The political winds have shifted wildly over the past four years. After decisive defeats in both the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Republican Party’s prospects seemed dreary. There was widespread talk of how the party needed to “remake itself.” There was even speculation from some quarters that it would fade from influence permanently, as had its predecessors, the Whigs and Federalists. Certainly, the conservative movement needed a rallying point in order to regain a foothold upon public sentiment.
That rallying point was public aversion to the radically socialist agenda of Barack Obama and the Pelosi Congress. Regardless of whether the Republicans had any new ideas to offer, they were able to remake their image quickly by jumping aboard and partially co-opting the Tea Party phenomenon. Somehow, they have again established themselves in the minds of most Americans as the party of small government, free markets, and individual liberty, their consistent behavior while in power notwithstanding.
Now, it is the Democrats who find themselves on the wrong end of a one-sided mid-term election defeat, with more of the same looming over the 2012 presidential elections. As much as the 2008 elections were a repudiation of George W. Bush and all associated with his philosophy, 2012 will be a repudiation of Obama and all associated with his. If the modern “conservative” philosophy had been thoroughly discredited two years ago, the modern “liberal” philosophy has been annihilated this year. Nothing that Democrats won on in 2006 and 2008 is going to fly with voters right now. The left needs a rallying point that will resonate with voters and make them forget why they voted them out of office just two years earlier, just as those same voters forgot why they had voted the Republicans out merely two years before the 2010 mid-terms.
If they are not to completely abandon their image as champions of the poor, disadvantaged, and working class against the power of the wealthy elite, they must find a way to restore that perception in the minds of voters without associating themselves at all with socialism, which average Americans have quite obviously choked on and spit out over the past two years. They need their own avenue to tap into the Tea Party phenomenon, or a grass roots movement like it, and appear as the party fighting for the people against a federal government run amok. Their traditional anti-corporate, pro-welfare platform won’t work. For better or worse, Americans right now associate corporatism with the free market and aversion to welfare programs has never been more ascendant. However, there is a rallying point available to the left that is completely consistent with the modern progressive philosophy and which conservatives are completely ignoring.
The left’s political dominance during the 20th century all began with the early progressive movement, which was given its first life under Republican presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. However, it was the “new freedom” promised by Woodrow Wilson which established and defined the progressive platform, subsequently advanced in great strides by FDR and Lyndon B. Johnson. A core tenet of this philosophy was the need to protect “the little guy” against the robber barons of capitalism – which the progressives successfully defined in the minds of voters as anyone of great wealth, whether they have achieved that wealth legitimately or not.
Indeed, the tragic aspect of the early progressive movement was that they lumped together all successful business people as plunderers and exploiters of the working class, thus discrediting free market capitalism along with the crony capitalism that was as rampant at the time as it is now. Along with corrupt railroad companies that soaked the people for corporate welfare, only to deliver shoddily constructed railroads that all went bankrupt, the early progressives also targeted companies whose success was due to superior products and lower prices, with their profits earned from consumers voluntarily choosing to buy their products.
John D. Rockerfeller’s Standard Oil was one such example. His company was dismantled by the government after more than two decades of offering the public higher quality oil at lower and lower prices. Instead of holding him up as an example of what a truly free market could achieve for the common man, the left attacked Rockerfeller as the definitive robber baron, regardless of facts to the contrary. With his company dismantled by the government, Rockerfeller abandoned the free market and became the robber baron he was wrongly accused of being. He decided to get into banking.
This is not to repeat the mistake of early progressives. All bankers in the 19th and early 20th century were not robber barons, nor is banking a de facto dishonest profession. Like any other business, it offers a service of great value to the public when that service is voluntarily purchased by consumers. When consumers choose to store their savings in a bank or allow the bank to invest their savings by loaning it out at interest, the banks that most conscientiously and wisely protect their depositors’ interests will prosper the most. Those that make good loan decisions will be able to pay higher interest rates to depositors and provide more stability. In a truly free market, they will win, because they benefit average Americans – the political base of the progressives – the most.
