November 24, 2014

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.”

What’s So Hard to Understand About Ron Paul?

This time things are going to be different for Ron Paul’s presidential run. After correctly predicting the collapse of the housing bubble and the resulting financial and economic crisis, Paul has become a mainstay on business talk shows, especially on the conservatively-oriented Fox News. One can almost sense the resignation in the voices of talk show hosts and reporters as they acknowledge that Paul will not be ignored by the media this time around – which is ironic because it is these same people who ignored him in 2008.

However, while supporters will rejoice at the increased quantity of coverage of Paul’s campaign, they should be realistic about the quality of the coverage. Namely, supporters should expect that conservatives will agree with him on most of his economic positions, including cutting down the welfare state and rolling back government regulations, but disagree with him on foreign policy.

Similarly, supporters should expect that liberals will agree with Paul on foreign policy (although somewhat reservedly while there is a Democrat running the empire) and civil liberties, but disagree with him on economic policy, especially when it comes to Paul’s positions on responsibly ending Social Security and Medicare.

Watching Paul’s appearance on The View, one could already see this dynamic in action. While the ladies on the show were very gracious to the congressman, Whoopi Goldberg took the lead in asking some policy questions and demonstrated the liberal take on Paul perfectly. She first stated that she agreed that she would like to see the wars end, but wanted to know how Paul could get us out of them (a concern that never would have arisen with a Republican running the empire). After Paul gave his customary answer, “we marched right in there, we can march right out,” Goldberg then challenged Paul on his position that healthcare is not a right. She truly looked baffled that any politician could be both anti-war and anti-entitlement.

On the conservative side, media figures have been doing the opposite routine with Ron Paul for years. Glenn Beck (pre-blackboard) routinely had Paul on during the economic crisis and always emphasized his agreement with Ron Paul’s economic positions and  his disagreement on foreign policy. Ann Coulter has also weighed in on Paul in this way, as have countless other media figures.

Neither conservatives nor liberals agree with Ron Paul that the Federal Reserve should be abolished.

Conservatives believe that along with what they would call “free market capitalism” (their version including privileges and subsidies for big business), one must support a large military establishment and an aggressive foreign policy. For conservatives, it is just inconceivable that anyone could support one and not the other. This is not a position that can be supported by reason. Rather, it is closer to an article of faith to which conservatives have developed a deep emotional attachment. The conservative philosophy still has its roots in the “ancien regime,” whereby the king/executive and a wealthy elite control commerce and support a large, active military establishment, both for the aggrandizement of the empire.

Liberals believe this, too. They share the mistaken perception of conservatives that free market capitalism is dependent upon an imperialistic foreign policy. However, instead of wholly supporting it, they wholly oppose it, confusing the state capitalism supported by conservatives with a truly free market.  Therefore, liberals oppose imperialism and free markets as if one cannot exist without the other and cannot conceive of anyone who could disagree. As with conservatives, their positions are not reasonable. They are likewise articles of faith, rooted in the ideals of ancient democracies in which the majority had unlimited power over the life and property of individuals, taken to new extremes by Marx and other socialists in the modern era.

Ron Paul’s positions do not fit into either one of these belief systems, nor does he seem to “compromise” between the two. Conservatives accuse him of being too liberal. Liberals accuse him of being too conservative. For both groups, many of his positions seem completely unexplainable.

To his supporters, Paul’s positions are so obviously consistent that they often attribute genuine confusion about them to some sort of media conspiracy. Paul bases all of his positions on what we today call “the non-aggression axiom,” which Thomas Jefferson and his supporters called “the law of nature.” This is a very simple principle which states that because we are all created equal, no one individual or group has the right to initiate force against another. Consistently applied, this principle prohibits the government from running welfare programs, regulating commerce beyond prohibiting aggression, or waging war unless the nation is actually attacked.

Paul insists that the military only be used after a declaration of war because in order for Congress to issue this declaration, the president has to cite the overt acts of war committed by the other nation against the United States. The Congress then deliberates and votes to determine whether or not a state of war already exists. That process binds the government’s use of the military to the law of nature. That is the way the declaration of war power has been exercised in every case in American history.

The main reason that conservatives and liberals do not understand Paul’s reasoning is that they have never heard of the non-aggression axiom. Despite the fact that it was the founding principle of the United States, it is not taught in schools. It is not discussed in the media. Instead, 100% of political debate revolves around results. “If the government does A, will B or C be the result?” Conservatives argue B, liberals C. Neither discusses the rights of the parties involved. Paul bases all of his positions upon these rights, which is how all political decisions should be made.

On May 5, Paul will participate in the first debate among candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president. One should not expect the objections to his positions to be substantively different than they were in 2008. While he may get more respect and stage time from the media, conservatives will still try to attack Paul’s foreign policy positions. The most that supporters should expect is the grudging admission that he may be right on economic policy, but that his foreign policy would be some sort of disaster. This follows logically from the fact that conservatives apply the tenets of their political faith and Paul follows the law of nature. He may be right, but don’t expect most conservatives or liberals to have caught up with him yet.

Check out Tom Mullen’s book, A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. Right Here!

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© Thomas Mullen 2011

>The Three Types of Government Spending

>Any objection whatsoever to some new, tax-funded government program elicits a consistent response from liberals or progressives. “You just don’t want to pay your fair share,” or “I guess we won’t see you driving on any of those government roads or calling the government police or fire departments.” The underlying assumption is that taxation is an all or nothing proposition. Either there is nothing that the government can collect taxes for or there is nothing that the government cannot collect taxes for. There are no principles upon which to base an answer to the question, “Is this a legitimate function of government?”

While there are probably thousands of different services that governments spend money on, they can generally be divided into three broad categories: security, public services, and wealth redistribution. Libertarians[1] argue that the only legitimate government spending is on security. Conservatives generally approve of security and some public services with their rhetoric while engaging in all three types of spending when in public office. Liberals generally endorse all three types of spending with both their rhetoric and their actions while in public office.

“Security” includes all government functions which attempt to defend citizens from aggression against their rights by other human beings. These would include the military, various police forces, and the civil and criminal courts. These are the functions of government whose purpose is to secure the individual rights of life, liberty, property, etc.

It is important to remember that even if these are legitimate functions of government, it does not mean that they cannot be abused. For example, a small suburban village in a low-crime area may not need more than the county sheriff for a police force, but may instead bear a tax burden of village, town, county, state, and even federal police forces. However, these debates revolve around how efficiently the services are being provided, not whether they should be provided by the government at all.

“Public services” generally refers to services provided to all members of society. What makes a service a “public service” is that it can be reasonably assumed that every member of the society has an equal opportunity to utilize it. Examples include roads, bridges, public libraries, garbage collection services, and fire departments. Libertarians argue that these are goods and services that the private sector can provide. Their objection to providing them with tax dollars is that those who do not consent to purchase them are still forced to pay. While this is also true of security services, libertarians acquiesce to those on the assumption that it would be impossible to exercise property rights without a government in place to defend them.

Certainly, a bridge between a new suburb and the city may improve commerce for the entire city. However, it is not necessary to protect anyone’s rights. Therefore, libertarians argue that those who want to build the bridge should provide the capital for it themselves and are perfectly within their rights to charge a fee to those who wish to use the bridge. Conservatives have traditionally argued that these services can be funded by the government and provided by private corporations under government contracts. Liberals generally support public services as well, although they sometimes object to them being provided by private firms.

Like security services, public services are prone to abuse and corruption, even if one accepts that they are legitimate functions of government. Public funds are often wasted on services that are not needed or services that are poorly rendered because they are provided by politically-connected government employees or private firms, rather than by the most qualified. Consider the “bridges to nowhere,” the roadwork construction projects that never end, or the multitude of scandals where it was discovered that $500 was spent on a single nail or some other gross abuse of public funds occurred.

The third category of government spending is wealth redistribution. Wealth redistribution collects taxes from one group of people in order to provide services to another group. What makes this type of government spending different from public services is the fact that the goods or services provided do not benefit all members of society equally. For example, health benefits under Medicaid are paid for by all taxpayers but are only available to people whose income is under a defined eligibility level. Thus, those funds are literally taken from one group and redistributed to another. Both libertarians and conservatives argue that this is nothing more than legalized theft, although conservatives have often led or acquiesced to expansion of this type of spending once in office. President Bush’s expansion of Medicare is one of the most recent examples. Liberals and progressives generally support this type of spending, arguing that it is each person’s moral responsibility to “contribute.”

