Saturday, October 12, 2013

Laissez-Faire Capitalism

I've done quite a bit of reading lately concerning what different people have to say about capitalism. One thing to notice is that capitalism seems to have hundreds of different meanings. Long ago, I memorized the definition as "private property ownership of the means of production." This definition was also specifically contrasted with socialism, which was defined as "government ownership of the means of production." As you can guess, I tell the students in my courses this is how we should define capitalism and socialism.

I have also tended to see capitalism as Adam Smith's "simple system of liberty." With my recent readings I've encountered authors who call capitalism: Financial Capitalism, or Global Capitalism, or Corporate Capitalism, or Free-Market Corporate Capitalism, or Consumerist Capitalism, or Neoliberal Capitalism, or Disaster Capitalism. Not one of these capitalisms corresponds with my thinking of capitalism as Smith's simple system of liberty.  My concern is that when I use the word capitalism I am thinking about liberty while often my listener is thinking I mean one of these capitalisms.

To make these matters worse in my opinion, many people, perhaps most people, say that our system of political economy in the United States is capitalism. Certainly our system of political economy is characterized by private property ownership of the means of production, but our system of political economy is not Smith's simple system of liberty.  Confusion seems to characterize the analysis of capitalism.

What to do? I've recently read a number of people, who see capitalism much as I do, discussing whether or not to stop using capitalism as the word for "that simple system of liberty." Because capitalism has come to have so many different meanings, I am tempted to try to stop using the word. 

Or perhaps I can follow the lead of Deirdre McCloskey and say that I'm cool with just about any definition so long as the definition does not tautologically mean capitalism is bad:
I don't much care how "capitalism" is defined, so long as it is not defined a priori to mean vice incarnate.  The prejudging definition was favored by Rousseau -- though he did not literally use the word "capitalism," still to be coined -- and by Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Luxemburg, Veblen, Goldman, and Sartre.  Less obviously, the same definition was used by their opponents Bentham, Ricardo, Rand, Friedman, and Becker.  All of them, left and right, have defined commercial society at the outset to be bad by any standard higher than successful greed.
Such a definition makes pointless an inquiry into the good and bad of modern commercial society.  If modern capitalism is defined to be the same thing as Greed -- "the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone. . . ., this boundless greed after riches," as Marx put it . . . -- then that settles it, before looking at the evidence. 
Still, since capitalism is a word that has been in use for so long by both proponents and opponents, I don't think it is going to work to try to stop using the word.  I suspect that the list of capitalisms above is not so much the consequence of prejudging capitalism as it is the consequence of mistakenly thinking each of these as invariably what becomes of capitalism over time.  Why mistakenly?  Because it seems the authors using each of these capitalisms has neglected to see that it is a system of political economy they are criticizing, and that means their concerns involve government as much as the private property ownership of the means of production.

As I think about each of the capitalisms I've read about lately, it seems to me there is nothing inherent in private property ownership of the means of production that requires capitalism to become Disaster Capitalism or Neoliberal Capitalism or any of these capitalisms.  Nor does it mean we cannot say any of these capitalisms is not truly capitalism when we define capitalism merely as the private property ownership of the means of production.  After all, there is private property ownership of the means of production in the US today, and each of the authors using these types of capitalism are criticizing aspects of the US system of political economy today.

In the past I have not wanted to give in to the idea that there could be different versions of capitalism.  I've wanted to say, "Now, look here, capitalism means Smith's simple system of liberty.  It cannot mean what people call Disaster Capitalism, or Consumerist Capitalism."  But, perhaps I've been wrong in this regard.  Perhaps I should accept the approach of saying there can be different versions of capitalism, and then make very clear the version of capitalism I'm writing and talking about.  I think it might be good to follow the lead of George Reisman and make clear that I'm writing and talking about Laissez-Faire Capitalism:
Laissez-Faire Capitalism is a politico-economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and in which the powers of the state are limited to the protection of the individual's rights against the initiation of physical force.  This protection applies to the initiation of physical force by other private individuals, by foreign governments, and, most importantly, by the individual's own government.
I might want to modify this definition just a bit, but it pretty much expresses what I mean by capitalism.  So, my intuition is that the best way to try to reduce confusion is to explicitly say that there are different versions of capitalism, and therefore the task is not to learn about capitalism but to learn about Laissez-Faire Capitalism, and perhaps the other versions as well.

