Posts

How Many People Can Planet Earth Sustain? by Robert P. Murphy

Asked whether or not the growing world population will be a major problem, 59% of Americans agreed it will strain the planet’s natural resources, while 82% of U.S.-based members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said the same. Just 17% of AAAS scientists and 38% of Americans said population growth won’t be a problem because we will find a way to stretch natural resources.
Pew Research Center

“If humanity is to have a long-term future,” writes James Dyke at the Conversation, “we must address all these challenges [of population growth] at the same time as reducing our impacts on the planetary processes that ultimately provide not just the food we eat, but water we drink and air we breathe. This is a challenge far greater than those that so exercised Malthus 200 years ago.”

Thomas Malthus was a pioneer in political economy who wrote a famous 1798 essay on the dangers of population growth. Nowadays, environmentalists concerned with “sustainable growth” typically invoke Malthusian concerns as they recommend government interventions.

Free-market thinkers tend to reject such “solutions” as unnecessary, but beyond the technical policy debate, there is also a strand in the free-market community that embraces population growth with optimism.

The crux of Malthus’s original essay was that unchecked populations grow exponentially, whereas food production grows — at best — linearly. The following passage sums up the bleak Malthusian view of life:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

The Malthusian mindset explains Paul Ehrlich’s runaway bestseller The Population Bomb and the popularity of the “zero population growth” (ZPG) movement in the 1960s. Ehrlich said, “The mother of the year should be a sterilized woman with two adopted children.” (Advocates of ZPG over the years have differed on whether their goal could be achieved purely through voluntary sterilization and restraint versus government controls.)

How does a free-market economist respond to modern-day Malthusianism?

We should first make the obvious point that people in the private sector are just as capable of extrapolating population figures as government officials. Indeed, as I explained in “Are Markets Myopic?,” market prices — particularly in futures markets — give private owners the proper incentives to balance current consumption against future uses, even for nonrenewable resources. It is, in fact, democratically elected government officials who are myopic, since their control over such resources is fleeting.

To illustrate the shortcoming of a naïve natural scientific perspective on these issues, consider an anecdote from my high school years. I remember that my biology textbook asked us to consider a petri dish with a population of bacteria that would double every day. By stipulation, the bacteria would completely fill the dish — and thus hit the ceiling of its “carrying capacity” — on the 30th day. The textbook then delivered the stunning observation that on the day before this crisis, the dish would only be half full. The textbook’s point, of course, was to warn that trends in biology were not linear, and that crises could develop rapidly out of apparent tranquility and abundance.

If my classmates and I learned this principle in high school biology, then presumably at least some traders in the Chicago agricultural commodities markets have thought about it, too. If Earth’s population will grow more rapidly than food production over the next decade, then the spot prices of wheat, soybeans, and beef will eventually skyrocket as the crunch sets in. If the crisis of population growth is “obvious” to academics the world over, then this growth would be factored into market prices and food prices would already be high in anticipation of the future disaster.

Although there are sophisticated arguments involving the “negative externalities” of climate change, generally speaking, the possible dangers of excessive population growth would manifest themselves in the form of higher prices for raising children. Couples would voluntarily reduce their (biological) family size as real estate prices, tuition, health care, and food prices rose faster than wages to reflect the impending crunch. There is nothing for government officials to do in this area except to get out of the way and let market prices do their job, as opposed to subsidizing population growth through poorly designed welfare systems, “free” government schooling, and similar programs. People in the market make horrible forecasting decisions all the time, but government policies typically reinforce those flaws in human nature rather than counteract them.

As with any serious thinker, Malthus’s real work was imbued with nuance. Rather than making him a hero of progressive interventionists, one could hold up Malthus as a pioneer in understanding the importance of market institutions in encouraging responsible decision making when it comes to family size. However, if we focus on the narrow empirical prediction that exponential population growth must outstrip food production, then Malthus was simply wrong, or at least he has been so far. The “green revolution” is the shining example in the more general history of human ingenuity overcoming obstacles, especially in the context of relatively free markets. Julian Simon famously won a bet with Ehrlich predicting that the prices of key commodities — which he let Ehrlich and his colleagues choose — would fall during the 1980s.

In his own work, Simon stressed human creativity and adaptation as the “ultimate resource.” When typical Malthusians look at humanity, they see billions of bellies that must be filled. Instead, Simon saw billions of brains that could produce a new strain of crop, discover a cure for cancer, or develop a new technique for locating oil deposits.

One of Simon’s most compelling arguments is to point out that human labor is the one resource that has consistently become relatively more scarce over the centuries. Specifically, the amount of labor time that the typical worker needs to spend in order to earn the wages for buying other resources has dropped dramatically. (Robert Bradley provides some compelling graphics on the topic.) If the Malthusians had been right, then labor would have become relatively abundant and superfluous, with commodity and energy prices rising far more than wage rates.

As the population grows, two competing forces affect living standards. On the one hand, higher population allows for a greater division of labor, as well as more inventions that can be easily scaled. (The work of J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs would not have been nearly as valuable on a tropical island with 100 people.) On the other hand, there are finite limits on certain resources — such as standing room on Earth, for the foreseeable future — and thus at some point further population growth drives down average wages.

Nonetheless, the market contains the proper incentives to allow individuals to make informed choices about procreation. Furthermore, experience to date has definitely come down on the side of the optimists. So far, free societies have proven “the more, the merrier” to be true. Wherever population growth appears to fall into a Malthusian trap, we find excessive statism, not free markets and private property rights.

Robert P. Murphy
Robert P. Murphy

Robert P. Murphy is author of Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action (Independent Institute, 2015).

Obama’s Econ Advisers: Occupational Licensing Is a Disaster by Mikayla Novak

Libertarians received a rare pleasant surprise when President Obamaʼs Council of Economic Advisers issued a report highly critical of occupational licensing.

The report cited numerous problems arising from this increasingly burdensome regulatory practice, which requires ordinary Americans to obtain expensive licenses and permits to perform ordinary jobs.

