November 23, 2017

It’s not labor unions that destroy the economy; it’s the New Deal and its awful progeny

First_United_States_Labor_Day_Parade,_September_5,_1882_in_New_York_CityTwo small minorities on either end of the political spectrum have strong feelings about Labor Day. One side sees the holiday as a celebration of all the victories hard working folks have won in securing their rights against greedy capitalists who would otherwise have them working twenty-three hours a day in sweat shops. The other side sees it as overt Marxism, so dangerous to all that’s good and holy the holiday should be renamed.

The other 95% are just damned glad to have the day off.

That the right wingers are paranoid doesn’t mean no one is out to get them. There is a very real connection between the holiday, the unions that proposed it and Marxism. American Marxists are firm supporters of unions, as were Marx and Engels themselves.

Neither is there any denying the damage unions appear to have done. Wherever labor unions are firmly entrenched, economic hardship proliferates. Outside the politically correct zone, everyone knows unions destroyed Detroit. If you have any doubt, just look at General Motors’ 2006 balance sheet. Either capitalists mysteriously ceased being greedy for the preceding fifty years or something forced them to be overly generous with pay and benefits, resulting in the bizarre preponderance of legacy benefit costs reflected there.

This would seem to be something of a paradox. How can this free association, an expression of the free market itself, be so harmful to our economic well-being?

The answer is labor unions themselves are not the problem. It’s labor union legislation, starting with the infamous “Wagner Act” (National Labor Relations Act of 1935) and continuing with subsequent legislation in the decades thereafter. These laws transformed the employment contract from a voluntary buyer-seller agreement to an involuntary one for one side.

The Wagner Act didn’t protect the right of sellers (employees) to freely associate and agree upon a minimum level of pay and benefits they would accept. They already had that right. The Wagner Act legalized violation of the buyers’ (employers) right to refuse to purchase their services. Just as sellers have a right to make collective bargaining a condition of the sale, buyers have a right to make individual bargaining a condition of their purchase.

In a free market, exchanges are supposed to happen only when both sides voluntarily agree to the price and the terms. If they can’t agree, they just don’t do business together, with each party free to buy or sell the services in question from and to others, respectively.

The Wagner Act overrides this natural law. It says the sellers are free to bargain collectively, but the buyer is not free to refuse. It makes one side of the agreement involuntary. Apart from the moral repugnancy of the idea, it causes huge economic distortions.

For example, it completely reverses the incentives for the sellers. If the buyers were allowed to negotiate freely with union and non-union members, the union would have to find a way to makes its members more productive than non-union workers to justify the higher price they ask for the same services.

Instead, unions in the present scenario have an incentive to make its workers less productive. Since the employer can’t say no, the union benefits from less productivity per worker, which results in a need for more total workers paying union dues. Anyone who’s been a new employee in a union shop will attest to the pressure from other employees to slow down one’s work in order to strengthen the union’s position at the bargaining table.

The right of buyers to buy from someone else or not buy at all is the most fundamental discipline a free market imposes on sellers. It is the only reason sellers seek to improve the quality and lower the price of their products. When this discipline is removed, prices go up and quality goes down. It’s the same phenomenon playing out in health care.

Ultimately, one shouldn’t blame labor unions for the economic misery they seem to spread. They are merely responding to incentives, just as do crony capitalists who benefit from protectionism. Put the blame squarely where it belongs, on the source of most human misery in this advanced age: government.

Enjoy the Labor Day holiday. Cook some hot dogs, crack open some cold ones and thank the hard workers the holiday is meant to honor under its rightful name. And while you’re at it, burn FDR in effigy for screwing everything up.


Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.

But aren’t right-to-work laws also unjust?

TAMPA, December 13, 2012 ― As expected, the reaction to Monday’s column about Michigan’s right-to-work legislation inspired spirited discussion.

Weeding out both praise and invective that were unresponsive to my argument, there was a dissent that had merit. It was the libertarian argument that right-to-work laws also violate the rights of employers and employees to make a voluntary contract. An employer should be free to require membership in the union and/or payment of dues as a condition of employment.

Like most libertarians, I agree with that argument in principle, but one cannot evaluate right-to-work laws in a vacuum.

Right-to-work laws and the Taft-Hartley Act from which they proceed are wholly a reaction to the Wagner Act. The proponents of Taft-Hartley first tried to get the Wagner Act repealed. When the Supreme Court ruled Wagner constitutional, conservatives passed Taft-Hartley. If the Wagner Act were not already law, Taft-Hartley would be both unnecessary and unjust.