Monday, March 25, 2013

PLUNDER

Frederic Bastiat:
It is absolutely necessary that this question of legal plunder should be determined, and there are only three solutions of it:
1. When the few plunder the many.
2. When everybody plunders everybody else.
3. When nobody plunders anybody.
Partial plunder, universal plunder, absence of plunder, amongst these we have to make our choice.  The law can only produce one of these results. [THE LAW, 61]
I believe this is correct.  Partial plunder seems to characterize most of history.  I say we should choose the third alternative, absence of plunder.  The United States Constitution was a good beginning for a system of political economy that might approximate the third alternative.  Alas, over time the Constitution has been lost [see Barnett, Restoring The Lost Constitution], and our system of political economy seems to have become an excellent illustration of universal plunder.  As you might guess, neither partial plunder nor universal plunder offer paths by which prosperity can be enjoyed by all.

Law, Liberty & This Odious Perversion

Frederic Bastiat:
In fact, if law were confined to causing all persons, all liberties, and all properties to be respected--if it were merely the organization of individual right and individual defense--if it were the obstacle, the check, the chastisement opposed to all oppression, to all plunder--is it likely that we should dispute much, as citizens, on the subject of the greater or less universality of suffrage?  Is it likely that it would compromises that greatest of advantages, the public peace?  Is it likely that the excluded classes would not quietly wait for their turn?  Is it likely that the enfranchised classes would be very jealous of their privilege?  And is it not clear, that the interest of all being one and the same, some would act without much inconvenience to the others?  But if the fatal principle should come to be introduced, that, under pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law may take from one party in order to give to another, help itself to the wealth acquired by all the classes that it may increase that of one class, whether that of the agriculturists, the manufacturers, the ship owners, or artists and comedians; then certain, in this case, there is no class which may not try, and with reason, to place its hand upon the law, that would not demand with fury its rights of election and eligibility, and that would overturn society rather than not obtain it.  Even beggars and vagabonds will prove to you that they have an incontestable title to it. . . Yes, as long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true mission, that it may violate property instead of securing it, everybody will be wanting to manufacture law, either to defend himself against plunder, or to organize it for his own profit. . . Is there any need to prove that this odious perversion of law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord, that it even tends to social disorganization. [The Law, 57-58]

Friday, February 01, 2013

Enemies Into Friends

SHELDON RICHMAN:
Mises, Hayek, and Buchanan were onto something important. In the popular mind, economics is a cold, detached study of the Economy, almost as though it were a machine that acts on society. In contrast, the catallaxy is where people who disagree about the value of things peacefully exchange goods and services in a never-ending cooperative effort to improve their lives. It is indeed a community where enemies may be changed into friends.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Capitalism

Deirdre McCloskey:
Capitalism has triumphed in our time, which I claim is a good thing, though boring.  The coming of bourgeois society to northwestern Europe was good.  So was the theorizing of bourgeois virtues in Holland and Scotland and France.  So were the early successes of bourgeois society in England and Belgium and the United States.  So was the enlargement of the clerisy.  So was the global triumph of capitalism from 1848 to 1914 and again from 1945 to the present in its spread to the second world and to more and more of the third.  It has allowed the escape from deadly poverty by hundreds of millions in the late twentieth century, the defeat of Fascism and then of Communism, the revolts against the tyrants from Marcos to the House of Saud, the liberal hegemony of the early twenty-first century.  All of these, I say, are good things.  One can think of the calamities of the twentieth century as caused by the sins of capitalism.  The left does.  Capital was born, wrote Marx, 'dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.'  I think on the contrary that most of the calamities were a consequence of the attacks on capitalism." [Bourgeois Virtues]

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fiscal Responsibility

Given all the political talk in Washington these days of fiscal cliffs, deficits, and debt ceilings I wonder how many people, even how many of those doing all the talking, have much of an idea of what government's spending and taxing looks like of late?  I have to pay attention to some of this because of the courses I teach, and I have my course Economics of the Public Sector coming soon.  So, I thought I would spend some time, once again, with the numbers in the President's Budget Proposal for FY2013.  I don't like looking at numbers that are only estimates, so I'm only paying attention to actual numbers for outlays and revenues.

Here is what the total picture looked like with respect to spending, revenues, and borrowing for the US Government, and for the last two fiscal years for which there is actual information.  The numbers presented are in billions of dollars.  In FY 2010 the US Government had revenue of  $2,163 billions of dollars,  while it spent $3,456 billions of dollars.  In FY 2010 the US Government chose to borrow $1,293 billions of dollars.  This means that for FY 2010 Congress and the President chose to borrow 37 cents of every dollar they spent.

