What the Bank of England is trying to do is restart the money creation process which dropped us into this mess while keeping expectations of inflation low. It’s an extremely dangerous game, one which Hayek explored in his Nobel lecture: it is a policy which cannot create sustainable prosperity but which may create massive inflation, with all its destructive effects.
Having mostly failed to see this crisis coming before failing to predict even the general pattern of events, senior economists now want more of the medicine which already nearly killed the patient. This may look like madness or stupidity to those of us without a high level of formal education in economics. It is neither. Contemporary economists are trapped in an intellectual prison founded on now-old errors of method and epistemology: the knowledge and simplifications necessary to make their mathematical models work are unavailable and invalid respectively.
As a result, economists and central bankers in particular think it is their task to intervene when the choices and actions of tens of millions of people produce aggregate statistics they, and politicians, don’t like. Massive economic disruption and misallocation of resources — ultimately, human suffering — is the result. Unfortunately, it looks like those few who hold the terrible power of monetary policy are determined to test their ideas to destruction.
Following the UK credit rating downgrade, I gave Newsnight an interview. They chose a couple of sentences in which I pointed out the reality that welfare, health, education and debt interest are about 3/4 of spending on 2012 figures and that they will have to be cut eventually if we are serious about the state living within its means. You can find it at 17:00. If I had been given longer, I would have said those things you can find in this interview with RT:
We have been on a merry-go-round of deficit spending, excruciating taxes, heavy borrowing and easy money for most of 40 years. That merry-go-round is now running down and will stop. Attempts to spin it up through monetary policy are extremely dangerous: they will store up worse trouble for later.
If the Government does not act to end expansionist policy in time by a return to balanced budgets, by ending government borrowing from the commercial banks, by stopping quantitative easing and by letting the market determine the height of interest rates, then it will have chosen the German way of 1923.
I do not doubt that the Government is sincere in its wish to make Britain “open for business” and to deliver greater life chances through reform of the welfare state. I gave some time to the Centre for Social Justice and now I see many of their ideas filtering through to public policy. I support those reforms from both a practical perspective and in view of their moral necessity.
The Prime Minister is correct to talk of the culture we have lost, particularly in respect of private shame. I am put in mind of C S Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man: there is, after all, such a thing as right and wrong. Lewis predicted humanity’s ultimate destiny on the path which embraces subjective morality: a dystopian society in which “we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ — to their irrational impulses.”
Some readers will recognise the problem and the dangers but reject the state’s role in finding a solution. However, we do not live in that world where the state is comprehensively rejected. There is a welfare state and it needs reform. The Government is getting on with it, and in the right direction too.
However, what the Government is not addressing is the de-civilising effects of inflation, that is, increasing the money supply.
What is commonly called “inflation” – a rise in the general price level – is an automatic consequence of debasing the currency. And currency debasement has been fierce in our lifetimes: the consequences have been and remain profound.
There is a presentation which, in one form or another, I have given many times. It shows, in a few charts:
How the state has grown inexorably since 1900,
How taxation reached an apparent limit at rather less than the scale of state spending, remaining there since 1971 or thereabouts.
Where our debt projections are heading,
How our money has been debased, particularly since 1971.
By the end of the presentation, I have explained our banking, fiscal and economic crisis. Given that what it shows is a monetary and fiscal catastrophe, people receive it surprisingly well. As far as I can tell, people can handle the truth and they want it.
One of the key slides is a price index from 1750-2003:
The grotesque debasement since 1971 – when Bretton Woods finally collapsed – hides the detail of the nineteenth century on a linear scale, so I include the same chart on a log scale. The log chart shows that, despite a number of crises and fluctuations, a pound in 1900 bought about the same basket of goods as a pound in 1800.
In contrast, money has lost almost all its value since the Second World War.
To appreciate the disruptive nature of inflation in its full extent we must keep in mind that it springs from a violation of the fundamental rules of society. Inflation is what happens when people increase the money supply by fraud, imposition, and breach of contract. Invariably it produces three characteristic consequences: (1) it benefits the perpetrators at the expense of all other money users; (2) it allows the accumulation of debt beyond the level debts could reach on the free market; and (3) it reduces the [purchasing power of money] below the level it would have reached on the free market.
