Authors

Economics

The Corruption of Capitalism in America

Following on from John Butler’s review, here’s Detlev’s take on “The Great Deformation” …

David Stockman’s new book is a brilliant, penetrating analysis of the present state of the US economy and the US political system, and a detailed account of how the nation got into this mess. The book will upset Democrats and Republicans alike, and quite a few other constituencies as well, which can, in this case, be safely accepted as proof that Stockman’s narrative is spot on.

Stockman is an angry man and he admits so himself early in his 719-page tome. That anger adds bite and verve to his writing and keeps what is in fact a detailed historical account and economic analysis always highly entertaining. The book is long but never boring. Furthermore, Stockman does not let his anger cloud his judgement, which remains, in my view, relentlessly accurate throughout.

When dissecting Washington politics and Wall Street deal-making Stockman naturally draws on his experience as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Ronald Reagan and his many years as an investment banker and private equity investor, and in so doing he reflects on much of his own professional life with commendable candor. But the book goes beyond these specific periods, and Stockman applies the analytical skills and insights acquired on these jobs to the critical examination of a wide spectrum of policy areas and historic periods. Stockman’s command of these topics and the masses of statistics and financial reports involved, and his powers of analytical dissection are impressive. But what is probably even more important for the success of his analysis is that it is based on an accurate understanding of essential economic relationships, in particular the importance of sound money. This is why the narrative that he develops captures America’s present challenges so truthfully and comprehensively. I very much shared Stockman’s anger when I started reading, but even more so when I had finished.

Public service

Stockman does a great service to his fellow Americans for he is providing a much-needed dose of realism that stands in stark contrast to the contrived optimism emanating from much of the political ‘debate’, from stock-pushing Wall Street experts on financial TV, and from the various Keynesian snake-oil merchants from both parties, all of whom want the public to believe that America is fundamentally healthy and just another round of ‘quantitative easing’, another deficit-funded tax break, or another ‘stimulus’ spending measure away from a bright future of self-sustained recovery. Instead, Stockman says it like it is. The US economy in 2013 is fundamentally weakened and structurally deformed by decades of artificially cheap money and a pathological debt addiction. Not the occasional artificial booms of the past twenty years, driven by Fed-induced bubbles in stocks, high-yield bonds and housing, give a correct picture of America’s long-term economic potential but the intermittent periods of slack when the fire-works on Wall Street inevitably end (and end in tears), and the persistent Main Street reality of declining employment prospects, stagnant real income and impaired competitiveness can no longer be covered up.

The Fed’s policy of cheap and then ever-cheaper credit has not only destroyed the free market by constantly distorting price signals, encouraging reckless debt accumulation and rewarding financial speculation (and consequently widening income and wealth gaps, as Stockman illustrates aplenty), it has thoroughly corrupted the political process as well. Stockman portrays a political system that, courtesy of the Fed’s cheap credit policies and interest rate repression, is now chronically incapable of living within its means, and is thus easy prey for hordes of crony capitalists – from the healthcare industry and the military-industrial complex to the ‘labor aristocracy’ of the united autoworkers union to the ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, private-equity shops and hedge funds that play the system for a quick profit.

Crucially, Stockman puts his unsentimental assessment of America’s present reality into a broader historical context. Stockman identifies correctly the act of original sin that led America astray from the path of broadly free market economics and limited and fiscally responsible government, namely the abandonment of sound money. As America moved away from hard money, epitomized originally by the gold standard and a Federal Reserve with a strictly limited role as a bankers’ bank, and later, in already watered-down form, by the Bretton Woods gold-exchange-standard, and embraced an unconstrained fiat money system and ‘free-floating’ global paper monies it robbed the free market of its essential inner compass and ‘true north’ of market-based interest rates and market-enforced financial prudence.

