensive in recent months. With the price of this key input so high, it was actually uneconomical for the plants to operate, so they decided to shut down temporarily in hopes of restarting their operations once the price of natural gas came back down. But why is natural gas suddenly so expensive? This brings us to the third link in the chain.

First, to say that natural gas prices are high in Britain is really quite the understatement. According to Industry group Oil & Gas UK, wholesale prices for gas in September were up 250 percent since January, and had increased 70 percent since August. As one UK energy CEO remarked, this is “the most extreme energy market in decades.”

So what’s causing the high prices? A number of factors. High global demand has played a role, especially since roughly 60 percent of the UK’s natural gas supply is imported. Lower solar and wind output have also been factors, as well as outages at some nuclear stations. The cold winter in 2020 also resulted in depleted stocks (since people use natural gas to heat their homes), and several gas platforms in the North Sea have closed to perform maintenance that was paused because of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

But one of the biggest sources of price volatility is the dearth of natural gas storage facilities in the UK.

“The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage, less than 6% of annual demand.” writes Michael Bradshaw, a Professor of Global Energy at the University of Warwick. “In Germany, France, and Italy, storage covers about 20% of annual demand,” he continues for context. Another report noted that the UK has enough storage to last for about 7 days, whereas Germany and France have roughly 90 days of storage.

While storage is far from the only factor affecting natural gas prices, it certainly plays a significant role. But why does Britain have so little storage capacity? This brings us to the final link in the chain.

One of the reasons for Britain’s low storage capacity is that a storage facility called Rough, which used to provide a significant percentage of the UKs natural gas storage, was decommissioned in 2017 as a result of age-related deterioration.

Industry leaders were concerned about the resulting lack of storage at the time, and have been warning about the issue ever since.

“Rough makes up an impressive 70% of the UK’s storage working gas volume,” Timera Energy noted back in 2017, when permanent closure was still being deliberated. “This can be contrasted with Rough’s contribution to the UK’s daily deliverability, at around 25%. And it is the deliverability that the UK market will miss most.”

They go on to explicitly discuss the likely impact of the closure on the price of natural gas. “The loss of deliverability should boost spot price volatility as it reduces the buffer of supply flexibility available to respond to swings in daily demand…The loss of working gas volume is likely to mean that supply shocks…have a sharper and more prolonged price impact.”

The need for more storage was reiterated in 2019 by another industry leader named InfraStrata Plc. “There is more demand in the market than we can satisfy,” said John Wood, the CEO of InfraStrata. “The market in the U.K. is sending out strong economic signals for additional gas storage capacity.”

So why wasn’t more storage built? Well, as it turns out, natural gas storage is taxed and regulated very heavily in the UK, much more so than other industries. Indeed, one of the largest gas storage operators in the country, called Storengy, explicitly called attention to these problems back in 2018, pointing out the “punitive” and “extortionate” tax levels that are applied to storage facilities as well as the numerous regulations that burden the industry.

As a result of these barriers, many potential storage projects have remained on the shelf, since they are prohibitively expensive in the current business environment. Thus, even though the demand is clearly there, the market has been unable to meet it, because taxes and regulations have severely crippled the industry.

This analysis is hardly exhaustive, of course. But at least with respect to the storage issue, it seems clear that government intervention in the market is the primary cause of the food supply chain disruptions.

One of the interesting things about this story is how it highlights the plethora of people, items, and systems that work together to keep our grocery shelves full. First, we discovered that food producers rely on CO2. That led us to investigate fertilizer plants and the crazy natural gas market, and then from there we explored natural gas storage and learned about the many ways that government intervention has been crippling that industry. Of course, most people wouldn’t intuitively connect gas storage regulations with food availability, but the rippling unintended consequences of these policies are very real nonetheless.

In his famous essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read similarly draws attention to the “innumerable antecedents” of everyday items, such as the seemingly simple lead pencil.

“Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents,” Read wrote, speaking as the pencil. He goes on to discuss some of the many ancestors of the pencil, the people and things that went into producing it, and he points out how they all depend on one another. Indeed, you can’t mess with the trucking industry without impacting the production of pencils, just as you can’t mess with natural gas storage without impacting food supplies.

With that said, trucking and natural gas are not only ancestors of pencils and food. They are also ancestors of many other products, and this leads to an important insight. In reality, it’s actually somewhat misleading to speak of supply chains, as if the economy consisted of independent, linear processes. The economy is much more accurately characterized as one giant supply web, a multiplicity of interconnected processes that all depend on each other in various ways.

With this in mind, it quickly becomes apparent why interfering with the economy can be so dangerous. When the government breaks one part of the web, they aren’t just impacting one chain, they are creating countless unintended consequences, many of which are impossible to foresee.

If we’re lucky, those consequences will only lead to higher prices. If we’re not so lucky, empty grocery shelves await.

To address the looming crisis, the UK government ended up bailing out CF Industries, the company that owns the fertilizer plants. The deal, which was finalized on September 21, resulted in one of the two plants resuming operations, with the UK government providing “limited financial support,” which the Environment Secretary later clarified was “going to be into many millions, possibly the tens of millions [of euros].”

Since then, the government has brokered a deal between CF Industries and its CO2 buyers. Though the details are unclear, the government seems to be involved in setting the price of CO2, which would constitute even more intervention in the market.

But intervention is not the solution here. When governments intervene, they inevitably distort price signals, leading to increasingly inefficient outcomes. The real solution is for the government to stop causing the problem in the first place by removing the taxes and regulations that are standing in the way of the natural gas storage market.

Granted, it will take some time before the storage market can adjust, but even in the interim, the best way to address these problems is to let markets and prices do their thing.

COLUMN BY

Patrick Carroll

Patrick Carroll has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo and is an Editorial Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

The AEI Housing Center’s Critique of “How We Investigated Racial Disparities in Federal Mortgage Data”

The Rest of the Story

The American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center released a special briefing: “The Rest of the Story The AEI Housing Center’s Critique of ‘How We Investigated Racial Disparities in Federal Mortgage Data.‘” The call reports on the Housing Center’s analysis of and critiques of a widely-circulated report by The Markup/Associated Press: “How We Investigated Racial Disparities in Federal Mortgage Data (2018).