The story is pretty similar for FY 2011.  In that year the revenue was $2,303 billions of dollars while spending was $3,602 billions of dollars.  In FY 2011 the US Government chose to borrow $1,300 billions of dollars.   That means that for FY 2011 Congress and the President borrowed 36 cents of every dollar they spent.

The political talk these days often has one side of the political isle saying government has a spending problem and the other side counters by saying government has a revenue problem.  It seems to me better to say the US Government has a borrowing problem.  Can there be any justification, outside of events like WWI and WWII, for borrowing around 40 cents of every dollar spent?  I doubt it, but the question does suggest we might wonder what the government spends $3.5 trillion dollars on, and what aspects of this spending justify borrowing around a trillion dollars annually.

It seems a rather challenging task to get deeply into the budget numbers for the entire US Government.  So, I'm not going to get very detailed.  Still, I think we can probably draw some conclusions by looking at what sorts of things Congress and the President have been spending the most money on of late.  Consider the percentage of the entire budget spent by the largest four agencies of the US Government:

  • Department of Health & Human Services . . . . . . . . . 24.7%
  • Social Security Administration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21.8%
  • Department of Defense . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18.8%
  • Department of the Treasury  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14.9%
It is notable, I think, that these four agencies spent 80.2% of the entire amount of money spent by the US Government in FY 2011.  The next largest agency in terms of spending was the Department of Agriculture which spent 3.9% of the total spending for the US Government.  After taking the spending of these 4 agencies out of the budget, there are 24 remaining agencies which together spend the remaining 20% of total federal spending.

Take a look now at the amount spent by these 4 agencies in FY 2011:

  • Department of Health & Human Services . . . . . . . . . $891,247 million
  • Social Security Administration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $784,194 million
  • Department of Defense . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $678,074 million
  • Department of the Treasury. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $536,740 million

Just the largest 3 agencies together spent $2,353,515 million, or $2,354 billion, in FY 2011.  In other words, the spending of just three agencies exceeded the government's revenue of $2,303 billion in FY 2011.  In a sense, then, in FY 2011 members of Congress and the President decided to borrow 40 cents of every dollar they spent in order to operate the rest of the 25 agencies of government.  Wow!

Take a look now at 3 of the programs the 2 largest agencies spent money on:

  • Social Security . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $599,372 million
  • Medicare . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $565,340 million
  • Disability . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $131,571 million  

Add these 3 programs together to get $1,296,282 million, or $1,296 billion, in FY 2011.  Members of Congress and the President borrowed $1,300 billion in FY 2011.  Thus, another way of trying to put the fiscal actions of the US Government into perspective is to say that in FY 2011 the money that was borrowed was borrowed in order to pay for just three programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Disability.

It seems to me we should conclude that something has gone seriously wrong with the recent fiscal actions of Congress and the President.  I don't think it is possible to justify borrowing the money necessary to operate 25 out of the 28 agencies of government.  Nor do I think it is possible to justify borrowing the money needed to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Disability.

Or think about this. Social Security and Medicare combined account for almost the amount borrowed, and these two programs are for only one group of people, those who have reached "retirement age."  I don't think it is possible to justify borrowing money to support programs for this group of people.

I'm sure some will complain that this way of thinking about government borrowing isn't sensible because Social Security isn't an entitlement program since people are just getting back their money from payments over the course of their working lives.  But, Social Security has never worked this way in fact.  It has always been a transfer program from those who are working to those who are retired.  In addition, the numbers I'm using here combine all sources of revenue and types of outlays into the total budget numbers.

In any case, I suggest it is important to think about all the budget talk by the President and members of Congress these days in some conceptual way that allows us to emphasize what our political representatives are choosing to do when they borrow money on our behalf.  It seems to me these two perspectives help in this regard.  Also, please don't forget that when our representatives decide to borrow money on our behalf that we adults won't be the only people paying the money back.  People who can't yet vote, our children, will also have to pay back money "we" borrowed for government today.