However, this is not the banking model that John D. Rockerfeller helped found in 1913. Rockerfeller was no longer interested in competing on a level playing field and relying on talent and hard work to make his fortune. He had already done that successfully and had been plundered by the government for his trouble. He was not interested in being victimized again. This time, he would be the plunderer. Along with J.P. Morgan, Rockerfeller sent a delegation of men to Jekyll Island in 1913 to devise the mother of all robber baron schemes – the Federal Reserve System.
The Federal Reserve System is the most ingenious fraud in human history. It appeals to the right because it is seen as an institution of capitalism. It appeals to the left because it is seen as a regulator of the financial system that protects the little guy from the supposedly violent machinations of unregulated capitalism. In the meantime, it funnels trillions of dollars of plundered wealth to politically-connected corporations at the expense of average Americans and those corporations which still actually prosper because they offer superior benefits to the public.
Without getting into what really goes on behind the scenes at the Fed, let us consider what the Fed purports to try to do. Ninety-seven years of results notwithstanding, the Fed supposedly regulates the market by maintaining both full employment and price stability. The left supports this agenda because its constituency depends upon jobs and affordable consumer goods in order to survive. They never stop to think about how the Fed attempts to accomplish these goals.
The Fed attempts to maintain full employment through inflation. Inflation is properly defined as an increase in the supply of money and credit, not an increase in consumer prices (more on that in a moment). During periods when unemployment is higher and overall economic growth is lower, the Fed attempts to stimulate investment in new business ventures or expansion of existing ventures by “lowering interest rates.”
However, Mr. Bernanke cannot lower interest rates with a fiat command. Instead, the Fed manipulates the interest rate by buying large quantities of U.S. Treasury bonds from its member banks. This artificially increases the demand and lowers the supply of U.S. Treasuries. It also artificially increases the supply of money available to be lent in the market. With more money available to be lent, banks offer loans at lower rates than they would if money were in shorter supply. With lower rates, more businesses take out loans with which to expand or start new ventures. At the end of this chain of events, more average Americans supposedly get hired in order to support the new business activity that has been “stimulated” by the Fed’s monetary expansion.
Taking the Fed at its word, there is still a rub to this story. The magic described above and in the Fed’s press releases does not come without a cost. The money and credit infused into the economy during this process does not come from any “reserve” that is held by the public or by the privately-owned Federal Reserve. It is created out of thin air by the Fed, which enjoys this privilege as a result of legal tender laws and the Federal Reserve Act. By increasing the overall supply of dollars in the economy, this monetary inflation drives up the price of consumer goods.
It also causes capital to be misallocated, meaning that working people are hired for projects that are not ultimately going to succeed. This inevitably happens much more frequently when banks are able to loan “free money.” When they must convince depositors to invest their own money in loans the bank wishes to make, they are forced to make much wiser choices with that capital than when the money is simply created out of thin air and handed to them, with more fiat money forthcoming if they should make a mistake. In fact, a true understanding of the economics behind monetary inflation reveals that misallocation – economic booms and busts – are inevitable when monetary inflation is allowed to take place.
Progressives should automatically be suspicious of this whole charade simply because Wall Street loves it. Whenever the Fed makes an announcement that it will attempt to lower interest rates, the stock market immediately goes up. Of course it does. Cheap money hitting the market allows investors to get in on ground floor companies and pump up their stock value with newly-created money, subsequently bailing out long before the bust occurs. When the reality hits the market that half of these new companies had no viable business plan, the stock prices collapse and the ventures go out of business and lay off their employees. This is a recession. Average Americans are unemployed while the sharks who gobbled up the cheap money to pump and dump the stocks are sitting on a beach, enjoying the fruits of their heist.
Furthermore, while monetary inflation causes prices of consumer goods to rise for everyone, it is really average Americans and the poor who are most affected by it. When the price of gasoline rises to seven dollars per gallon, the Wall Street elite have lost purchasing power in terms of the dollars they hold, but they more than make up for it during the economic booms. Millionaires become billionaires, negating the effects of a further devalued money supply, while average Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck start looking for second jobs just to pay their rent and fill up their gas tanks to get to work.
