[Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared here http://mises.org/library/understanding-true-credit-and-false-credit]
There are two kinds of credit: that which would be offered in a market economy with sound money and banking (true credit), and that which is made possible only through a system of central banking, artificially low interest rates, and fractional reserves (false credit).
Banks cannot expand true credit as such. All that they can do in reality is to facilitate the transfer of a given pool of savings from savers (i.e., those lending to the bank) to borrowers.
Consider the case of a baker who bakes ten loaves of bread. Out of his stock of real wealth (ten loaves of bread), the baker consumes two loaves and saves eight.
He lends his eight remaining loaves to the shoemaker in return for a pair of shoes in one-week’s time.
Note that credit here is the transfer of ”real stuff,” i.e., eight saved loaves of bread from the baker to the shoemaker in exchange for a future pair of shoes.
Also, observe that the amount of real savings determines the amount of available credit. If the baker had saved only four loaves of bread, the amount of credit would have only been four loaves instead of eight.
Note that the saved loaves of bread provide support to the shoemaker. That is, the bread sustains the shoemaker while he is busy making shoes.
This means that credit, by sustaining the shoemaker, gives rise to the production of shoes and therefore to the formation of more real wealth. This is the path to real economic growth.
Money and Credit
The introduction of money does not alter the essence of what credit is. Instead of lending his eight loaves of bread to the shoemaker, the baker can now exchange his saved eight loaves of bread for eight dollars and then lend them to the shoemaker.
With eight dollars the shoemaker can secure either eight loaves of bread or other goods to support him while he is engaged in the making of shoes. The baker is supplying the shoemaker with the facility to access the pool of real savings, which among other things also has eight loaves of bread that the baker has produced. Also note that without real savings the lending of money is an exercise in futility.
Money fulfills the role of a medium of exchange. Thus, when the baker exchanges his eight loaves for eight dollars he retains his real savings, so to speak, by means of the eight dollars.
The money in his possession will enable him, when he deems it necessary, to reclaim his eight loaves of bread or to secure any other goods and services.
There is one provision here that the flow of production of goods continues. Without the existence of goods, the money in the baker’s possession will be useless.
The existence of banks does not alter the essence of credit. Instead of the baker lending his money directly to the shoemaker, the baker lends his money to the bank, which in turn lends it to the shoemaker. In the process the baker earns interest for his loan, while the bank earns a commission for facilitating the transfer of money between the baker and the shoemaker.
The benefit that the shoemaker receives is that he can now secure real resources in order to be able to engage in his making of shoes.
Despite the apparent complexity that the banking system introduces, the essence of credit remains the transfer of saved real stuff from lender to borrower.
Without an increase in the pool of real savings, banks cannot create more credit. At the heart of the expansion of good credit by the banking system is an expansion of real savings.
Now, when the baker lends his eight dollars we must remember that he has exchanged for these dollars eight saved loaves of bread. In other words, he has exchanged something for eight dollars. So when a bank lends those eight dollars to the shoemaker, the bank lends fully “backed” dollars, so to speak.
False Credit: An Agent of Economic Destruction
Trouble emerges when instead of lending fully backed money, a bank engages in issuing empty money (fractional reserve banking) that is backed by nothing.
When unbacked money is created, it masquerades as genuine money that is supposedly supported by real stuff. In reality however, nothing has been saved. So when such money is issued, it cannot help the shoemaker since the pieces of empty paper cannot support him in producing shoes — what he needs instead is bread.
Since the printed money masquerades as proper money it can be used to divert bread from some other activities and thereby weaken those activities. This is what the diversion of real wealth by means of money out of “thin air” is all about.
If the extra eight loaves of bread weren’t produced and saved, it is not possible to have more shoes without hurting some other activities, which are much higher on the priority list of consumers as far as life and well-being is concerned. This in turn also means that unbacked credit cannot be an agent of economic growth.
Rather than facilitating the transfer of savings across the economy to wealth generating activities, when banks issue unbacked credit they are in fact setting in motion a weakening of the process of wealth formation.
It has to be realized that banks cannot pursue unbacked lending on an ongoing basis without the existence of the central bank. The central bank, by means of monetary pumping, makes sure that the expansion of unbacked credit doesn’t cause banks to bankrupt each other.