However, in the context of the Wagner act, neither is necessarily true. A brief allegory will illustrate.

Employer Smith sits down at the bargaining table with Union Jones. The two discuss potential terms of an employment contract, but are unable to reach an agreement. Jones wants more than Smith is willing or able to pay. Smith gets up to walk away.

Just then, Luca Brasi walks up and makes Smith “an offer he can’t refuse.” Brasi puts a gun to Smith’s head and invites him to sit back down, assuring him that at the end of the meeting, either his brains or his signature will be on a collective bargaining agreement.

Brasi is the Wagner Act.

Read the rest of the article…

Michigan unions say no right to work

TAMPA, December 10, 2012 – Lansing, Michigan is bracing for an onslaught of protestors following Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s indication that he would sign “Right to Work” legislation currently making its way through the state legislature. President Obama and Harry Reid have both joined Michigan Democrats in denouncing the bill.

As usual, both liberals and conservatives are already demonstrating their skewed perception of reality in weighing in on this debate. President Obama told workers at an engine plant outside Detroit that “what we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages,” as if the law would do any such thing.

However, Harry Reid surpassed all in obtuseness when he called the legislation a “blatant attempt by Michigan Republicans to assault the collective bargaining process and undermine the standard of living it has helped foster.”

Perhaps the senator should ask the residents of Detroit, an entire city laid waste by New Deal union legislation, how they are enjoying the standard of living it has produced.

Libertarians haven’t been able to say this in quite a while, but the conservatives are mostly right on this one, although perhaps for the wrong reasons.

The only troubling sentiment coming from grassroots conservatives is the animosity towards labor unions themselves. Many seem to believe that the mere existence of labor unions causes economic distortions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Labor unions themselves are not the problem.

Like virtually all human misery, labor market distortions are caused by the government. Specifically in this case, they are rooted in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (a.k.a. the Wagner Act).

Read the rest of the article…


Free Excerpt – A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America

Kindle edition now available here!

Paperback here!

Hello friends,

Americans are waking up to the reality that our once free republic is in serious trouble. They are searching for answers to what seem like unsolvable problems: economic depression, unending war, political corruption, and vanishing liberties. What if there were just one answer – freedom? The American republic was founded upon that principle, yet few suggest it is the solution to any of our problems,  much less all of them. But if freedom is the answer, we first must know what it is. Sadly, most Americans do not. That is why I wrote this book.

I hope you enjoy the Introduction and Chapter One: What is Freedom?, which I am making available for free below. The subsequent chapters discuss how freedom can solve the many challenges we face.

To read the rest of this book, you can get the Kindle Edition here.

I look forward to fighting with you to restore our liberty.  – Tom Mullen


“Thomas Mullen is a knowledgeable and passionate libertarian and A Return to Common Sense is a valuable addition to the libertarian literature. Those new to the freedom movement will benefit from Tom’s introduction to both the practical and moral arguments for freedom. Long-time activists will benefit from Tom’s explanation of why strict adherence to principle is vital to the future success of the liberty movement.”

Representative Ron Paul (TX-14)

Congressman and author of The Revolution: A Manifesto and End the Fed.

“A well written primer on economics, liberty, and government that even avid Austrians will enjoy. If you have been blinded by government and Wall Street propaganda, A Return to Common Sense will help open your eyes. I not only recommend that you add this book to your freedom library, but that you buy a few copies for your friends.”

Peter Schiff, President of Euro Pacific Capital, Inc and author of Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse.

Tom Mullen has written a thorough and useful book. Those for whom a discussion of liberty is a new experience will discover in A Return to Common Sense a clear, easy to understand guide to the nature of freedom, and why it is essential to our fondest hopes for a civil society of opportunity, peace, and prosperity. For those who already share these values, it’s a welcome resource for perfecting our own knowledge and advancing our cause.

– Charles Goyette, author of THE DOLLAR MELTDOWN: Surviving the Impending Currency Crisis with Gold, Oil, and Other Unconventional Investments and RED AND BLUE AND BROKE ALL OVER: Restoring America’s Free Economy

Chapter 1

What is Freedom?

And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world?”

 – Frederic Bastiat1 (1850)

If there is one thing uniquely associated with America, it is freedom.  From the moment Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, America has been a symbol of liberty to the entire world.  Since the end of World War II, when the United States assumed a worldwide leadership role, it has been the leader of the “free world.”  At sporting events, standing crowds begin their ovation when the vocalist singing the national anthem gets to the words, “O’er the land of the free.”  Even in everyday conversations, scarcely a day goes by that one does not hear someone say, “Do what you like, it’s a free country.”