Audio Recording

Key takeaways

  • A recent The Markup/Associated Press (AP) analysis found that decline rates, after controlling for 17 independent variables, are higher for the protected classes than for Whites.
  • However, as we have pointed out for home valuations and appraiser bias*, these arguments alleging systemic racism do not hold up to close scrutiny.
  • The Markup’s analysis did not include applicant credit scores, which are highly predictive of defaults. It also ignores lending outcomes – the other half of the story.
  • We address these issues by incorporating credit scores and evaluating risk-adjusted default rates by race and ethnicity. This allows us to evaluate lending outcomes, not just lending inputs.
  • We find that risk-adjusted default rates are higher for protected classes than for Whites by a statistically significant amount.
  • Given data limitations on denials, especially lack of credit score, it is impossible to calculate risk-adjusted decline rates for protected and non-protected class applicants. However, because we found that loans to protected class borrowers have higher risk-adjusted default rates than for Whites, this indicates lenders are extending more lenient underwriting to protected class borrowers than would otherwise be justified based on risk characteristics. Thus, one may infer that risk-adjusted decline rates, if calculable, would be lower for protected class applicants than for Whites, the opposite of the finding by The Markup/AP.

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“Restaurant Recession” Hits NYC Following $15 Minimum Wage

This will be a rough year for full-service NYC restaurants as they try to navigate a future with significant economic headwinds and significantly higher labor costs from the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage.

An article in the New York Eater (“Restaurateurs Are Scrambling to Cut Service and Raise Prices After Minimum Wage Hike“) highlights some of the suffering New York City’s full-service restaurants are experiencing following the December 31, 2018 hike in the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is 15.4% higher than the $13 minimum wage a year earlier and 36.4% higher than the $11 an hour two years ago. For example, Rosa Mexicana operates four restaurants in Manhattan and estimates the $15 mandated wage will increase their labor costs by $600,000 this year. Here’s a slice:

Now, across the city, restaurant owners and operators are reworking their budgets and operations to come up with those extra funds. Some restaurants, like Rosa Mexicano, are changing scheduling. Other restaurateurs are cutting hours and staffers, raising menu prices, and otherwise nixing costs wherever they can.

And though the new regulations are intended to benefit employees, some restaurateurs and staffers say that take home pay ends up being less due to fewer hours — or that employees face more work because there are fewer staffers per shift. “The bottom line is, we have to reduce the number of hours we spend,” says Chris Westcott, Rosa Mexicano’s president and CEO. “And unfortunately that means that, in many cases, employees are earning less even though they’re making more.”

In a survey conducted by New York City Hospitality Alliance late last year, about 75% of the more than 300 respondents operating full-service restaurants reported they’ll reduce employee hours this year because of the new wage increases, while 47% said they’ll eliminate jobs in 2019.

Note also that the survey also reported that “76.50% of respondents report reducing employee hours and 36.30% eliminated jobs in 2018 in response to mandated wage increases.” Those staff reductions are showing up in the NYC full-service restaurant employee series from the BLS, see chart above. December 2018 restaurant jobs were down by almost 3,000 (and by 1.64%) from the previous December, and the 2.5% annual decline in March 2018 was the worst annual decline since the sharp collapse in restaurant jobs following 9/11 in 2001.

As the chart shows, it usually takes an economic recession to cause year-over-year job losses at NYC’s full-service restaurants, so it’s likely that this is a “restaurant recession” tied to the annual series of minimum wage hikes that brought the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour at the end of last year. And the NYC restaurant recession is happening even as the national economy hums along in the 117th month of the second-longest economic expansion in history and just short of the 120-month record expansion from March 1991 to March 2001.

Here’s more of the article:

“There’s a lot of concern and anxiety happening within the city’s restaurant industry,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director of the restaurant advocacy group. Most restaurant owners want to pay employees more, he says, but are challenged by “the financial realities of running a restaurant in New York City.” Merelyn Bucio, a server at a restaurant in Soho that she declined to name, says her hours were cut and her workload increased when wage rates rose. Server assistants and bussers now work fewer shifts, so she and other servers take on side work like polishing silverware and glasses. “We have large sections, and there are large groups, so it’s more difficult,” she says. “You need your server assistant in order to give guests a better experience.”

At Lalito, a small restaurant in Chinatown, they used to roster two servers on the floor, but post wage increases, there’s only one, who is armed with a handheld POS (point of sale) system, according to co-owner Mateusz Lilpop. Having fewer people working was the only way for him to reduce costs, he says. Since the hike, labor costs at Lalito have risen about 10 percent — from 30 to 35 percent to 40 to 45 percent of sales, he says.

These changes get passed onto the diner, some restaurateurs argue. Service can suffer due to fewer people on the floor, or more and more restaurateurs will explore the fast-casual format over full-service ones. Some restaurants are also raising prices for customers. According to the NYC Hospitality Alliance’s survey, close to 90 percent of respondents expect to raise menu prices this year. Lalito’s menu prices have increased by 10 to 15 percent. Lilpop says, and it’s not just the cost of paying his staff driving prices up — it’s a ripple effect from New York-based food purveyors’ own labor cost increases.

“If you have a farmer that has employees that are picking fruit, he has to increase his labor costs, which means he has to increase his fruit prices,” Lilpop says. “I have to buy that fruit from him at a higher rate, and it goes down the chain.”

A few economic lessons here.

  1. A reduction in restaurant staffing that results in a decline in customer service (e.g., longer wait times, less attentive wait staff, etc.) is equivalent to a price increase for customers.
  2. The increases in the city minimum wage to $15 an hour, in addition to directly increasing labor costs for restaurants, also affects the labor costs of companies that supply food, liquor, restaurant supplies, menus, etc. and causes a ripple effect of indirect higher operational costs throughout the entire restaurant supply chain as described above.
  3. Even for workers who keep their jobs, a higher minimum wage per hour doesn’t necessarily translate into higher weekly earnings, if the reduction in hours is greater than the increase in hourly wages. For example, 40 hours per week at $13 an hour generates higher weekly pre-tax earnings ($520) than 33 hours per week at the higher $15 an hour ($495).

Prediction: This will be a rough year for full-service NYC restaurants as they try to navigate a future with significant economic headwinds and significantly higher labor costs from the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage.

This article was reprinted from the American Enterprise Institute.

COLUMN BY

Mark J. Perry

Mark 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.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column with images is republished with permission. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

The New York Times Explains Why the Minimum Wage Should Be $0.00

The minimum wage is the Jason Vorhees of economics. It just won’t die.

No matter how many jobs the minimum wage destroys, no matter how many times you debunk it, it always comes back to wreak more havoc.