It is a belated recognition by the administration that government has long been acting against the best interests of workers and consumers.

And it might give us something of a warm inner glow to consider, as the Wall Street Journal recently did, that reforming occupational licensing could catalyze important economic reforms that transcend traditional political and ideological divides.

And reform is vital: each and every day, occupational licensing destroys the ability of individuals to freely and peacefully pursue their own livelihoods.

Licensing hurts workers

Occupational licensing locks countless of people out of dignified and meaningful job opportunities.

The CEA report indicates that more than a quarter of all workers in the United States need a government license or permit to legally work. Two-thirds of the increase in licensing since the 1960s is attributable to an increase in the number of professions being licensed, not to growth within traditionally licensed professions like law or medicine.

The data show that licensed workers earn on average 28 percent more than unlicensed workers. Only some of this observed premium is accounted for by the differences in education, training and experience between the two groups. The rest comes from reducing supply, locking competitors out of the market and extracting higher prices from consumers.

What makes professional licensing so invidious is that it serves as a barrier to entry in the labor market, simply because it takes so much time and money to obtain a license to work.

For young people, immigrants, and low-income individuals, it can be extremely difficult to stump up the cash and find the time — sometimes hundreds or even thousands of hours — to get licensed. The fees to maintain a license can also be exorbitant.

Compounding the problem is that licensing requirements are spreading into more industries, such as construction, food catering, and hairdressing — occupations where it used to be easy to start a career.

Today, there is arguably no more lethal poison for labor market freedom and upward mobility than occupational licensing.

Licensing hurts consumers

Defenders of occupational licensing say that workers need to be licensed because without it consumers would be harmed by poor service.

In the absence of licensing, children will be taught improperly at school, patients won’t get adequate health care in hospital, home owners will not get their leaky sinks fixed, and somebody could fall victim to an improper haircut.

But, in the name of promoting quality, licensing regulations perversely raise costs and reduce choices for consumers.

The CEA concludes that, by imposing entry barriers against potential competitors who could undercut the prices of incumbent suppliers, licensing raises prices for consumers by between 3 and 16 percent.

Moreover, the effect of licensing on product quality is unclear. The report notes that the empirical literature doesn’t demonstrate an increase in quality from licensure.

By restricting supply, licensing dulls the incentive for incumbents to provide the best quality products because the threat of new entrants competing with better offerings is diminished.

Perversely, the inflated prices offered by licensed providers may force some consumers to seek unlicensed providers, or to use less effective substitutes, or to do jobs themselves — in some cases increasing the risk of accidents.

In a blow to the notion of efficient government bureaucracy, the CEA indicates that government licensing boards routinely fail in monitoring licensed providers, contributing to the lack of improvement in quality.

Ending the war on livelihood freedom

To restore a climate friendly to economic liberty, people must feel they have a direct, personal stake in what Deidre McCloskey calls “market-tested betterment” — that is to say, in capitalism.

There is no better way to achieve this than to allow individuals to build their own livelihoods, finding decent jobs serving customers with the goods and services they want, at prices they mutually agree on.

The argument for economic liberty is also grounded in the moral imperative of respecting the freedom of other people to lead their own lives as they see fit, including their right to choose their own livelihood.

Proponents of occupational licensing can always serve up a parade of hypothetical horribles about things that could go wrong if people didn’t need the state’s permission to work, but nothing has been more harmful to workers and consumers than occupational licensing.

Mikayla Novak
Mikayla Novak

Mikayla Novak is a senior researcher for the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian free market think tank, and holds a doctorate in economics. She specializes in public finance, economic history, and the history of classical liberal thought.

Market Corrections Inspire Dangerous Political Panic by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Some kinds of inflation people really hate, like when it affects food and gas. But now, with the whole of the American middle class heavily invested in stocks, there is another kind inflation people love and demand: share prices that increased forever.

Just as with real estate before 2008, people seem addicted to the idea that they should never go anywhere but up.

This is the reason that stock market corrections are so dangerous. The biggest danger is not economic. It is political. Such corrections push politicians and central bankers to undertake ever-more nutty political in do order to fix them.

To make the point, Donald Trump immediately blamed China, which has the temerity to sell Americans excellent products at low prices. Bernie Sanders blamed “free trade,” even though the United States is among the most protectionist in the world.

Nothing in this world is more guaranteed to worsen a correction that a trade war. But so far, that’s what’s been proposed.

Tolerance for Downturns

It was not always so. In the 1982 recession, the Reagan administration argued that it was best to let the market clear and grow calm. Once the recession cleaned up misallocations of resources, the economy would be well prepared for a growth path. Incredibly, the idea was sold to the American people, and it proved wise.

That was the last time in American history we’ve seen anything like a laissez-faire attitude prevail. After the 1990s dot com boom and bust, the Fed intervened in an effort to repeal gravity. After 9/11, the Fed intervened again, using floods of paper money to rebuild national pride. That created a gigantic housing bubble that exploded 7 years later.

By 2008, the idea of allowing markets to clear became intolerable, and so Congress spent hundreds of billions of dollars and the Fed created trillions in phony money, all to forestall what desperately needed to happen.

Now, with dramatic declines in stock markets around the world, we are seeing what happens when governments and central banks attempt to counter market forces.

Markets win. Every time. But somehow it doesn’t matter anymore. There’s no more science, no more rationality, no more concern for the long term, so far as the Fed is concerned. The Fed is maniacally focused on its member banks’ balance sheets. They must live and thrive no matter what. And the Fed is in the perfect position now to use public sentiment to bolster its policies.

The Right and Wrong Question 

In the event of a large crash, the public discussion going forward will be: What can be done to re-boost stock prices? This is the wrong question. The right question should be: What were the conditions that led to the unsustainable boom in the first place? This is the intelligent way to address a global meltdown. Sadly, intelligence is in short supply when people are panicked about losing their retirement funds they believed were secure.