Although we all agree that America is the “land of the free,” there are questions about freedom that might be more difficult to answer.  What is freedom?  How is it defined?  What makes America the land of the free?  How would we know if we were to lose our freedom?  What is it that our soldiers die for and our politicians swear to defend?

We have been told a lot of things about what freedom is not.  From the end of World War II until 1991, most Americans understood that freedom was not communism.  For almost three generations, Americans lived in the “free world” during its cold war with the communist Eastern Bloc.  Without further thought or instruction, many children of the 20th century think of freedom merely as the antithesis of communism.  In some ways, this is not completely untrue, although it hardly provides a complete answer to our question.

Certainly, the mere absence of communism doesn’t necessarily guarantee freedom.  The 18th century British monarchy wasn’t communist, but the American colonists nevertheless considered it tyrannical enough to rebel against.  Likewise, the Royal House of Saud may be an ally of the U.S. government, but most Americans would not regard Saudi Arabia as a “free country.”

In addition to monarchies, there are plenty of dictatorships around the world that don’t enforce a communist system but are nevertheless oppressive.  While they also may be allies of the U.S. government, they certainly aren’t free countries, either.  So, a society is not free merely because it is not communist.

On the other hand, monarchy doesn’t seem to necessarily preclude freedom, either. Great Britain has been a relatively free country throughout much of its history, even when the monarchy was much more than a figurehead.  The American Revolution notwithstanding, Great Britain was at that time one of the freest societies in the world.  Therefore, rather than conclude that no freedom is possible under a monarchy, one might instead conclude that monarchies neither guarantee nor necessarily exclude freedom. Freedom or tyranny seems possible under almost any system of government.

Perhaps we can define freedom more easily by looking at its antithesis.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists slavery among antonyms for freedom.  Surely, we have found a start here.  Most people would agree that slavery is the complete absence of freedom.  Who can we imagine that is less free than the slave?  This is helpful in beginning to try to frame an answer, but freedom cannot be merely the absence of slavery.  Surely our founding fathers bled to give us a higher standard than this!

If we are told anything about what freedom is, it is that freedom is democracy.  If you ask most Americans, this is the answer you will get.  This is reinforced ad nauseum by politicians, media, and teachers in our public schools.  When Iraq held its first elections after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, politicians and journalists universally celebrated the Iraqis’ “first taste of freedom.”

Certainly, democracy is a vast improvement over the autocratic rule of a dictator. But does democracy automatically mean freedom?  If democracy is rule by the majority, what about the minority?  What if 51 % of the people voted to oppress the other 49%?  Would that society truly be free?

Most Americans would be quite surprised to learn what our founding fathers thought about democracy.  Any objective analysis would conclude that their feelings lay somewhere between suspicion and contempt.

James Madison said, “Democracy is the most vile form of government … democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,”2

In a letter to James Monroe, he also said,

“There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.”3

While often extolling the virtue of majority rule, Thomas Jefferson nevertheless wrote,

“…that the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”4

Can this be true?  The founding fathers were ambivalent about democracy?  For many people, this is tantamount to sacrilege.  More shocking still is what the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution say about democracy: nothing.  Nowhere in our founding documents will you find the word “democracy” or the assertion, implicit or explicit, that our government is a democracy.  How can this be?

Despite what we are taught virtually from birth, the United States of America has never been a democracy.  As only contrarians point out these days, it is a constitutional republic.  We choose our leaders using the democratic process of majority vote, but that is the extent to which the United States involves itself with democracy.

Like monarchy, democracy neither guarantees nor necessarily prohibits freedom.  Our founders actually feared that democracy poses a danger to freedom.  Apart from the pure heresy of the idea, it leaves us with a problem.  We are no closer to defining freedom.  If even democracy is not freedom, perhaps freedom doesn’t really exist!  If we are not to find freedom in democracy, where else can we look?

We certainly won’t learn what freedom is from our politicians.  While terrorism, healthcare, unemployment, gay marriage, and a host of other “major issues” dominate public debate, freedom is just too quaint, too academic, or too forgotten to get any airplay.  Yet, as we shall see as we explore the different subjects of this book, freedom is the fundamental issue.  In fact, despite what we perceive as a myriad of different problems facing the United States of America today, freedom is actually the only issue.  That may be hard to accept, given the decades of shoddy history, obfuscation, and plain old bad ideas we’ve been bombarded with.  Nevertheless, our greatest challenges and their solutions revolve around freedom.  If freedom is really that important, we’d better be absolutely sure we know what it is.