While these three consequences are bad enough, things get much worse once inflation is encouraged and promoted by the state. The government’s fiat makes inflation perennial, and as a result we observe the formation of inflation-specific institutions and habits. Thus fiat inflation leaves a characteristic cultural and spiritual stain on human society
He goes on to write of inflation’s tendency to centralise government, to extend the length of wars, to enable the arbitrary confiscation of property, to institutionalise moral hazard and irresponsibility, to produce a race to the bottom in monetary organisation, to encourage excess credit in corporations and to yoke the population to debt. He explains how “The consequence [of inflation] is despair and the eradication of moral and social standards.”
That all sounds familiar.
Hülsmann’s work is not scripture of course, but neither are his ideas isolated. Consider Ayn Rand:
Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence.
It is my firm view that inflation – the debasement of money – was the primary cause of the banking crisis. That inflation was a deliberate policy choice of welfare states. You may recall Eddie George’s remarks in 2007 and now Mervyn King has said, “Of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today.”
Moreover, if Hülsmann, Rand and other scholars including Mises and Hayek are to be believed, then inflation is also a major contributor to the moral and spiritual decline of our country. No amount of welfare reform alone will solve that.
All is not lost however. To return to that log-scale price index, money’s value was substantially more volatile in the first half of the nineteenth century than in the second. In 1844, the Bank Charter Act, Peel’s Act, took from the banks the privilege of extending bank notes in excess of specie (coins of inherent worth). It was recognized that this extension of candy-floss credit un-backed by prior production of real value was a systemic cause of economic and banking crises.
Unfortunately, that Act left the banks unmolested in their ability to create deposits. As our system of money and bank credit has evolved, that loophole, combined with central banking and the socialisation of risk, has delivered us into our present predicament.
It falls to our generation to solve this problem and that is why we established The Cobden Centre.
As Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times on 9th November 2010, “The essence of the contemporary monetary system is creation of money, out of nothing, by private banks’ often foolish lending.” And then we wonder why house prices have raced out of reach. We wonder why the basement garages in Canary Wharf are full of supercars while what was once our industrial heartland languishes in state dependency.
I admire the Prime Minister and the coming welfare reforms. I will back them gladly. But, until we end inflation as a way to fund the promises of the welfare state, we shall not have done the decent thing. We shall not have established objective morality in banking and in that lifeblood of society: money. Honest money is a prerequisite for social progress and it must be delivered if reform is to succeed.
One of the great discoveries of the 20th century concerns the origins of economic science in the late middle ages in Spain and Italy. Long before Adam Smith wrote, many scholastics from the 14th through the 17th centuries were writing systematic economic theory.
No spot on the planet was as fruitful as the School of Salamanca in Spain. Here was the world center of economic research. The writings by the intellectuals gathered here explained price, value, money and its function, saving, entrepreneurship, inflation, contract and exchange, and so much more – and they closely engaged the modern world that was being born at that time, providing at theory and a rationale for the rise of prosperity.
For me, it was a particularly memorable and moving trip. I took the call informing me that I had been shortlisted for the Wycombe Parliamentary selection procedure, against all expectations, while sitting in the departure lounge at Girona after a week’s skydiving in Empuriabrava. I arrived at the Summit, knowing it was suddenly possible I would be an elected politician within the year.
Moreover, it’s no secret that I am a Christian, so it was reaffirming to discover that classical liberalism can be traced to men of God who developed their theory on the basis of morality, jurisprudence, theology and reason. An early speaker at the Summit was a contemporary Spanish friar whose passion for the poor and whose commitment to liberalism transcended the barriers of language. He knew as I know that the proper formula for widespread prosperity and the improvement of mankind is the doctrine of liberty: peace, equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary government, property and the family. In Cobdenite language, we might call for honest money, free markets, free trade, peace and the classical rule of law.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, criticised the Prime Minister’s flagship policy as lacking “teeth”. The archbishop has been one of the most prominent supporters of the Big Society, but he told The Sunday Telegraph that he feared communities hit by the economic downturn would suffer if they did not get support.
The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales said Catholics were afraid the Coalition was “washing its hands” of its responsibilities to communities and expecting volunteers to fill the gap.
“It is all very well to deliver speeches about the need for greater voluntary activity, but there needs to be some practical solutions,” he said.