Perhaps there is another way to put the budget actions of Congress and the President into perspective.  Even if our representatives in Washington wanted to balance the government budget, it is possible to over estimate the revenue and thus to be required to borrow to cover the difference between predicted revenue and actual revenue.  But, if this reason explained the deficits then once in a while there would be a surplus, and the need to borrow would be just a few cents for every dollar spent annually, not almost 40 cents for every dollar spent.  Borrowing as much money as they have recently suggests it is unreasonable to assume the borrowing is needed because of inaccurate revenue estimates.  It seems better to assume other justifications are needed.  Thus, another way of putting the budget actions of Congress and the President into perspective is to see any new spending as requiring new borrowing.  As such, Congress and the President should be discussing why they want to borrow money for the new spending.  For example, just yesterday the House considered spending, or should we say borrowing, an additional $50 billion for hurricane Sandy "relief."  What reasons can justify borrowing money at this time for personal losses due to a hurricane?  Perhaps there are in fact good reasons.  But, if so, there is also the larger context that government has already found that it needs to borrow sufficient money to operate 90% of the government agencies.

It seems to me something has gone wrong with the US Government.  It also seems to me that what has gone wrong is related to the easy way by which members of Congress and the President have come to accept borrowing more and more money to fund government.  Perhaps the answer to what has gone wrong is to return to what Buchanan and Wagner (Democracy in Deficit) called the "Smithian principle of fiscal responsibility:"
Government should not spend without imposing taxes; and government should not place future generations in bondage by deficit financing of public outlays designed to provide temporary and short-lived benefits.
In other words, government should generally seek to operate without running a deficit.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Fiscal Cliff or Deficit Scissors?

All the political talk about a "fiscal cliff," and a post by Peter Boettke, has led me to begin reading Democracy in Deficit by Buchanan and Wagner.  I think the opening paragraph in the first chapter of Democracy in Deficit suggests a very simple way of thinking about the fiscal issues front and center in the news today:
In the year (1776) of the American Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith observed that "What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom."  Until the advent of the "Keynesian revolution" in the middle years of this century, the fiscal conduct of the American Republic was informed by this Smithian principle of fiscal responsibility: Government should not spend without imposing taxes; and government should not place future generations in bondage by deficit financing of public outlays designed to provide temporary and short-lived benefits.
In other words, government should generally operate without running a deficit.  Government should generally pay for its activities each year with annual tax revenues.

If you agree this is a reasonable idea, then perhaps you will wonder about the so-called fiscal cliff that the President and members of Congress are bickering over these days.  The idea of the fiscal cliff is that Congress and the President have "bound" themselves by past actions in ways that will, on January 1, result in (1) an increase in income tax rates (for every taxpayer), and in (2) automatic across the board cuts in government spending.  If you haven't been paying attention to politics lately you might wonder why the President and Congress would take action in the past that would bind them to (1) and (2) today.  The answer seems to have something to do with the fact that the President and Congress have been borrowing quite a lot of money to finance their activities of late.  I will show you how much borrowing in two charts below.  It seems that the President and members of Congress recognized in the past that they really aren't very good with budgets and fiscal responsibilities, and thus they concluded that if they wanted to start borrowing less money they would have to bind themselves to (1) and (2).  There must be some truth to the idea that they aren't very good with budgets because we are now less than a month away from (1) and (2) happening, and what are the President and members of Congress bickering about?  Yep, unbinding themselves from (1) and (2) so that they can borrow more money.

How is it that we are now facing a "fiscal cliff?"  Maybe our political leaders see this as a cliff because they can't face up to the idea that they should be more responsible than they are with the budget of the United States.  Or it may be that our political leaders and others see a cliff because they believe that more tax revenue and less spending will mean a new period of recession for the country.  Or, it may be that our fearless leaders are hoping to deflect our attention from the mountain of loans they have been taking out lately by telling us to pay attention instead to the cliff that is (1) and (2).

Given all the public bickering and finger pointing, I'm thinking the last alternative makes a lot of sense.  After all, if the President and Congress have been borrowing too much money in the past few years, then it seems that the quote from Democracy in Deficit would suggest they need to get out a pair of deficit scissors and cut the size of their borrowing.  What would deficit scissors be?  Well, pretty much something like (1) and (2).  One blade of the deficit scissors would be more tax revenue while the second blade would be cutting what they spend each year.