In order to answer the question posed by Bastiat at the beginning of this chapter, we will have to go back to the beginning.  Our founding fathers faced no such quandary about the definition of freedom. They knew exactly what it was.  They were children of the Enlightenment, and derived their ideas about freedom directly from its philosophers, especially John Locke.  While these philosophers were powerful thinkers and their ideas were (no pun intended) revolutionary at the time, the principles of liberty are relatively simple.  They are, as the namesake of this book concluded, common sense.  It was an understanding of these revolutionary ideas by average American colonists that inspired the revolution that gave birth to a nation.

The idea that opens the door to the true meaning of freedom is individual rights.  Despite the emphasis today on the “general welfare” and the “common good,” the American tradition of liberty has nothing to do with either.  Instead, the founders believed each individual was born with natural, inalienable rights.  The Declaration of Independence states,

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” 5

This passage is quoted widely in popular culture.  Invariably, the words emphasized are “that all men are created equal.”  Certainly, these are fine words and worthy of veneration.  However, the rest of this passage is equally important.  Every human being, because of his equality with all other human beings, has rights no earthly power can take away.  These rights are “unalienable,” so that governments, even democratically elected governments, have no power to revoke them.  To the founding fathers this was self-evident.  It was true based purely upon man’s existence itself.

This idea is drawn directly from the philosophy of John Locke, who wrote,

“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection,”6

While these rights are endowed by a Creator, the founders did not specify who the Creator was.  Too often, those arguing for the ideals of our republic make the fatal mistake of basing the natural rights upon belief not only in God, but specifically upon the Christian God.  While the founders were by no means opposed to Christianity, belief in it or even in God is not a prerequisite for the existence of the natural rights.  The beauty of this idea is that it transcends religion and thus welcomes members of all religions, and those with no religious beliefs at all.  Therefore, the first building block of freedom, individual, inalienable rights, can be claimed by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, by every person on earth.

So what are these inalienable rights, which cannot be taken away?  The Declaration goes on to say, “That among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”7

At first glance, this statement might be a bit deceiving, maybe even a little disappointing.  Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?  Is that all?  Surely we have more rights than these!  Of course, the Declaration says “among these,” so it does not limit the natural rights to these three.  But these three are important.  It is worthwhile to determine the meaning of each.

The right to life is pretty easy to understand.  Most civilized societies have laws against murder.  Each individual has a right not to be killed by another human being, except in self-defense.  So far, so good.  What about the other two?  We are in the midst of trying to define liberty, or freedom, so let us put that aside for the moment.  The third right listed is “the pursuit of happiness.”  What does that mean?  Does it mean nothing?  Or does it mean everything?  What if it makes me happy to steal cars or blow up buildings?  Surely, I don’t have a right to pursue happiness like that!

No. There is a natural limit on liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Again, we can find the answer in Locke,

“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” 8

While people are free to do what they want, they must do so “within the bounds of the law of nature.”  What is the law of nature?  Locke goes on to tell us,

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…” 9

Finally, we have some indication of what freedom is, rather than what it is not.  Liberty is not the unlimited ability to do whatever you want, nor is it confined to the arbitrary limits placed upon people by governments.  Contrary to the spurious argument that unfettered liberty would result in chaos, we see that the law of nature, Reason, very clearly and unambiguously prohibits some actions, even for people in a state of absolute liberty.  They are:

1.   Initiating the use of force or violence

2.   Infringing upon another person’s liberty

3.   Harming them in their possessions.

This last limit upon the actions of free individuals is important.  Locke spends an entire chapter of his Second Treatise talking about it.  It is related to property, which is arguably the most important right, while at the same time the least understood.  Property is important enough that we will spend the next chapter examining the subject.  To do this we will have to come to a clear definition of property, including how it is acquired, how it is exchanged, and what right the owner has to it.

More importantly, we have arrived at a definition of liberty.  It is the right of any person to do as they please, as long as they do not violate the equal rights of anyone else.  The latter half of this definition is generally referred to as the “non-aggression principle.”  Political activists associate this principle with libertarians, while intellectuals associate it with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.  Certainly both movements recognize and venerate it, but it is important to realize that neither is its source.  In fact, the non-aggression principle has been articulated with very little variation by all writers in the liberal tradition, including Locke, Jefferson, Paine, Bastiat, Mill, and later Rand and other 20th century writers and thinkers.