We’ve covered the issues at length at FEE, and quite effectively, if I do say so myself. But I have to admit that one of the greatest takedowns of the minimum wage you’ll ever find comes from an unlikely place: The New York Times.

There are many reasons people and politicians find the minimum wage attractive, of course. But the Times, in an editorial entitled “The Right Minimum Wage: 0.00,” skillfully rebuts each of these reasons in turn.

Noting that the federal minimum wage has been frozen for some six years, the Times admits that it’s no wonder that organized labor is pressuring politicians to increase the federal minimum wage to raise the standard of living for poorer working Americans.

“No wonder. But still a mistake,” the Times explains. “There’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed.”

But why has the idea “passed”? Why would raising the minimum wage not help the working poor?

“Raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount would price working poor people out of the job market,” the editors explain.

But wouldn’t the minimum wage increase the purchasing power of low-income Americans? Wouldn’t a meaningful increase allow a single breadwinner to support a family of three and actually be above the official U.S. poverty line?

Ideally, yes. But there are unseen problems, as the editors point out:

There are catches…[A higher minimum wage] would increase employers’ incentives to evade the law, expanding the underground economy. More important, it would increase unemployment: Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and fewer will be hired.

But if that’s true, why would progressives support such a law? What’s their rationale for supporting a minimum wage if it does more harm than good? Is it sheer political opportunism?

Not necessarily. The Times explains:

A higher minimum would undoubtedly raise the living standard of the majority of low-wage workers who could keep their jobs. That gain, it is argued, would justify the sacrifice of the minority who became unemployable.

There’s just one problem with this logic, the editors say:

The argument isn’t convincing. Those at greatest risk from a higher minimum would be young, poor workers, who already face formidable barriers to getting and keeping jobs. The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable – and fundamentally flawed. It’s time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.

It’s a compelling, reasoned, and erudite argument. But it’s not exactly what one expects to see in The New York Times these days. (A naughty person might say the same about reason and erudition in general in the paper.)

So what gives? Alas, the editorial is a relic. It was written way, way back in 1987. A lot has changed since then.

We’ve had a couple wars. The internet was introduced to the masses. There was 9-11. We elected the nation’s first black president. The Cubs and Red Sox won the World Series. There was even a female reboot of Ghostbusters.

At least one thing, however, did not change. That would be the laws of economics. They hold as fast and true in 2018 as they did in 1987.

The Times’ editorial board might have changed. The perception of the minimum wage certainly changed. Relatively recent polls show seven out of ten Americans support raising the federal minimum wage. Several cities—Seattle, New York, and Minneapolis, among them—have passed laws that raised (or will soon raise) the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

So it’s safe to say the minimum wage laws have become more popular, no doubt in part from campaigns promoting them and an education system sympathetic to them. Still, economic laws do not change based on how popular humans find them. They remain true and constant whether they are popular or not.

In fact, some have observed that economic laws are inherently unpopular.

“In economics, the majority is always wrong,” John Kenneth Galbraith once allegedly quipped.

Now, there have been a lot of complaints directed at corporate media in recent years, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. So let’s give the Times a hand.

The paper was right in 1987. And if politicians are genuinely interested in helping the poor, they’ll stick a stake in the heart of the minimum wage once and for all.

Jon Miltimore

Jon Miltimore

Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. Serving previously as Director of Digital Media at Intellectual Takeout, Jon was responsible for daily editorial content, web strategy, and social media operations. Before that, he was the Senior Editor of The History Channel Magazine, Managing Editor at Scout.com, and general assignment reporter for the Panama City News Herald. Jon also served as an intern in the speechwriting department under George W. Bush.

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is provided by FEE and is republished with permission.

The U.N. Has Absolutely No Idea How Economic Growth Works by Daniel J. Mitchell

I’ve been at the United Nations this week for both the 14th Session of the Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters as well as the Special Meeting of ECOSOC on International Cooperation in Tax Matters.

As you might suspect, it would be an understatement to say this puts me in the belly of the beast (for the second time!). Sort of a modern-day version of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

These meetings are comprised of tax collectors from various nations, along with U.N. officials who – like their tax-free counterparts at other international bureaucracies – don’t have to comply with the tax laws of those countries.

In other words, there’s nobody on the side of taxpayers and the private sector (I’m merely an observer representing “civil society”).

I could share with you the details of the discussion, but 99 percent of the discussion was boring and arcane. So instead I’ll touch on two big-picture observations.

What the United Nations gets wrong: The bureaucracy assumes that higher taxes are a recipe for economic growth and development.

I’m not joking. I wrote last year about how many of the international bureaucracies are blindly asserting that higher taxes are pro-growth because government supposedly will productively “invest” any additional revenue. And this reflexive agitation for higher fiscal burdens has been very prevalent this week in New York City. It’s unclear whether participants actually believe their own rhetoric. I’ve shared with some of the folks the empirical data showing the western world became rich in the 1800s when fiscal burdens were very modest. But I’m not expecting any miraculous breakthroughs in economic understanding.

What the United Nations fails to get right: The bureaucracy does not appreciate that low rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance.

Most of the discussions focused on how tax laws, tax treaties, and tax agreements can and should be altered to extract more money from the business community. Participants occasionally groused about tax evasion, but the real focus was on ways to curtail tax avoidance. This is noteworthy because it confirms my point that the anti-tax competition work of international bureaucracies is guided by a desire to collect more revenue rather than to improve enforcement of existing law. But I raise this issue because of a sin of omission. At no point did any of the participants acknowledge that there’s a wealth of empirical evidence showing that low tax rates are the most effective way of encouraging tax compliance.

I realize that these observations are probably not a big shock. So in hopes of saying something worthwhile, I’ll close with a few additional observations

  • I had no idea that people could spend so much time discussing the technicalities of taxes on international shipping. I resisted the temptation to puncture my eardrums with an ice pick.
  • From the moment it was announced, I warned that the OECD’s project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) was designed to extract more money from the business community. The meeting convinced me that my original fears were – if possible – understated.
  • A not-so-subtle undercurrent in the meeting is that governments of rich nations, when there are squabbles over who gets to pillage taxpayers, are perfectly happy to stiff-arm governments from poor nations.
  • The representative from the U.S. government never expressed any pro-taxpayer or pro-growth sentiments, but he did express some opposition to the notion that profits of multinationals could be divvied up based on the level of GDP in various nations. I hope that meant opposition to “formula apportionment.”
  • Much of the discussion revolved around the taxation of multinational companies, but I was still nonetheless surprised that there was no discussion of the U.S. position as a very attractive tax haven.
  • The left’s goal (at least for statists from the developing world) is for the United Nations to have greater power over national tax policies, which does put the UN in conflict with the OECD, which wants to turn a multilateral convention into a pseudo-International Tax Organization.