The Archbishop asks,
“Has the Conservative part of the Coalition simply seized the economic crisis as an opportunity to push through the unfinished neoliberal agenda of the last Conservative administration? We should not forget the enormous social division that was entailed in this. It signalled the end of a humanist and humane consensus in British society.”
How far the Archbishop has come from the scholastics of Salamanca. Yet the Archbishop is on to something:
“The poorest are taking the biggest hit while at the same time you see huge bank bonuses and profits and this is not right,” he said.
Now we have a point of agreement. We know we have the worst of all possible banking systems – the Governor of the Bank of England has told us so – and one of its effects is to distort the economy into unsustainable patterns thereby unjustly widening wealth inequality, driving the business cycle and precipitating banking crises, such as the one from which we are apparently recovering and at enormous cost to society. It is a statist banking system characterised by government monopoly, central planning, legal privilege and the socialisation of risk.
That very statism is the origin of the injustice the banking system is meting out to the rest of us.
The various doctrines of statism have failed. For those of us who wish to live in an ethical society which benefits all its members, it is time to rediscover that moral tradition of social thinking which began formally in Salamanca. It is time to refine and apply the doctrine of justice, peace, prosperity and fulfilment which is humble about the uses of coercive power and optimistic about the potential of individuals cooperating in society.
It may be true that those who wear the badges of ethical authority reach often for the coercive power of the state, but those of us with an intellectual, moral and practical basis for another way would do well to remember both the origins of our school of thought and the motto of one of our inspirations, Ludwig von Mises:
Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.
I had a meeting two years ago with James Forsyth, the editor of The Spectator, and talked about the alternative world of Austrian Economics, how many of its economists had predicted boom and bust, etc. He was very attentive. I am glad to see this article in this week’s edition, drawn to my attention by Daniel Hannan.
The Wealth Manager, Tim Price, is clearly aware of the Austrian School and may well use some of the key insights to invest. He quotes Prof Jorg Guido Hulsmann and his book “The Ethics of Money Production.” This is a must read for anybody interested in how the government are destroying your wealth and will continue to do so until the production of money is taken out of their hands. The full text can be downloaded here .
“Toby Baxendale is an entrepreneur who built up, amongst other things, the UK's largest fresh fish supplier to the Food Service sector, see www.directseafoods.co.uk, and recently sold it. Toby is dedicated to furthering the teaching of the Austrian school of economics. He established and funded the 1st Distinguished Hayek Visiting Teaching Fellowship Program at the LSE in Honour of the Nobel Laureate F A Hayek. Toby is Chairman of The Cobden Centre. Richard Cobden's timeless principles of the abolition of legal privilege of the few at the expense of the many are worthy in this day and age to promote. | Contact us
23 March 11 | Tags: hulsmann | Category: Economics, Ethics | One comment
It was brought to my attention that a film version of a book was about to be released on 15 April. The book is of course Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged, a book that should be brought to the attention of every serious student of life. Sadly, I only came across the book 3 years ago but I found its insights on the way the world works today simply stunning. You can find my introduction to the book here.
A film of this classic deserves an airing and is most timely with current world events unfolding as they are. The film makers are appealing to everyone who wishes to see the film in the cinema to join their online petition. Could I encourage every reader to sign up for a local viewing?
One can imagine that a film of a book that exposes so many home truths about the way Western society and culture are headed will meet stiff opposition. It is time to stand firm and demand a hearing of all views, especially the ones that describe the mess we are in and give a pointer to the remedy.
I look forward to seeing this film and posting a review. The makers have a hard job to approach the standard of the original, but they should be encouraged and supported in their efforts.
The book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand details the decay and collapse of a society from real wealth-creating activities to a society that uses policy and laws to appropriate that wealth from others. This leads to a strike by the true wealth creators, leading to a slow motion collapse of society.
The book is based on a society in the US and it tells the story of a family owned railroad business. At the time the book was written, the jet-setting and interstate car age was only just in its infancy.
A parallel seen today will be with the off-shoring of production and jobs with nothing to replace it. We also see in the West a rise of regulation and other enforcements that strangle new enterprises at birth. You may have heard the phrase ‘Too Big to Fail’ with reference to the banks but we now have ‘Too Small to Succeed’! The sums involved with all this regulation and enforcement are staggering. Ayn Rand comments on this state of affairs in the book:-
“Then you will see the rise of the men of the double standard- the men who live by force, yet count on those who live by trade to create the value of their looted money- the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In a moral society, these are the criminals, and the statutes are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law- men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims- then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.