The Fed, the central-banking branch of the federal government, was unleashed from its golden shackles in two historic steps in 1933 (by a Democrat president) and in 1971 (by a Republican president) but it was only over the past twenty years under the leaderships of Greenspan and Bernanke that the full destructive potential of unconstrained central banking has come to be felt. As Stockman shows with great clarity, both central bankers turned the Fed into a machine for macro-economic fine-tuning and prosperity management. Greenspan promised to watch the speculating classes’ backs by allowing them to blow bubbles and then shield them from the consequences. Bernanke took the mission one step further as he began (and still continues) to use his vast powers of fixing interest rates and printing limitless amounts of new money to steer the markets to the ‘correct’ yields on government bonds, the ‘correct’ spreads on mortgage-backed-securities, and the ‘appropriate’ shape of the yield curve, and by so doing to centrally manage the overall economy. Needless to say, such socialism for speculators, courtesy of the printing press, is happily explained by Wall Street economists as being in the public interest.

It is this deformation of money that is the root cause of the numerous deformations in the broader economy and the deformations in the political system. I am grateful that Stockman has fulfilled the important task of documenting in detail the many ways in which unsound money undermines the market economy and corrupts society.

Myth buster

Stockman is a myth buster par excellence. He busts myths that are cherished by Democrats and myths that are cherished by Republicans, and some cherished by both. Never pulling any punches and always happy to name names, he exposes as complicit in the deformation of American capitalism politicians, central bankers, and self-important economists of the Keynesian, monetarist and supply-side persuasion. He also identifies the many crony-capitalists, who shamelessly exploit the system’s many deformations for their own gain. But Stockman not only identifies the villains – the advocates and profiteers of unsound money – he also gives us the heroes, the defenders of sound money, people like Dwight Eisenhower, William McChesney Martin, and Paul Volcker, even if their efforts ultimately did not avert the corruption of American capitalism.

Here are the main myths that Stockman exposes:

Myth one: The 2008 financial crisis was the result of unregulated markets. TARP and the Fed saved the country from Great Depression 2.0

Nonsense, says Stockman. The financial crisis was the consequence of the Fed’s serial bubble blowing, and it should have been allowed to burn itself out in the corridors of Wall Street. Instead, Paulson and Bernanke panicked, declared economic martial law, namely that all rules of fiscal prudence and free market capitalism be tossed aside, and demanded that, via the bail-out of ‘insurance’ giant AIG, firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and others be saved from choking on their own outsized speculations.

Myth two: There was such a thing as the ‘Reagan Revolution’ and it revitalized American capitalism.

This is obviously a favourite whenever Republicans sit around the campfire. The reality looks different. Despite all the charisma and the eloquent free market rhetoric, the true legacy of the Reagan presidency is a Republican party that is now largely desensitized to fiscal profligacy and reconciled with endless deficits (Cheney’s famous dictum that “deficits don’t matter.”), as the party has happily joined the Democrats in the ‘aggregate demand’ management business. No longer to be outdone by ‘pro-active’ Democrats advocating Keynesian ‘spending’ to ‘stimulate’ growth, the Republicans came to embrace their own version of top-down GDP management: the Art-Laffer-inspired slashing of taxes at all cost. Fiscal prudence – and a true “hands-off” approach to the economy – was finally expunged from Republican DNA.

Myth three: The Great Depression was caused by the gold standard and was ended by Roosevelt’s Keynesian policies.

Ridiculous. The correction of the early 1930s was the combination of delayed effects of the First World War (a US agricultural boom that had led to overinvestment and distorted prices and had already ended in a bust in the 1920s) and the bursting of various bubbles blown during the Jazz-Age-version of bubble finance, such as the foreign bond market that provided funding for the purchase of then-sizable US exports, and the hot-money driven domestic equity boom. These distortions did not come about because of the gold standard but despite the gold standard, which had been severely weakened as a disciplinary force not least due to the growing role of the Fed since 1914, and in particular since the central bank funded the war effort through money-printing in 1917-1918. By 1929 liquidation and correction were unavoidable. But what should have been a quick and decisive cleansing was turned into a drawn-out economic catastrophe by bad policy. First, there was economic nationalism – tariffs and other forms of protectionism – and then Roosevelt’s disastrous interventionism and relentless tinkering with the economy. As Stockman illustrates, Roosevelt did not enact a Keynesian textbook program at all. In fact, the clueless president had no coherent program whatsoever but instead implemented the type of potpourri of populist anti-market measures so fashionable at the time among Europe’s fascist leaders: odd infrastructure programs, price and wage fixing, state-directed resource use.