P.S. The good news is that the folks at the United Nations have not threatened to toss me in jail. That means the bureaucrats in New York City are more tolerant of dissent than the folks at the OECD.

Republished from International Liberty.

Daniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in fiscal policy, particularly tax reform, international tax competition, and the economic burden of government spending. He also serves on the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review.

Ideas, Not ‘Capital,’ Enriched the World by Deirdre N. McCloskey

Why are we so rich? Who are “we”? Have our riches corrupted us?

“The Bourgeois Era,” a series of three l-o-n-g books just completed  — thank God — answers:

  • first, in The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), that the commercial bourgeoisie — the middle class of traders, dealers, inventors, and managers — is on the whole, contrary to the conviction of the “clerisy” of artists and intellectuals after 1848, pretty good. Not bad.
  • second, in Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010), that the modern world was made not by the usual material causes, such as coal or thrift or capital or exports or imperialism or good property rights or even good science, all of which have been widespread in other cultures and at other times. It was caused by very many technical and some few institutional ideas among a uniquely revalued bourgeoisie — on a large scale at first peculiar to northwestern Europe, and indeed peculiar from the sixteenth century to the Low Countries;
  • and third, in Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (2016), that a novel way of looking at the virtues and at bettering ideas arose in northwestern Europe from a novel liberty and dignity enjoyed by all commoners, among them the bourgeoisie, and from a startling revaluation starting in Holland by the society as a whole of the trading and betterment in which the bourgeoisie specialized.The revaluation, called “liberalism,” in turn derived not from some ancient superiority of the Europeans but from egalitarian accidents in their politics from 1517–1789. That is, what mattered were two levels of ideas — the ideas in the heads of entrepreneurs for the betterments themselves (the electric motor, the airplane, the stock market); and the ideas in the society at large about the businesspeople and their betterments (in a word, that liberalism). What were not causal were the conventional factors of accumulated capital and institutional change. They happened, but they were largely dependent on betterment and liberalism.

The upshot since 1800 has been a gigantic improvement for the poor, yielding equality of real comfort in health and housing, such as for many of your ancestors and mine, and a promise now being fulfilled of the same result worldwide — a Great Enrichment for even the poorest among us.

These are controversial claims. They are, you see, optimistic. Many of the left, such as my friend the economist and former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, or the French economist Thomas Piketty, and some on the right, such as my friend the American economist Tyler Cowen, believe we are doomed.

Yanis thinks that wealth is caused by imperial sums of capital sloshing around the world economy, and thinks in a Marxist and Keynesian way that the economy is like a balloon, puffed up by consumption, and about to leak. I think that the economy is like a machine making sausage, and if Greece or Europe want to get more wealth they need to make the machine work better — honoring enterprise, for example, and letting people work when they want to.

Piketty thinks that the rich get richer, always, and that the rest of us stagnate. I think it’s not true, even in his own statistics, and certainly not in the long run, and that what has mainly happened in the past two centuries is that the sausage machine has got tremendously more productive, benefiting mainly the poor.

Tyler thinks that improvements in the sausage machine are over. I think that if Tyler were so smart (and he is very smart), he would be rich, and anyway there is little evidence of technological stagnation, and anyway for at least the next century, the poor of the non-Western world will be catching up, enriching us all with their own betterments of the sausage machine.

In other words, I do not think we are doomed. I see over the next century a world enrichment both materially and spiritually that will give the wretched of the earth the lives of a present-day, bourgeois Dutch person.

For reasons I do not entirely understand, the clerisy after 1848 turned toward nationalism and socialism, and against liberalism. It came also to delight in an ever expanding list of pessimisms about the way we live now in our approximately liberal societies, from the lack of temperance among the poor to an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Anti-liberal utopias believed to offset the pessimisms have been popular among the clerisy. Its pessimistic and utopian books have sold millions.

But the twentieth-century experiments of nationalism and socialism, of syndicalism in factories and central planning for investment, of proliferating regulation for imagined but not factually documented imperfections in the market, did not work. And most of the pessimisms about how we live now have proven to be mistaken.

It is a puzzle. Perhaps you yourself still believe in nationalism or socialism or proliferating regulation. And perhaps you are in the grip of pessimism about growth or consumerism or the environment or inequality. Please, for the good of the wretched of the earth, reconsider. The trilogy chronicles, explains, and defends what made us rich — the system we have had since 1800 or 1848, usually but misleadingly called modern “capitalism.”

The system should rather be called “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved.” Or “fantastically successful liberalism, in the old European sense, applied to trade and politics, as it was applied also to science and music and painting and literature.” The simplest version is “trade-tested progress.”

Many humans, in short, are now stunningly better off than their ancestors were in 1800. And the rest of humanity shows every sign of joining the enrichment. A crucial point is that the greatly enriched world cannot be explained in any deep way by the accumulation of capital, as economists from Adam Smith through Karl Marx to Varoufakis, Piketty, and Cowen have on the contrary believed, and as the very word “capitalism” seems to imply.

The word embodies a scientific mistake. Our riches did not come from piling brick on brick, or piling university degree on university degree, or bank balance on bank balance, but from piling idea on idea. The bricks, degrees, and bank balances — the capital accumulations — were of course necessary. But so were a labor force and liquid water and the arrow of time.

Oxygen is necessary for a fire. But it would be at least unhelpful to explain the Chicago Fire of October 8-10, 1871, by the presence of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. Better: a long dry spell, the city’s wooden buildings, a strong wind from the southwest, and, if you disdain Irish immigrants, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

The modern world cannot be explained, I show in the second volume, Bourgeois Dignity, by routine brick-piling, such as the Indian Ocean trade, English banking, canals, the British savings rate, the Atlantic slave trade, natural resources, the enclosure movement, the exploitation of workers in satanic mills, or the accumulation in European cities of capital, whether physical or human. Such routines are too common in world history and too feeble in quantitative oomph to explain the thirty- or hundredfold enrichment per person unique to the past two centuries.

Hear again that last, crucial, astonishing fact, discovered by economic historians over the past few decades. It is: in the two centuries after 1800 the trade-tested goods and services available to the average person in Sweden or Taiwan rose by a factor of 30 or 100. Not 100 percent, understand — a mere doubling — but in its highest estimate a factor of 100, nearly 10,000 percent, and at least a factor of 30, or 2,900 percent.

