Matt Ridley, in The Times [paywall restricted], considers the political relevance of the values of 19th century Liberals, including Richard Cobden.
Surely wanting government to stay out of the economy should go with wanting government to stay out of society too. They went together in the 19th century, after all. Radical liberals who campaigned against war, colonialism, slavery, politicial patronage and the established church were usually furiously free-market libertarians on economics: people such as Richard Cobden, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer or WE Gladstone.
Cobden, said one of his biographers, “believed in individual liberty and enterprise, in free markets, freedom of opinion and freedom of trade.” But he also was an implacable pacifist and refused a barontcy from a monarch he disapproved of. Nobody would have dreamed of calling him a rightwinger.
Mr Ridley also suggests that these values would be useful for politicians to build a coalition around: people who want the government out of “the boardroom and the bedroom.” That is not a cause that the Cobden Centre has any business getting involved in. But it is nice to see someone noticing the relevance of Cobden’s ideas.
I am not joking. It has finally happened. And I want to see it. As reported by Bloomberg, ‘Euro Crash! The Musical’ is coming to town. According to this report this spectacular and timely production “transposes the single-currency story to a deep dark forest. Mark and Gilda can’t find their way out. They are lured into the gingerbread Euroland house, where Papa Kohl and Madame Mitterrand run a school of fiscal discipline attended by some wayward pupils – personified nation states like Callum of Ireland and Stavros of Greece”. The show’s numbers include “a chorus praising the virtues of the Bundesbank and former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont singing “Our currency’s gone down the plughole” in the shower”.
“EuroCrash!” is showing in at the Cockpit Theatre in London from 8 to 11 February 2012 and I am definitely going to see it. For more information and to book your ticket(s) just click here.
Earlier this morning I updated The Cobden Centre’s media page. Since September we have not only again doubled the volume of our coverage but its quality continues firmly on an upwards trajectory. Slowly but surely, bold Cobdenite messages are becoming part of legitimate discourse. While we still have a long way to go, the following link highlights welcome progress. Enjoy!
It is with no feelings of joy that we republish this article, first posted on 8 February 2010
Guest contributor Anita Acavalos, daughter of Advisory Board member Andreas Acavalos, explains the political and economic predicament in Greece.
In recent years, Greece has found itself at the centre of international news and public debate, albeit for reasons that are hardly worth bragging about. Soaring budget deficits coupled with the unreliable statistics provided by the government mean there is no financial newspaper out there without at least one piece on Greece’s fiscal profligacy.
Although at first glance the situation Greece faces may seem as simply the result of gross incompetence on behalf of the government, a closer assessment of the country’s social structure and people’s deep-rooted political beliefs will show that this outcome could not have been avoided even if more skill was involved in the country’s economic and financial management.
The population has a deep-rooted suspicion of and disrespect for business and private initiative and there is a widespread belief that “big money” is earned by exploitation of the poor or underhand dealings and reflects no display of virtue or merit. Thus people feel that they are entitled to manipulate the system in a way that enables them to use the wealth of others as it is a widely held belief that there is nothing immoral about milking the rich. In fact, the money the rich seem to have access to is the cause of much discontent among people of all social backgrounds, from farmers to students. The reason for this is that the government for decades has run continuous campaigns promising people that it has not only the will but also the ABILITY to solve their problems and has established a system of patronages and hand-outs to this end.
Anything can be done in Greece provided someone has political connections, from securing a job to navigating the complexities of the Greek bureaucracy. The government routinely promises handouts to farmers after harsh winters and free education to all; every time there is a display of discontent they rush to appease the people by offering them more “solutions.” What they neglect to say is that these solutions cost money. Now that the money has run out, nobody can reason with an angry mob.