Do you wish to know whether that day is coming? Watch money. Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue. When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion- when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors – when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you- when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice- you may know that your society is doomed.“
We see today the outworking of this in the case of the ongoing financial scandals in the US and elsewhere (Iceland, Greece, Ireland…), where large private investment bets are paid out in full, backstopped by the taxpayer.
We see moral hazard: risk has been offloaded to those least able to afford it. People who took the risk are not willing to realise, or are sheltered from realising, the consequences of that risk. There is so much wrong here it would take many essays, books even, to document.
The people of Iceland have said no to paying the debts of private banks with public money and the world has not ended. Are the people of Ireland also about to say no? Austerity seems to now mean the taxpayer pays so that those that took the risk do not have to.
On the subject of Money
“Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money , for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist…Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims.”
Today we have throughout the world paper fiat currencies backed by nothing. Debt is now paid simply by ‘printing’ more out of thin air – the Quantative Easing programmes of central banks around the world. ‘Printing’ was put in quotes as today printing is done simply with a computer keyboard, adding the appropriate number of zeros to an entry somewhere in a computer database.
The account these ‘looters’ draw on is the debasement of the currency, by that insidious process of inflation.
Inflation is a stealth tax on savers and pensioners applied by creating currency in ever-increasing amounts through government deficit spending – the unearned income of ever increasing debt. Inflation is not rising prices but the falling in the value of money.
Guilt – the weapon used against you.
Ayn Rand identifies the weapon used against you to great effect. It is an insidious tool of manipulation. That weapon is your decency and sense of fair play, it is your guilt. By making you feel guilty about any topic, it disarms you from an effective response. You are made to feel a bad person – the games used here are very cynical. Political Correctness is such a tool, one word accusations which instantly apportion guilt, making you defenceless, innocence denied. You know those words, they enable the manipulator to win the argument without having one. By making you guilty up front you have lost position, do not allow these contemptible frauds to win. Ayn Rand warns of this in the book:
“We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.
We are on strike against self-immolation. We are on strike against the creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties. We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one’s happiness is evil. We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt.“
“Guilt is a rope that wears thin.”
“The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt”
“To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason.”
This book should be mandatory in all schools for study. It teaches you how to think, not that I agree with everything, as I did note a certain self-centred sterility which would not work in a family setting. The book exposes well the cynical manipulation by others who try to exploit one’s good nature against yourself.
A comment on the Justice system
“When one acts on pity against justice, it is the good whom one punishes for the sake of the evil; when one saves the guilty from suffering, it is the innocent whom one forces to suffer. There is no escape from justice, nothing can be unearned and unpaid for in the universe, neither in matter nor in spirit—and if the guilty do not pay, then the innocent have to pay it.”
Finally, what we see today can be summed up with this following quote which preceded Atlas Shrugged and was written during the Great depression by Adrian Rogers (1931):
“You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half get the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is the beginning of the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.”
One question may be, “Will the film be true to the book?” However the question may be, “Will Ayn Rand’s insights come over in the film or will it just be an excuse to defame capitalism with a straw-man cartoon of crony capitalism?”
What should be portrayed in the film is the ultimate bankruptcy of Marxism/socialism and the Robin Hood class of a self enriching elite, always claiming to act for the benefit and in the name of the people they ultimately oppress. In the book the society decays and collapses because those in control do not create any wealth but conspire to appropriate and consume the wealth created by others, wrapping it up of course in the obligatory self-justifying but bankrupt cause.
George Orwell’s sage words are ever more applicable today: “In the time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act!”
On Saturday, I spoke again to set out the scale and scope of our financial and monetary mess and again, the audience welcomed the presentation. I find this encouraging: while people are typically horrified by the true levels of debt and debasement that have been entered into by states on our behalf, generally, people are prepared to believe that reform is possible.
I was put very much in mind of two attitudes.
As Sean Corrigan has indicated, Bagehot’s classic treatise is not so much a defence of British monetary orthodoxy as a despairing attempt to show how to survive the banking crises which are inevitable under such a system. As Bagehot wrote:
I can only reply that I propose to retain this system because I am quite sure that it is of no manner of use proposing to alter it. [...]