Back when people thought about such things, the great economic Gottfried von Haberler was tapped by the League of Nations to write a book that covered the whole field of business cycle theory as it then existed. Prosperity and Depressioncame out in 1936 and was republished in 1941. It is a beautiful book, rooted in rationality and the desire to know.

The book covers six core theories: purely monetary (now called Chicago), overinvestment (now called Austrian), sudden changes in cost (related to what is now called Real Business Cycle), underconsumption (now called Keynesian), psychological (popular in the financial press), and agricultural theories (very old fashioned).

Each one is described. The author then turns to solutions and their viability, assessing each. The treatise leans toward the view that permitting the recession (or downturn or depression) run its course is a better alternative than any large policy prescription applied with the goal of countering the cycle.

Haberler is careful to say that there is not likely one explanation that applies to all cycles in all times and in all places. There are too many factors at work in the real world to provide such an explanation, and no author has ever attempted to provide one. All we can really do is look for the primary causes and the factors that are mostly likely to induce recurring depressions and recoveries.

He likened the business cycle a rocking chair. It can be still. It can rock slowly. Or an outside force can come along to cause it to rock more violently and at greater speed. Detangling the structural factors from the external factors is a major challenge for any economist. But it must be done lest policy authorities make matters worse rather than better.

The monetary theory posits that the quantity of money is the key factoring in generating booms and busts. The more money that flows into an economy via the credit system, the more production increases alongside consumption. This policy leads to inflation. The pullback of the credit machine induces the recession.

The “overinvestment” theory of the cycle focuses on the misallocation of resources that upsets the careful balance between production and consumer. Within the production structure in normal times, there is a focus on viability in light of consumer decisions. But when more credit is made available, the flow of resources is toward the capital sector, which is characterized by a multiplicity of purposes. The entire production sector mixes various time commitments and purposes. Each of them corresponds with an expectation of consumer behavior.

Haberler calls this an overinvestment theory because the main result is an inflation of capital over consumption. The misallocation is both horizontal and vertical. When the consumer resources are insufficient to realize the plans of the capitalists, the result is a series of bankruptcies and an ensuing recession.

Price Control by Central Banks

A feature of this theory is to distinguish between the real rate of interest and the money rate of interest. When monetary authorities push down rates, they are engaged in a form of price control, inducing a boom in one sector of the production structure. This theory today is most often identified with the Austrian school, but in Haberler’s times, it was probably the dominant theory among serious specialists throughout the world.

In describing the underconsumption theory of the cycle, Haberler can hardly hide his disdain. In this view, all cycles result from too much hoarding and insufficient debt. If consumer were spend to their maximum extent, without regard to issues of viability, producers would feel inspired to produce, and the entire economy could run off a feeling of good will.

Habeler finds this view ridiculous, based in part on the implied policy prescription: endlessly inflate the money supply, keep running up debts, and lower interest rates to zero. The irony is that this is the precisely the prescription of John Maynard Keynes, and his whole theory was rooted in a 200-year old fallacy that economic growth is based on consumption and not production. Little did Haberler know, writing in the early 1930s, that this theory would become the dominant one in the world, and the one most promoted by governments and for obvious reasons.

The psychological theory of the cycle observes the people are overly optimistic in a boom and overly pessimistic in the bust. More than that, the people who push this view regard these states of mind as causative of economic trends. They both begin and end the boom.

Haberler does not deny that such states of mind are important and contributing elements to making the the cycle more exaggerated, but it is foolish to believe that thinking alone can bring about systematic changes in the macroeconomic structure. This school of thought seizes on a grain of truth, and pushes that grain too far to the exclusion of real factory. Interestingly, Haberler identifies Keynes by name in his critique of this view.

Haberler’s treatise is the soul of fairness but the reader is left with no question about where his investigation led him. There are many and varied causes of business cycles, and the best explanations trace the problem to credit interventions and monetary expansions that upset the delicate balance of production and consumption in the international market economy.

Large-scale attempts by government to correct for these cycles can result in making matters worse, because it has no control over the secondary factors that brought about the crisis in the first place. The best possible policy is to eliminate barriers to market clearing — that is to say, let the market work.

The Fed is the Elephant in the Room

And so it should be in our time. For seven years, the Fed, which controls the world reserve currency, has held down interest rates to zero in an effort to forestall a real recession and recreate the boom. The results have been unimpressive. In the midst of the greatest technological revolution in history, economic growth has been pathetic.

There is a reason for this, and it is not only about foolish monetary policy. It is about regulation that inhibits business creation and economic adaptability. It’s about taxation that pillages the rewards of success and pours the bounty into public waste. It is about a huge debt overhang that results from the declaration that all governments are too big to fail.

Whether a correction is needed now or later or never is not for policymakers to decide. The existence of the business cycle is the market’s way of humbling those who claim to have the power and intelligence to outwit its awesome and immutable forces.

Jeffrey A. Tucker
Jeffrey A. Tucker

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

When Judges Quit Protecting Liberty by David S. D’Amato

How do we decide if a government action is legitimate?

When courts are asked to determine whether a government action has violated an individual’s rights, they apply one of several different “standards of review” or “levels of scrutiny,” ranging from “strict scrutiny” (reserved for a very narrow category of cases) to “rational basis scrutiny.”

Rational basis tests erect the lowest possible legal hurdles for the government, yet they are applied in cases that implicate some of our most important liberties, such as the right to earn a living, simply because they were not listed by name in the Bill of Rights.

For example, a law requiring an expensive permit to arrange flowers will only merit a rational basis review. And while rational basis review is a test for constitutionality, it doesn’t have anything to do with the Constitution or its history.

As Timothy Sandefur pointed out in the Cato Unbound issue on judicial activism, such rational basis tests have “no foundation whatsoever in the Constitution of the United States.” Rather, they were simply made up, fashioned by judges out of whole cloth during a period when courts were increasingly willing to defer to legislators and bureaucrats and their arbitrary and needless interference with private enterprise.

Rational basis review amounts to carte blanche for petty tyrants in legislatures, city councils, and regulatory agencies. Since the New Deal, courts have refused to give any real constitutional protection to the basic right to choose your profession and earn an honest living.