The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has dwarfed any of the previous and temporary enrichments. Explaining it is the central scientific task of economics and economic history, and it matters for any other sort of social science or recent history. What explains it? The causes were not (to pick from the apparently inexhaustible list of materialist factors promoted by this or that economist or economic historian) coal, thrift, transport, high male wages, low female and child wages, surplus value, human capital, geography, railways, institutions, infrastructure, nationalism, the quickening of commerce, the late medieval run-up, Renaissance individualism, the First Divergence, the Black Death, American silver, the original accumulation of capital, piracy, empire, eugenic improvement, the mathematization of celestial mechanics, technical education, or a perfection of property rights.

Such conditions had been routine in a dozen of the leading organized societies of Eurasia, from ancient Egypt and China down to Tokugawa Japan and the Ottoman Empire, and not unknown in Meso-America and the Andes. Routines cannot account for the strangest secular event in human history, which began with bourgeois dignity in Holland after 1600, gathered up its tools for betterment in England after 1700, and burst on northwestern Europe and then the world after 1800.

The modern world was made by a slow-motion revolution in ethical convictions about virtues and vices, in particular by a much higher level than in earlier times of toleration for trade-tested progress — letting people make mutually advantageous deals, and even admiring them for doing so, and especially admiring them when Steve Jobs-like they imagine betterments.

Note: the crux was not psychology — Max Weber had claimed in 1905 that it was — but sociology. Toleration for free trade and honored betterment was advocated first by the bourgeoisie itself, then more consequentially by the clerisy, which for a century before 1848 admired economic liberty and bourgeois dignity, and in aid of the project was willing to pledge its life, fortune, and sacred honor.

After 1848 in places like the United States and Holland and Japan, the bulk of ordinary people came slowly to agree. By then, however much of the avant garde of the clerisy worldwide had turned decisively against the bourgeoisie, on the road to twentieth-century fascism and communism.

Yet in the luckier countries, such as Norway or Australia, the bourgeoisie was for the first time judged by many people to be acceptably honest, and was in fact acceptably honest, under new social and familial pressures. By 1900, and more so by 2000, the Bourgeois Revaluation had made most people in quite a few places, from Syracuse to Singapore, very rich and pretty good.

I have to admit that “my” explanation is embarrassingly, pathetically unoriginal. It is merely the economic and historical realization in actual economies and actual economic histories of eighteenth-century liberal thought. But that, after all, is just what the clerisy after 1848 so sadly mislaid, and what the subsequent history proved to be profoundly correct. Liberty and dignity for ordinary people made us rich, in every meaning of the word.

The change, the Bourgeois Revaluation, was the coming of a business-respecting civilization, an acceptance of the Bourgeois Deal: “Let me make money in the first act, and by the third act I will make you all rich.”

Much of the elite, and then also much of the non-elite of northwestern Europe and its offshoots, came to accept or even admire the values of trade and betterment. Or at the least the polity did not attempt to block such values, as it had done energetically in earlier times. Especially it did not do so in the new United States. Then likewise, the elites and then the common people in more of the world followed, including now, startlingly, China and India. They undertook to respect—or at least not to utterly despise and overtax and stupidly regulate—the bourgeoisie.

Why, then, the Bourgeois Revaluation that after made for trade-tested betterment, the Great Enrichment? The answer is the surprising, black-swan luck of northwestern Europe’s reaction to the turmoil of the early modern — the coincidence in northwestern Europe of successful Reading, Reformation, Revolt, and Revolution: “the Four Rs,” if you please. The dice were rolled by Gutenberg, Luther, Willem van Oranje, and Oliver Cromwell. By a lucky chance for England their payoffs were deposited in that formerly inconsequential nation in a pile late in the seventeenth century.

None of the Four Rs had deep English or European causes. All could have rolled the other way. They were bizarre and unpredictable. In 1400 or even in 1600 a canny observer would have bet on an industrial revolution and a great enrichment — if she could have imagined such freakish events — in technologically advanced China, or in the vigorous Ottoman Empire. Not in backward, quarrelsome Europe.

A result of Reading, Reformation, Revolt, and Revolution was a fifth R, a crucial Revaluation of the bourgeoisie, first in Holland and then in Britain. The Revaluation was part of an R-caused, egalitarian reappraisal of ordinary people. I retail here the evidence that hierarchy — as, for instance, in St. Paul’s and Martin Luther’s conviction that the political authorities that exist have been instituted by God — began slowly and partially to break down.

The cause of the bourgeois betterments, that is, was an economic liberation and a sociological dignifying of, say, a barber and wig-maker of Bolton, son of a tailor, messing about with spinning machines, who died in 1792 as Sir Richard Arkwright, possessed of one of the largest bourgeois fortunes in England. The Industrial Revolution and especially the Great Enrichment came from liberating commoners from compelled service to a hereditary elite, such as the noble lord in the castle, or compelled obedience to a state functionary, such as the economic planner in the city hall. And it came from according honor to the formerly despised of Bolton — or of Ōsaka, or of Lake Wobegon — commoners exercising their liberty to relocate a factory or invent airbrakes.

Not everyone accepted the Bourgeois Deal, even in the United States. There’s the worry: it’s not complete, and can be undermined by hostile attitudes and clumsy regulations. In Chicago you need a $300 business license to start a little repair service for sewing machines, but you can’t do it in your home because of zoning, arranged politically by big retailers. Likewise in Rotterdam, worse.

Antibourgeois attitudes survive even in bourgeois cities like London and New York and Milan, expressed around neo-aristocratic dinner tables and in neo-priestly editorial meetings. A journalist in Sweden noted recently that when the Swedish government recommended two centimeters of toothpaste on one’s brush no journalist complained:

[The] journalists . . . take great professional pride in treating with the utmost skepticism a press release or some new report from any commercial entity. And rightly so. But the big mystery is why similar output is treated differently just because it is from a government organization. It’s not hard to imagine the media’s response if Colgate put out a press release telling the general public to use at least two centimeters of toothpaste twice every day.

The bourgeoisie is far from ethically blameless. The newly tolerated bourgeoisie has regularly tried to set itself up as a new aristocracy to be protected by the state, as Adam Smith and Karl Marx predicted it would. And anyway even in the embourgeoisfying lands on the shores of the North Sea, the old hierarchy based on birth or clerical rank did not simply disappear on January 1, 1700.