We must therefore, I think, have recourse to feeble and humble palliatives such as I have suggested. [...]
Many will object that it is impossible to bring about such a return [to a universal respect for property rights], now that we have progressed so far on the way toward a global paper money. This is a thoroughly defeatist point of view because it takes the coming disaster (hyperinflation or global tyranny) for granted. Most importantly, however, it is morally wrong. As we have argued, we face a problem of the human will; but this is after all only a problem of the will.
Now, I suppose a thoughtful person might question whether Hülsmann is engaging in hyperbole with his reference to “the coming disaster”. It seems a very reasonable question and, though I don’t propose to begin answering it here, I reflect on the trouble faced, not just by the UK, but by the Eurozone and the USA and also on the actions of their Central Banks, treasuries and legislatures: a broader range of predictions than we are accustomed to has become credible.
Denying the facts of our predicament will not do, but nor will a hopeless despair. The central, optimistic path is serious bank reform working towards honest money. As I reflect on responses to my speeches, from students, Conservatives, businessmen and others, and as I consider the increasing success of grassroots campaigns like Positive Money, I am increasingly persuaded both that Hülsmann is right to reject defeatism and that there are good reasons to believe that the will to deliver worthwhile reform may yet emerge.
You can find Andy Duncan’s review of Hülsmann here.
I read this yesterday and almost fell off my chair laughing.
As ever, George Monbiot remains totally clueless about the ideas, motivations and complexities of the free market movement. Not knowing his David from his Milton Friedman he has clearly never read Mises, Rothbard or Hoppe. He wouldn’t know his Socialist Calculation Debate from his Bastiat. Nor would he know what to make of a Kevin Carson or writers such as Frank van Dunn; free marketeers who are more consistently opposed to the corporatism and underpinning architecture of big business than even your most rampant anti-capitalist.
The older I get the more I realise that people such as Monbiot are actually simple and essentially poorly read characters. They probably consider themselves to be informed and insightful but in reality they are intellectual babes in the wood. That is why they comfort themselves by defaulting to simplistic tales of big business, self-serving interest and billionaire plots. As with many Conservatives looking at the left, they see opponents as an amorphous mass devoid of understanding. Crucially, such thinkers avoid the real meat of the story and in military terms they make the ultimate mistake. Time and again they demonstrate that they simply don’t know what many of their perceived enemies actually believe. And as such, they fail to engage with a more exciting but challenging reality.
Mortgage lending would be “capped” to stop borrowers taking out risky loans under radical Bank of England plans to prevent a repeat of the credit crisis, a senior official has disclosed.
But why did borrowers wish to borrow so much, so riskily? And why did lenders wish to lend so much, at such risk?
In the first place, credit has been too cheap for too long. Low interest rates are bound to encourage people to borrow more and save less. Therefore, people saved less and borrowed more. This was the result of the Bank of England’s decisions.
House prices kept rising because people kept borrowing and pumping money into housing. Housing was excluded from the Bank’s measure of inflation, so rates stayed low.
The appearance of inevitable and uninterrupted house price rises gave the impression that we were in a new era within which the old rules did not apply: borrowing caps could be raised to excessively risky levels and borrowers could rely on price increases to deal with the capital.
Lenders used models which fundamentally understated risk. For example, markets do not behave within the Gaussian or “normal” distribution: extreme events happen more often than a normal distribution predicts. Furthermore, the risk of mortgage default correlates across similar mortgages when the economic environment changes. Still, the models said risks were lower than they were, so more credit could be extended.
Since the lenders were neither, on the whole, mutuals or partnerships with open-ended liabilities and since the employees making the decisions shared only in the upside, there was insufficient motivation to manage to the true level of risk.
Moreover, securitisation of mortgage pools and so forth palmed off the risk onto hapless investors who probably trusted the risk models and the market environment created by excessively cheap credit. And, “Hey, look at the returns!” The personal touch was missing from the relationships between borrowers, ultimate lenders and intermediaries, further corrupting the system.
Of course when the pantomime ended, the taxpayer was forced to pick up the bill. And still bonuses were paid in bailed-out banks!
Now, having created the boom with cheap credit and moral hazard, the Bank plans, not to fix the root problems, but to pile intervention upon intervention…