“Having triggered the demise of the old international order, the Roosevelt program of necessity was a purely domestic grab bag of experiments, gimmicks, and nonstarters. These ad-hoc Washington interventions – the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), National Recovery Act (NRA), Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) – did little to revive the dormant machinery of market capitalism and economic wealth creation and, instead, mainly shuffled income and resources randomly among regions, industries, and even individual business firms.”

(Stockman, page 159)

Intermezzo

The New Deal had meant curtains for the ‘Old Republic’ and any commitment to sound money and sound public finances. However, and luckily for America, the newly expanded tool kit for interventionist politicians and central bankers remained largely unused for two decades after the end of World War II. A happy interregnum of monetary and fiscal discipline commenced, largely due to the good fortune of having people with strong traditional beliefs in positions of power, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and William McChesney Martin at the Fed, two of Stockman’s heroes. Eisenhower slashed military spending after the Korean War and established the ‘Eisenhower minimum’ of strictly contained military outlays. Eisenhower was a soldier who hated war. A highly decorated general himself he famously warned his fellow Americans of the growing powers of the military-industrial complex and stared down a few generals himself when letting them resign in protest of his spending cuts. (By comparison, today’s Commander-in-Chief, former community organizer Barack Obama, oversees a military budget that is twice the size of even Bill Clinton’s.)

Over at the Fed, Martin not only coined the phrase “taking the punch bowl away when the party gets started”, he actually meant it and implemented it. Martin was deeply committed to the monetary discipline of the Bretton Woods system.

Needless to say, such discipline did not last long. America’s military adventures in Far East Asia and LBJ’s great society project put new demands on state spending and, by extension, on the printing press. The last link to gold – and the last remaining constraint on paper dollar creation- was severed in August 1971.

Myth four: Free floating paper monies are a sign of free market capitalism

The importance of what happened at Camp David in August 1971 can hardly be overestimated, and Stockman conveys the magnitude of these events vividly:

“Nixon’s estimable free market advisors who gathered at the Camp David weekend were to an astonishing degree clueless as to the consequences of their recommendation to close the gold window and float the dollar. In their wildest imaginations they did not foresee that this would unhinge the monetary and financial nervous system of capitalism. They had no premonition at all that it would pave the way for a forty-year storm of financialization and a debt-besotted symbiosis between central bankers possessed by delusions of grandeur and private gamblers intoxicated with visions of delirious wealth.”

(Stockman, page 281)

Stockman is particularly scathing of Milton Friedman’s influence on these events.

“The great irony, then, is that the nation’s most famous modern conservative economist became the father of Big Government, chronic deficits, and national fiscal bankruptcy. It was Friedman who first urged the removal of the Bretton Woods gold standard restraints on central bank money printing, and then added insult to injury by giving conservative sanction to perpetual open market purchases of government debt by the Fed. Friedman’s monetarism thereby institutionalized a regime which allowed politicians to chronically spend without taxing.”

(Stockman, page 272)

Famous academic economists who willingly throw themselves into the machinery of policy-making or policy-advice are among the most tragic-comic figures in Stockman’s narrative.