However, the most compelling reason for progressives to oppose the Federal Reserve System is because of what it openly admits it represents. Taking the Fed and its supporters at their word, the Fed is nothing more than a subtler, more devious version of “trickle-down economics,” whereby large corporations receive huge sums of money in the hopes that they will then create jobs for the little guys. There is absolutely no difference between this argument and the “Reaganomics” of the 1980’s. Any self-respecting progressive who opposed Reaganomics must oppose the Federal Reserve System. If they are not strictly opposed to government redistribution of wealth, they certainly are opposed to redistributing from the middle class and poor to Wall Street. That was the whole principle upon which the movement was founded.
There is no reason that the left should concede the Tea Party movement to conservatives. It is not fundamentally a Republican phenomenon. It is just that the Republicans are the only party that has been able to adapt their rhetoric to what the Tea Party demands to hear. The Tea Party is rediscovering America’s founding principles. However, their perceptions are being skewed toward the conservative founding philosophy that advocated corporate welfare, a large military establishment, and a central bank to provide the necessary capital – plundered from average Americans. They quote Jefferson but are deceived into supporting policies consistent with his political arch-enemy, Hamilton. They need to hear from the left on what they are missing, instead of being vilified by the left as kooks.
The true American philosophy of free enterprise as expressed by the liberal Jefferson was completely opposed to the central bank of the time, recognizing it as incompatible with the free market and wholly a vehicle for big business to plunder the people. These ideas have been dead and buried for an entire century while the Fed has been allowed to wreak its havoc with impunity. They are ripe for rebirth within the Tea Party, which would embrace Jefferson’s ideas about the dangers of central banking as readily as they do his warnings about big government. There is a strong populist undercurrent in the Tea Party. Progressives are ignoring it at their peril.
Never in its existence has the Fed been under such scrutiny in the media as it is now, nor the subject of so much public opposition. It is a grassroots fire smoldering beneath the surface, waiting for someone to strike a match. To liberals and progressives everywhere, don’t let the conservatives snatch this opportunity out from under your noses. Take up your fight against the real robber barons – the Federal Reserve System and all of its beneficiaries.
© Thomas Mullen 2010
>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
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 , 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.
© Thomas Mullen 2010
>I am not sure if this announcement will receive the attention it deserves, but it is probably the most significant piece of news of this entire turbulent month. China today announced that it will “seek to expand its massive internal market to counter the global economic slowdown that has reduced international demand for Chinese goods.”As reported by Associated Press writer Gillian Wong, China has decided to shift the focus of its economic planning away from exports and toward domestic consumption. This is the beginning of the end for the U.S. dollar and what is left of the U.S. economy.
Fans of Peter Schiff (and I am certainly one of them) are familiar with the central tenet of his thesis: that it is a misconception to believe that China is dependent on U.S. consumption to fuel their export economy. For years, Schiff has been arguing, with few in the mainstream media agreeing, that China would be better off without the U.S. According to Schiff, they would simply consume their own products instead of sending them to America in exchange for increasingly worthless U.S. dollars. In fact, China has suffered its own inflation as a result of pegging its currency to the U.S. dollar. If they unpegged their currency, it would naturally float to its true value on the open market, making it much stronger and the U.S. dollar much weaker. This seems to be what they have finally decided to do.
The official release from the Xinhua News Agency goes on to say, “We should step up efforts to boost domestic demand, particularly domestic consumption, and keep the economy, the financial sector and the capital market stable.”
It is important to remember the definition of demand. Demand is not only the desire for goods or services, but also the purchasing power necessary to acquire them. There is certainly never a shortage of desire for goods and services anywhere. The Chinese people haven’t failed to buy their own products because they didn’t want them. They have failed to buy them because they did not have the purchasing power they needed to buy them. Now, the Chinese government is saying that they are going to try to give them that purchasing power.
However, the Chinese government is also saying that they wish to maintain stability in their financial and capital markets. This means that they must avoid what has been the U.S. method of boosting consumption, namely pumping cheap money and credit into the economy, compliments of the Federal Reserve. However, without new money, what will give the Chinese people more purchasing power?