We can thus conclude that as long as the increase in lending is fully backed by real savings it must be regarded as good news since it promotes the formation of real wealth. False credit, which is generated out of “thin air,” is bad news since credit which is unbacked by real savings is an agent of economic destruction.
For the head of the Federal Reserve Board Janet Yellen and most economists the key to economic growth is a strengthening in the labor market. The strength of the labor market is the key behind the strength of the economy – so it is held. If this is the case then it is valid to conclude that changes in unemployment are an important causative factor of real economic growth.
This way of thinking is based on the view that a reduction in the number of unemployed means that more people can now afford to boost their expenditure. As a result, economic growth follows suit, it is held.
We suggest that the main driver of economic growth is an expanding pool of real wealth. Fixing unemployment without addressing the issue of wealth is not going to lift the economic growth as such.
It is the pool of real wealth that funds the enhancement and the expansion of the infrastructure. An enhanced and expanded infrastructure permits an expansion in the production of the final goods and services required to maintain and promote individuals’ lives and well being.
If unemployment were the key driving force of economic growth then it would have made a lot of sense to eradicate unemployment as soon as possible by generating all sorts of employment.
For instance, policy makers could follow the advice of Keynes and his followers and employ people in digging ditches, or various other government sponsored activities. Note that the aim here is just to employ as many people as possible.
A simple commonsense analysis however quickly establishes that such a policy would amount to depletion in the pool of real wealth. Remember that every activity whether productive or non-productive must be funded.
Hence employing individuals in various useless non-wealth generating activities simply leads to a transfer of real wealth from wealth generating activities and this undermines the real wealth generating process.
Unemployment as such can be relatively easily fixed if the labor market were to be free of tampering by the government. In an unhampered labor market any individual that wants to work will be able to find a job at a going wage for his particular skills.
Obviously if an individual demands a non-market related salary and is not prepared to move to other locations there is no guarantee that he will find a job.
For instance, if a market wage for John the baker is $80,000 per year yet he insists on a salary of $500,000, obviously he is likely to be unemployed.
Over time a free labor market makes sure that every individual earns in accordance to his contribution to the so-called overall “real pie”. Any deviation from the value of his true contribution sets in motion corrective competitive forces.
Ultimately what matters for the well-being of individuals is not that they are employed as such, but their purchasing power in terms of the goods and services that they earn.
It is not going to be of much help to individuals if what they are earning will not allow them to support their life and well being.
Individuals’ purchasing power is conditioned upon the infrastructure that they operate. The better the infrastructure the more output an individual can generate.
A higher output means that a worker can now command higher wages in terms of purchasing power.
The European Central Bank (ECB) is planning to pump 1.1 trillion euro’s into the banking system to fend off price deflation and revive economic activity. The ECB president and his executive board are planning to spend 60 billion euro’s a month from March 2015 to September 2016.
Most experts hold that the ECB must start acting aggressively against the danger of deflation. The yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) fell to minus 0.2% in December last year from 0.3% in November and 0.8% in December 2013.
Many commentators are of the view that the ECB should initiate an aggressive phase of monetary pumping along the lines of the US central bank. Moreover the balance sheet of the ECB has in fact been shrinking. On this the yearly rate of growth of the ECB balance sheet stood at minus 2.1% in January against minus 8.5% in December. Note that in January last year the yearly rate of growth stood at minus 24.4%.
Why is a declining rate of inflation bad for economic growth? According to the popular way of thinking declining price inflation sets in motion declining inflation expectations. This, so it is held, is likely to cause consumers to postpone their buying at present and that in turn is likely to undermine the pace of economic growth.
In order to maintain their lives and well being individuals must buy present goods and services, so from this perspective a fall in prices as such is not going to curtail consumer outlays. Furthermore, a fall in the growth momentum of prices is always good for the economy.
An expansion of real wealth for a given stock of money is going to manifest in a decline in prices (remember a price is the amount of money per unit of real stuff), so why should this be regarded as bad for the economy?
After all, what we have here is an expansion of real wealth. A fall in prices implies a rise in the purchasing power of money, and this in turn means that many more individuals can now benefit from the expansion in real wealth.
Now, if we observe a decline in prices on account of an economic bust, which eliminates various non-productive bubble activities, why is this bad for the economy?