Tales of pre- or antibourgeois life strangely dominated the high and low art of the Bourgeois Era. Flaubert’s and Hemingway’s novels, D’Annunzio’s and Eliot’s poetry, Eisenstein’s and Pasolini’s films, not to speak of a rich undergrowth of cowboy movies and spy novels, all celebrate peasant/proletariat or aristocratic values.

A hard coming we bourgeois have had of it. A unique liberalism was what freed the betterment of equals, starting in Holland in 1585, and in England and New England a century later. Betterment came largely out of a change in the ethical rhetoric of the economy, especially about the bourgeoisie and its projects.

You can see that “bourgeois” does not have to mean what conservatives and progressives mean by it, namely, “having a thoroughly corrupted human spirit.” The typical bourgeois was viewed by the Romantic, Scottish conservative Thomas Carlyle in 1843 as an atheist with “a deadened soul, seared with the brute Idolatry of Sense, to whom going to Hell is equivalent to not making money.”

Or from the other side, in 1996 Charles Sellers, the influential leftist historian of the United States, viewed the new respect for the bourgeoisie in America as a plague that would, between 1815 and 1846, “wrench a commodified humanity to relentless competitive effort and poison the more affective and altruistic relations of social reproduction that outweigh material accumulation for most human beings.”

Contrary to Carlyle and Sellers, however, bourgeois life is in fact mainly cooperative and altruistic, and when competitive it is good for the poorest among us. We should have more of it. The Bourgeois Deal does not imply, however, that one needs to be fond of the vice of greed, or needs to think that greed suffices for an economic ethic. Such a Machiavellian theory, “greed is good,” has undermined ethical thinking about the Bourgeois Era. It has especially done so during the past three decades in smart-aleck hangouts such as Wall Street or the Department of Economics.

Prudence is a great virtue among the seven principal virtues. But greed is the sin of prudence only — namely, the admitted virtue of prudence when it is not balanced by the other six, becoming therefore a vice. That is the central point of Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues, of 2006, or for that matter of Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of 1759 (so original and up-to-date is McCloskey).

Nor has the Bourgeois Era led in fact to a poisoning of the virtues. In a collection of mini-essays asking “Does the Free Market Corrode Moral Character?” the political theorist Michael Walzer replied “Of course it does.” But then he wisely adds that any social system corrodes one or another virtue. That the Bourgeois Era surely has tempted people into thinking that greed is good, wrote Walzer, “isn’t itself an argument against the free market. Think about the ways democratic politics also corrodes moral character. Competition for political power puts people under great pressure . . . to shout lies at public meeting, to make promises they can’t keep.”

Or think about the ways even a mild socialism puts people under great pressure to commit the sins of envy or state-enforced greed or violence or environmental imprudence. Or think about the ways the alleged affective and altruistic relations of social reproduction in America before the alleged commercial revolution put people under great pressure to obey their husbands in all things and to hang troublesome Quakers and Anabaptists.

That is to say, any social system, if it is not to dissolve into a war of all against all, needs ethics internalized by its participants. It must have some device — preaching, movies, the press, child raising, the state — to slow down the corrosion of moral character, at any rate by the standard the society sets. The Bourgeois Era has set a higher social standard than others, abolishing slavery and giving votes to women and the poor.

For further progress Walzer the communitarian puts his trust in an old conservative argument, an ethical education arising from good-intentioned laws. One might doubt that a state strong enough to enforce such laws would remain uncorrupted for long, at any rate outside of northern Europe. In any case, contrary to a common opinion since 1848 the arrival of a bourgeois, business-respecting civilization did not corrupt the human spirit, despite temptations. Mostly in fact it elevated the human spirit.

Walzer is right to complain that “the arrogance of the economic elite these last few decades has been astonishing.” So it has. But the arrogance comes from the smartaleck theory that greed is good, not from the moralized economy of trade and betterment that Smith and Mill and later economists saw around them, and which continues even now to spread.

The Bourgeois Era did not thrust aside, as Sellers the historian elsewhere claims in rhapsodizing about the world we have lost, lives “of enduring human values of family, trust, cooperation, love, and equality.” Good lives such as these can be and actually are lived on a gigantic scale in the modern, bourgeois town. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, John Kumalo, from a village in Natal, and now a big man in Johannesburg, says, “I do not say we are free here.” A black man under apartheid in South Africa in 1948 could hardly say so. “But at least I am free of the chief. At least I am free of an old and ignorant man.”

The Revaluation, in short, came out of a rhetoric — what the Dutch economist Arjo Klamer calls the “conversation” — that would, and will, enrich the world. We are not doomed. If we have a sensible and fact-based conversation about economics and economic history and politics we will do pretty well, for Rio and Rotterdam and the rest.

Deirdre N. McCloskeyDeirdre N. McCloskey

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2000 to 2015 in economics, history, English, and communication. A well-known economist and historian and rhetorician, she has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. Her latest book, out in January 2016 from the University of Chicago Press—Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World—argues for an “ideational” explanation for the Great Enrichment 1800 to the present.

3 Kinds of Economic Ignorance by Steven Horwitz

Nothing gets me going more than overt economic ignorance.

I know I’m not alone. Consider the justified roasting that Bernie Sanders got on social media for wondering why student loans come with interest rates of 6 or 8 or 10 percent while a mortgage can be taken out for only 3 percent. (The answer, of course, is that a mortgage has collateral in the form of a house, so it is a lower-risk loan to the lender than a student loan, which has no collateral and therefore requires a higher interest rate to cover the higher risk.)

When it comes to economic ignorance, libertarians are quick to repeat Murray Rothbard’s famous observation on the subject:

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a “dismal science.” But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.

Economic ignorance comes in different forms, and some types of economic ignorance are less excusable than others. But the most important implication of Rothbard’s point is that the worst sort of economic ignorance is ignorance about your economic ignorance. There are varying degrees of blameworthiness for not knowing certain things about economics, but what is always unacceptable is not to recognize that you may not know enough to be speaking with authority, nor to understand the limits of economic knowledge.

Let’s explore three different types of economic ignorance before we return to the pervasive problem of not knowing what you don’t know.

1. What Isn’t Debated

Let’s start with the least excusable type of economic ignorance: not knowing agreed-upon theories or results in economics. There may not be a lot of these, but there are more than nonspecialists sometimes believe. Bernie Sanders’s inability to understand why uncollateralized loans have higher interest rates would fall into this category, as this is an agreed-upon claim in financial economics. Donald Trump’s bashing of free trade (and Sanders’s, too) would be another example, as the idea that free trade benefits the trading countries on the whole and over time is another strongly agreed-upon result in economics.