By applying this principle, the most complicated societal issues become astoundingly simple.  The ambiguous becomes unambiguous.  The answers become clear.  Virtually every problem facing America today can be solved by applying the principle of freedom.

There are a few points we should review for emphasis.  First, the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and drawn out of Locke’s philosophy are inalienable.  They cannot be taken away by any power on earth, including a majority vote.  The reason the founders were suspicious of democracy was because of their fear that the majority would oppress the individual by voting away the individual’s rights, especially property rights.  This was the reason for the separation of powers and the limits on government authority.  Even a majority vote can be a threat to freedom.

The difference between a right and a privilege is a vital concept to understand.  A right is something you are born with, that you possess merely because you exist.  A privilege is something that is granted by another person, group, or a government.  Our country was founded upon the principle that all people have inalienable rights that cannot be taken away, not privileges granted by their government.  As John Adams so eloquently put it,

“I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”10

There is no need to be “thankful for the rights we have in America.”  All people have those rights and gratitude is neither necessary nor appropriate.  Rather, people are justified in demanding their rights, and any violation of them should be recognized as an act of aggression.

Second, in any conflict between individual liberty and the will of the majority, individual liberty prevails without compromise.  The majority has no right to violate the rights of the individual.   This is to some extent merely making the first point in reverse, but it is important enough to say in more than one way.  Society doesn’t have rights; individuals do.  Society is nothing more than a collection of individuals, so protecting each individual in society protects society.

Despite these seemingly undeniable truths, individual liberty is today under constant attack because of its perceived conflict with the common good or “the needs of society.”  While living together and agreeing not to initiate aggression against each other seems astoundingly simple, our politicians would have us believe there is something incredibly complicated about it.  They create a world in which civil society is a maze of moral dilemmas that only their astute guidance can lead us safely through.  Once liberty is properly understood and applied, all of these supposed dilemmas disappear.

End Notes

Introduction: The American Crisis

1 Paine, Thomas The American Crisis “The Crisis No. 1” December 19, 1776 from Paine Collected Writings edited by Eric Foner Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. New York, NY 1955 pg. 91

Chapter 1: What is Freedom?

1 Bastiat, Frederic The Law 1850 from The Bastiat Collection 2 Volumes Vol. 1 Ludwig Von Mises Institute Auburn, AL 2007 pg. 79

2 Madison,James Federalist #10

3 Madison, James Letter to James Monroe October 5th, 1786 James Madison Center, The Phillip Bigler, Director, James Madison University Harrisonburg, VA

4 Jefferson, Thomas To Dupont de Nemours from Jefferson Writings edited by Merrill D. Peterson New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984 pg. 1387

5 Declaration of Independence, United States 1776 National Archives and Records (website)

6 John Locke Second Treatise on Civil Government from Two Treatises of Government C. and J. Rivington, 1824 (Harvard University Library Copy) pg. 132

7 Declaration of Independence, United States 1776 National Archives…

8 Locke Second Treatise pgs. 131-32

9 Locke Second Treatise pg. 133

10 Adams, John A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law 1765 Ashland Center for Public Affairs (website) Ashland University

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What is Greed?

Whether you are liberal, conservative, libertarian, or none of the above, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the “Occupiers.” Even if do not agree with them on every issue, there is something very American about a grassroots movement to “fight the man” and protest the existing order. After all, that is how the united States of America were born. As with the Tea Party, it is refreshing to see a group of Americans objecting to something about the sad state of our republic, rather than indifferently accepting each new depridation like sheep awaiting the slaughter.

It is in this spirit that I take issue with one of the central themes of the OWS movement: the fight against “greed.” Here is one area where I believe that the Occupiers are chasing a phantom. Greed is the government’s favorite hobgoblin. Any politician with a bad record, skeleton’s in his closet, or some other threat to his phoney baloney job can invoke this loosely defined vice and count on some level of support in his time of need (for votes). But what is greed and how can one fight it?

That is two questions and one cannot answer the second before resolving the first. I believe that if you asked any 10 people at random for their definition of greed, you would get 10 different answers. The first answer is usually “a desire to have more than one needs.” However, this doesn’t hold up very well. It is obvious that all people desire more than they need. Without accumulating more wealth than what is minimally needed for survival, no human being can read or write a book, create a work of art, or perform an act of charity. In fact, none of what we commonly call “culture” would be possible if human beings did not accumulate the excess wealth that affords them the leisure time to create art, literature, charitable organizations, or the other blessings of society.