The liquidation of non-productive bubble activities – which is associated with a decline in the growth momentum of prices of various goods previously supported by non-productive activities – is good news for wealth generation.
The liquidation of bubble activities implies that less real wealth is going to be diverted from wealth generators. Consequently, this will enable them to lift the pace of wealth generation. (With more wealth at their disposal they will be able to generate more wealth).
So as one can see a fall in price momentum is always good news for the economy since it reflects an expansion or a potential expansion in real wealth.
Hence a policy aimed at reversing a fall in the growth momentum of prices is going to undermine and not strengthen economic growth.
We hold that the various government measures of economic activity reflect monetary pumping and have nothing to do with true economic growth.
An increase in monetary pumping may set in motion a stronger pace of growth in an economic measure such as gross domestic product. This stronger growth however, should be regarded as a strengthening in the pace of economic impoverishment.
It is not possible to produce genuine economic growth by means of monetary pumping and an artificial lowering of interest rates. If this could have been done by now world poverty would have been erased.
Summary and conclusion
The European Central Bank (ECB) is planning to pump 1.1 trillion euro’s into the banking system to fend off price deflation and revive economic activity in the Euro-zone. Most experts are supportive of the ECB’s plan. We question the whole logic of the monetary pumping.
A fall in the growth momentum of prices either on account of real wealth expansion or on account of the demise of bubble activities is always good news for wealth producers.
Hence any policy that is aimed at preventing a fall in prices is only likely to strengthen bubble activities and undermine the process of wealth generation.
On January 15th 2015 the Swiss National Bank (SNB) has announced an end to its three year old cap of 1.20 franc per euro. (The SNB introduced the cap in September 2011). The SNB has also reduced its policy interest rate to minus 0.75% from minus 0.25%. The Swiss franc appreciated as much as 41% to 0.8517 per euro following the announcement, the strongest level on record – it settled during the day at around 0.98 per euro.
We suggest that the key factor in determining a currency rate of exchange is relative monetary pumping. Over time, if the rate of growth of money supply in country A exceeds the rate of growth of money supply in country B then that country’s currency rate of exchange will come under pressure versus the currency of B, all other things being equal.
Whilst other variables such as the interest rate differential or economic activity also drive the currency rate of exchange, they are of a transitory and not of a fundamental nature. Their influence sets in motion an arbitrage that brings the rate of exchange in line with the influence of the money growth differential.
We hold that until now the rise in the money growth differential between Switzerland and the EMU during July 2011 and April 2012 was dominating the currency rate of exchange scene. (It was pushing the franc down versus the euro).The setting of a cap of 1.20 to the euro to supposedly defend exports was an unnecessary move since the franc was in any case going to weaken. The introduction of the cap however prevented the arbitrage to properly manifest itself thereby setting in motions various distortions. (Note again the money growth differential was weakening the franc versus the euro).
A fall in the money growth differential between April 2012 and April 2013 is starting to dominate the currency scene at present i.e. it strengthens the franc against the euro. So from this perspective it is valid to remove the cap and allow the arbitrage to establish the “true” value of the franc. (This reduces the need to pump domestic money in order to defend the cap of 1.20). Observe that as opposed to 2011, this time around, by allowing the franc to find its “correct” level the SNB it would appear has decided to trust the free market.
Note that since April 2013 the money growth differential has been rising – working towards the weakening of the franc versus the euro – and this raises the likelihood that the SNB might decide again some time in the future on a new shock treatment.
We hold that by tampering with the foreign exchange market the SNB sets in motion fluctuations in the growth momentum of money supply (AMS) and this in turn generates the menace of the boom/bust cycles. (Note the close correlation between the fluctuations in the growth momentum of foreign exchange reserves, the SNB’s balance sheet and AMS).
Also, observe that by introducing the cap and then removing it the SNB, contrary to its own intentions, has severely shocked various activities such as exports. Note that the SNB is supposedly meant to generate a stable economic environment.
Originally, paper money was not regarded as money but merely as a representation of gold. Various paper certificates represented claims on gold stored with the banks. Holders of paper certificates could convert them into gold whenever they deemed necessary. Because people found it more convenient to use paper certificates to exchange for goods and services, these certificates came to be regarded as money.