Trump and Sanders, and plenty of others, who make claims about economics, but who remain ignorant of basic teachings such as these, should be seen as highly blameworthy for that ignorance. But the deeper failing of many who make such errors is that they are ignorant of their ignorance. Often, they don’t even know that there are agreed-upon results in economics of which they are unaware.

2. Interpreting the Data

A second type of economic ignorance that is, in my view, less blameworthy is ignorance of economic data. As Rothbard observed, economics is a specialized discipline, and nonspecialists can’t be expected to know all the relevant theories and facts. There are a lot of economic data out there to be searched through, and often those data require careful statistical interpretation to be easily applied to questions of public policy. Economic data sources also requiretheoretical interpretation. Data do not speak for themselves — they must be integrated into a story of cause and effect through the framework of economic theory.

That said, in the world of the Internet, a lot of basic economic data are available and not that hard to find. The problem is that many people believe that certain empirical facts are true and don’t see the need to verify them by actually checking the data. For example, Bernie Sanders recently claimed that Americans are routinely working 50- and 60-hour workweeks. No doubt some Americans are, but the long-term direction of the average workweek is down, with the current average being about 34 hours per week. Longer lives and fewer working years between school and retirement have also meant a reduction in lifetime working hours and an increase in leisure time for the average American. These data are easily available at a variety of websites.

The problem of statistical interpretation can be seen with data on economic inequality, where people wrongly take static snapshots of the shares of national income held by the rich and poor to be evidence of the decline of the poor’s standard of living or their ability to move up and out of poverty.

People who wish to opine on such matters can, again, be forgiven for not knowing all the data in a specialized discipline, but if they choose to engage with the topic, they should be aware of their own limitations, including their ability to interpret the data they are discussing.

3. Different Schools of Thought

The third type of economic ignorance, and the least blameworthy, is ignorance of the multiple perspectives within the discipline of economics. There are multiple schools of thought in economics, and many empirical questions and historical facts have a variety of explanations. So a movie like The Big Short that clearly suggests that the financial crisis and Great Recession were caused by a lack of regulation might be persuasive to people who have never heard an alternative explanation that blames the combination of Federal Reserve policy and misguided government intervention in the housing market for the problems. One can make similar points about the Great Depression and the difference between Hayekian and Keynesian explanations of business cycles more generally.

These issues involving schools of thought are excellent examples of Rothbard’s point about the specialized nature of economics and what the nonspecialist can and cannot be expected to know. It is, in fact, unrealistic to expect nonexperts to know all of the arguments by the various schools of thought.

Combining Ignorance and Arrogance

What is missing from all of these types of economic ignorance — and what is often missing from knowledgeable economists themselves — is what we might call “epistemic humility,” or a willingness to admit how little we know. Noneconomists are often unable to recognize how little they know about economics, and economists are often unable to admit how little they know about the economy.

Real economic “expertise” is not just mastery of theories and facts. It is a deeper understanding of the variety of interpretations of those theories and facts and humility in the face of our limits in applying that knowledge in attempting to manage an economy. The smartest economists are the ones who know the limits of economic expertise.

Commentators with opinions on economic matters, whether presidential candidates or Facebook friends, could, at the very least, indicate that they may have biases or blind spots that lead to uses of data or interpretive frameworks with which experts might disagree.

The worst type of economic ignorance is the type of ignorance that is the worst in all fields: being ignorant of your own ignorance.

Steven HorwitzSteven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions.

He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

Ideology, hidden obstacle to reason

I was recently surprised to note that a prominent British libertarian had sent out a bulk email suggesting that leaving the EU would not be much of a boon to the UK since such would not necessarily provide more “liberty” for Brits. Thus, he contends that UK “leaders” have the same totalitarian mindset as the EU “leaders” and the Brexit (exit of the UK from the EU) would not help matters. He mentioned that the UK government has at times exceeded even the legal limitations on power provided by the authoritarian EU and that offended Brits may occasionally benefit from European Court decisions that overturn excesses of UK authorities and judges. Since the European Court is an essential component of the EU, leaving the EU would therefore supposedly remove this supposed benefit.

This email did not contain the words Muslim or Islam. Yet the Islamization of the UK is one of the main concerns of those who support the Brexit.

I had tried to show my UK reader list how simply rolling over and playing dead, ie, not voting in the upcoming referendum or voting YES to stay in the EU was not an option, for one thing because it sends a signal to the EU top rank that the people of Europe have finally given up and are willing to acquiesce to total tyranny.

An article in The Atlantic reveals one very important reason why EU membership is a bad deal for the UK and all other industrial members, to whit:

“EU countries are legally barred from limiting immigration from other member states, a decision that has had a great effect on migration patterns on the continent.”

Now it is certainly true that the usurpers who have seized the internal UK reins of power (essentially Parliament and Downing Street) by deceit are, like the EU bureaucrats, also inclined to flood the UK with still more Muslims, a rapidly growing group that receives an inordinately high percentage of social assistance or welfare (as reported here and here) and which in polls is found to favor sharia law and jihad.

In 2014, Daniel Greenfield, discussing a recent poll in London, wrote:

“There are about 1 million Muslim settlers in London where they make up 12 percent of the population. These figures suggest that the vast majority of them, perhaps as high as 80 percent, support ISIS.”

A NO vote on the referendum would be a signal to the Brussels oligarchs that the people are no longer the lemmings they once were and will not take rampant Islamisation lying down.

It should not surprise anyone that libertarians tend to be more liberal on the issue of immigration. Their ideology teaches essentially that all humans must have the maximum freedom possible and is refractory to considerations of reality. The freedom to cross someone else’s border and gain access to another country’s welfare rolls could be seen as the ultimate in libertarian policy. US libertarians counter the fears of ordinary mortals by contending that welfare would be forbidden in a libertarian society, but their immigration positions ignore the fact that welfare is part of the current US reality, over which libertarians have little or no control, and the current socialist context is the one in which they propose to implement their immigration positions. Like their British counterparts, they therefore generally see even illegal immigration as either a non-threat or a boon. They believe that they could soon operate in a perfect world with no impediments whatsoever to individual freedom.

The trouble with this thinking — in case you are one of the few who need this pointed out to you — is that there really are two kinds of freedom, or liberty (liberté) as the French revolutionaries, ideological second cousins to today’s libertarians, called it.