A closer examination of Greek universities can be used as a good illustration of why and HOW the government has driven itself to a crossroad where running the country into even deeper debt is the only politically feasible path to follow. University education is free. However, classroom attendance is appalling and there are students in their late twenties that still have not passed classes they attended in their first year. Moreover, these universities are almost entirely run by party-political youth groups which, like the country’s politicians, claim to have solutions to all problems affecting students. To make matters worse, these groups often include a minority of opportunists who are not interested in academia at all but are simply there to use universities as political platforms, usually ones promoting views against the wealthy and the capitalist system as a whole even though they have no intellectual background or understanding of the capitalist structure.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is no genuine free market opposition. In Greece, right wing political parties also favour statist solutions but theirs are criticised as favouring big business. The mere idea that the government should be reduced in size and not try to have its hand in everything is completely inconceivable for Greek politicians of all parties. The government promises their people a better life in exchange for votes so when it fails to deliver, the people naturally think they have the right or even the obligation to start riots to ‘punish’ them for failing to do what they have promised.
Moreover, looking at election results it is not hard to observe that certain regions are “green” supporting PASOK and others “blue” supporting Nea Dimokratia. Those regions consistently support certain political parties in every election due to the widespread system of patronages that has been created. By supporting PASOK in years where Nea Dimokratia wins you can collect on your support when inevitably after a few election periods PASOK will be elected and vice versa. Not only are there widely established regional patronage networks but there are strong political families that use their clout to promise support and benefits to friends in exchange for their support in election years.
Moreover, in line with conventional political theory on patronage networks, in regions that are liable to sway either way politicians have a built in incentive to promise the constituents more than everyone else. The result is almost like a race for the person able to promise more, and thus the system seems by its very nature to weed out politicians that tell people the honest and unpalatable truth or disapprove of handouts. This has led people to think that if they are in a miserable situation it is because the government is not trying hard enough to satisfy their needs or is favouring someone else instead of them. When the farmers protest it is not just because they want more money, it is because they are convinced (sometimes even rightly so) that the reason why they are being denied handouts is that they have been given to someone else instead. It is the combination, therefore, of endless government pandering and patronages that has led to the population’s irresponsible attitude towards money and public finance. They believe that the government having the power to legislate need not be prudent, and when the government says it needs to cut back, they point to the rich and expect the government to tax them more heavily or blame the capitalist system for their woes.
After a meeting in Brussels, current Prime Minister George Papandreou said:
Salaried workers will not pay for this situation: we will not proceed with wage freezes or cuts. We did not come to power to tear down the social state.
It is not out of the kindness of his heart that he initially did not want to impose a pay freeze. It was because doing so would mean that the country may never escape the ensuing state of chaos and anarchy that would inevitably occur. Eventually he did come to the realisation that in the absence of pay freezes he would have to plunge the country into even further debt and increase taxes and had to impose it anyway causing much discontent. Does it not seem silly that he is still trying to persuade the people that they will not pay for this situation when the enormous debts that will inevitably ensue will mean that taxes will have to increase in perpetuity until even our children’s children will be paying for this? This minor glitch does not matter, though, because nobody can reason with a mob that is fighting for handouts they believe are rightfully theirs.
Greece is the perfect example of a country where the government attempted to create a utopia in which it serves as the all-providing overlord offering people amazing job prospects, free health care and education, personal security and public order, and has failed miserably to provide on any of these. In the place of this promised utopian mansion lies a small shack built at an exorbitant cost to the taxpayer, leaking from every nook and cranny due to insufficient funds, which demands ever higher maintenance costs just to keep it from collapsing altogether. The architects of this shack, in a desperate attempt to repair what is left are borrowing all the money they can from their neighbours, even at exorbitant costs promising that this time they will be prudent. All that is left for the people living inside this leaking shack is to protest for all the promises that the government failed to fulfil; but, sadly for the government, promises will neither pay its debts nor appease the angry mob any longer. Greece has lost any credibility it had within the EU as it has achieved notoriety for the way government accountants seem to be cooking up numbers they present to EU officials.
Dismal as the situation may appear, there still is hope. The Greeks many times have shown that it is in the face of dire need that they tend to bond together as a society and rise to the occasion. Family ties and social cohesion are still strong and have cushioned people from the problems caused by government profligacy. For years, the appalling situation in schools has led families to make huge sacrifices in order to raise money for their children’s private tuition or send them to universities abroad whenever possible. This is why foreign universities, especially in the UK, are full of very prominent and hard working Greek students. Moreover, private (as opposed to public) levels of indebtedness, although on the rise, are still lower than many other European countries.