The answer, obviously, is an increase in the purchasing power of the money that they already have. This will be the inevitable result of unpegging the strong Chinese Renminbi Yuan from the weak U.S. dollar. The Yuan will quickly float to its natural high value, allowing the Chinese people to purchase themselves those products that they used to export to the U.S. This will also mean that U.S. consumers will have to either do without those products, or pay the much higher prices of their counterparts that are made in the U.S. The higher prices of U.S. made products may go even higher due to the decreased overall supply, depending upon how that decreased supply balances against decreased U.S. demand (purchasing power).
However it plays out, it will mean a huge shift in standard of living, with the Chinese enjoying a higher standard, while the U.S. suffers probably the biggest decrease in standard of living in its history.
Make no mistake. The Chinese will have to suffer through an adjustment period as their export economy reallocates resources to sell their products domestically. Their equity markets have reflected this, both over the past year and during the recent crash. However, once the markets bottom and the Chinese complete the adjustment period to a domestic consumption model, Chinese equities will skyrocket as their economy realizes unprecedented growth, this time on much more solid footing as they sell their products to their own citizens in exchange for a currency with REAL purchasing power. As Jim Rogers has said since he moved to Singapore last year, “Moving to Asia in 2007 will be like moving to New York in 1907 or to London in 1807.”
A paragraph near the end of the article aptly reflects the opposite directions that China and the United States are heading in.
“State media reports ahead of the meeting said the committee would review an amendment to give 750 million rural dwellers more freedom to lease or transfer their land, but the final statement did not mention the issue.”
One country is moving toward less regulation and freer markets, and has the most prosperous century in its history ahead of it. The other is moving toward more regulation and increasing government control. For the former, the explosion in prosperity will eventually result in a political revolution that will transform it into the free society it deserves to be. For the latter, only a reawakening of liberty can save it from the fate of all great republics that devolved into empire.
>Spending too much time talking with people that share your views can skew your perception of public opinion. Once you are close to any subject, there are certain conclusions that you accept as self evident because their validity has been proven over and over again. As time goes by, and you have discussions with people that are equally convinced of the validity of those conclusions, it is easy to begin assuming that everyone recognizes them. It is only by talking with people outside your group that you realize that, however valid your beliefs may be, the vast majority of people are either ignorant of them or remain unconvinced. This is undeniably true for me regarding the 19th century.
Despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, there is a popular view of that period that I call The Populist Myth of the 19th Century. Before dismissing its relevance, consider the fact that this myth has been and remains the driving force behind most public policy from the turn of the 20th century to the present day. Belief in this myth has been behind the gravest errors made by government, not only in domestic policy, but in foreign policy as well. The great wars of the 20th century may well have been avoided and the defeat of poverty might be within our grasp had this Myth not gained acceptance with the great majority of people. These are extraordinary claims, to be sure. However, not only are they provable with diligent research, they can be proven theoretically as well. However, before getting to the proof, let us first define our terms. What is the Populist Myth of the 19th Century? It goes something like this.
After the United States won its independence from Great Britain, it established a system of government that placed priority of individual rights over all others. As a natural result of its system of laws, an economic system of unprecedented free trade, or laissez faire capitalism, naturally emerged. As a result, the Industrial Revolution came to America and flourished even more so than it had in Great Britain. Unencumbered by government control, America became a great wealth-producing engine and hotbed of innovation that resulted in a reshaping of the way human beings lived their lives and made great fortunes for captains of industry that lead the way in this period of explosive progress.
However, the price of this unencumbered freedom was oppression of the working and poorer classes by these same captains of industry. Unrestricted by government regulation, large corporations were free to drive down the price of labor, cut their costs by skimping on safety and other protections in the work environment, and increase their vast fortunes at the expense of misery for the working class, which was reduced to virtual slavery. Eventually, even the children of working class families were sent into the factories to help families on the brink of starvation try to earn enough to survive.
By the turn of the 20th century, it was apparent that reform was needed to save the working class from the victimization inherent in laissez faire capitalism. The social reform movement began, establishing social programs for those left behind, imposing tighter regulation on business, giving a fair chance to workers to unionize, and preventing the natural inclination towards monopoly that was also apparently inherent in capitalism. The fight for the common man had begun, with its champions Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and other bright lights of the 20th century. That fight goes on to this day, championed by the “liberal” or “progressive” parties in politics, with the goal of someday achieving the economic equality that a free society desires.