To this objection, proponents of the “more than one needs” definition will immediately clarify. “No, I meant desiring far more than one needs.” This clarification is just as problematic. How much is too much? Who sets the limit? At what point has one changed from being a hard worker to being “greedy?” Does that limit change from person to person? Is there a greed-o-meter out there that can set a dollar amount?

If one accepts this definition of greed, the solution to the problem is even murkier than the definition itself. Exactly what is to be done about the fact that “the 1% cares only about profits and not about the  rest of society?” Should businesses take specific actions to cut their profits? What are those actions? The great majority of all new businesses fail within their first year, even when their sole motivation is profit. How is an entrepreneur to know for sure that his business will succeed at all, much less make “excessive” profits? What action can he take to counteract this? Should he cease to innovate, improve efficiencies, lower costs for consumers, improve the quality and features  of his products, or employ people? These are the things that entrepreneurs do to make profits. Specifically which one is “bad” for the 99%?

To be fair, many of the comments on the OWS Demands page are more specific. As I’ve said before, they are definitely in the ball park when they finger the financial sector. However, comments like this one indicate that they haven’t yet found their seats:

“The moneyed elite of our society has changed from being apart of the team that built an economy that raised the lives of all men with ample profits for themselves to a Gambler, who only wants to keep score through the accumulation of money, ever screaming for more profits for themselves at the expense of the people they pretend to serve.”

This is a popular theme and not just among OWS supporters. The accusation that economic players in the financial sector took excessive risks that harmed people other than themselves is almost universally accepted, even by conservatives. Remember George W. Bush’s famous pronouncement, “Wall Street got drunk.”

However, the statement that the “gamblers” make “profits for themselves at the expense of the people they pretend to serve” just doesn’t compute. Wall Street did take excessive risks during the boom that predeceded the bust. They did indeed take those risks in the hope of making greater profits. However, those profits would not have been made at the expense of the people they serve. The people they serve would have made those profits, too, on their own money. They voluntarily gave their money to the financial sector in the hopes that the “gamblers” would win them a return on their investment. Had all gone well, the 99% would have realized a huge return. It is fashionable to claim that financiers make money for producing nothing, but this isn’t true. They make money from their ability to make sound investments and the willingness of other people to pay them to do if for them.

So what can be done about this problem? How do politicians or their constituents, who know nothing about investing (which is the whole reason that they give their money to financiers in the first place), make rules for how much risk investors are allowed to take? Do those rules apply to their own investments? Without some risk, there are no new businesses, no new jobs, no economic growth. How much risk is too much and who decides? The investors themselves or people who know nothing about investing? If investors are not allowed to take whatever risks they deem prudent and the result is that the economy in America dies, will the 99% take responsibility for that? We know that the politicians won’t.

All of these seemingly insoluble dilemmas spring from the initial premise about greed. As long as greed is defined in terms of how much wealth one desires to accumulate, the conclusions that one draws from that premise will always be absurd. The amount of wealth one accumulates or desires to accumulate is immaterial. Instead, it is the means by which one wishes to acquire it that is vital.

If you change your definition of greed from “desiring more than one needs” to “desiring more than one has earned,” then all of the contradictions and ambiguities disappear. Of course, we are immediately begging the question of how to define “earned,” but that is a simple matter. One has earned wealth if one has acquired it without initiating the use of force against anyone else. Under this definition, money given to someone as a charitable contribution qualifies as earned just as profits made from selling products do. In this scenario, the amount of wealth one is able to accumulate has a natural limit – the amount that others are willing to pay for one’s goods or services. This eliminates those troublesome questions about how much is too much in terms of profit.

To be greedy, then, is not the desire to accumulate more wealth than one needs, but the desire to accumulate more than others are willing to pay you for your services. For in order to do that, you must forcibly take the money that they would not willingly give. There is only one institution in all of society that can facilitate this legally: government.

Thus, if Person A accumulates $1 million by selling 100,000 units of his product at $10 per unit, he is not being greedy. He has made an equitable exchange with his fellow human beings: $1 million in products for $1 million in money. In this scenario, he and the 99% are square. Each has benefitted equally from the exchange. We know that he has earned his $1 million because the consumers set the price of his products with their voluntary decision to buy.

Now consider Person B, who wishes to accumulate that same $1 million through government employment, subsidies or privileges. No one voluntarily buys his product. The fact that the government has to either subsidize Person B or protect him from competition means that he is trying to sell something that people would not otherwise buy at his asking price. At best, Person B has sold something at a higher price than people are willing to pay. At worst he has sold something that his fellow humans don’t want at all, but are forced to purchase by the government.