In order to have an informed debate about a new government program, one must identify which category the proposed program belongs in. Too often the distinctions between these categories are blurred by both critics and proponents. Most often, a program that would properly be categorized as wealth redistribution is represented as a public service in an effort to persuade those that must pay for it that it is their civic duty to do so.

For example, if the federal government issues a grant to build a commuter train in Florida, it is really redistributing the wealth of all of those outside of the service area of the train, especially those in other states who were taxed to underwrite the grant. It is certainly not reasonable to assume that citizens of Montana have an equal opportunity to utilize that train, yet they were taxed to fund it. Therefore, a commuter train to benefit Floridians does not fit the definition of a “public service” for the entire nation. Interestingly, it is exactly this type of government spending that the 2010 Census form cites as its primary reason for collecting data (so that your community receives its “fair share” of federal funding).

Similarly, Social Security and Medicare purport to be public services which provide a plan for wage earners to save for their retirement. However, everyone knows that since the beginning of both of those programs, the taxes collected to fund them have gone to pay current beneficiaries, not into some mythical trust fund. In fact, when Social Security did run surpluses in the past (when contributions exceeded the payouts to current beneficiaries), the government spent the excess money and replaced it with its own bonds, which are just promises to pay based upon future taxes! So, Social Security is and has always been a wealth redistribution program. The same is true for Medicare.

Wealth redistribution can even be disguised as security with the right amount of government propaganda. The military is a security function insofar as it defends its citizens against aggression by foreign nations. However, when the military grows beyond what is reasonably necessary for defense of U.S. citizens and into a worldwide institution, surrounded by multi-billion dollar corporations which exist solely to support it, and which both attacks nations that have not committed aggression against the United States and stations troops in over 130 nations, one must ask the question, “Who is benefitting from this tax-funded monstrosity?”

It is hard to make an argument that the security of the United States depends upon the tens of thousands of troops stationed in Germany, Korea, or Japan. U.S. troops arrived in those countries during a war that ended 65 years ago and remained there supposedly because of a Cold War that ended 20 years ago. At this point, the only Americans benefitting from the continuation of the U.S. troop presence around the world are the defense contractors who sell goods and services to the government to support the operations. Is this not wealth redistribution disguised as security?

Often, conservatives will argue that America is protecting her allies by stationing troops in Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world. However, even this argument does not hold up to scrutiny. If the money to support these operations is collected from Americans but really benefits German, Japanese, or other foreign citizens, is this not still wealth redistribution disguised as security? This is one of the main reasons that Washington, Adams, and Jefferson told us not to make those alliances in the first place and spent most of their presidencies trying to keep America out of foreign wars.

Liberals represent the latest government foray into the health care industry as a public service. They claim that this will provide coverage for the 45 million Americans who are not currently covered by some form of health insurance coverage. While this number is widely disputed by opponents as being grossly inflated, it still only represents 15% of the population, even if accurate. It then follows that 85% of the population already has some form of health care coverage. Therefore, how can it be argued that all U.S. citizens will benefit equally from this program?

The program will also provide subsidies to those who cannot afford to buy health insurance coverage on their own, which is mandated for everyone.[2] This aspect of the program is undisguised wealth redistribution, as taxes will be collected from all Americans and used to purchase services only for those who qualify due to their income. There is not even a scheme in place for this program to make it look as if the recipients are funding the benefits, as there is with Medicare or Social Security.

The history of federal government spending in America can be separated into three eras. The first was dominated by the ideas of Jefferson and classical liberals (now called “libertarians) and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” That document unambiguously limited government’s role to security.

Thirteen years later, Alexander Hamilton and his conservatives succeeded in drastically expanding the role of government with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. That document does not limit the government’s role to “securing rights,” but also to “promote the general welfare” and “form a more perfect union.” It grants the U.S. government the power to tax for the purposes of “promoting the general welfare.” This expansion of the role of government to include public services was then increasingly exploited by conservatives throughout the next century to institute wealth redistribution programs for the benefit of a wealthy elite, all disguised as public services or security. These included subsidies to corporations to build roads and canals, subsidies to railroads, and the establishment of a large, standing military force.[3]

Once the conservatives succeeded in establishing government as wealth redistributor to the wealthy, liberals abandoned the philosophy of government limited to security and instead began to advocate government as wealth redistributor to the poor and middle classes. This transformation can be traced roughly to the Woodrow Wilson administration, which combined elements of the conservative philosophy with modern liberal ideas of social justice. With the FDR administration, the transformation of liberal philosophy was complete. The liberals now sought to redistribute wealth to the poor and middle classes, while the conservatives continued to redistribute to the wealthy. These are the choices presented to Americans to this day.

There are large grassroots movements forming with one rallying point in common: they are all opposed to a federal government that spends $3.6 trillion dollars a year and shows no sign of slowing down. If the movements are to succeed, their constituents must clearly understand the three types of government spending and which one really costs the most. True security makes up so small a percentage of the federal budget that no income tax, national sales tax, or “value added tax” is necessary to fund it. Truly public services are also insignificant in terms of cost. Even the hapless postal service, for all of its inefficiency and waste, does not make up a significant portion of the federal budget.

No, it is not spending on security or public services that has bankrupted the federal government and destroyed the U.S. economy. The true cause of the problem has been the massive redistribution of wealth, perpetrated by conservatives for the benefit of the wealthy and by liberals for the benefit of everyone else. It is this type of government spending that must be recognized in all of its disguises and eliminated if the United States is to be saved.

[1] I use the term “libertarians” to describe those who advocate limited government. There are also many libertarians who advocate a completely stateless society, with even security functions provided by private firms in a free market.
[2] This is a gross violation of liberty and property rights as well.
[3] See Tom Dilorenzo’s excellent body of work on this, including Hamilton’s Curse, How Capitalism Saved America, and The Real Lincoln.

The Three P’s: Things Government Cannot and Should Not Do

In this late stage of America’s devolution from constitutional republic to social democracy, one is hard pressed to find meaningful debate anywhere about the role of government. Despite a 24/7 news cycle and endless political commentary on talk radio, most Americans have not once in their lives heard the question posed, “What is the purpose of government?” Certainly, we hear that “the government should do this” or “the government should not do that” in regard to particular issues, but nowhere will you hear a meaningful discussion about the underlying mission of government. Indeed, answering this question might not be all that beneficial to our chattering classes, because once it is answered, there is little need for hours and hours of more talk. Clarifying the role of government makes the answers to most political questions rather simple and unambiguous. It is hard not to suspect that many of our politicians avoid this subject intentionally.

If America is truly the “land of the free,” then there can be only one answer to this question. The purpose of government is to defend its constituents against aggression. Period. Since “liberty” and “the non-aggression principle” are one and the same, it is impossible for government to have any other purpose, or any additional role.

As government is by definition the societal use of force, any action of government other than defense against aggression must itself be aggression.  To induce human action through aggression is coercion. When coercion is practiced by government, it is called tyranny.

Freedom is the ability to exercise one’s will in the absence of coercion.  Therefore, freedom is impossible once government is allowed to perform any function other than defense.  If freedom is exercising one’s will in the absence of coercion, one cannot be free while being coerced. Two plus two cannot equal five.

That leaves a multitude of actions that government must be prohibited from engaging in. They generally fall into three categories, which I like to call “the Three P’s.” The Three P’s are to prevent, to promote, and to provide.  There is no way for government to engage in any of these three activities without destroying the liberty that it supposedly exists to defend.  Yet, this is 99 percent of what government in modern America does.

Most Americans look to government to prevent crime.  Once a particularly heinous crime is reported in the media, there are universal outcries about the failure of government to prevent it.  Almost no one stops to think about what it really means for government to “prevent crime.”  By definition, to prevent something is to act before it happens.  Since all government action represents the use of force, government can only prevent crime by initiating force against people who have committed no crime.  Force must always be initiated by someone.  The initiating party is the aggressor.  There is no other possibility.