This is a compelling story. It appeals to the natural instinct in humans to pull for the underdog and fight against injustice. The basic tenets of this myth have inspired great works of literature and iconic films over the past century. It remains the core belief of most celebrities in America, an assumption of the media when looking for compelling news or attempting to appear “on your side” to the average reader/viewer, and most importantly, a fundamental assumption of government in making the laws which determine what we can and cannot do. There is only one problem. None of it is true.
Certainly, the general “solutions” alluded to occurred, but the problems did not exist. This may seem ridiculous to most 21st century Americans. EVERYBODY knows that working conditions were poor in the 19th century, workers were economically oppressed, that unrestricted capitalism naturally results in monopolies, and that, however distasteful it might seem, some government control of the economy is necessary or most of society’s wealth ends up in the hands of the wealthy few at the expense of the starving masses. Let us take a look at the fallacies of the Myth one at a time.
First, the quality of life of the working class did not deteriorate as the industrial revolution progressed, it rose dramatically. Pictures of what we would consider today squalid living conditions and relative poverty are extremely misleading when viewed in a vacuum. When one considers the quality of life for the working classes – the peasants of the old world – for all of history before the Industrial Revolution, it is apparent that the quality of life during the 19th century was much better. More importantly, IT WAS CONSTANTLY IMPROVING. This was the natural result of innovations like mass production. A simple understanding of supply and demand dictates that when the supply of goods and services is increased, their prices go down. The supply of goods and services, especially manufactured goods, exploded in the 19th century. Products that had previously been only available to the rich were now available to everyone, and their prices had dropped low enough that even those on an average income could afford them. For the first time in history, the primary market for the output of society’s production was the common people themselves, rather than the rich.
Detractors of capitalism often point to periods of decline in average wages as “proof” of the inherent oppression of the worker in laissez faire capitalism. This argument demonstrates either an attempt at deliberate distortion or a pitiable lack of understanding of basic economics. While wages sometimes did go down, prices declined at a much faster rate, resulting in a dramatic rise in “real wages” for the average working class American. Money is only the medium of exchange, and its nominal value is irrelevant without considering its corresponding purchasing power. If one had the power to cut all wages by 10%, but also to cut all prices by 50%, one would have the power of making everyone much, much richer. That is exactly what laissez faire capitalism did during the 19th century. It not only made the captains of industry richer, it made the working class richer. This trend was still continuing when the social reform movement started. Had it not been interrupted, one can only imagine how much better off the working class might be today.
There is also the myth that laissez faire capitalism naturally results in monopolies for large corporations, which then use their advantage in the market to raise prices for consumers and drive down wages, resulting in a general impoverishment of the working class. Again, the most basic understanding of economics (or even simple logic) refutes this claim easily. First, one must consider that there are two kinds of monopolies. One certainly can result from laissez faire capitalism. The other kind is a government created monopoly. The first kind of monopoly actually benefits society, while the second harms it.
Monopolies occur naturally in a laissez faire system only one way: when one company is able to deliver better products at lower prices than any of its competitors. Contrary to the Myth, this type of monopolist cannot then use its advantage to drive up prices and drive down wages. It must continue to keep its quality higher and prices below that of its competitors, or its monopoly status will cease to exist. Similarly, it is also competing with other firms for quality labor. If it offers lower pay or poorer working conditions than its competitors, its labor force will naturally migrate to the higher pay and better conditions of the competitors. While it might be argued that neither of these can happen once the monopolist’s competition has been eliminated, competition is NEVER eliminated. If there are no active firms competing at the moment, the possibility of investors entering the market is always present, and new firms enter the market the minute that a monopolist shows signs of vulnerability in its domination of a particular industry. Thus, the possibility of competition hangs over the head of the natural monopolist like an economic sword of Damocles.