Either way, Person B is greedy – he wishes to accumulate wealth beyond what people are willing to pay him voluntarily. In other words, he is willing to commit armed theft against his neighbors. As you can see, Person B may be far more greedy in his desire for even $50,000 than Person A is in his desire for $100 million, if Person B plans to obtain it by force and Person A means to obtain it through voluntary exchange.

OWS is right to want to stamp out greed, but they aren’t defining it correctly. Since Woodrow Wilson, progressives have been making the same fundamental error in failing to distinguish between legitimately acquired wealth and wealth acquired through government force. It is the latter that OWS should look to stamp out, rather than indiscriminately condemning anyone who becomes wealthy. The most effective way to fight greed by its true definition is to take the Occupation to Washington, D.C., where the power that the greedy utilize resides.

Imagine a world in which every individual has an equal chance to be a millionaire, but only if he offers his fellow individuals $1 million in benefits, with the 99% deciding for themselves how much they are willing to pay. That is a world without greed. That is what we used to call “freedom.”

Corporations and Labor Unions: Great Ideas Corrupted By Government

There are no two institutions in American society that are more associated with the struggle between right and left than corporations and labor unions. Outside of foreign policy, there is nothing that liberals are more hostile towards than corporations, nor anything that conservatives are more hostile towards than labor unions. For most Americans, corporations and labor unions lie at opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Corporations are “conservative and capitalist,” while labor unions are “liberal and socialist.”

This is an illusion. In all but the most superficial respects, corporations and labor unions are virtually identical to each other. They are both voluntary associations formed by individuals to achieve an economic goal. They would both provide enormous economic benefits to society if they were not completely corrupted by government.

A corporation is a group of people agreeing to pool their capital to create a larger venture than any of them could launch individually. The stockholders agree that none of their personal assets will be put at risk if the venture fails – only the assets of the corporation

The stockholders also make these terms with the corporation’s creditors, customers, and other parties. In this way, the stockholders can cooperatively take more risk than they would if their personal assets were at stake. With greater risk comes greater reward. Thus corporations are able to innovate, produce, and expand more rapidly than smaller partnerships or sole-owner proprietorships. This benefits consumers by offering them more choice and higher quality products at lower prices.

The benefits of corporations are derived from the voluntary nature of every transaction. The stockholders, creditors, and customers all consent to doing business with the corporation, knowing the risks and the limited liability of the stockholders. All parties are exercising a natural right to associate and exchange their property as they see fit. One can never harm another merely by exercising one’s natural rights.

The prospect of the corporation becoming “too large” or dominant in a particular industry is countered by the equal right of all other members of society to form their own corporations and compete with the dominant one. In fact, it is this natural market occurrence – new competitors entering the market when there is an opportunity to offer consumers the same or better products at lower prices – that drives explosive innovation and growth and confers enormous benefits  on the rest of  society.

All of the associations necessary to realize these benefits can be achieved by voluntary contract. There is no reason that a government must enact a body of laws indicating how these corporations should be formed or how they should operate. Neither is there any reason why the government must create an “artificial legal person” in order to insulate stockholders from liability. That can be achieved by voluntary contract as well. All that is necessary is that the various contracts made between parties be enforced. However, voluntary association is not the government’s purpose in enacting corporate laws. [i]

The government corrupts the entire nature of corporations in virtually every way. First, it grants the corporation limited liability that applies not only to those who have consented to it, but to everyone. This completely skews a natural risk/reward balance and enables the corporation to commit torts against third parties without consequences to the stockholders. It overrides the right of individuals who did not voluntarily release the corporation from liability to pursue compensation for damages. It also has the effect of encouraging corporations to take more risk than they would if the stockholders’ personal assets were at risk with respect to these third parties.

Second, the enormous body of regulations constructed around corporations harms both the stockholders and the rest of society. The stockholders have the right to form and operate their corporation anyway that they see fit, as long as they do not invade the life or property of non-contracted parties. Regulations override their decisions and force them to operate the way the government tells them to, regardless of whether it is the best way or not. This adds tremendous costs to operating the corporation, which is then passed on to consumers.

Worst of all, these unnaturally high operating costs create impediments to the rest of society in exercising its most important right in this area: to form new corporations and compete with existing firms. This inevitably results in a few companies dominating each sector of the economy. Not only are consumers punished with higher prices and less choice than they could expect in a free market, but when these government-protected corporations get into financial trouble, those same consumers are often punished again when the government bails the corporations out with taxpayer funds. Without easy entry into the market for competitors, any corporation providing a service for which there is high demand becomes “too big to fail.”