The 1934 Supreme Court decision in Nebbia v. New York is an important episode in the creeping evolution of rational basis. Leo Nebbia, a grocer, was convicted of the heinous crime of selling milk at a price that was too low, according to the bullies at New York’s “Milk Control Board.”

Writing for the Court, Justice Owen Roberts declared that as long as a law has “a reasonable relation to a proper legislative purpose,” the courts have no authority to strike it down.

Though he admitted that “the reasonableness of each regulation depends upon the relevant facts,” Roberts still maintained that, once a law is enacted, “every possible presumption is in favor of its validity.” If a “policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare,” judicial review is basically over.

As a practical matter, this strange, circular reasoning means that a legislative body determines for itself whether its bills are constitutional. Merely by passing the law, the legislature settles the question and obliges the courts to accept any explanation offered for it. Such a theory eviscerates meaningful judicial review and leaves the individual defenseless, without any legal recourse against the nearly omnipotent modern state. And, since the Nebbia decision, the courts have only become more deferential.

Conservatives mistakenly associate judicial “activism” with the progressive left, but the New Deal-era progressive judges were actually the architects of the judicial “deference” that reigns today. Traditional common law protections were discarded in favor of expedience: the desire to get out of government’s way as it systematically planned, monitored, and regulated society as it saw fit.

The liberalism of the previous century was likewise treated with an arrogant and imperious contempt. Quaint notions of individual liberty and inviolable natural rights gave way to the irresistible march of modernity and “scientific” progress, shepherded by their natural steward, the state.

Rational basis tests invert legitimate due process. The burden of proof should be on the government to prove that a law or regulation serves the general welfare. The government should have to factually demonstrate the connection between the law and public health and safety, not merely assert that one mightexist.

But, instead, judges have decided that person challenging a law must confront and rebut every possible argument and hypothetical that the government (or judge) might conjure up in support of its law.

The rational basis test demands that a victim of government overreach prove the impossible, refuting an infinite universe of possible scenarios and rationales that could justify the law. Forget the actual empirical facts — rational basis has no time for such distractions.

On the contrary, the test requires judges to help the government by inventing counterfactual stories that could have justified the law. Even if the law has nothing to do with community health or safety, even if it is openly protectionist, it must be upheld if any flight of fancy could justify it.

Thus, the rational basis “test” is no test at all. It is a hollow, perfunctory gesture as the court abandons its duty of judicial review and leaves the hapless individual at the mercy of capricious government officials and special interests.

The right to choose your occupation is as fundamental a liberty as the right to speak, an indispensable aspect of self-ownership and self-determination. The freedom to make important, personal decisions about your career and your property is the bedrock of peaceful cooperation and civil society. In any society even moderately committed to freedom and legitimate due process, the rational basis test would be inconceivable. The presumption of liberty, like the presumption of innocence, would be the individual’s default position under the law.

Sadly, judges have abandoned their posts, doing the bidding of arbitrary governments and politically powerful economic interests who use the law to prevent competition. To fulfill the Constitution’s guarantee of due process, and to restore our lost liberties, we must scrap the rational basis excuse.

David S.  D'Amato

David S. D’Amato

David S. D’Amato is an attorney and independent scholar whose writing has appeared at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Future of Freedom Foundation, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

The Credential Is Killing the Classroom by Isaac M. Morehouse

“I wish college were like this!”

I hear this exclamation over and over at the seminars put on by organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Attendees are blown away by the excellence of the content, the professors’ willingness to engage students even in free time, and the intelligence and interest level of the other participants.

And it’s not just the students who see a difference. Faculty also talk about how these seminars are far better than typical college classes.

What causes this distinction?

One obvious explanation is self-selection. Faculty and students who choose to give up a week of their summer to discuss ideas are high caliber and highly engaged.

But college has self-selection, too. Shouldn’t it be full of professors and students who are earnest truth and knowledge seekers of the finest quality?

With the rare exception of one or two classes, college is nothing like this. Why does the self-selection only produce quality learning in these seminars?

It’s because college offers an official credential — a degree. Educational experiences outside of college do not.

That’s it. Every other difference is insignificant.

Imagine how different these summer seminars would be if they offered an official, government-approved piece of paper at the end — something without which you couldn’t get past the first screening of job applications. A summer seminar selling a magical ticket to a job that Mom and Dad would feel proud of and that society would respect would be overwhelmed with attendees. And many of them wouldn’t give a hoot about what they had to do to get the paper at the end. Demand for faculty would spike, and many instructors would do whatever it took to get the paycheck and retreat to quiet corridors where they could be with their books and the few colleagues who actually care.

It would become, in a word, college.

The evidence is everywhere that the credential is killing the classroom. I’ve guest taught entry-level college classes before. It’s pretty painful. Most of the students are half asleep, grumpy, forlorn, texting, and generally inattentive.

I like to joke that if aliens from another planet came down and observed a typical class at a typical university and were asked what they had witnessed, they would scan the cinder block and fluorescent room, ponder the pained look on student faces, and conclude it was a penal colony. Imagine their surprise when told these people are not only here of their own free will, but paying tens of thousands of dollars for their suffering.

Not every classroom is that painful, but few inspire the joy of learning. Consider this: when class is cancelled, everyone is happy — students and professors alike. What other good can you think of where you pay in advance and are excited when it’s not delivered?

But what is the product that colleges are selling? The professors may not always realize it, but it’s not their lectures the students are buying. It’s nice to get a little enjoyment and knowledge out of the deal, but that’s not what tuition pays for. After all, if that’s all that students were seeking, they could simply sit in on classes without registering or paying.

They are there for the credential. The credential is the signal to the working world that they are at least slightly better, on average, than those without it. That’s it.

In some fields the credential is required, and in many others alternative ways to measure competence are illegal, so the signal of a degree retains artificially enhanced value. Even so, that value is fading.