A government-imposed monopoly, on the other hand, suffers from none of these pressures. Since no other firms are ALLOWED to compete, the monopolist is free to set prices wherever it sees fit. For any workers that desire to work in that particular industry, they must accept the wages offered by the monopolist or not work in that industry at all. It is within the government-imposed monopoly that all of the evils associated with monopolies exist.
Government-imposed monopolies can occur in two ways. One is where the government simply passes a law saying that a particular firm will be the sole provider of a particular good or service. This was common in the 20th century for public utilities. The flawed logic that inspired these policies was rooted in the Myth. It was thought that for basic necessities, which everyone was entitled to, businesses should not be allowed to profit from providing them. Therefore, government would allow one company to sell those services to the public, with strict control over their prices. The obvious failure of this logic resulted in the deregulation movement later in the 20th century. Detractors of this will point to power shortages and blackouts such as those experienced in California earlier in this decade. However, analysis of those crises consistently reveals that they were caused by those government controls left in place after deregulation, rather than the deregulation itself. For example, in California, the mass blackouts of 2001 were the result of price ceilings left in place in the supply chain. A free market makes no compromises.
The other, more common type of government monopoly results from excessive regulation. This is the unforeseen result of copious regulations imposed on industry in trying to solve the imaginary problems of the Myth. When it becomes so expensive to comply with regulation that only the largest firms can operate in a given industry, you have a trend toward government-created monopoly. More often than an outright monopoly by one firm, a few large firms emerge and do compete with each other, but they are insulated from new competition by the cost-prohibitive aspect of complying with regulations. While competition amongst themselves brings some of the forces of capitalism to bear, a status quo emerges in how the industry does business and what the limits on price and wages are. The economic sword of Damocles does not hang over the heads of these protected firms, other than to the extent that they compete with each other. Only a new competitor can shake the industry up, and government has insured that new competition is unlikely.
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was an example of a natural monopoly. It resulted in oil being delivered to the market at higher quality and lower prices than any other company could compete with. Standard Oil’s monopoly was maintained by CONTINUING to deliver that high quality and those low prices. Rockefeller was later a major player in creating the Federal Reserve and other government interventions into the economy, which are harmful to the market. However, he attained his vast wealth and eventual monopoly in oil by benefitting customers, not harming them.
In contrast, the government-created monopolies in the public utilities sector resulted in poorer service and higher prices for consumers. This is the reason that deregulation was eventually pursued. Immediately upon introducing competition and a FREER MARKET, supply and quality rose, while prices fell dramatically. Only in cases where government controls were left in place did adverse results occur, as previously noted.
One more aspect of the Myth that immediately comes to mind is the specter of child labor. The Myth says that child labor was a natural result of the Industrial Revolution, and that only government intervention ended it. Again, a compelling story, but completely untrue. As Andrew Bernstein insightfully points out in his book, The Capitalist Manifesto, the Industrial Revolution didn’t create the practice of child labor, IT ENDED IT. Child labor had been a fact of life for the working class throughout history. Indeed, one of the reasons (and there were many) for the migration of people away from the country and into the factory jobs in the city was the fact that the jobs their children would do in the factories were far easier than the back-breaking work they did on the farm. After less than a century of industrialization, real wages rose to the point that most families did not have to send their children to work at all. Thus, government did not end the practice of child labor, laissez faire capitalism did. This is a verifiable fact of history.
This is only a brief and incomplete critique of the Myth. It has many other components, each of which can be shown to be equally false. The Myth is based upon a core misunderstanding of capitalism. Today, capitalism is wrongly characterized as a system that gives an advantage to the rich, or to employers. It is no such thing. Capitalism is the system of freedom, where every transaction between buyer and seller is undertaken by mutual, voluntary consent. In this system, all participants make the best decision that they can based upon their rational self interest. Sellers attempt to sell at the highest price that their goods or services will fetch on the market, while buyers attempt to buy at the lowest prices that they can. Buyers seek the highest quality for their dollar, while sellers seek to provide higher quality for the same money in order to win business away from their competitors. The sum total of all of these voluntary transactions results in the economy becoming a wealth-generating engine. The secret is the ability of all participants to choose freely. By acting in their rational self interest they benefit both themselves and society as a whole. Without this free choice, the wealth-creating mechanism breaks down.