Thus we meet, on the political Left, John Maynard Keynes’s vicar on earth, the pompous Larry Summers pulling really big numbers out of the air, such as $800 billion, and demanding that this be spent instantly by Washington to stimulate the economy. There is, of course, Paul Krugman, who has never met a deficit-spending program that he thought was big enough. On the political Right, there is Art Laffer, who taught the Republicans not to worry about deficits if they result from tax-cutting as tax cuts are always stimulative and thus inherently self-financing. There is Milton Friedman who could explain the evils of rent-control better than anybody else but got free market money horribly wrong and provided intellectual cover for Tricky Dick’s dollar debasement. And then, naturally, there is Ben Bernanke, the veritable Dr. Strangelove of central banking, who believes this is 1930 all over again and who uses the present crisis to re-enact the policy program he believes, based on his own subjective and highly flawed interpretation of the Great Depression, the Fed should have enacted back then. One can only hope that this litany of abject failure serves as a warning to those economists waiting in the wings for their moment in the limelight, such as John Taylor who believes his eponymous rule is the answer to all central banking problems, or those economists who currently embrace the new Keynesian fad of ‘nominal GDP targeting’ (God help us!).

The deserving heroes of Stockman’s account are instead those statesmen and bankers who stuck by the old (and indeed ancient) rules of hard money and ‘balancing the books’.

Myth five: Modern financial markets represent free market capitalism.

Of course, in a proper free market, speculation, trading and the use of leverage would not only be permissible but would have an important role to play in the process of allocating savings and channeling scarce capital to productive uses. These activities would, however, be tightly controlled and strictly limited by the free market’s most effective regulators: profit and loss. Those regulators are now largely weakened or even removed entirely by the present system of costless fiat money, unlimited central bank backstops (Greenspan/Bernanke put) and artificially low interest rates. Without proper capitalist money, hard and apolitical, at the core of the monetary system, a free market in the rest of finance is impossible. Stockman does an excellent job illustrating the extent to which manipulated money and artificially cheap credit are corrupting the entire financial infrastructure by encouraging excessive risk-taking and the misuse of capital with severely adverse long-term consequences.

“…capital markets eventually lose their capacity to honestly price securities under a regime of unsound money; they end up dancing to the tune of the central bank; that is, pricing the trading value of financial assets based on expected central bank interventions, not the intrinsic value of their cash flows, rights, and risks.”

(Stockman, page 383)

Stockman analyses a range of leveraged buy-out deals (LBOs) to show how, in our deformed financial system, these can often lead to huge pay-outs for highly leveraged investors while at the same time leaving the firms financially weakened and sometimes even bankrupt. This chapter may appear long and technically challenging for some readers but it is important as it gives the lie to frequent claims by those who operate in this arena that these activities are simply the free market at work, and that they lead to more efficient allocation of corporate control, to investment in productive capital and to jobs. Stockman exposes the full irony of the Republican Party putting forward Mitt Romney as their 2012 presidential candidate and trying to sell him as an experienced business man and ‘job creator’ when, as the former head of private-equity firm Bain Capital, he would be much more suitable as a poster boy for the lucky few who disproportionally benefitted from three decades of bubble finance and all the deformations it created, a system that stands in sharp contrast to the traditional capitalism the Republicans claim to advocate.

Stockman certainly does not make many friends on the political Left with his – brilliant and entirely justified – annihilation of the Roosevelt myth and the childish ‘Keynes 101’–programs of ‘spending ourselves to prosperity’, but his account supports to a considerable degree the allegation that the ‘1 percent’ live high on the hog at the expense of the rest of the population. However, as Stockman demonstrates at length, this is not the result of free market capitalism, and the answer to it is not regulation and confiscatory taxation. The root cause is unsound money and the possibilities that unsound money provides for the flourishing of ‘crony capitalism’.

Stockman’s outlook is not a happy one. As the nation runs out of balance sheets to leverage up and as, inevitably, ‘austerity’ sets in, he foresees ongoing political strife, further financial market manipulations, on-and-off print-operations by the Fed, and new financial crises. He closes the book with a few pages of policy recommendations, all of them sensible, I guess, and naturally following from the preceding extensive analysis. But Stockman is under no illusion – he knows that his policy ideas do not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being implemented. In any case, the book is not really, first and foremost, about a new policy program but about shifting the parameters of the debate by providing a thorough and accurate description of America’s economic and political problems. And here the book succeeds with flying colors.

This is an important book. I wish it a wide readership.

This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.