Paper certificates that are accepted as the medium of exchange open the scope for fraudulent practice. Banks could now be tempted to boost their profits by lending certificates that were not covered by gold. In a free-market economy, a bank that over-issues paper certificates will quickly find out that the exchange value of its certificates in terms of goods and services will fall. To protect their purchasing power, holders of the over-issued certificates naturally attempt to convert them back to gold. If all of them were to demand gold back at the same time, this would bankrupt the bank. In a free market then, the threat of bankruptcy would restrain banks from issuing paper certificates unbacked by gold. On this Mises wrote,
People often refer to the dictum of an anonymous American quoted by Tooke: “Free trade in banking is free trade in swindling.” However, freedom in the issuance of banknotes would have narrowed down the use of banknotes considerably if it had not entirely suppressed it. It was this idea which Cernuschi advanced in the hearings of the French Banking Inquiry on October 24, 1865: “I believe that what is called freedom of banking would result in a total suppression of banknotes in France. I want to give everybody the right to issue banknotes so that nobody should take any banknotes any longer.”1
This means that in a free-market economy, paper money cannot assume a “life of its own” and become independent of commodity money.
The government can, however, bypass the free-market discipline. It can issue a decree that makes it legal for the over-issued bank not to redeem paper certificates into gold. Once banks are not obliged to redeem paper certificates into gold, opportunities for large profits are created that set incentive to pursue an unrestrained expansion of the supply of paper certificates. The uncurbed expansion of paper certificates raises the likelihood of setting off a galloping rise in the prices of goods and services that can lead to the breakdown of the market economy.
To prevent such a breakdown, the supply of the paper money must be managed. The main purpose of managing the supply is to prevent various competing banks from over-issuing paper certificates and from bankrupting each other. This can be achieved by establishing a monopoly bank-i.e., a central bank-that manages the expansion of paper money.
To assert its authority, the central bank introduces its paper certificates, which replace the certificates of various banks. (The central bank’s money purchasing power is established on account of the fact that various paper certificates, which carry purchasing power, are exchanged for the central bank money at a fixed rate. In short, the central bank paper certificates are fully backed by banks certificates, which have the historical link to gold.)
The central bank paper money, which is declared as the legal tender, also serves as a reserve asset for banks. This enables the central bank to set a limit on the credit expansion by the banking system. Note that through ongoing monetary management, i.e., monetary pumping, the central bank makes sure that all the banks can engage jointly in the expansion of credit out of “thin air” via the practice of fractional reserve banking. The joint expansion in turn guarantees that checks presented for redemption by banks to each other are netted out, because the redemption of each will cancel the other redemption out. In short, by means of monetary injections, the central bank makes sure that the banking system is “liquid enough” so that banks will not bankrupt each other.
It would appear that the central bank can manage and stabilize the monetary system. The truth, however, is the exact opposite. To manage the system, the central bank must constantly create money “out of thin air” to prevent banks from bankrupting each other. This leads to persistent declines in money’s purchasing power, which destabilizes the entire monetary system.
Observe that while, in the free market, people will not accept a commodity as money if its purchasing power is subject to a persistent decline, in the present environment, central authorities are coercively imposing money that suffers from a steady decline in its purchasing power. Since the present monetary system is fundamentally unstable it is not possible to fix it. Even Milton Friedman’s scheme to fix the money rate growth at a given percentage won’t do the trick. After all a fixed percentage growth is still money growth, which leads to the exchange of nothing for something-i.e., economic impoverishment and the boom-bust cycle. Moreover, we can conclude that there cannot be a “correct” money supply rate of growth. Whether the central bank injects money in accordance with economic activity or fixes the rate of growth, it further destabilizes the economy.
The central bank can keep the present paper standard going as long as the pool of real wealth is still expanding. Once the pool begins to stagnate-or, worse, shrinks then no monetary pumping will be able to prevent the plunge of the system. A better solution is of course to have a true free market and allow the gold to assert its monetary role. As opposed to the present monetary system in the framework of a gold standard money cannot disappear and set in motion the menace of the boom-bust cycles. In fractional reserve banking, when money is repaid and the bank doesn’t renew the loan, money evaporates. Because the loan has originated out of nothing, it obviously couldn’t have had an owner. In a free market, in contrast, when money i.e. gold is repaid, it is passed back to the original lender; the money stock stays intact.