This is not merely a theoretical or academic argument.  Think for a moment about the results of government’s various “crime prevention” efforts.  Gun control disarms the victims of crimes while empowering violent criminals who don’t care about gun control laws.  Economic regulations which attempt to prevent fraud insulate protected corporations from competition, emboldening them to commit more fraud.  Worst of all, the War on Terror, the ultimate government crime prevention program, has harassed millions of American citizens while allowing terrorists to walk onto planes with explosives in their shoes, underwear (and who knows where else), and has laid waste to an entire nation in order to determine that the “weapons of mass destruction” it supposedly possessed did not in fact exist.

In addition to preventing crime (including terrorism), that war also claims to undertake another of the Three P’s: to “promote.”  Once it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a new rationalization was needed for our brutal invasion of that country.  That new reason turned out to be our missionary desire to “promote democracy.”  Without getting into the erroneous perception that “democracy” and “freedom” are synonymous, it should be quite clear after seven years of uninterrupted martial law in Iraq that our government has failed to achieve either democracy or freedom.  Only government can be capable of missing the irony of ordering people at gunpoint to be free.  While it might play for some good laughs in a Peter Sellers or Monty Python movie, it is really quite horrifying when one considers that our government takes this position in all seriousness.

It is not only in foreign policy that government reaps disastrous results when trying to “promote.”  Consider its attempts to promote “clean energy.”  One need look no farther than the ethanol fiasco or “Climategate” to see the results government gets in promoting respect for the environment.

The same underlying reason accounts for the similarity of results when government tries to “promote” or to “prevent.”  In both cases, force is initiated against individuals who have committed no aggression themselves.  In order for government to “promote” anything, it must act.  When government acts in the absence of aggression, it commits aggression.  By committing aggression against and therefore overriding the decisions of millions of individuals, government causes innumerable unintended consequences.  All of them can be traced to the initiation of force.

The third of the Three P’s is by far the most destructive when undertaken by government: to provide.  The illusion that government can “provide” anything springs from a loss of recognition of what government is.  Government is the use of force, not by an individual, but by all of society.  As it is a destructive force, rather than a creative one, it can produce nothing.  Therefore, it can only provide something to one citizen that it has forcefully seized from another.  This holds true whether it is attempting to provide healthcare, education, housing, or any other form of property.

The fact that human beings spend the majority of their time on earth laboring to fulfill their wants or needs makes this the most costly of the Three P’s.  While warfare represents violent aggression against millions of people, government’s usurpation of human labor initiates violence against everyone.  While the cost of warfare in human lives cannot be expressed in dollars and cents, there is at least a limit to the amount of lives it can affect and the length of time it will go on (despite government’s best efforts to make it universal and indefinite).  However, once government has claimed a right to the labor of its constituents, no one is spared and the subjugation never ends.

While the active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan amount to less than $200 billion per year (as if those amounts were not staggering themselves), the U.S. government spends trillions of dollars each year attempting to provide its citizens with healthcare, retirement benefits, education, housing, and other necessities.  Government’s results in all of these areas are the same: disastrous.  The healthcare, education, and housing provided by government are more expensive, of lower quality, and in shorter supply than would be the case if government did not attempt to provide them.  Aggression cannot create prosperity any more than it can create freedom.

Thomas Paine wrote that “government is at best a necessary evil.”  He understood clearly what government is: an institution of violence.  As individuals, we understand that the need may arise to commit violence against another human being, but only justifiably for one reason: to defend our lives against aggression.  Should we be faced with that unfortunate choice, we may be justified in resorting to violence but afterwards regret that the need to do so arose. Most importantly, no sane person claims a right to initiate violence under any other circumstances.  As we do not possess this power as individuals, we cannot delegate this power to government.  Any legitimate power possessed by government must derive from the individuals who constitute it.

To put it most succinctly, government must always be limited to a negative power.  It is the societal extension of the individual right of self defense.  As individuals cannot use force to prevent, promote, or provide, government cannot either.  Individuals have no right to force one another to do anything, even if they believe that it is in the victims’ best interests.  So, whenever the question arises of whether government should involve itself in some new aspect of its citizens’ lives, remember the Three P’s.  If the new program represents any of them, it is time for each individual to exercise his most basic right in respect to his government: the Fourth P, to prohibit.

Check out Tom Mullen’s new book, A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. Right Here!

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© Thomas Mullen 2010

>Central Banking Doesn’t Work – Just Ask the Fed!

>It is still a tiny minority who understand that central banking is a collectivist institution that is completely hostile to liberty. It is, by definition, an instrument of theft that purports to stabilize economic conditions for the collective by controlling the supply of money and credit. The fact that its only means to do so is to steal from savers to finance well-connected borrowers is a seldom-mentioned detail. That people only use the central bank’s currency because they are forced to do so by legal tender laws is spoken of even less. In this late stage of the Age of Government, the rights to liberty and property are expendable as our rulers “get the work of the American people done.”

Hopefully, the question of whether there should be a Federal Reserve will be on the table soon. However, once one concedes the existence of the Fed, there is a further question to ask: Can it do what it purports to do?

According to the Federal Reserve’s website, its mission is as follows:

Today, the Federal Reserve’s duties fall into four general areas:

• conducting the nation’s monetary policy by influencing the monetary and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates

• supervising and regulating banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation’s banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers

• maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets

• providing financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government, and foreign official institutions, including playing a major role in operating the nation’s payments system[1]

Of these four stated goals, the first is the most expansive in its scope. Let us leave it until last. The second, to ensure the soundness of the banking system, seems to have been answered by history. Since the Fed’s launch in 1914, the nation has suffered banking crises in every generation that have dwarfed the Panic of 1907 or any of its predecessors. In addressing the Great Depression, the Savings and Loan Crisis, and the 2008 Meltdown, the Federal Reserve’s only answer has been, “Without the Fed, it would have been much worse.” History is not on the Fed’s side. Only a general ignorance of the facts allows the Fed to keep fooling most of the people most of the time.

Refuting the third stated goal is so easy it’s almost embarrassing. For those not trying to regain their seats after falling on the floor laughing, I need only to point out 30-1 leveraging, $60 trillion (or more?) in derivatives [2], or the subprime mortgage disaster. I believe that to go any farther would be, to borrow a football analogy, “piling on.”

In fact, Alan Greesnpan’s now famous (or infamous) mea culpa on the “flaw” in his beliefs about the self-regulating nature of financial markets effectively amounts to the Fed admitting that it has failed in goals two and three. If the “Maestro” himself doesn’t speak for the Federal Reserve, then who does?

Regarding that fourth goal, one is tempted to give this one to the Fed. The important objection would be of the “should they” rather than of the “can they” variety. The fact that the Fed provides these services with an exclusive monopoly and claims only that it will play a “major role,” rather than a positive one, makes this the least significant of the four.

That leaves the first goal, which is stable prices, full employment, and moderate long term interest rates. There can be no doubt that the promises of stable prices and full employment in particular are now the principle justifications for the existence of the Federal Reserve. Almost exclusively, when the subject of the Fed comes up, these two goals are discussed. Even the Fed chairmen themselves, when testifying before Congress, often state these two goals exclusively in describing the Fed’s overall mission.

It should not be forgotten that until the late 1970′s, full employment was not part of the Fed’s mandate. Even using the logic of central banking proponents, these two goals are mutually exclusive of one another. Since the only means the Fed has at its disposal to try to achieve full employment is expansion of the supply of money and credit, which puts upward pressure on prices, the Fed must balance these two goals to try to find the optimum level of money and credit where everyone is employed but prices remain stable.

Ironically, the best source of information on the Fed’s performance in terms of its principle goal for the first sixty years of its existence (price stability) is the Fed itself. Among the collections of historical data on the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis website, there can be found a table documenting price inflation rates for every year since 1800 (Appendix A of this article). There, one can see for oneself whether or not the Fed provided price stability during any period in its existence.