Large institutions form because transaction costs are high, with tons of individuals exchanging goods, services, and information separately. This is why family names mattered so much in times past. Economist Ronald Coase famously explained the existence of firms using this basic logic. It works for universities, too. When it’s hard to prove your worth, you get a trusted institution to vouch for you. It’s a shortcut that reduces risk on the part of those who want to hire you.

But each passing year, the value of this institutional reputation-backer declines compared to the available alternatives. Technology has dramatically reduced information costs, so it is now easier than ever to vouch for yourself — or to get vast networks of clients and customers to vouch for you.

Whose steak is the best? Where once you had to rely on a few food critics or word of mouth among a small set of friends, now Yelp reviews let you consult a vast array of food lovers.

With reputation markets, you can build a better signal than what college is selling.

As long as legal and cultural norms make the degree the primary signal of value in the marketplace, the classroom will continue to decline in quality. When the majority of students are purchasing one good (the credential) but are made to endure another (the classroom), they will continue to see formal education as more of a cost than a benefit — and they will behave accordingly, sliding through to minimize pain and suffering.

The classroom isn’t doing the credential any favors, either. Most employers admit that a degree signals very little these days. Everyone has one. Most universities sell as many as they possibly can. Cases of professors passing bad students and universities passing bad professors are well known, and the institutions’ clout is waning.

Even employers who still require a degree ask for much more on top of it, because sitting through a bunch of classes you didn’t care about and doing the minimum amount of passionless hoop-jumping doesn’t convey much about your energy, eagerness, and ability to create value in a dynamic market.

My professor friends sometimes chastise me for what they think are unfair criticisms of college. What I’m suggesting, however — that the credential should be separated from the classroom — reflects my respect for great professors and the value of their style of education.

Classroom learning at its best — classes like those I’ve experienced in summer seminars — is so powerful and so valuable that I hate to see great education destroyed and diminished by artificial attachment to a supposedly magical credential. The subsidies, loans, restrictions, requirements, and licensure laws, as well as the parental and societal worship of college as the great economic security blanket, have filled the classroom with so much clutter that it’s a rarity for quality interaction to occur.

I’m excited to see the cleavage between the credential and the classroom happening right in front of us. It’s not the proliferation of free online university courses that will fundamentally change the college experience in countries like the United States, where access to information is already rich. The “massively open online course” is just a new delivery system for a current good — and one that most Americans aren’t buying anyway. The real shift is occurring as fewer and fewer employers look to the degree as the dominant signal, and as more and more young people build their own.

When the dust settles, we’ll see great teachers and researchers doing their thing with eager audiences of students who are actually there to purchase that unique product, not just suffering through it on their way to getting something else they really want. The host of mediocre faculty will lose, but the good ones will win big, both in economic opportunity and in quality of the craft. So will the young customers who wish to learn from them.


Isaac M. Morehouse

Isaac Morehouse is the founder and CEO of Praxis.

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

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

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

Not when it comes to the economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Steven Horwitz

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

Who Will Protect Us from Tainted Food Trucks? by B.K. Marcus

My Haitian babysitter told me to get into the car, an old sedan with peeling paint, driven by a stranger. She’d hailed it, like a cab, and it pulled over for us, like a cab, but it didn’t look like a cab.

“I thought you said we were taking a taxi,” I said.

“This is a taxi.” She pushed me into the back seat.

“It doesn’t look like a taxi,” I whispered.

“Real taxis don’t come into this neighborhood,” she said. “This is a gypsy.”

I thought she was describing the ethnicity of the driver. Only later, listening to radio news reports about city police campaigns against gypsy cab drivers did I understand that my babysitter had dragged me into a mobile version of the black market.

That brief ride through a 1970s New York City ghetto was my only time in a gypsy cab: a bewildered little boy forced into the car of a man I didn’t know. It felt dangerous in a way that even hitchhiking in the Middle East when I was a teenager did not.

So why do I use Uber and Lyft without hesitation? Why do I prefer gray-market ride sharing with unlicensed strangers to hailing a municipally sanctioned taxi?

At this point, my confidence is based on past experience: the dozens of Uber drivers I’ve had were far more pleasant than the hundreds of cab drivers I’ve ridden with. But even my very first time with Uber, I got in without hesitation.

Peer-to-peer apps have made reputation markets real and robust — at least in certain corners of the service economy. Uber drivers have far greater incentive to make me happy than any cab driver ever has. More than their tip depends on it: the rating I give them can affect their future earnings.

Cab companies could have adopted reputation apps years ago as a way to outdo their competitors. But they weren’t worried about competition. City licensing often creates a protective cartel for current cabbies. That’s why Uber and Lyft became so popular so fast: the market — meaning everyone looking for a ride — wanted what the cab industry felt no need to offer us.

Will food trucks be the next service to escape the archaic model of licensing and regulation?

“Illegal Food Trucks Worry Health Officials,” reports the Herald-Sun of Durham, North Carolina. “Unlicensed food trucks operating illegally in Durham have health officials concerned that customers could end up getting sick.”

One such official, Chris Salter, told the paper that people selling food from the back of SUVs have posed food-poisoning risks to the public for years: “Did they slaughter a chicken in their backyard and cut it up on a piece of plywood? You just don’t know.”

The solution Salter proposes, of course, is stricter policing and greater regulation. After all, if cops and bureaucrats don’t protect the public, who will?

To the generation that reads newspapers and waits in line for taxis, the argument makes sense: when you eat in a restaurant, you may not know for sure that the food is safe, but the restaurant isn’t going anywhere; even without a health inspector’s oversight, restaurant owners have an incentive to protect their reputations. It’s not hard to spread the word that you got sick eating at Big Joe’s on the corner of 1st and Main. It’s a lot less helpful to say you ate a bad fajita out of the back of a faded green RAV4 in the abandoned parking lot.

When I used to take city cabs, the seats were filthy, the driving was reckless, and the drivers ranged from sullen to rude. But I felt relatively safe. I knew I could always write down the cabby’s name and medallion number. In theory, at least, I could report him and maybe someone would wag a finger at him. That seemed better than nothing.