1. Mises , Human Action p 446.
Some economists such as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman hold that during an economic slump it is the duty of the government to run large budget deficits in order to keep the economy going. On this score given that during 2011 to 2014 the rate of growth of real gross domestic product (GDP) hovered at around 2% many experts are of the view that the budget deficit, which stood at $483 billion in 2014, wasn’t large enough.
According to this way of thinking if overall demand in the economy weakens on account of a weakening in consumer outlays then the government must step in and boost its spending in order to prevent overall demand from declining. Note that government outlays in 2014 stood at $3.5 trillion against $1.788 trillion in 2000 – an increase of 96%.
Nobel Laureate in economics Paul Krugman and other commentators are of the view that a widening of the budget deficit in response to larger government outlays can be great news for the economy.
Furthermore, they hold that there is very little empirical evidence that budget deficits are stifling economic growth as such. If anything, they hold it can only benefit an economy once it falls below its average growth path. In contrast the opponents of this view hold that a widening in the budget deficit tends to be monetized and subsequently leads to a higher inflation.
Also a widening in the budget deficit tends to crowd out the private sector and this stifles economic growth, so it is held. So from this perspective a government must avoid as much as possible a widening in the budget deficit. In fact the focus should always be on achieving a balanced budget.
We suggest that the goal of fixing the budget deficit as such, whether to keep it large or trying to eliminate it altogether, could be an erroneous policy. Ultimately what matters for the economy is not the size of the budget deficit but the size of government outlays – the amount of resources that government diverts to its own activities. Note that contrary to Krugman we hold that an increase in government outlays is bad news for the economy.
Observe that a government is not a wealth generating entity – the more it spends the more resources it has to take from wealth generators. This in turn undermines the wealth generating process of the economy. This means that the effective level of tax is the size of the government and nothing else. For instance, if the government plans to spend $3 trillion and funds these outlays by means of $2 trillion in taxes there is going to be a shortfall, labeled as a deficit, of $1 trillion. Since government outlays have to be funded it means that in addition to taxes the government has to secure some other means of funding such as borrowing or printing money, or new forms of taxes.
The government is going to employ all sorts of means to obtain resources from wealth generators to support its activities. Hence what matters here is that government outlays are $3 trillion, and not the deficit of $1 trillion.
For instance, if the government would have lifted taxes to $3 trillion and as a result would have a balanced budget, would this alter the fact that it still takes $3 trillion of resources from wealth generators? We hold that an increase in government outlays sets in motion an increase in the diversion of wealth from wealth generating activities to non-wealth generating activities. It leads to economic impoverishment. So in this sense an increase in government outlays to boost the overall economy’s demand should be regarded as bad news for the wealth generating process and hence to the economy.
Contrary to commentators such as Krugman, the IMF and various Fed officials, we suggest that a cut in government outlays should be seen as great news for wealth generators. It is of course bad news for various artificial forms of life that emerged on the back of increases in government outlays.
In his article “The curse of weak global demand”, Financial Times November 18, 2014, the economics columnist Martin Wolf wrote that today’s most important economic illness is chronic demand deficiency syndrome. Martin Wolf argues that despite massive monetary pumping by the central banks of US and EMU and the lowering policy interest rates to around zero both the US and the EMU economies have continued to struggle.
After reaching 1.0526 in Q1 2006 the US real GDP to its trend ratio fell to 0.966 by Q3 2011. By Q3 2014 the ratio stood at 0.98. The ratio of EMU real GDP to its trend after closing at 1.061 in Q1 2008 fell to 0.954 by Q3 2014.
Martin Wolf is of the view that what is needed is to raise the overall demand for goods and services in order to revive economies. He also holds that there is a need to revive consumer confidence that was weakened by the severe weakening of the financial system.
He is also of the view that there is a need for the banks to lift their lending in order to revive demand, which in turn, he suggests, will revive the economies in question. He also blames massive debt for the economic difficulties that the US and the EMU economies are currently experiencing.
Martin Wolf views the current economic illness as some mysterious and complex phenomena, which requires complex and non-conventional remedies.
We suggest that the essence of Wolf’s argument is erroneous. Here is why.
There is no such thing as deficiency of demand that causes economic difficulties. The heart of economic growth is the process of real wealth generation.