The first fact that jumps off of the page is the stark difference in the trends before and after the creation of the Fed. For the period from 1800-1913, the general price level (a statistic that Austrian economists object to) was cut almost in half. In other words, products that on average cost $100.00 in 1800 would only cost $58.10 in 1913 (Appendix A). While there were some years where prices rose, prices generally fell overall during the entire 19th century.

This would probably be a startling revelation to most modern Americans. There isn’t an American alive whose parents or grandparents haven’t remarked at current price levels and gone on to say, “When I was your age, I only paid a dime for that.” As unbelievable as it might seem, that conversation would have been exactly the opposite in 1890. Grandpa would instead be saying, “When I was your age, I had to pay a lot more for that.” Today, Americans resign themselves to constantly rising prices as a fact of life. However, that is a phenomenon that has only occurred since the creation of the Fed.

In contrast to the century preceding the Fed, the century following has seen exactly the opposite result. Those same products whose average price had fallen from $100.00 in 1800 to $58.10 in 1913 rose to $1,265.14 in 2008. That is an increase of over 2,000%!

Without addressing the subject of which result is “better for society,” inflation or deflation, the data speak directly to the question of “price stability.” From 1800-1913, the average annual fluctuation in price was 3.4%. From 1914-2008, the average annual fluctuation in price was 4.5%, a 33% increase over the previous period. In fact, the numbers for the Fed would be far worse if the same methods used to calculate the price inflation rate were used for the entire period from 1914-2008. In the 1990’s, several changes were made to the methodology used to calculate the Consumer Price Index. They all have the effect of lowering the price inflation rate given a particular set of price data.

Regarding the goal of “full employment,” the Fed’s results are also poor. Similar to that of the CPI, the methodology for calculating the unemployment rate was also changed in the 1990′s. These changes in methodology, which include no longer counting “discouraged workers,” lower the unemployment rate from what it would be for the same data if calculated using the old methodology. Despite this handicap, the Fed still fails to achieve positive results. The average annual unemployment rate in the U.S. between 1948 and 1978 was 5.1% (see Appendix B). Even without compensating for the changes in methodology during the 1990’s, the average annual unemployment rate in the U.S. between 1979 and 2009 was 6.1%. So, unemployment was almost 20% higher during the period that the Fed actively tried to manage it than it was during the prior 30 years.

Once you undo the methodological changes in calculating price inflation and unemployment that were put in place in the 1990’s, the Fed’s results on price stability and unemployment get much uglier. Nevertheless, even after the Fed fudges its own numbers it still comes out a failure. Everyone can remember the ne’er-do-well from school that cheated on tests and still couldn’t pass. Would we want that kid managing the entire economy?

The arguments that the Fed makes to justify its existence are fraught with false assumptions. One is that “stable prices” are a good thing. Remember, the industrial revolution occurred amidst steadily falling prices. It was this period of steady deflation (gasp!) that saw the common people become the prime market for society’s output – for the first time in human history. It was this period that saw the United States transform itself in a matter of decades from an indebted hodgepodge of former colonies to a world economic power. The natural result of economic progress and increased productivity is falling prices. That is what raises the standard of living for the great majority of society.

However, the most absurd assumption underlying the arguments for the Fed is one common to all collectivist arguments: that there is some strange entity called “society” whose needs outweigh the rights of every individual that comprises it. Every citizen surrenders his right to liberty to legal tender laws because being forced to use the Fed’s worthless notes as currency supposedly benefits “society.” He surrenders his right to property in letting the Fed steal his savings through inflation for the same reason. In the end, however, the Fed fails to achieve its “societal” goals of full employment and stable prices, so he gives up his rights for nothing. Isn’t time he took them back? There is a way: End the Fed.

Appendix A – Price Inflation Rates 1800-2008 (Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis)
 
Appendix B – Unemployment Rate (Monthly) 1948-2009 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

[1] http://www.federalreserve.gov/aboutthefed/mission.htm

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/id/164591

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© Thomas Mullen 2010

>The Government Bubble Heads for a Blow-Off Top

>I have a friend that tends to express his ideas about everything in the jargon of a securities trader. Of course, this is probably because he has been a very successful trader, both in bull and bear markets, for many years. “Every trend in history, even liberty, can be charted like a stock,” he has often observed. I tend to agree.

As any trader will tell you, bull markets do not go straight up and bear markets do not go straight down. Rather, they tend to meander in the direction that they are headed. During a long-term bull market, a trend will have major pull-backs and long periods of consolidation. It is the experienced trader that knows how to “buy low and sell high,” taking advantage of the back and forth action of a stock or a sector on its journey. However, even wiser is the investor that can spot the trend at the beginning and keep buying lows without having to attempt to time the market and sell at all. The legendary Jim Rogers has often said that he is “the world’s worst short-term trader.” He would rather buy something that he can own forever than buy with the intention of having to sell.

Gold has been the most spectacular bull market over the past decade. Like all trends, it had periods of dramatic rise, followed by sharp pullbacks that gave back a portion of the gains, and then long periods of consolidation. Once a consolidation was over, another dramatic rise in price followed. The first run began at the beginning of the decade, with gold selling under $300 per ounce. It ran up to over $700 per ounce in 2006 before pulling back sharply under $600. The price then consolidated there for an entire year before the next leg up began. That second leg ran all of the way over $1,000 per ounce before pulling back to the low $700’s. Again, there was a long consolidation before this latest run, which will take gold we know not where.

All of the movements in the price have explainable reasons. When the fundamentals are stronger than the actual price of the security or commodity, investors begin buying. Once the price starts to move up, traders begin wading in to make profits on the movement of the price, both up and down. At any given time, there are those who are long and those who are short. Contrary to the nonsense you hear from government officials and their kept economists, short sellers play a vital role in keeping the market healthy. When a stock, commodity, or sector beings to fall in price, short sellers help stabilize that price because they have to buy the stock that they sold short to cover their short sales.

You will often hear the wisest of investors say that a trend is about to reverse when there is no longer any disagreement about it. When everyone is positive on a stock or a bull market, it is about to go down. When everyone is negative, it is about to make a run up. When all of society agreed that the NASDAQ would never go down – when every conversation in every coffee shop, supermarket, or dinner party revolved around the wonderful opportunities in technology stocks, wise investors knew it was time to get out.

Of course, this is not some sort of market magic or voodoo. It is simple cause and effect. When there are few sellers in a market and many buyers, the price is going to be inflated far beyond its value. From an opposite standpoint, when short sellers are forced out of the market in a “short squeeze,” there is now nothing to stop the price from falling precipitously once it starts to fall. With no short sellers covering their shorts, the price falls like a stone. Thus, at the end of long bull market, a bubble usually develops, characterized by a final, parabolic “blow off top,” followed by an equally dramatic drop in price.

The past 100 years has been a bull market for government. While the seeds of the run were sown in the mid-19th century, the bull market in government really began at the turn of the 20th century. The first signs of the bull could be spotted as early as the (Teddy) Roosevelt administration, but the real advances came under Woodrow Wilson. The income tax, the Federal Reserve, and the 17th Amendment were advances in government that made gold’s move from $275 to $700 look tame.

There was then a period of consolidation during the so-called Roaring Twenties. It was not so much a pull-back of government as a slow-down in the pace of its growth. Under three Republican presidents, the government bull market consolidated as Americans convinced themselves that they had restored a free market (because the Republicans said they did, despite their actual support of big government fundamentals).

The next big move came during the Great Depression. While the stock market and the real economy went south, government went on another tear as FDR fully instituted the modern welfare state, the fascist regulatory structure, and took America to war. After 16 years of absolute misery, even the most enthusiastic government bull must have thought it was time for a pullback. It was brief, but it came.

Americans again elected a Republican president in the 1950’s and convinced themselves that they had restored the American system and rejected the big government philosophy of FDR and his liberals. However, this, too, was only another consolidation. In actuality, it was Eisenhower that paved the way for LBJ’s Great Society by creating the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services). The 1950’s are fondly remembered as a period of (mostly) peace and prosperity for America. It was only another consolidation period for government’s century-long bull run.

The next great move came during the 1960’s, when LBJ again lead a tremendous run up for government. Medicare and Medicaid, the other two entitlement monsters that will eventually combine with Social Security to bankrupt the United States, were born during this fabulous period for big government. The move ran right through a two-term Republican presidency (counting Ford’s mop-up after Nixon’s resignation) and into the Carter administration.