Licensed food trucks offer a similar assurance: “Salter’s advice to the public is to look for the health grade card at food trucks if they’re unsure whether it’s operating legally. Since 2012, food trucks have been required to display the same cards as restaurants.”

Again, even without the health inspection required to get a permit and a health grade card, food truck owners don’t want to risk customers’ health for fear of losing their permits or having to display a lackluster “health grade” on their cards.

Government licensing acts as a sort of hampered reputation market. The food SUVs have no such incentives.

As in the case of cabbies versus Uber drivers, the legitimate food truck owners are on the side of the government officials: “Many of those owners are upset because the illegal trucks skirt regulation fees and cut into their business.”

Food trucks in Durham may not yet operate as a cartel — the way they are beginning to do in New York City, for example, where the number of food-truck licenses has been frozen for years — but the complaint is typical of the established players in a protected industry: upstarts with lower costs are threatening our profit margin!

But suppose you’re a foodie with fear of salmonella. Would you rather rely on an 11-month-old government report card or just check your food-truck app to see what your fellow foodies have to say? What sort of insurance does the owner carry — what third-party assurance is available? How’s their guacamole?

Don’t like this truck’s rating? The app will guide you to the next nearest truck serving similar fare.

Salter told the Herald-Sun, “We’re not trying to keep anybody from making a living. We’re trying to be fair and to protect the public.” So why is he offering 20th-century advice to consumers in the 21st century? Might he have any interests at stake other than public safety?

No doubt health officials would counter that the sharing economy is an option only for the privileged. It’s not like everyone has a smart phone, right? Right?

Many of the illegal vendors speak only Spanish, Salter told the Herald-Sun. And “many of them can’t read, so even if we pass out documents, they can’t read them.”

So who buys questionable chicken out of the back of an SUV operated by illiterate, Spanish-speaking strangers when Durham has so many government-approved food trucks with English-speaking staff?

Might those who choose to do so be similar to those who hailed gypsy cabs in the New York City of my youth?

“Real taxis don’t come into this neighborhood,” my babysitter had told me. I didn’t need to ask why. I didn’t want to be in that area either. But folks in the bad neighborhoods still needed rides, and they were willing to pay for them. There was extra risk involved for both parties, and the drivers couldn’t make the kind of money that licensed taxi drivers made, but driving a gypsy cab was better than their next-best option, so supply and demand met in illegal exchanges that benefitted both parties.

It’s safe to assume something similar is going on at the back of some of Durham’s SUVs.

These are most likely working people on the margins of the economy who don’t have the time or the money to seek a quick lunch elsewhere. If they’re buying their food from obviously unlicensed and uninspected vendors, that suggests that the higher-scale food trucks aren’t coming to their neighborhood — or that they charge considerably more than the illegal food.

The health officials aren’t protecting these people. At best, they are limiting their options. Worse, they could be driving economic exchanges further underground, where neither the government nor the market can effectively regulate safety.

Salter implies that vendor noncompliance is the result of ignorance, but it’s more likely buyers and sellers who don’t feel especially well protected by the legal system are taking measured risks to improve each other’s lives.

And I bet plenty of them do have smart phones. What they need now isn’t more ardent government oversight; it’s more reliable reputation markets. If there isn’t already an app for that, there soon will be.

B.K. Marcus

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared at CafeHayek.

Donald Boudreaux

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

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

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

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

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

Here are five more examples of unintended consequences.

1. “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up”

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

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

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

2. Seat Belt Legislation Kills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Jane Jacobs Combats City Planning

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

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

5. Three Strikes Mean You’re Out

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

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

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

The Upshot

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

Robert P. Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Won’t someone please think of the science?

B.K. Marcus

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

How to Outsource Your Compassion to the Government by Robert P. Murphy

I saw the mom and her two little kids camped out in the shopping center parking lot. She held a sign asking for help to feed them. I bought some oranges and bananas for them.

Imagine if someone from the government had swooped in to explain that my bag of fruit was hardly sufficient to feed the struggling family. What if the government then passed a law saying that if anybody decided to donate food (or cash) to people begging on the street or in a parking lot, the contribution had to be worth at least $15? Anybody caught giving, say, a $1 bill or a small bag of fruit would be fined heavily. Does that sound like “pro-homeless” legislation?

Try a different example: there are civic and church groups who will pick a weekend to go to a specific elderly widow’s house and help her put on a fresh coat of paint, clean up the yard, restock the pantry, and so on. Such one-off bursts of assistance obviously can’t fill the void for someone without an extended family or a generous pension. Shouldn’t the government pass legislation insisting that if you are going to donate time and goods to an elderly widow, you must do so in a way that allows her to live comfortably? Isn’t that a great “pro-widow” method for raising the living standards of the target demographic?

Or consider families who adopt children from war-torn regions. These actions, though seemingly noble, are clearly a drop in the bucket, with hundreds of thousands of orphans left behind. What if the government passed a law saying that US families were only allowed to adopt foreign children if they did so at least 15 kids at a time? Would activists agree that such a “pro-adoption” measure would increase the number of adoptions and be an unmitigated boon for foreign orphans?

Currently there are people who volunteer to teach adults how to read. But adult illiteracy is still a vexing problem in certain communities, so clearly these volunteer efforts have been inadequate to overcome the challenge. The obvious, pro-literacy way to fix things is to pass a law saying volunteers must give at least 15 hours of tutoring per week. If they are caught only teaching adults how to read for, say, 14 hours, then the volunteers will be heavily fined.

I’ll offer one final example. There are millions of people in the United States who do not have very marketable skills. There are a few thousand people who are willing to give them jobs. Wouldn’t it be a great benefit to these unskilled workers to pass a law saying that if you want to hire any of them, then you must pay at least $15 per hour of their labor? (If you get caught only paying, say, $14 per hour, then you get heavily fined.) What could possibly be a downside to such “pro-labor” legislation?