However, although societal bonding and private prudence will help people deal with the consequences of the current crisis, its resolution will only come about if Greek people learn to listen to the ugly truths that sometimes have to be said. They need to be able to listen to statesmen that are being honest with them instead of politicians trying to appease them in a desperate plea to get votes. The time for radical, painful, wrenching reform is NOW.
There are no magic wands, no bail-outs, no quick and easy fixes. The choice is between doing what it takes to put our house in order ourselves, or watching it collapse around us. This can only come about if Prime Minister George Papandreou uses the guts he has displayed in the past when his political stature and authority had been challenged and channels them towards making the changes the country so desperately needs. Only if he emerges as a truly inspired statesman who will choose the difficult as opposed to the populist solution will Greece be up again and on a path towards prosperity. He needs to display a willingness to clean up the mess made after years of bad government and get society to a point where they are willing to accept hard economic truths. One can only hope…
A couple of weeks ago in the offices of the Adam Smith Institute, I addressed more than twenty of China’s most senior economic thinkers while they visited London. All were members of China’s Development Research Centre (DRC) – the leading think tank of Communist Party’s Central Committee and the State Council.
At their request, I touched on the history of the UK’s free market think tanks, the importance of maintaining independence and how, in the Anglo-sphere, such organisations are often funded by a diverse array of non-governmental sources including individuals, foundations and enterprises.
I also talked about money, banking, accountancy rules, the sovereign debt crisis and I even briefly managed to touch on the issue of gold. Everyone smiled when we mused over the fact that the Chinese state represents 32 percent of GDP while the UK government is heading towards 52 percent.
However, the real fun started when we moved to the questions and answers section. Very quickly, a hand went up in the front row and through the translator a gentleman on my right asked “have you ever heard of the Austrian School of Economics?” I smiled, paused, said “yes”, explained why, and we all moved forward.
Later, the leader of the delegation said that while Adam Smith had been translated in to high Chinese at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Communist Party had had it more accessibly translated thirty years ago – in the early 1980s.
Now, reflecting on all of this after the event, I was reminded of something a friend at Liberty Fund had said to me concerning the launch of The Online Library of Liberty in the middle of the last decade. Within two days of the library going live its South East Asian server out of Australia crashed. Under investigation it turned that it had been due to the number of students in China trying to download J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.
I have no idea how many people in China are reading the classical liberal ideas of Adam Smith and J.S. Mill or are in any way familiar with the greats of the Austrian School of Economics. But this is a question to which I wish I had an answer.
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.
Another classic article, brought forward. This is a speech by James Tyler to the Adam Smith Institute Next Generation Group on 6 October 2009. This speech is also available on hedgehedge.com.
I have spent the best part of the last two decades pitting my wits against the market. It’s an unforgiving game: I’ve seen ups and downs, and many of my rivals buried under an avalanche of hubris, passion, illogical thought and unchecked emotion.
I have witnessed the sheer folly of the ERM crisis, the Asian crisis, the failure of the Gods at Long Term Capital Management and the insanity of the tech boom.
I have enjoyed the ‘NICE’ decade (Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion), and scared myself silly during the credit crisis.
I am a trader.
I risk my own money and live or die by my decisions, and face the threat of personal bankruptcy every time I switch my screens on. I get no salary – indeed I turn up at the start of the month with a large office overhead – a ‘negative’ salary. I have no fancy company pension scheme, no lucrative monopoly or franchise.
I eat what I kill.
Mistakes cost me my livelihood, so, above all, my decisions have to be rooted in practical and logical decision making.
Some have called my kind parasitic, but I would have said that I bring order, efficiency, predictability, stability and deep liquidity to a crucial process: a process that makes the whole world keep ticking.
I make money work.
I make the market in interest rate derivatives: a market born out of the neo classical revolution in finance fostered in Chicago during the 1970s. I am a child of Friedman, Fisher Black, Myron Scholes and the modern international financial system.
My analysis was steeped in the neo-classical, efficient markets paradigm.
Friedman’s ideal was working. Enlightened central bankers guided the free market with gentle nudges and short term liquidity infusions, free floating currencies gently adjusted themselves to the constant flow of new information and efficient and rational markets took all in their stride.
Credit flowed, people got wealthier, economies developed and all was well.
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!”