Most bull markets have two legs. Some have three, but usually no more than that. It seemed like that axiom would hold true for government as Ronald Reagan gave his first inaugural address. “In this crisis,” he told us, “government is not the solution to our problems – government is the problem.” It was the greatest inaugural speech of the 20th century. The government bull market was over. Or so we thought.

We now know that government didn’t get smaller during the Reagan years, but much bigger. However, there was at least a feeling of negativity about government during the Reagan-Bush years that even forced Bill Clinton to pass himself off as a free-market friendly centrist. It was another consolidation period, with a seemingly impossible fourth leg to follow.

We are in the midst of that fourth leg now, as government makes a more precipitous run up than at any time in history. In a few short years, the government will have nationalized the banking, auto, and health care industries. There are no more government bears to be found anywhere, either among Republican or Democratic politicians or (let’s face it) among 99% of the citizenry. Outside of a tiny constituency of libertarians, paleo-conservatives, and anarchists, there are absolutely no non-believers in government left. The rise is accelerating too fast for any protest or community organizing to stop. It’s a short squeeze as the government bull stampedes.

While this might be a terrifying period for anyone remotely interested in living his own life, there is much reason to be hopeful. As most bull markets eventually do, government is experiencing a blow-off top. The curve has bent straight up, with nary a short to be found in any political party or in any bowling alley or church social. Americans have convinced themselves that government either “should” or “must” do something about absolutely everything. We should expect the run to pick up speed, as government invades every aspect of our lives. Never before – not even in the most barbarous ages – has government made such enormous claims upon the life, liberty, or property of its subjects. Medieval serfs were taxed less. Ancient slaves were freer. Not even the brutal Romans killed with such efficiency and on such a scale.

For all of these reasons, it is about to end. With almost uncontested faith in government, its role has expanded so far beyond what it is actually able to deliver that soon we will see a fall that will make the real estate meltdown look like a mild pullback. Having rode the last leg of the move and squeezed out the last of the shorts, government is about to remind everyone that it not only should not be providing what it is attempting to provide, but that it cannot provide it.

At the moment that the whole world has accepted that government will centrally plan all of the economy, take care of its citizens from cradle to grave, and rule a worldwide military empire –all with money that comes from nowhere – at that very moment the age of government will end. The end is going to come fast, too, just like the end of the bull markets in technology stocks and real estate. Ben Bernanke will still be telling government bulls that there is nothing to worry about long past the moment when his time is up. That’s how fast it’s going to be.  As in any market, the moment when every bear is gone is the moment that the bull run is over.

This will not be a pleasant experience. No correction ever is. Fortunes will be lost (albeit mostly fortunes dishonestly made), but innocent people will be hurt, too. All of society will come to the realization that government really can’t provide anything, beyond the brute force that is only justified in self defense. It may take a generation to repair the damage. It’s going to be rough.

However, we should remember one thing. When a bubble deflates, the capital that is not destroyed seeks another refuge. When the NASDAQ melted down and the U.S. dollar began to implode, the smart money fled to gold. It will be no different during the bursting of the government bubble. With a precipitous fall in government, there is an equally dramatic rise in its opposite – liberty.

Americans will have to forego the ill-gotten gains provided by government and do with less while they rebuild. That is unavoidable. While the NASDAQ bubble actually started on a real foundation, the fundamentals of the government bubble were never real. It was all an illusion and it is five minutes from ending.

It’s going to be great.

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© Thomas Mullen 2010

>What Is This Free Market We Keep Hearing About? Part II

>Previously, I wrote an article entitled “What Is This Free Market We Keep Hearing About?” In it I attempted to demonstrate that a free market is the only economic system compatible with liberty, in addition to being the system that will yield the best results for society. The dissenting views were familiar ones, which I will attempt to answer.

The first category of dissenting opinions came from those that somehow misunderstood the article to have argued that a free market exists right now, or has existed in the recent past (perhaps under the Republican regime that has thankfully gone the way of the hula hoop). For the record, we have not had any semblance of a free market since at least the New Deal, and probably not since the institution of the Federal Reserve and the income tax in 1913. If anything, we have had markets that have been “progressively” less free in each succeeding decade, the trend accelerating markedly during a few notable periods, including the 1910’s, the 1930’s, the 1960’s, and the present devastation of our liberty that is occurring before our very eyes. As I have argued more extensively before, the Bush years did not represent free markets.

The next broad category of comments could generally be grouped as those which implied that a truly free market system would amount to no government or restrictions at all and therefore necessitate that market participants would have to be trusted to “do the right thing” at the expense of their own profits. Those making this argument went on to say that history shows that “the corporations” or other wealthy market participants will always choose profit over the good of society.

This is a complete misunderstanding of the concept of free markets presented in the article and of the non-aggression principle of liberty in general. “Non-aggression” does not mean the absence of the use of force (government) under any circumstances. In a free market, there is a very necessary role for government to play, just as in nature there is an appropriate time for the use of force. Specifically, the government brings force to bear against those who have committed or are committing aggression against another’s rights. In a truly free market, the government prevents any party from using coercion or fraud to secure an exchange of property. If a company lies on its financial statements to attract investors or credit, it is the government’s job to prosecute those responsible for fraud. If a company employs violence or the threat of violence in trying to eliminate its competition, it is the government’s responsibility to prosecute the aggressor in defense of the victims.

However, if the company participates in exchanges of property whereby all participants voluntarily consent to the terms and all information pertaining to the transactions are represented truthfully, then that activity is beyond the reach of government, just as speech, religion, and conscience are beyond the reach of government because they do not represent acts of aggression against anyone else’s rights.

With the natural boundary of non-aggression enforced, the market requires no consideration for any participant other than the pursuit of profit. With truly free markets, it is never true that society is threatened unless firms sacrifice their profits to benefit society. Rather, firms can and should pursue only profit so long as they commit no aggression against another’s rights. The law should never be a positive force – it should never compel anyone to do anything. It should only prohibit certain actions, namely those that amount to aggression (fraud being aggression against the rights to property). It is this principle that is consistently violated by our modern brand of “regulation.”

This brings us to a third category of objections, namely that insufficiently regulated markets have resulted in the massive consolidations that have occurred over the past quarter century, decreasing competition and creating overly influential corporations that dominate markets and our government. This argument is rooted in the same misconception as the first – that we have had free markets at some point in our recent past. However, even if one argues that some “deregulation” has taken place and that is the reason for the consolidation, the position still begs one question. Why are new competitors not entering the market to compete with these overly dominant corporations?

There are only two possibilities. One is that the corporations in question have achieved natural monopolies. A natural monopoly is a good thing. It means that one firm is producing products of such high quality and such low price that no other firm is able to compete with it. A natural monopoly can only be sustained as long as the monopolist continues to offer products that consumers prefer over all others based upon their own voluntary decisions. Natural monopolies harm no one.

The only other explanation for a dearth of competition is that there are artificial forces at work that are keeping competition out. This means that market participants are not acting voluntarily, but make their choices under some type of coercion. There is only one entity that can legally coerce participants in any market – government. In fact, it has been the ocean of rules and regulations itself – in violation of every market participant’s natural rights – that has led to the dearth of competition in our supposedly free markets. This conclusion is intuitive. If the corporations are not natural monopolies then their competition must have been eliminated unnaturally or artificially, i.e, by the government.

It is abundantly clear that our labyrinthine regulatory structure is an artificial barrier to new competition, particularly since the regulations are now written by the very corporations they are supposed to govern. However, the root of the problem is not bad regulations or corruption. It is the fact that any barriers to human action exist at all beyond those that prevent aggression. Even without back door deals and outright corruption, these artificial barriers necessarily favor entrenched market players over new firms trying to enter the market, as compliance with regulation drives up start up and compliance costs beyond what all but the largest firms can afford.

The so-called “deregulation” in many of our markets did nothing to dismantle this quagmire of regulation, but merely eliminated barriers to consolidation while continuing to insulate established players from new competition. The results were predictable but certainly not the results of natural market forces. The proper solution to this problem is not to violate the rights to liberty and property by prohibiting one company from buying another, but rather to remove the further violations of those rights that our massive regulatory structure represents.