Economics

If this is capitalism, I am not a capitalist

This post originally appeared on www.stevebaker.info.

I spoke last night in the general debate on the economy, saying*:

As I rise to speak I am reminded of a quotation from an economist who was a fierce critic of Keynes, a chap called Henry Hazlitt, who said:

“Today is already the tomorrow which the bad economist yesterday urged us to ignore.”

We have heard today some moving accounts of individual and collective suffering in different regions of the country and among different sections of the public. We should be asking ourselves why, oh why, have we been delivered into this misery, which looks as if it will extend over years. Much of the conversation we have heard has been along the lines of aggregates, coarse economic aggregates, and has tended to stray away from individual choices and consequences. We have talked about markets in the abstract, and it is a pity that we seem to have forgotten that markets are a social phenomenon, and that they are about people co-operating. When we talk about markets, we tend to imagine overpaid people, high-frequency trading and those who add nothing to society.

I am reminded of something a constituent said to me recently after hearing a Minister’s speech. He asked, “Why is it that everything always seems to get harder for the working man, whoever is in power?” Indeed, in my constituency unemployment is up by 6.3% among the over-50s, up by 9.5% among those aged 25 to 49 and, scandalously, up by 23% among the young. We have heard that child poverty increased by 200,000 under the previous Government and that it is likely to increase by up to 100,000 under this Government. In the 21st century, that should not be our economic position.

Why are we in this debt crisis? I have just checked the M4 money supply figures—I am sorry to return to aggregates, but needs must. When Labour came to power the money supply was about £700 billion and it is now about £2.1 trillion, so it has tripled over the past 14 years. Unfortunately, most economists talk about money flowing into the economy as if it were water poured into a tank that found its own level immediately, but what if it is like treacle or honey? What if it builds up in piles when poured into the economy and takes a while to spread out? What if that money was loaned into existence in response to individual choices led by the excessively low interest rates pushed by the central bank? What if it was loaned into existence in particular sectors, such as the housing sector, where prices have more than doubled over the same period, and what if it was the financial sector that received the benefit of that new money first? Would that not explain why financiers and bankers are so much wealthier than everyone else, and why economic activity and wealth has been reorientated towards the south-east?

Unfortunately, the idea that money takes some time to move around the economy is lost on most economists, which I very much regret. Why did most economists not see the crisis coming? I put it to the House that it is because their theories of credit are mistaken. They make fundamental errors. Unfortunately I do not have time to go into that, but the fundamental point is that credit is a choice to consume more now and less later. It is about the exchange of present goods for future goods, and co-ordinating the economy through time, and I am afraid that the current intellectual mainstream in economics has dropped us into this desperate mess.

Opposition Members criticise the Thatcher and Reagan years. I think that there was much to applaud in those years, but unfortunately their intellectual underpinning was monetarism, which, like Keynesianism, is infected with those dreadful mistakes. People in the Occupy movement, and our constituents, are right to question the justice of our economic processes. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said earlier that the system cannot endure, and I am inclined to agree. I agree that the current debt-based and—I am afraid to say—statist system cannot endure. However, if this system is not to endure, which way should it fall? [Humanity] tried the statist direction in the past and it led to misery and murder. I stand for free markets and free co-operation, but I say this to the House: if this is capitalism, I am not a capitalist.

* (I have made a small correction to the quote and a clarification in [], both of which I have requested from Hansard)

Related reading can be found here:

  • Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (buy, PDF), chapters 1, 6 and 23 in particular.
  • Mises, Human Action (buy, online), especially chapter 20 “Interest, Credit Expansion, and the Trade Cycle”
  • Hulsmann, The Ethics of Money Production (buy, PDF).