Many might argue that “buyer and seller” immediately excludes “worker,” but that is a tragic misunderstanding as well. In a capitalist system, labor is a market like everything else. “Workers” are really SELLERS. They are selling their services to employers. They compete with each other for the best jobs, and employers compete with each other for the best employees. When not disrupted by government, all of the benefits that accompany the free market for other goods and services occur in the labor market as well. Detractors of capitalism attempt to portray workers as servants that must be protected from their oppressive masters. They are no such thing. They are sellers that require no more protection from their customers than a car dealer requires protection from its customer shopping for the best car at the lowest price. By offering higher quality work, workers can demand higher prices for their services. They are free to accept an offer of employment or turn it down, or to leave their present employment for a better offer. In a truly free market, workers are empowered as the owners of the original means of production that they are.
There is even a benefit to the worker of this free buying and selling relationship when it results in lower wages. Remember that in a laissez faire capitalist system, the workers are also the chief market of the mass supply of goods that results. Thus, if the market lowers the price of labor, the corresponding price of consumer goods also falls. Therefore, even if the worker is earning less money, his purchasing power increases. His real wages go up. He becomes wealthier. Just as wages never rise nearly as rapidly as the general price level of consumer goods in an inflationary pattern (making workers poorer over time), wages never fall as quickly as the decrease in the general price level that is the result of natural economic growth (making workers wealthier over time). That real wages went up during the 19th century is a verifiable fact, and is not in dispute.
At the turn of the 20th century, even the proponents of the social reform movement recognized that capitalism was making the working class wealthier and eliminating poverty. They did not start the reform movement because capitalism was not helping the lower classes, they started it because they did not feel the improvements were occurring fast enough. This fact, too, has faded from memory, but a little research will bear it out. With all of the achievements of the century behind them, and the marvelous innovations that mankind had accomplished, they felt that there was no reason that anyone should ever want for anything again. Within 50 short years, the telephone, the moving picture, the automobile, and most of the rest of what we think of as the modern world had been invented, mostly in America. Surely, they thought, poverty could be eliminated as well. They attempted to use the power of government to ACCELERATE the progress that laissez faire had resulted in.
However, there was a fundamental flaw in their thinking. They failed to understand the mechanism that made all of that wealth creation and innovation possible. The mechanism relies on the choices between buyers and sellers being VOLUNTARY. Once the introduction of force is introduced, the process is disrupted. Detractors of capitalism consistently fail to recognize or are able to ignore the reality of what “social reform” is. It is GOVERNMENT USING THE THREAT OF VIOLENCE TO SEIZE AND REDISTRIBUTE PROPERTY, AND TO FORCE BUYERS AND SELLERS TO MAKE CHOICES THAT THEY OTHERWISE WOULDN’T MAKE. However they try to euphemize it, THIS is the alternative to laissez faire capitalism that they offer. Most non-economists probably do not realize this when they advocate for most government economic policies. They would probably find them morally repugnant if they understood them properly. However, this is the REALITY of even the “mixed economy.”
This use of force is not without consequences, however. By disrupting the voluntary nature of the transactions, capitalism’s wealth-creating mechanism breaks down. The more property is stolen for welfare programs, the less capital is left to expand production. The more government intervention there is, the less wealth is created. Productivity and innovation cannot be forced. That is the reason that free people are more productive than slaves. It is the reason that communism has failed wherever it has been practiced. Russia had a larger population and more natural resources than the United States, but tens of millions of their people died amidst those vast resources because they were practicing an economic system that did not allow the wealth-creating mechanism of capitalism to function. The same can be said of China, Viet Nam, and every other country that practiced communism. As they have moved toward a free market economy, they have become more and more prosperous. As America has moved toward a less free market economy, it has declined.