On this point there were some thoughtful comments attempting to determine whether corporations have rights or whether only people have rights. I would argue that the rights in question when discussing corporations are those of the shareholders, who retain all of the same rights to life, liberty, and property as any other market participant. Some argued further that the shareholders obtain certain privileges granted by government, particularly in limiting liability, that justify taxes or restrictions that would not be justified on individuals.

However, this argument ignores the fact that corporations are required to register and therefore declare to all of society their corporate status. As the decisions to form a corporation, buy its stock, lend it money, or purchase its products are all made voluntarily and with full knowledge of its corporate status, there is no justification for government to impose special restrictions upon a corporation outside of those disclosure requirements necessary to inform the public that it is a corporation.

Finally, there were those that argued that unfettered free markets result in corporations achieving too much “power,” rather than merely too much wealth. Corporate “power” is a misnomer. Power is the ability to use force. Only government has power. It is government’s sacred duty to wield that power only in defense of each individual’s rights. No matter how much wealth a corporation obtains, it exercises no power, unless it literally spends its capital to raise an army and engage in open rebellion. Clearly, this has not been the case. However, it is also clear that corporate or other wealthy interests have used their wealth to buy political favors and to induce politicians to pervert the laws themselves, leading directly to the quasi-fascist economy that we find ourselves confronted with today.

This has been a failure of government, not the free market. It is certainly not admirable when an individual or group uses its wealth to achieve injustice. Nor are interested parties participating in a free market when trying to bring government force to bear upon competitors or other market participants. However, it is ultimately government that is entrusted to preserve justice. The members of government are never compelled to allow wealthy interests to persuade them to abandon their duty. It is the government’s job to say “no,” and when they fail to do so they are destroying the free market, not licensing it.

This brief article certainly does not answer every specific argument made against free markets, but it does illustrate something common to all of them: all objections against free markets result from a misunderstanding of what a free market is. A free market is one in which no one’s rights are violated, resulting in all transactions occurring by mutual, voluntary consent. Participants in a free market practice the non-aggression principle. This does not require unrealistic virtue from market participants, because it is government’s duty to enforce the non-aggression principle. Every economic problem plaguing American society today stems from some departure from the free market, which is some violation of the rights of market participants. Justice is the protection of those rights. Social justice can only be achieved when absolutely free markets exist. Properly understood, freedom and free markets are one and the same.

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>What is This Free Market We Keep Hearing About?

>“…every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interests his own way and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of other men.”

– Adam Smith (1776)[1]

As President Obama and his pet Congress continue their crusade to expand the reach of government into our lives, “conventional wisdom” continues to tell us that socialized medicine, rampant wealth redistribution, and government control over one industry after another is “necessary” because of the supposed failure of the free market to adequately address the needs of society. The way the “free market” is characterized by politicians and media pundits, it is not surprising that most Americans seem to regard it as some sort of special interest group (Mr. Undersecretary, the gentlemen from the free market are here to see you). Doubtless, when most Americans hear the words “free market,” they picture the CEO’s of Detroit automakers flying in on corporate jets or Wall Street financiers busy mastering the universe. This mischaracterization of the free market is ironic, seeing as both of these groups have recently sought and obtained capital from people who were not free to refuse (taxpayers).

So, before trying to ascertain whether or not the free market has failed society, it is necessary to define exactly what it is. This is not so much difficult as it is inconvenient for those who either wish to exert control over our lives or who wish to be controlled by those that they believe can offer them security in exchange for their liberty – even if it means destroying liberty for everyone. For both of these groups, the “free market” is something that must be characterized as something that it is not. To recognize it for what it is would both threaten their own ability to justify their positions and concede to their victims that what they advocate is in fact abject slavery. Neither result is palatable to opponents of the free market, so gibberish is necessary for them from both a moral and practical perspective.

So, let us say here what it seems that no one anywhere wants to come out and say: the free market is simply all members of society exercising their inalienable rights. It is nothing more and nothing less. Any other system, by definition, violates some or all of these rights.

Every individual has a natural right to labor and to keep the fruits of his labor (his property). This is his only means of pursuing his happiness. There is only one role for government in this area: to defend the property of each individual against theft by another person or group. A truly free market limits government’s role in regards to property to this natural boundary – for any further role constitutes government committing the very crime it exists to prohibit.

Every individual has a natural right to liberty – to do as he pleases as long as he does not commit aggression against the equal rights of another. In a free market, there can be no “regulation” (as we incorrectly understand the term today). The laws that restrict human action must be limited to those few necessary to ensure that no individual is forced or defrauded while paticipating in an exchange of property nor forced to accept any terms that he does not freely consent to. As the quote from Adam Smith illustrates, one cannot talk about “free markets” without at the same time incorporating the Non-Aggression Principle of Liberty. While Smith is generally regarded as the “father of capitalism,” he never actually called his economic system by that name. Instead, he referred to it as “a system of natural liberty.” Given the confusion that now accompanies the word “capitalism,” it might be better to revert to Smith’s terminology.

Since a free market is by definition the only system that allows individuals to exercise their rights, to say that an unfettered free market does not work is to say that society will not work unless those rights are systematically violated and that those violations must be protected by the law. A greater perversion of justice is unimaginable. Yet, the majority of our elected officials champion exactly this. Sadly, the majority of their constituents blindly parrot their horrific slogans.

In response to this argument, the more cunning opponents of liberty will say that we have given the free market a chance to work and it has failed. False prophet of freedom Alan Greenspan is notable among this gang of vipers. However, any lucid analysis of the difficulties that we find ourselves in now can indisputably be traced to the aspects of our society that prevent free markets. Bad mortgage loans were made because government committed the fraud of monetary inflation combined with the theft of guaranteeing loans with taxpayer money. The skyrocketing cost of health care is a result of government committing the theft of taking money from one individual and using it to buy health care for another, suspending the natural law of supply and demand with artificial demand. Contrary to the idea that individual rights must be balanced with societal needs, it is the violation of individual rights that causes all of our societal problems, most pervasively our economic problems.

As it is merely the economic application of the Non-Aggression Principle of Liberty, the free market is the only system that allows individuals the ability to exercise their right to pursue their happiness. By doing so, they naturally seek to profit from their labor and compete with each other without committing aggression against each other’s rights. History shows that individuals acting in this manner produce enormous benefits for their fellow human beings. The steam engine, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, and virtually every other technological advance that provides a tangible improvement in the quality of human life have been the result of human beings peacefully competing with each other for profit.

Conversely, the atomic bomb, the concentration camp, and every other technology which serves the purpose of death, destruction, and enslavement have been the result of governments forcefully confiscating property from their citizens which would otherwise have been put to productive use.[2] It has only been by violating the individual, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property that any of these horrors were able to come to fruition.

The free market has not failed. The free market is Freedom itself, and while it has only occurred for brief moments throughout history, it has never, will never, and can never fail. When we are confronted with gibberish about the failure of free markets and the need for government to “play a role in the economy,” or for a “public-private partnership,” let us not let ourselves be led into a carefully framed argument about what might provide more health care, produce more automobiles, or save more jobs. Let us recognize these arguments for what they are: a declaration of war upon our inalienable rights.

As our Declaration of Independence states, government’s purpose is to secure our rights, including our inalienable right to a free market within which to exchange our property. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of this end, it is our right and our duty to alter or abolish it. Not only must we resist further government expansion into our economy, we must begin dismantling the institutions of tyranny that government has already established over the past century. Our representatives must hear this from us every day until they call off their attack upon our rights or until they can be removed from office. There is nothing in any of our lives that is more important than this right now.

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[1] Smith, Adam An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations from An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations: Selections edited by Laurance Winant Dickey Hackett Publishing Indianapolis, IN 1993 pg. 165
[2] The reader should avoid confusing private companies developing weapons for the government with “the free market.” The fact that the companies are privately owned does not mean that they are operating in a free market. Quite the contrary. Since the buyers of their products do so involuntarily (taxes), the development of new weapons and subsequent sale of them to the government has nothing to do with a free market.