ONE kind is individual freedom.

The SECOND is more subtle and easier to overlook, and that is, national sovereignty, ie, the freedom of a nation to chart and navigate its own course without interference from other nations or entities.

Today’s libertarians almost never talk about the second kind of liberty because to them, national sovereignty is an obstacle to individual liberty at all costs, which is the non-negotiable centerpiece of their creed. And non-negotiable here means reality be damned.

Ironically, however, this neglect of national sovereignty actually severely curbs individual liberty as well, at least in the real world down here beneath the rarefied stratosphere in which libertarianism thrives.

For example, if 80% of an indigenous population desires freedom of choice in its national lawmaking, then a rigid libertarian policy of legal residency for all and sundry may well lead to veritable inundation of this indigenous population with hordes of people who tolerate and even welcome totalitarianism. After all, to them, totalitarianism is their free choice. Once these hordes reach a critical percentage of the population, the tipping point will be passed and that one-time majority will now be subjected to the will of the newly arrived hordes. And here’s the real kicker: the libertarians who persuaded their unsuspecting countrymen to accept these hordes will now also be enslaved along with the rest. So much for liberté.

Worst of all, the above is not by any means just a hypothetical example. There is a projection that the UK will become a Muslim state by 2050, and while this has been poo-pooed by the Establishment media, The Commentator writes:

“This projection is based on reasonably good data. Between 2004 and 2008, the Muslim population of the UK grew at an annual rate of 6.7 percent, making Muslims 4 percent of the population in 2008. Extrapolating from those figures would mean that the Muslim population in 2020 would be 8 percent, 15 percent in 2030, 28 percent in 2040 and finally, in 2050, the Muslim population of the UK would exceed 50 percent of the total population.”

Thus the rigid and doctrinaire libertarianism with liberty as its Grail, is from the outset on a course of ineluctable self-destruction.

History presents us with a parade of ideologies, all of which have failed one after the other. Yet some flaw in the character of Homo sapiens leads us invariably to put aside our perception of reality, our built-in logic and reason, and even our sense of self-preservation in favor of untested ideologies propped up by high-sounding rhetoric. Somehow, our species never seems to notice that, precisely because ideologies supersede and subtly supplant reason and the perception of reality, all ideologies will eventually fail, always, just as they always have in the past.

The question is: Can we ever come to understand this simple fact and overcome this flaw in our DNA?

Of Battlefields and Boardrooms by Matthew McCaffrey

Are the Art of War and the Art of Enterprise two edges of the same sword?

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is justly known as one of the great works in strategic thinking. But although the text nominally concerns warfare, through the centuries it’s often been used as a business handbook more than as a military manual. Just like good economic writing, it brilliantly expresses complex ideas simply and concisely, and its dramatic prose makes for compelling lessons about conflict.

However, while analogies between the boardroom and the battlefield might seem appealing, they are erroneous. Economists like Mises have emphasized that market competition and military competition could not be less alike; one is productive and increases human welfare, while the other is destructive of human life and economy.

But The Art of War remains popular in business because it isn’t really about armed conflict. It’s about finding ways to advantageously avoid or resolve confrontation of any kind. It’s this sort of idea that opens the door to insights about enterprise.

One of Sun Tzu’s major attractions for the business world is his emphasis on entrepreneurial thinking. For him, strategic excellence is about creating opportunities and taking risks, the same abilities necessary for success in the market, where uncertainty constantly challenges the good judgment of would-be entrepreneurs.

Good decision-making also means one must be “formless,” so as to instantly take advantage of fleeting opportunities and adapt seamlessly to changing (market) conditions. The classical strategists realized that competitive success depends on one’s ability to control and manipulate the internal and external conditions of conflict. This means knowing one’s own abilities and weaknesses as well as those of the competition, as summed up in The Art of War’s most famous aphorism: “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.”

The qualities that these classical strategists recommend in great generals are actually the traits of successful market entrepreneurs. For example, entrepreneurs are decisive and willing to bear the uncertainty of the market—unafraid of committing resources to projects that might fail. And they must be willing to endure hardship on the road to success, while never taking it for granted by becoming complacent or arrogant—traits that consumers often punish severely.

Comparing strategic and economic ideas raises an important question, though: If the analogies to the business world are so obvious, and the ancient texts really do have something in common with economic thinking, why didn’t the classical strategists realize their ideas were applicable to peaceful exchange? A simple response is that the market economy as we know it didn’t exist in ancient China (specifically, during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods). A more complete answer is that it couldn’t have existed. That is, ancient China lacked much of the institutional framework necessary for entrepreneurship and commerce to flourish—strong property rights, individualism, and the social acknowledgment of the importance of profit.

As William Baumol argues, a society’s institutions influence the course its entrepreneurial energy takes. Many of the great minds of the Renaissance—for instance, the inventors and innovators perfectly suited to improving welfare through the market—were military entrepreneurs in service to competing city-states. Political institutions offered patronage and the possibility of advancement, while opportunities to commercialize ideas were scarce, if not actively frowned upon. That is to say, the ancient Chinese states, along with countless others throughout history, lacked the “bourgeois virtues” that Deirdre McClosky argues provided the foundation for the industrial revolution.

This then is one explanation for the military turn of The Art of War and the other Chinese strategic classics. Having little explicit acknowledgment of the virtues of commerce, analysis of market competition presumably offered slight appeal. Without the institutional and cultural basis for market entrepreneurship, classical thought turned to analyzing destructive forms of competition that offered better “profit” opportunities—specifically, the chance to wield influence within the State bureaucracy. Spreading ideas usually meant finding a place in court and becoming a trusted advisor to the powerful. This much the classical strategists had in common with Renaissance intellectuals like Machiavelli—who, perhaps not coincidentally, also wrote a book titled The Art of War.

The lesson is that all societies face the problem of developing and keeping the institutions that allow enterprise to thrive—those institutions that direct the best of human creative energy to improving the lives of others, not to the service of the military State. Ideology plays a vital role in this social process and paves the way for peace and commercial prosperity. Instead of a guide to violent competition then, texts like The Art of War can help us develop a strategy for the battle of ideas. Ideas ultimately shape both society and our roles in it, so it falls to us to embrace and spread those that lead us away from the destruction of war making and toward the “creative destruction” of enterprise.

ABOUT MATTHEW MCCAFFREY

Matthew McCaffrey is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester and editor of Libertarian Papers.

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image from FEE and Shutterstock