The Bank of England’s money supply measure M4, which I referred to, may be found here. I used M4 in this context because it is the conventional mainstream measure, but I prefer Kaleidic Economics’ MA for reasons explained on that site (Notes and Coins is too narrow and M4 too broad). MA tells a clear story of where jobs and growth came from and where they went – money supply growth created the illusion of prosperity, broke the banking system and collapsed, taking the illusion with it:

Year on year change in Kaleidic Economics' MA - click for source

Economics

Financial regulation and the deception of government intervention

From Deception of Government Intervention (1964) – an essay in Mises’ anthology Economic Freedom and Interventionism – we learn how governments adopted “the third way”:

Faced with the tremendous challenge of totalitarianism, the ruling parties of the West do not venture to preserve the system of free enterprise that gave to their nations the highest standard of living ever attained in history. They ignore the fact that conditions for all citizens of the United States and those other countries which have not put too many obstacles in the way of free enterprise are much more favorable than conditions for the inhabitants of the totalitarian countries. They think that it is necessary to abandon the market economy and to adopt a middle-of-the-road policy that is supposed to avoid the alleged deficiencies of the capitalistic economy. They aim at a system which, as they see it, is as far from socialism as it is from capitalism and which is better than either of those two. By direct intervention of the government, they want to remove what they consider unsatisfactory in the market economy.

Such a policy of government interference with the market phenomena was already recommended by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. But the authors of the Communist Manifesto considered the ten groups of interventionist measures they suggested as measures to bring about step-by-step full socialism. However, in our time the government spokesmen and the politicians of the left recommend the same measures as a method, even as the only method, to salvage capitalism.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we are now going down a road towards ‘judgement-based’ regulation of financial firms in an attempt to salvage capitalism.

It is proposed that firms will be supervised by what amount to shadow management teams of disinterested, public-spirited individuals more able to reach sound views than firms’ own management teams: they shall possess “the optimal experience and technical ability”.

Quite where these mythical philosopher kings are to be found, I do not know. Presumably, financial firms and regulators already hire the best people available. And the notion that the best people will work for the regulator despite inevitably higher rewards in the firms themselves is silly.

Financial firms will find their business subject to the day-to-day judgement of government officials. To think that those officials will be more capable than the institutions’ traders and managers is a fantasy. The outcome will be, as it has been, a surprise financial catastrophe as regulators fail to foresee the future and, since they are bound to converge on “best practice”, fail as one.

A free society is not one based on constant official interference with business. It is one based on cooperation, choice, competition, profit & loss, predictable rules fixed well in advance and exit from the market: that is, property, contract and the classical rule of law.

Rather than resort to fantastic ideas about the effectiveness of government interference with market phenomena, we would do better to reapply the principles of a free society. Financial institutions should be no exception, for government intervention caused the crisis [1,2].

Postscript: Marx and Engels’ ten measures are available here.

Economics

The Ethics of Capitalism: A Secular and a Theological Justification

The current debate about bankers’ bonuses is often seen as one of fairness pitted against the greed of those nasty capitalists,.

To me, bankers are lawfully working within the system – one  that is rotten to the core. The banking system is the greatest of all examples of State corporate capitalism. We have a central bank that is State owned, we have a legal tender law that prevents competition in the provision of the production of money, and we have private sectors banks which are licensed by the State to be its agent when it wants to monetise its very own debts and create inflation at the expense of its citizens: people who have been prudent and thrifty as well as those on fixed income.

The State has one important central intention: to hide its prolific over spending.  We have private sector banks that have legal privilege granted to them so they can use their depositors’ money to lend out many times over to entrepreneurs. They are the only type of business in the whole country  permitted do this. All other commercial enterprises at all points in time need to keep their current creditors whole, otherwise they are insolvent. There is no requirement at all in this country for any bank to keep even one penny in reserves against their depositors’ funds. In fact, it has been a stated fact of law since 1811 in Carr V Carr that “his” deposited funds are not his, but are in fact the banks’.

This fractional reserve banking system we have can only work with a lender of last resort i.e. the State owned central bank with legal tender laws. This means that in partnership with the State, the State can monetise its debts (at the expense of you and me) and the banks can keep as little reserves as they can get away with to make a return on capital that you and I in the real capitalist private sector could never do.  This encourages risk. Indeed with the banks now able to borrow at the taxpayers’ expense via the discount window (heavily subsidised short term central bank funding) and know there is a guarantee of a bail out should their gambles go wrong makes the state and the bankers two equal partners in a very unjust process.