>The Myth of the Laissez Faire President

>It is generally accepted that one must wait several decades before looking back at an event or an era with sufficient “historical perspective.” Only from that vantage point can the significance and long-term effects of any piece of history be objectively observed, quantified, and analyzed. However, there is a dilemma inherent in this long-standing tradition. It is that there are always interested parties who wish to characterize significant events or eras in history in a way that suits their own agenda. As a result, by the time sufficient time has passed to satisfy the need for “historical perspective,” these interested parties have created an official story regarding the events in question and have had time to convince the majority of people that this official story is the truth. By the time a generation has passed, the official story has become both accepted history for academia and “conventional wisdom” for average citizens. Regardless of facts, reason, or any perspective whatsoever, the official story now is the truth.

Such has been the case countless time throughout American history. It is universally accepted that America’s Civil War started over slavery, and credits Abraham Lincoln with “freeing the slaves.” History and conventional also wisdom tells us that the quality of life of the working class in America declined during the industrial revolution, and credits the “progressive movement” for instituting needed reforms that saved the working class from capitalism. Most relevant to our situation in America today, history blames the Great Depression of the 1930’s on Herbert Hoover’s “laissez faire capitalism” and “unregulated free markets,” and credits FDR’s New Deal with ending the Depression and restoring prosperity.

When presented in the textbooks of high school history or college survey courses, there is a certain logic and reasonableness to these versions of historical events that makes them very easy to understand and accept. There is only one problem: none of them are true.

Americans are already familiar with the official story of our present crisis. Too much laissez faire capitalism” has resulted in an unprecedented crisis caused by predatory lenders, irresponsible borrowers, speculators, and other market participants acting in an environment with too little regulation. Without oversight, “unregulated free markets” naturally resulted in market players choosing short term profits over long-term prudence. This process was fueled during the past decade by George W. Bush’s “laissez faire policies.”

There is only one problem with this story – none of it is true, either. None of the problems we face today were caused by unregulated free markets and the policies of George W. Bush were in no way “laissez faire.” This is much more than an academic argument. The premise that unregulated capitalism is to blame for our present economic crisis is the basis for every action that our government is taking right now. If that premise is incorrect, then the results of action taken based upon it could be disastrous.

It is probably a good idea at this point to define some terms. Assuming that “laissez faire capitalism” and “free markets” mean the same thing, what I mean when I use those terms is this: a market economy where all exchanges of property are made with the mutual, voluntary consent of all parties to those transactions. While government’s role is limited in such a system, it is nevertheless crucial: to ensure that all transactions are made with the mutual, voluntary consent of all parties. To put it most succinctly, government’s role in a free market is to protect the property rights of each individual.

Is this what George W. Bush did or at least attempted to do? Let us examine the Bush economic policies and see for ourselves.

Bush campaigned on and did follow through upon a promise to cut taxes. He did this by reducing the income tax on the highest income earners and by sending each American family a “refund” of several hundred dollars. One might be tempted to argue that this was a move in the direction of free markets, as the returned money represented reductions of a government that had grown far beyond its role of defending life, liberty, and property. Thus, the tax money collected for these illegitimate functions was a violation of the property rights government was supposed to protect and the tax cuts were a partial remedy for those violations. This is what any self-respecting Republican would have you believe.

There is only one problem: there were no reductions in government. In fact, Bush greatly increased the size of the government with military and new entitlement spending. As a result, he ran huge deficits and doubled the national debt. Looked at objectively, there was a tenuous relationship at best between the money taxpayers had previously paid in taxes and the checks sent out by the government after all of that tax money was already spent. Furthermore, millions of Americans who hadn’t even paid taxes received “refund” checks anyway. Seen for what it was, this “tax refund” was merely a ploy to buy votes with other people’s money dressed up in Republican rhetoric, as well as a way to perpetuate debt-fueled consumerism for the benefit of President Bush’s friends in corporate America. Handing out money to people to whom it doesn’t belong has nothing to do with free markets, whether that money is borrowed from other nations or printed out of thin air. It represents complete distortion of the markets by government, along with a fundamental violation of the property rights of present and future generations.

Amidst this confusion we seem to have forgotten one major contributor to the aforementioned deficits: the Medicare drug plan. The Medicare drug plan was the Bush administration’s program from start to finish, and it was rammed through the legislature despite its dubious administrative plan and complete lack of funding. While it was rightly criticized for both of these faults, no media outlet seems to have recognized its complete antagonism toward free markets. In addition to violating property rights by forcing one group of individuals to pay for the healthcare services of others, Medicare and other government health care programs completely distort the health care market, creating artificial demand that inflates prices and suspends market forces. Here we have another major component of President Bush’s policy that is the complete antithesis of laissez faire capitalism.

The mass illusion about this president’s policies doesn’t stop there. The American public also seems to think that major deregulation occurred under President Bush, but actually the exact opposite is true. It was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (repealing the Glass-Steagall Act) that lead to the massive expansion of derivates in the stock and real estate markets that helped fuel the housing bubble. However, this legislation was actually passed when President Clinton was still in office. In fact, Bush’s only significant effect on the regulatory structure was to increase regulation, not decrease it.

Due to the political fallout from the accounting scandals during the early years of Bush’s presidency, especially the Enron scandal, Bush championed new, completely unnecessary, and profoundly destructive regulations under the Sarbanes-Oxley act. Despite the fact that the accounting scandals were clear cases of fraud, which was already illegal and which could be prosecuted without a single new regulation, President Bush had a political need to show that he was “doing something” about corporate crime.

So, again in complete opposition to “free markets,” Bush signed Sarbanes-Oxley into law, saying as he did so that the bill represented “the most far-reaching reforms of American business practices since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”[1] Invoking FDR should have been enough on its own to erase any perception of Bush as a champion of free markets, but the hated “laissez faire” moniker seems to be a tough one to shake. As we now know, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has been terribly destructive to American markets and has contributed to a migration of new investment away from America and to more business-friendly countries. Chalk up another victory for Bush against free markets.

Finally, there is Bush’s role in the housing bubble, the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back regarding America’s borrow and spend economy of the past several decades. Here it should be noted that the lion’s share of the blame for this debacle should go to the Federal Reserve System, which kept interest rates artificially low and expanded money and credit to counter what would have been two recessions in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Remember, the private Federal Reserve System does not answer to any branch of the federal government. One could certainly argue that both Clinton and Bush merely happened to be in office while the Federal Reserve blew up two massive bubbles during their presidencies (the NASDAQ bubble and the housing bubble).

However, it was not just low interest rates or the expansion of money and credit that caused the housing bubble to inflate. There was also the role of government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which guaranteed mortgages that would not have been written in a free market. Starting with Clinton and continuing with Bush, the executive branch played cheerleader to the “ownership” society whereby every American was entitled to own their own home, whether they could afford the mortgage that went with it or not.

The mortgage debacle is often cited as an example of the “unregulated free market” producing negative results. Since both the “predatory lenders” and the “irresponsible borrowers” were acting voluntarily, the millions of subsequent defaults are characterized as the result of too little regulation on the market, allowing these freely-acting participants to eschew prudence for short-term profits. However, this analysis omits one very important fact: there were not two parties to most of these mortgage transactions, but three.

The forgotten third party was, of course, the taxpayer. It was the taxpayers’ money that was put up as collateral for the loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the taxpayer was not acting freely. The taxpayer was forced by government to back these loans without his consent and against his best interests. Had the government not committed this crime against property rights to serve its goal of an “ownership society,” none of the defaulting loans would have been made.

In a truly free market, the desire for profit is balanced by the presence of risk. When one is lending one’s own money, the possibility that the borrower will default forces the lender to adhere to high lending standards to avoid making a bad loan. This is not done out of some civic duty or professional integrity (not that many lenders don’t possess both of these qualities), but out of recognized necessity for economic survival. The balance between desire for profit and risk is a naturally occurring market force when all participants are acting voluntarily in their rational self interest. However, by allowing lenders and borrowers to use other people’s money as collateral, this natural market force was suspended. To go on to call the resulting disaster the result of “unregulated free markets” is nonsense in the first degree.