The stronger this process is the more real wealth can be generated and the stronger so-called economic growth becomes. What drives this process is infrastructure, or tools and machinery. With better infrastructure more and a better quality of goods and services i.e. real wealth, can be generated.
Take for instance a baker who has produced ten loaves of bread. Out of this he consumes one loaf and the other nine he saves.
He can exchange the saved bread for the services of a technician who will enhance the oven. With an improved oven the baker can now produce twenty loaves of bread. Now he can save more and use the larger savings pool to further invest in his infrastructure such as buying other tools that will lift the production and the quality of the bread.
Observe that the key for wealth generation is the ability to generate real wealth. This in turn is dependent on the allocation of the part of wealth towards the buildup and the enhancement of the infrastructure.
Also, note that if the baker were to decide to consume his entire production i.e. keeping his demand strong, then he would not be able to expand the production of bread (real wealth).
As time goes by his infrastructure would have likely deteriorated and his production would have actually declined.
The belief that an increase in the demand for bread without a corresponding increase in the infrastructure will do the trick is wishful thinking.
We suggest that there is no such thing as a scarce demand. Most individuals have unlimited desires for goods and services.
For instance, most individuals would prefer to live in nice houses rather than in small apartments.
Most people would like to have luxuries cars and be able to dine in good quality restaurants. What prevents them in achieving these various desires is the scarcity of means.
In fact as things stand most individuals have plenty of desires i.e. goals, but not enough means.
Unfortunately means cannot be generated by boosting demand. This will only increase goals but not means.
Contrary to the popular way of thinking we can conclude that demand doesn’t create supply but the other way around.
As we have seen by producing something useful i.e. bread, the baker can exchange it for the services of a technician and boost his infrastructure.
By means of the enhanced infrastructure the baker can generate more bread i.e. more means that will enable him to attain various other goals that previously were not reachable by him.
The current economic difficulties are the outcome of past and present reckless monetary and fiscal policies of central banks and governments.
It must be realized that neither central banks nor governments are wealth generating entities. All that they can set in motion is a process of real wealth redistribution by diverting real wealth from wealth generators towards non-wealth generating activities.
As long as the pool of real wealth is expanding the central bank and the government can get away with the myth that their policies can grow the economy.
Once however, the pool of wealth becomes stagnant or starts shrinking the illusion of the central bank and government policies are shattered.
It is not possible to expand real wealth whilst the pool of real wealth is shrinking. Again a shrinking pool of wealth over time can only support a shrinking infrastructure and hence a reduced production of goods and services that people require to maintain their life and well being – real wealth.
The way out of the current economic mess is to close all the loopholes of wealth destruction. This means to severely cut government involvement with the economy. It also, requires closing all the loopholes for the creation of money out of “thin air”.
By curtailing the central bank’s ability to boost money out of “thin air” the exchange of nothing for something will be arrested. This will leave more real wealth in the hands of wealth generators and will enable them to enhance and to expand the wealth generating infrastructure.
Contrary to Martin Wolf the expanding of bank loans as such is not going to revive the economy. As we have seen the key for the economic revival is the buildup of infrastructure that could support an expanding pool of real wealth.
Banks are just the facilitators in the channeling of real wealth. However, they do not generate real wealth as such.
The lending expansion that Martin Wolf suggests is associated with fractional reserve lending i.e. lending out of “thin air” and in this respect it is bad news for the economy – it sets in motion the diversion of real wealth from wealth generators to non wealth generating activities.
We can conclude that the sooner governments and central banks will start doing nothing the sooner economic revival will emerge. We agree with Martin Wolf that the economic situation currently seems to be difficult; however, it cannot be improved by artificially boosting the demand for goods and services.
Summary and conclusion
Some experts are of the view that today’s most important economic illness is chronic demand deficiency syndrome. It is because of this deficiency that world economies are still struggling despite massive monetary pumping by central banks, or so it is held. We suggest that this way of thinking is erroneous. The key problem today is a severe weakening in the wealth generation process. The main reason for this is reckless monetary and government policies. We hold that the sooner central banks and governments start doing nothing the sooner economic revival will occur.
Economists have always been envious of the practitioners of the natural and exact sciences. They have thought that introducing the methods of natural sciences such as laboratory where experiments could be conducted could lead to a major break-through in our understanding of the world of economics.
But while a laboratory is a valid way of doing things in the natural sciences, it is not so in economics. Why is that so?