At this point, you surely recognize that I am being facetious. I am highlighting the absurdity of minimum wage legislation as an alleged “pro-labor” device. First and most obvious, by raising the hurdle to giving a job to unskilled workers, minimum wage legislation might perversely reduce employment among the very groups the government is supposedly helping.

This textbook claim about the danger of minimum wage laws is repeated by free-market economists so often that people have been lulled into complacency, especially in light of econometric studies that seem to show that minimum wage hikes do not have disastrous effects on employment. Yet, there is a strong prima facie case against the minimum wage in the analogous examples. Would advocates for the homeless, widows, adult illiterates, and other disadvantaged groups be so confident in the other hypothetical legislation I described above?

I designed my hypothetical examples to underscore another perversity in minimum wage legislation — and, more generally, all mandates placed on employers: it attacks the benefactors of the unskilled. Consider: there are millions of people who have trouble earning a living. Isn’t it perverse to burden those specific people who are doing the most to alleviate the problem? This is analogous to singling out volunteers doing at least something to battle adult illiteracy, making them bear the brunt of further efforts on this score, while allowing the rest of society to continue doing nothing to mitigate the problem.

To be sure, as both an Austrian economist and a libertarian, I consider it neither appropriate nor ethical for state officials to interfere with property rights in order to help unskilled workers. But if the government is going to “do something,” then it is particularly perverse to lay down the burden exclusively on the people who are already giving some money to unskilled workers. A more sensible approach would, say, give government subsidies to workers who were earning a bona fide paycheck in the market, or (better yet) would give targeted tax breaks to the unskilled workers that the government wanted to assist. Incidentally, this type of reasoning is why many economists — even progressives — are pushing the earned income tax credit as a much more efficient way to help poor workers than minimum wage mandates.

The minimum wage is a perverse tool with which to (allegedly) help unskilled workers. At best, it helps some unskilled workers while drastically hurting others — by making it impossible for them to find work at all. Beyond that, minimum wage legislation perversely places the entire (direct) burden of helping such workers on their employers, the one (tiny) group of people who are actually helping them solve the problem. The rest of society, which has done nothing whatsoever to help the unskilled workers have a higher standard of living, can pat themselves on the back for voting for certain politicians while continuing to do nothing whatsoever to help those who want to work.


Robert P. Murphy

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

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

The New York Times reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared at Cato.org.

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


David Boaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phelps says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Max Borders

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

“SCOTUScare”: Supreme Court Guts Obamacare to Uphold Subsidies by Daniel Bier

The Supreme Court has voted 6-3 (with Chief Justice Roberts writing the majority opinion, joined by Justice Kennedy and the four liberal justices) to uphold the subsidies the IRS is distributing for health insurance plans purchased on the federal insurance exchange.

This ruling sets a dangerous precedent, and its reasoning is, as Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent, “quite absurd.”

There will no doubt be much written about the decision in the coming days, and almost all of it will mischaracterize the ruling as the Supreme Court “saving” the Affordable Care Act again.

This is a crucial error: The Court’s ruling guts the ACA and rewrites [it] in a way that is politically convenient for the president — again.

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, the law was designed to work through a “cooperative federalism” approach. For example, the portion of the law expanding Medicaid, like the rest of Medicaid, would be a joint federal-state program, partly funded and regulated by the feds but administered by the states.

The part of the law meant to increase individually purchased insurance coverage was similarly designed to work through federal-state cooperation.

Each state would set up its own health insurance “exchange,” and the federal government would issue tax credits for qualified individuals who purchased policies on the state exchanges. The logic here is that the states are best suited to run exchanges for their residents, as they have particular and specialized knowledge about other state healthcare programs, state regulations on insurance, and their residents’ health needs.

But the law did not (and constitutionally could not) force state governments set up exchanges. So as a backstop, a separate section of the law allows the federal government to set up an exchange for residents in states that did not set up their own.

Here’s where it got problematic: The plain text of the law only authorizes tax credits for policies purchased on an “exchange established by the State.”

There’s no easy way around this fact. Nowhere does the ACA authorize subsidies for plans purchased on the federal exchange. None of this would have been an issue if every state had chosen to build an exchange, as the law’s authors anticipated.

But in reality, the ACA has been persistently unpopular, and only 14 states (and DC) had working exchanges. The details of the backstop provision suddenly became a lot more important as the residents of 36 states were cast onto the federal exchange.

Faced with uncooperative federalism, the Obama administration suddenly had a big political problem, and it would have been quite embarrassing for the law’s biggest benefit to evaporate just as the president was planning to run for reelection on it.

So 14 months after the bill was signed into law, the IRS issued a rule, by executive fiat, to issue subsidies on the federal exchange. Because the penalty for failing [to] purchase health insurance is based on the cost of insurance, including subsidies, relative to a person’s income, individuals and businesses in states without exchanges who would otherwise have been exempt from fines and mandates were now in violation.

Lawsuits followed, which argued the IRS’s decision to issue subsidies in states that had declined to create exchanges was against the law, and it had resulted in actual harm to them.

In one of the lower court rulings on this issue, the DC Circuit concluded that the law offered no clear basis for issuing subsidies through the federal exchange.

If Congress intended to issue subsidies through the federal exchange, it would have been perfectly easy for them to say so, in any number of sections. And if Congress intended to treat the federal exchange as though it were a State entity (as the ACA does with US territories’ exchanges), it knew how to do that too. Yet there is no section of the law that does this.

Some argued that this omission was a “drafting error,” a legislative slip-up. If so, it was one it made over and over again, in at least ten different sections. And, as Michael Cannon rather pointedly asks, if it was a drafting error, why didn’t the government make that case in court? Why didn’t the IRS make that claim when they issued the new rule?

The answer may be that the law meant what the law says. The scant legislative history on this question doesn’t show that Congress ever thought that subsidies were going to be disbursed through the federal exchanges. Perhaps the law’s authors simply didn’t think about it or did not consider the possibility that most states would refuse.