Ironically, Clinton and Bush each pursued the exact same policy regarding the housing market for very different reasons. Clinton pressured Fannie Mae to take more and more risk in order to play to his base: low-income Americans who would not qualify for a mortgage in a truly free market. Bush went right on encouraging the process in order to appease his base: Wall Street investment houses that were making a killing securitizing mortgages. Regardless of the motivation, what is important to realize is that this policy is completely antithetical to the concept of free markets or laissez faire capitalism.

Of course, once the crisis began, most people recognize that nothing President Bush did could be characterized as “laissez faire.” Bush himself admitted that he was abandoning free market principles because “the market is not functioning properly,” a bizarre statement from one who supposedly believes in free markets in the first place. His massive intervention into the economy and egregious redistribution of wealth are characterized by the media as a departure from his previous “laissez faire approach.” Yet, anyone can see that this “laissez faire approach” was complete fiction. So why do all but a few contrarians keep saying it anyway?
There is an answer to that question. Characterizing Bush’s policies as “laissez faire” does serve a very useful purpose for politicians. It provides them with justification to loot more property and seize more power. The all-out war on free enterprise presently being waged by President Obama and his cohorts in Congress would not be possible if most Americans did not believe the official story that Bush’s presidency was an era of “laissez faire capitalism” or “unregulated free markets” and that these policies caused the economic crisis. Only the continued willingness by the majority of Americans to swallow this economic gibberish allows the destruction of our liberty to march forward.

To my fellow Americans, I say this: No politician (save perhaps one) is going to come forward and tell you the truth. Most of them don’t know the truth, and those that do have figured out that this official nonsense serves their own ambitions, just as saying that the world was flat once served the ambitions of medieval rulers. It is up to you to rub your eyes and look at the world as it really is. Two plus two does not equal five and you know that. Similarly, people voluntarily exchanging their own goods and services with one another can never cause anyone harm and deep down you must know that, too. It is time to reject the idiotic history that is being written about our present difficulties and demand that the evil incursions into our liberty cease immediately. You have enormous power when you know what to demand. It all starts with recognizing the obvious despite the well-funded efforts of those who wish to deceive you. As the good book saith, the truth shall set you free.[2]

[1] Bumiller, Elisabeth (2002-07-31). “Bush Signs Bill Aimed at Fraud in Corporations“. The New York Times
[2] John 8:32

Check out Tom Mullen’s new book, A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. Right Here!

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>The Forgotten Right

>“The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.”

– John Adams (1787)[1]

It is starting to become apparent to even the most disinterested observer that something much bigger than even a worldwide recession is happening. The seeds of revolution have taken root. Iceland led the way by taking to the streets to force regime change through peaceful demonstration. The French are currently protesting en masse against their government’s bailout of the banking system. One would be naïve to think that these are isolated incidents. It is apparent that these are just early warning signs of a worldwide cauldron that is about to boil over, catalyzed by the financial and economic cataclysm that will plunge untold millions into poverty and desperation.

While I applaud the peaceful demonstrations going on in France and Iceland, I also recognize that they are premature. As did Americans in the last election cycle, these Europeans are demanding “change.” However, also like Americans in the last election cycle, they have failed to first answer the crucial questions, “From what? To what?” They have not looked within to assess who they are, what their society is, and what they want it to be. Therefore, they run the risk of simply replacing one oppressive tyranny for another.

Likewise, we will never regain our freedom in America until we address the fundamental problem in our society. I say “the problem,” because at the root of all of what we perceive as a myriad of problems, including the police state, the welfare state, the warfare state, the military industrial complex, the Wall Street oligopoly, the high cost of healthcare and education – everything – there is one philosophical problem that ultimately leads to them all: the repudiation of property rights.

It is likely difficult for most 21st century Americans to absorb this statement, based upon the fact that they have been told now for generations that property is about greed, that accumulating property is oppression, or even that “property is theft.” However, let us look back at the philosophers who inspired our founders and see what they have to say about property. Of course, as I have written here, the primary philosophical basis for the American Revolution came from Locke. What did Locke have to say about the purpose of government?

““The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”[2]

Certainly this statement must be startling to most 21st century Americans, who believe that they are supposed to look to their government to fight unemployment, manage the economy, ensure access to healthcare, promote democracy abroad, and pursue a myriad of other ends outside of protecting property. Surely, Locke has over-emphasized property rights here, has he not? Certainly he is alone in his simplistic assessment of the role of government, is he not?

He is not. In seeking guidance on how to construct our government, the American founders also looked to the ancients, particularly the Roman Republic. There, we find Cicero writing,

“For the chief purpose in the establishment of constitutional state and municipal governments was that individual property rights might be secured. For, although it was by Nature’s guidance that men were drawn together into communities, it was in the hope of safeguarding their possessions that they sought the protection of cities.”[3] [emphasis added]

The conditioned response of Americans today is to view these ideas as a defense of one class of people at the expense of another. We have been trained to associate “property” as a concern of the “property class,” or in more common American terms, “the haves,” as opposed to the “have nots.” This is a great deception that has lead directly to our ruin. In fact, it is the poor and those of modest means for whom property rights are most important. It is they who, not possessing significant material wealth, must all the more jealously guard the property that they do have. In the end, however, we are all property owners when one considers the most fundamental, most important property of all: our labor itself.

We learn from Locke that all property has its roots in labor. In order to survive, man must work to produce the means of his survival. This is true for people no matter what their financial circumstances. The doctor, the lawyer, the construction worker, the janitor – yes, even the Wall Street financier – must sell his efforts to his fellow man in order to acquire the means of his survival. Therefore, whoever has control over the individual’s labor has control over the individual’s life, and control over the individual’s future. If I steal all of your possessions, you can acquire more. However, if I appropriate your labor, I own all of the property you can ever or will ever acquire. This is an undeniable reality that we have lost sight of, to our peril.

America was founded upon the idea that each individual had an unqualified right to the fruits of his labor.[4] This more than anything was what the founders meant when they spoke the word “liberty.” It was the extent to which this right was respected that made America different than every other society in history, before or since. This was the great secret that made America the engine of prosperity and innovation that it was. This is what made America the land of opportunity to change one’s lot in life. It was this right that gave birth to the American dream.

However, we no longer hold this right up above all others. Instead, we have become a society that is based upon competing groups seeking to plunder each other via the force of government. The rich plunder their neighbors with corporate bailouts, subsidies, and regulatory fascism. The middle class plunder their neighbors with Social Security, Medicare, and criminal unions. The poor are forced to accept legal plunder that they do not want and which provides them with the most miserable quality of life, when the stolen capital that underwrites it could employ them all if it weren’t seized from its rightful owners. Of course, these examples are only the tip of the iceberg; there is much, much more. Virtually every political movement in America is based upon a promise to provide its followers with other people’s property.

This scenario is neither unprecedented nor has it been unrecognized by the great lights of liberty. Bastiat wrote,

“Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.”[5]

This vision of Bastiat’s has become reality in America. However, it cannot go on forever. Fortunately for humanity, a society based upon legal plunder is ultimately unsustainable. Just as respect for property rights provides the means to prosperity, violation of them leads to poverty and want. As force replaces voluntary exchange, productivity decreases, and subsequently more force is required to plunder even more. This cycle repeats until society is reduced to an authoritarian nightmare, the first signs of which are becoming apparent in the former “land of the free.” If the people wake up, the nightmare can end. If they continue to slumber, the nightmare can get much, much worse.

This is the great truth that we must rediscover before any revolution can be successful. Before we commit to “change,” we must answer the questions, “From what? To What?” The answers to those questions must be “from a nation of looters to a nation of free individuals who acquire property in the only civilized manner: via voluntary exchange.” We must reject the use of force as the means to pursue our happiness, and renew our faith in freedom. Once this great work has been accomplished, let the revolution begin.

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Check out Tom Mullen’s new book, A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. Right Here!

[1] Adams, John A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787)
[2] Locke Second Treatise Ch. IX, Sec. 124
[3]Cicero, Marcus Tullius De Officiis Book II Chapter XXI
[4] “Individuals” who were included in the system. Of course, the founders recognized but did not remedy the obvious contradiction to this inherent in slavery.
[5] Bastiat, Frederic, The Law