The resulting situation is what I call ‘corporate capitalism’  (thoroughly amoral) as opposed to ‘capitalism’, which is totally moral.  This needs some explaining, as I suspect worthy people are shooting arrows at the wrong target.

We know that the free market capitalist system is without doubt the most efficient creator and allocator of resources. Adam Smith taught us that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” in his Wealth of Nations. Self interest or the profit motive drives man to create and to provide all the multiplicity of goods and services we have enjoyed and will enjoy.

Mises in his famous book Socialism, showed us that if Society was run by planners, the price system which allows resources to flow to their most desired uses would not function. Indeed it would impoverish anyone nation that tried it. If, say. the planner could not correctly witness all the competing bids and resource allocations for metals that were capable of being used in the construction of railroad tracks (that involves many companies competing for scarce resources) he would never know which metal would be the most cost effective to build his railroad.  No one planner would be able to economically calculate, or indeed, no army of planners would be able to calculate and allocate all the resources of Society in the socialist economy better than the many millions of participants in the economy allocating resources via the price mechanism. The experiment in the Soviet bloc with socialism impoverished at least three generations and lead to wide scale death and a general shortage of life, and misery.

Hayek, in his very famous essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” added to the critique of Mises by pointing out that absenting the price system would mean that the central planning officials would need to absorb the entire knowledge of all the people in society to effectively plan their needs. This was absurd and impossible.

All State planned schemes, from the provision of money to the provision of health and education – even in our cosy mixed economy – could be done better by an unhampered market.  We are thus weary of all bloated government departments and officials who say they can do something better for us – they can’t.

The efficiency case for an unhampered market, or free market capitalism is clear and unchallengeable. The subjective actions of freely consenting adults in a capitalist system produce the most amount of goods in the most efficient way.  But is there an objectively moral case for the capitalist system? I attempt to answer it in the remaining part of this Insight article.

First Principles: Secular Argument

I Argue

One thing that distinguishes human beings from all other life forms is our ability to communicate with each other via talking. Only human beings can make a proposition. The question of what is just or unjust only arises because I can debate or argue this point with another person.  To be able to argue my position I must be in control of my physical and mental self. I must own myself in order to be to be a human being.  I have the total right to use all my physical and mental faculties to participate in life, otherwise I cannot even exist as a human being expressing an opinion. I do not know many people who would argue with this. If I did not own my own faculties I could not participate in life except under the command of who owned me.  This also implies that just so much as I own myself, I do not own anyone else. It also follows that if I do something that violates another human being without their consent I violate their right to express their very humanness.

Thus, I deduce that by my very being , I own myself , I own my own property as me, I have a right not to be interfered with so long as I do not interfere with anyone else.  It clearly follows that if I were to interfere with someone else’s property, they would not own it.  This would deprive them of their own humanity, I suggest. This is a deduction from the axiom that to exist I need to argue. I come to this conclusion via the Haberrmasian axiom of interpersonal argument that has been so cleverly adapted by Hans Herman Hoppe in his book The Economics and Ethics of Private Property.

To argue against this you explicitly acknowledge control of your faculties, at the very least. Following Kant’s Golden Rule that a norm should be universal in its applicability should it be objectively valid, this proposition surely fulfils this requirement to be a totally objective axiomatic principle.

All ethical propositions, such as socialism, that say that you owe a duty to the State to provide for others,  are violations of the very distinguishing thing that makes you a human being and not a rock or a colony of ants.  To advocate any form or socialism, be it of the democratic variety, the communist variety, or indeed the mixed economy is to violate your very essence of being a human.

John Locke in his “Two Treatises of Government” spells out that property or,  if you like all resources exist prior to any government. Man mixes his labour with what he finds and it is by right his. Government cannot ‘dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily’. Locke left us with a conundrum called “Locke’s proviso.” This is where if a man mixes his labour to own something that was not owned before; he must always leave a “sufficient” amount for other human beings.