Today, the United States practices a “mixed economy” because of the persistent belief in the Myth. Refusal to recognize the plain facts of history, that the working class was becoming richer under laissez faire, rather than poorer, is the only reason that laissez faire is not still the economic system of the United States. It is also the reason for the socialist movement throughout the world, which directly led to the World Wars and the ensuing Cold War. Despite the fact that both economic systems have been taken to their logical extremes, and socialism produced mass starvation while capitalism produced mass prosperity, America continues to try to mix socialism with capitalism. After a century of “government reform” of capitalism, the gap between rich and poor is far wider than it was under laissez faire capitalism, the quality of life of the working class is declining, and a much greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few is occurring. Everything that the social reformers set out to do has not only failed, but resulted in the exact opposite of what their intention was. It is not a matter that the reform was not done skillfully or completely enough. It is a matter of the “reform” being the use of coercion to force people to make choices against their will. It is morally repugnant, and it does not work.
Politicians are naturally disposed to believe and promote the Myth. It gives them a reason to do a whole lot more than they would be allowed to do otherwise. Promoters of the Myth cite their “heroes” of the 20th century. Only by believing the Myth can you admire the policies of Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, or FDR. These men were great destroyers of prosperity and violators of individual rights, not heroes. They attacked capitalism under the pretense of solving the imaginary problems of the Myth. When crises occur in our “mixed economy,” politicians consistently blame the capitalist aspect of our society rather than the socialist aspect, and suggest more socialism as a solution. “Coincidentally,” this results in more power for the politician.
The Myth is pervading our current presidential election campaigns. McCain claims Teddy Roosevelt as his hero. Obama has invoked FDR. Both agree that more regulation is needed to solve the current financial crisis. Popular acceptance of the Myth allows them to frame the debate where only less freedom can solve our problems. It is up to the American people to choose. The proof that the Myth is false is everywhere, even in public records maintained by the government itself. However, there will never be a large movement to truly solve our problems until Americans learn accurate history and stop believing in the Myth. Once they do, they will see that the great experiment has been completed, and the results are indisputable. Only laissez faire capitalism – the economics of freedom – can restore America’s prosperity. It is the only moral and practical choice.
 Bernstein, Andrew The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez Faire. University Press of America 2005
>The recession that the federal government is just admitting we are in is obviously taking its toll on Exxon Mobil, whose profits sagged in the 2nd quarter of 2008. What? Didn’t Exxon post record profits of $11.7 billion, kicking us all when we’re down fighting high gas and food prices? That was certainly the headline today in most newspapers and periodicals (http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/080731/earns_oil.html).
As usual, however, the “record profits” are measured nominally in U.S. dollars, which are literally losing value before the ink is dry on these financial articles. A careful read of the article reveals that Exxon made these record profits on about $138 billion in revenue, giving them a profit margin of 8.48% That’s down from the 1st quarter of 2008 when profits were 9.32%, which was also significantly lower than their 3 year average of 10.08% from 2005-2007.
Considering the fact that the Federal Reserve has embarked on the most inflationary binge in its 95-year history, it is a little disingenuous to characterize a company as making “record profits” by measuring those profits nominally, instead of as a percentage of revenue. While the media is almost as anxious as the government to label “Big Oil” as the villain that is profiting on the hardship of the average American, those Americans would be best served to look in the opposite direction when the media points its finger – especially when it is pointing in the same direction as our federal government.
Just to put things in perspective, Campbell Soup Company had a similar profit margin over the same three-year period, 2005-2007. During that time, Campbell averaged a 10.22% profit margin on about $22.7 billion in revenue. However, unlike Exxon Mobile, whose profits have sagged during the past two quarters, Campbell Soup’s profits exploded – more than doubling – in its last reported quarter. After rising to 13% on $2.1 billion during the quarter ending January 27, 2008, Campbell posted a 28% profit on lower revenues of $1.8 billion during the quarter ending April 27, 2008.
28% profits while food prices are skyrocketing? Outrageous! Children are going without while Campbell’s executives laugh and say “mm-mm good!” Congressional hearings are in order. Perhaps we should seriously consider nationalizing the soup industry. I know that Maxine Waters has kindly offered to take over Big Oil for us, which would undoubtedly result in lower gas prices, improving emissions results, and a white Christmas in South Beach. However, before we worry about filling up our gas-guzzling SUV’s, we need to do something about Big Soup.