A laboratory is a must in physics, for there a scientist can isolate various factors relating to the object of inquiry.
Although the scientist can isolate various factors he doesn’t, however, know the laws that govern these factors.
All that he can do is hypothesize regarding the “true law” that governs the behaviour of the various particles identified.
He can never be certain regarding the “true” laws of nature. On this Murray Rothbard wrote,
The laws may only be hypothecated. Their validity can only be determined by logically deducing consequents from them, which can be verified by appeal to the laboratory facts. Even if the laws explain the facts, however, and their inferences are consistent with them, the laws of physics can never be absolutely established. For some other law may prove more elegant or capable of explaining a wider range of facts. In physics, therefore, postulated explanations have to be hypothecated in such a way that they or their consequents can be empirically tested. Even then, the laws are only tentatively rather than absolutely valid.1
Contrary to the natural sciences, the factors pertaining to human action cannot be isolated and broken into their simple elements.
However, in economics we have certain knowledge about certain things, which in turn could help us to understand the world of economics.
For instance, we know that an increase in money supply results in an exchange of nothing for something. It leads to a diversion of wealth from wealth generators to non wealth generating activities. This is certain knowledge and doesn’t need to be verified.
We also know that for a given amount of goods an increase in money supply all other things being equal must lead to more money paid for a unit of a good –an increase in the prices of goods. (Remember a price is the amount of money per unit of a good).
We also know that if in the country A money supply grows at a faster pace than money supply in the country B then over time, all other things being equal, the currency of A must depreciate versus the currency of B. This knowledge emanates from the law of scarcity.
Hence for something that is certain knowledge, there is no requirement for any empirical testing.
How this certain knowledge can be applied?
For instance, if we observe an increase in money supply – we can conclude that this resulted in a diversion of real wealth from wealth generators to non-wealth generating activities. It has resulted in the weakening of the wealth generating process.
This knowledge however, cannot tell us about the state of the pool of real wealth and when the so-called economy is going to crumble.
Whilst we can derive certain conclusions from some factors, however, the complex interaction of various factors means that there is no way for us to know the importance of each factor at any given point in time.
Some factors such as money supply – because it operates with a time lag, could provide us with useful information about the future events – such as boom-bust cycles and price inflation.
(Note that a change in money supply doesn’t affect all the markets instantly. It goes from one individual to another individual – from one market to another market. It is this that causes the time lag from changes in money and its effect on various markets).
Contrary to the natural sciences, in economics, by means of the knowledge that every effect must have a cause and by means of the law of scarcity (the more we have of something the less valuable it becomes), we can derive the entire body of economics knowledge.
This knowledge, once derived, is certain and doesn’t need to be verified by some kind of laboratory.
1. Murray N. Rothbard, “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”, On Freedom and Free Enterprise: The Economics of Free Enterprise, May Sennholz, ed. (Princeton, N.J.: D.Van Nostrand, 1956), p3.
A major problem with the mainstream framework of thinking is that people are presented as if a scale of preferences were hard-wired in their heads.
Regardless of anything else this scale remains the same all the time.
Valuations however, do not exist by themselves regardless of the things to be valued. On this Rothbard wrote,
There can be no valuation without things to be valued.1
Valuation is the outcome of the mind valuing things. It is a relation between the mind and things.
Purposeful action implies that people assess or evaluate various means at their disposal against their ends.
An individual’s ends set the standard for human valuations and thus choices. By choosing a particular end an individual also sets a standard of evaluating various means.
For instance, if my end is to provide a good education for my child, then I will explore various educational institutions and will grade them in accordance with my information regarding the quality of education that these institutions are providing.
Observe that the standard of grading these institutions is my end, which is to provide my child with a good education.
Or, for instance, if my intention is to buy a car then there is all sorts of cars available in the market, so I have to specify to myself the specific ends that the car will help me achieve.
I need to establish whether I plan to drive long distances or just a short distance from my home to the train station and then catch the train.
My final end will dictate how I will evaluate various cars. Perhaps I will conclude that for a short distance a second hand car will do the trick.
Since an individual’s ends determine the valuations of means and thus his choices, it follows that the same good will be valued differently by an individual as a result of changes in his ends.
At any point in time, people have an abundance of ends that they would like to achieve. What limits the attainment of various ends is the scarcity of means.