Jesus Huerta de Soto, one of the greatest living polymath Austrian School teachers in his essay “The Ethics of Capitalism” , shows us how possibly the other living giant of the Austrian School, Israel Kirzner in “Discovery, Capitalism, and Distributive Justice”  has solved this proviso of Locke. And allows us to build the objective moral ethic of capitalism.

Socialist, social democrats and a large body of modern day liberals and conservatives have a distributive conception of justice that is about a top down approach of redistribution of scarce resources from those who do have to those who that have less, or nothing, or whose lobby groups has succeeded in extracting something from those that have. Kirzner shows us how as all human being are creative actor: they are always engaging in entrepreneurial activity to generate new goods and services.  All human beings are alert to opportunity, some to a greater degree than others. The fruits of this alertness arises via their actions. This is universally so. To not act would not create these things. So he proposes an axiom that all human beings have a natural right to the fruits of their own entrepreneurial creativity.  As these things are created out of nothing, it implies that the acting person has an undoubted right to the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the fruits of his or her labour. If it did not exist before, it cannot be a negative to anyone else.  So Locke’s proviso is overcome by the understanding of society as dynamic and spontaneous constantly evolving process with alert actors constantly creating new goods and services that they must have an unquestionable right to own.

De Soto coins the term ‘Dynamic Efficiency’ to describe this process. He also points out that the free market capitalist system – that we know is the most efficient system – is also the most just and in fact, these two concepts are indeed two sides of the same one coin. Any form of intervention is immoral as it impedes the creative capacity of individuals to express their creativity and create all the wide range of goods and services we have. It should be pointed out that top down provision of health, education, transport, industry etc is inefficient and hence unjust as it suppresses the creative activity of human beings.  Absent the profit motive and you will get sub optimal results.

Do Soto points out that the last Pope, Pope John Paul II in his Centesimus Annus, which built on the earlier work of the Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, established the universal moral capitalist ethic by acknowledging the natural right (God given) to express your very creativity unhindered so long and you hinder no one else.

First Principle: Theological – God Endowed Rights

I Exist

Writing about the morality of capitalism in glowing positive terms as I have done above and setting it in the backdrop of universally applicable objective axioms is not as unfashionable as talking to any thinking person about God, but only just! Such is the secular society we live in; you are considered to be an ill informed mystic should you engage in “god bothering.”  The See of Peter would naturally see this differently and I am very grateful for De Soto to direct me to the pro capitalist teachings of the Catholic Church.

Are the above self evident axioms that are universally applicable in all times and in all places to everybody there because we are human or are they there because they are God endowed?

I can ague both, but I favour self evident God endowed over self evident secular, although the latter can stand on its own legs. Why?

I wrote an article about the proof God three years ago for LewRockwell.com. In short, I take the Aristotelian inspired position that as I exist I know that other physical things exist. I know that each and every one of these physical things must have been caused by another physical thing. I know that nothing is infinite. If it was, I would not exist as for it to be infinite, it would occupy all time and space and I would not exist. As I exist, I know this cannot be the case. I know there is a beginning to the universe and that there are physical boundaries  to the universe, therefore I know there cannot be an infinite series of physical causes and effects as there would be no boundary and no beginning. Therefore what caused the first physical thing must indeed be immaterial if it cannot be a physical cause. This immaterial thing is what I label as ‘God’.  So I conclude God does exist and the only act I can attribute to God by a priori reasoning is that God created everything. As I like to exist I am very grateful for this and can only conclude that God has good intentions.  If I do not like to exist, I can choose not to and commit suicide. God is therefore good for me and objectively good for all human beings.  As God has created everything, he has endowed us with the ability to reason and engage in the formation of reasoned propositions, the latter which is undoubtedly a unique attribute to mankind the former quite possible unique to mankind, sets the foundation for the derivation of the rights of man and the very ethics of capitalism.

Further reading