But, in fact, it is entirely plausible that the ACA’s authors intended to only offer subsidies to residents of states that created exchanges, as an incentive to states to build and run them.

The reasons why Congress wanted the states to run the exchanges are perfectly clear. But, apart from the possibility of losing the subsidies, there seems to be little reason for state governments to take the risk of building one of the notoriously dysfunctional exchanges if they could dump their citizens onto the federal exchange with no consequences.

Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who was involved in the design of the health care law, explicitly claimed that the law’s authors did this on purpose:

If you’re a state and you don’t set up an Exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits. … I hope that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these Exchanges, and that they’ll do it.

On the other hand, the government argued (and Roberts accepted) that the text of the law is ambiguous, and ambiguous phrases should be interpreted “in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme,” the goal of which was to increase health insurance coverage.

Given that, Roberts concludes, we should construe “exchange established by the State” to mean any ACA exchange, whether Federal or State.

Roberts got to this reasoned, methodical, and preposterous conclusion by arguing that the plain meaning of the text would lead to “calamitous results” that Congress meant to avoid. To wit, that only allowing subsidies for plans purchased on state exchanges would cause a “death spiral” in the insurance market in states that refused to establish exchanges.

The ACA reform has three basic components: subsidies for insurance plans, the individual mandate to purchase insurance, and regulations requiring insurers to issue coverage to people with preexisting conditions (“guaranteed issue”) and banning them from charging higher premiums to sicker people (“community rating”).

The “death spiral” logic goes:

  • If states chose not to establish exchanges, their residents would not get subsidies;
  • If they couldn’t get subsidies, many people would be exempt from the insurance mandate;
  • If they were exempt, they could just wait until they got sick to buy insurance;
  • If they did that, insurers would have to accept them, under the guaranteed issue rule;
  • If that happened, the price of insurance would go up for everyone, under community rating;
  • If that happened, more healthy people would drop out of the insurance market, leaving insurers with a pool of ever sicker and more expensive patients (“adverse selection”), thus forcing insurers out of business and leaving even more people without insurance. And so on.

Hence, “death spiral.” In fact, this is exactly what happened in the 1990s in many states with guaranteed issue and community rating, before Massachusetts invented the mandate to force people to buy insurance and keep the pool of insured people relatively healthy.

But in the ACA, the mandate rests on the cost of insurance with subsidies, and (under the plain text of the law) the subsidies rest on the states establishing exchanges. If the subsidies go, fewer people will buy insurance, and the mandate crumbles, leading to a spiral of higher costs and fewer people insured.

Roberts concluded that this risk would have been unacceptable to Congress, arguing: “The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner.”

This perceived implausibility, combined with the alleged ambiguity of the text, caused the Court to rule in favor of the subsidies:

Petitioners’ plain-meaning arguments are strong, but the Act’s context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

The basic problem with Roberts’ decision is that the text isn’t ambiguous. It’s actually pretty clear, as he acknowledged. But the second issue is that Roberts has no strong basis for his speculations about what Congress thought was likely to happen with states or what risks it was willing tolerate.

If the ACA’s authors thought (as almost everyone did) that the states would get with the program and establish their own exchanges, there is no reason that they would have assumed a serious risk of a death spiral. In fact, Gruber suggested that was the plan all along: offer a carrot to the states (the subsidies) and a stick (the risk of screwing up their insurance market).

But more importantly, the “implausible” risk that Roberts bases his interpretation on is precisely what the ACA deliberately did to US territories by imposing guaranteed issue and community rating without an individual mandate.

The DC Circuit Court that ruled against the subsidies last year made exactly this point:

The supposedly unthinkable scenario … one in which insurers in states with federal Exchanges remain subject to the community rating and guaranteed issue requirements but lack a broad base of healthy customers to stabilize prices and avoid adverse selection — is exactly what the ACA enacts in such federal territories as the Northern Mariana Islands, where the Act imposes guaranteed issue and community rating requirements without an individual mandate.

This combination, predictably, has thrown individual insurance markets in the territories into turmoil. But HHS has nevertheless refused to exempt the territories from the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements, recognizing that, “[h]owever meritorious” the reasons for doing so might be, “HHS is not authorized to choose which provisions of the [ACA] might apply to the territories.”

But, it seems, the Supreme Court feels that is authorized to choose what provisions of the ACA should apply, on the grounds that doing so would make better policy, regardless of what the law actually requires.

This is essentially what Roberts did in the previous Obamacare ruling, in which he rewrote the individual mandate and the Medicaid portions of the law in order to make them pass constitutional muster.

In his scathing dissent, Justice Scalia noted,

Having transformed two major parts of the law, the Court today has turned its attention to a third. The Act that Congress passed makes tax credits available only on an “Exchange established by the State.”

This Court, however, concludes that this limitation would prevent the rest of the Act from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law to make tax credits available everywhere. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.

… This Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. The somersaults of statutory interpretation they have performed (“penalty” means tax, “further [Medicaid] payments to the State” means only incremental Medicaid payments to the State, “established by the State” means not established by the State) will be cited by litigants endlessly, to the confusion of honest jurisprudence.

This decision is not disastrous because it “saved” Obamacare — it did no such thing: The Court gutted the law and let the Obama administration stuff it with whatever policy it thought best.

No, the ruling is a catastrophe because it establishes the principle that the president can unilaterally override the plain meaning of the law whenever he or she thinks that doing so will lead to a better outcome, one more in keeping with his or her policy goals.

As is often the case with elaborate government programs, things didn’t turn out the way that the planners expected. And, once again, the Supreme Court allowed the government to skate around both the Affordable Care Act and the law of unintended consequences.

This decision sanctifies the administration’s decision to defy Congress, circumvent the states, and flout the law. And as the authors of Obamacare knew, if you subsidize something, you’ll get more of it. Expect this ruling to stimulate more sloppy legislation, executive overreach, and subversion of the rule of law.


Daniel Bier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court thankfully rejected this dangerous and illogical premise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas wrote (emphasis mine),

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

And quoting his dissent in Kelo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Daniel Bier

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