Thanks to the corrupting hand of government, corporations are motivated to do exactly the opposite of what they would do if that artificial force were absent. Instead of trying to produce better products at lower prices, the corporation has an incentive to lobby the government for higher tariffs which keep out foreign competition. This allows them to keep operating inefficiently and charging higher prices than they could if they had to compete with the true market prices offered by those competing firms.

They also benefit by lobbying for more regulations that actually drive up their own operating costs. Why would they do something so illogical? They do it because those higher costs provide an entry barrier to new competitors. The established firm can pass those higher costs on to consumers, while the new competitor is either unable to start-up at all or unable to compete until it can match the established firms’ economies of scale. In the long run, government involvement with corporations results in lower quality, higher prices, and less choice for consumers than would occur in a free market.

The dynamics at play in regard to labor unions are virtually identical. Just like the stockholders of a corporation, the members of a labor union are exercising a natural right to enter into agreements with each other in order to achieve results that they would not be able to achieve individually. They form a partnership wherein all members agree not to accept compensation below a certain agreed upon amount. Compensation can take the form of any combination of wages, benefits, or working conditions.

It is important to recognize that the relationship between employee and employer is a buyer/seller relationship, with the employer being the buyer who purchases services from the employee. Like all buyer/seller relationships, both parties benefit when the transaction is voluntary. The seller benefits by getting the very highest price for his product that the market will bear. The buyer benefits by getting the highest quality product that he is able to obtain for the money he is willing and able to spend. If either party in any buyer/seller transaction does not believe that he is benefitting from the transaction, he can refuse to go through with it.

In the case of labor unions and employers, the union members benefit by higher compensation for their services. By bargaining collectively, they can control the supply of a particular type of labor demanded by employers and thus drive up the price. However, the employers actually benefit as well. As they are free to choose to hire people outside the union, the union must ensure that their product (labor) is superior enough in quality to persuade the employer to pay more for union employees than for cheaper, non-union employees. Such are the incentives in a free market, where all transactions are voluntary.

Under these conditions, labor unions would have an incentive to offer continuing education or training courses, to monitor the productivity of their members, and to set minimum standards for entry into the union as well as criteria for expelling non-productive employees. All of this would drive up quality, productivity, and profitability, further encouraging employers to pay more for union employees as a wise investment in more profitable products.

As with corporations, the benefits conferred upon society by labor unions depends upon contracts being enforced and all transactions between parties being voluntary. However, just as it does with corporations, government completely corrupts the nature of labor unions, eliminating many of the benefits they would otherwise provide. With interventions like the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and subsequent legislation, the government destroys the voluntary nature of the employment contract, in many cases forcing employers to hire union workers. This violates the rights of employers to purchase services from whomever they wish to and eliminates competition for the labor unions, encouraging them to behave in a manner completely contrary to how they would behave in a free market.

Instead of encouraging their members to be more productive, labor unions actually encourage lower productivity from their members. It is not uncommon for a union member to be threatened by his coworkers for working too fast or being too productive and skewing the lower expectations negotiated by the union in the interest of employing more dues-paying members to accomplish the same work. Instead of setting higher standards for entry into the union, the union actually forces new employees to join as a condition of taking the job.

Finally, with competition from non-union employees eliminated, the union has no incentive to control the price they are charging for their services. In a free market, there would be a price point at which the presumably lower-skilled non-union workers would be a more profitable buy for employers than the presumably higher-skilled union workers. However, once the government removes the ability of the employer to make this choice, there is no longer any control on the price of union labor. This is why unions played such a large role in the demise of the American auto industry and American manufacturing in general.

Despite the unnatural, corruptive influence of government, corporations and labor unions still manage to provide many benefits to society. The insight that each must have about themselves and each other is that all of the benefits they provide derive from the extent to which they are voluntary associations which enter into consensual agreements with other parties. Conversely, all of the harm that they cause and all of the animosity that they and their supporters have for each other are the result of the coercive interference of government.

Instead of appealing to the government to assist them in invading each other’s rights, they should recognize that the government is actually their common enemy, preventing each from benefitting themselves and each other. If they wish to secure their rights and achieve positive results for themselves and society, they should kick the government out of their affairs and follow the law of nature.

[i] Special thanks to libertarian thinker and activist Steve LaBianca for his help in developing this analysis of the nature of corporations.

Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.