Hence, once more means become available, a greater number of ends, or goals, can be accommodated—i.e., people’s living standards will increase.
Another limitation on attaining various goals is the availability of suitable means.
Thus to quell my thirst in the desert, I require water. Any diamonds in my possession will be of no help in this regard.
1. Murray N. Rothbard, Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics.
It is generally held that for an economist to be able to assess the state of the economy he requires macro-economic indicators which will tell him what is going on. The question that arises is why is it necessary to know about the state of the overall economy? What purpose can such types of information serve?
Careful examination of these issues shows that in a free market environment it doesn’t make much sense to measure and publish various macro-economic indicators. This type of information is of little use to entrepreneurs. The only indicator that any entrepreneur pays attention to is whether he makes profit. The higher the profit, the more benefits a particular business activity bestows upon consumers.
Paying attention to consumers wishes means that entrepreneurs have to organise the most suitable production structure for that purpose. Following various macro-economic indicators will be of little assistance in this endeavour.
What possible use can an entrepreneur make out of information about the rate of growth in gross domestic product (GDP)? How can the information that GDP rose by 4% help an entrepreneur make a profit? Or what possible use can be made out of data showing that the national balance of payments has moved into a deficit? Or what use can an entrepreneur make out of information about the level of employment or the general price level?
What an entrepreneur requires is not general macro-information but rather specific information about consumers demands for a product or a range of products. Government lumped macro-indicators will not be of much help to entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur himself will have to establish his own network of information concerning a particular venture. Only an entrepreneur will know what type of information he requires in order to succeed in the venture. In this regard no one can replace the entrepreneur.
Thus if a businessman assessment of consumers demand is correct then he will make profits. Wrong assessment will result in a loss. The profit and loss framework penalizes, so to speak, those businesses that have misjudged consumer priorities and rewards those who have exercised a correct appraisal. The profit and loss framework makes sure that resources are withdrawn from those entrepreneurs who do not pay attention to consumer priorities to those who do.
In a free market environment free of government interference the “economy” doesn’t exist as such. A free market environment is populated by individuals, who are engaged in the production of goods and services required to sustain their life and well being i.e. the production of real wealth. Also, in a free market economy every producer is also a consumer. For convenience sake we can label the interaction between producers and consumers (to be more precise between producers) as the economy. However, it must be realised that at no stage does the so called “economy” have a life of its own or have independence from individuals.
While in a free market environment the “economy” is just a metaphor and doesn’t exist as such, all of a sudden the government gives birth to a creature called the “economy” via its constant statistical reference to it, for example using language such as the “economy” grew by such and such percentage, or the widening in the trade deficit threatens the “economy”. The “economy” is presented as a living entity apart from individuals.
According to the mainstream way of thinking one must differentiate between the activities of individuals and the economy as a whole, i.e. between micro and macro-economics. It is also held that what is good for individuals might not be good for the economy and vice-versa. Within this framework of thinking the “economy” is assigned a paramount importance while individuals are barely mentioned.
In fact one gets the impression that it is the “economy” that produces goods and services. Once the output is produced by the “economy” what is then required is its distribution among individuals in the fairest way. Also, the “economy” is expected to follow the growth path outlined by government planners. Thus whenever the rate of growth slips below the outlined growth path, the government is expected to give the “economy” a suitable push.
In order to validate the success or failure of government interference various statistical indicators have been devised. A strong indicator is interpreted as a success while a weak indicator a failure. Periodically though, government officials also warn people that the “economy” has become overheated i.e. it is “growing” too fast.
At other times officials warn that the “economy” has weakened. Thus whenever the “economy” is growing too fast government officials declare that it is the role of the government and the central bank to prevent inflation. Alternatively, when the “economy” appears to be weak the same officials declare that it is the duty of the government and central bank to maintain a high level of employment.
By lumping into one statistic many activities, government statisticians create a non-existent entity called the “economy” to which government and central bank officials react. (In reality however, goods and services are not produced in totality and supervised by one supremo. Every individual is pre-occupied with his own production of goods and services).
We can thus conclude that so called macro-economic indicators are fictitious devices that are used by governments to justify intervention with businesses. These indicators can tell us very little about wealth formation in the economy and thus individuals’ well-being.