Should the President and Congress get the deficit scissors out?  You'll have to decide for yourself, of course.  But, after showing you some numbers that I found in the FY 2013 Budget Proposal of President Obama, I'll tell you my answer.  These numbers come only as close to the present fiscal year as FY 2011 because that is the last year for which actual information is available.  I do not present estimates.  The first chart shows the historical record of U.S. Government receipts and outlays as percentages of GDP.  Outlays are shown in red, and thus for any year that the red trend line is above the blue trend line the U.S. Government ran a deficit, i.e., Congress and the President borrowed money.  It looks like the President and Congress began to borrow more each year, compared to the past experience, from around 1970 on.  There is an exception which is shown by the
four years of surplus around the end of the Clinton presidency.  In most of the years after those four years of budget surplus the President and Congress borrowed pretty heavily.  The last three years in the chart show very heavy borrowing. 

I don't think it is really easy to understand the meaning of a government deficit when expressed as a  percentage of GDP.  The next chart shows the deficit in terms of the cents borrowed out of every dollar spent by government in each year.  For any year in which government's budget was in surplus 


the cents borrowed is shown as zero.  The information in this chart begins in 1900 and ends with the 2011 FY.  Notice that outside the years that involve either a world war or the Great Depression, the US Government seldom borrowed more than 20 cents of every dollar it spent.  It also appears that over the period of years since WWII the US Government's reliance on borrowing increased early in the decade of the 1970s.  The US Government's willingness to borrow seems also to have increased recently.  In the 2009 FY it borrowed 40 cents of every dollar it spent, in 2010 FY it borrowed 37 cents of every dollar spent, and in 2011 it borrowed 36 cents of every dollar spent.

I suggest that the President and Congress have borrowed far too much money in recent years.  Borrowing thirty to forty cents of every dollar spent is far too much.  I also suggest that if you look again at the first chart, it is reasonable to conclude that the last three years in the chart display a significant increase in the spending habits of the President and Congress.  Yes, there was also a decrease in tax revenues during the last three budget years, which is of course what happens with recession.  Given the proclivity of the red spending trend line to be above blue revenue line since around 1970, it seems to me the borrowing problem of the President and Congress results from their proclivity to spend too much.  

In any case, except for relatively unusual circumstances (e.g. a world war), it seems to me that the President and Congress should be budgeting for a surplus, or for a very small deficit (perhaps five or ten cents for every dollar spent).  The fiscal cliff looks to me like deficit scissors that are really needed at this point to begin to get the President and Congress to be fiscally responsible with our money and the money of future generations.  My preference is for the President and Congress to spend less rather than raise tax rates on any of us, but I suggest ending the unjustified borrowing is the greater priority at this time.

What do you think?  Should we fear the fiscal cliff, or should we get out the deficit scissors?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Ethics of Voting

I just started Jason Brennan's The Ethics of Voting, and it looks very interesting.  Why?  Consider:
At base, democracy is just a decision-making method.  In politics, democracy is a method for deciding when and how to coerce people into doing things they do not wish to do.  Political democracy is a method for deciding (directly or indirectly) when, how, and in what ways a government will threaten people with violence.  The symbol of democracy is not just the ballot--it is the ballot connected to a gun.
Democracy is good because liberal, constitutional democratic governments perform well compared to the feasible alternatives.  People living under liberal, constitutional democratic governments tend to have higher standards of living, greater educational levels, longer life expectancy, higher exposure and access to culture and diversity, greater reported happiness and life satisfaction, more freedom of all kinds, and more wealth than people living under alternative regimes.  From a humanitarian point of view, liberal constitutional democracy is a clear winner, at least compared to the alternatives we have tried.
I like both these paragraphs, and I suspect students in just about any of my courses will find these views familiar.  I'm especially fond of the clarity about the nature of government expressed in the idea that "democracy is not just the ballot--it is the ballot connected to a gun."

I also think I like Brennan's ideas about what ethical voting means.  Here are the propositions he says he argues for in his book:

  • Citizens have no civic or moral obligation to vote.
  • Citizens can pay their debts to society and exercise civic virtue without being involved in politics.
  • People who lack certain credentials (such as knowledge, rationality, and intellectual virtue) should abstain from voting.
  • Voters should not vote for narrow self-interest.
  • It can be permissible to buy and sell votes.  It is not inherently wrong to do so.
Perhaps by the end of his book I will decide against these views, but they seem right to me at this point.  I especially support the idea that a person does not have a moral obligation to vote, but if a person chooses to vote, then I think a person has a obligation to vote in support of an informed, justifiable view of  what is in the common interest.

I even like the last idea that it is not inherently wrong to buy and sell votes.  After all, it would be unusual for an economist not to support the idea that there was no better means of aggregating individual preference than voluntary exchange. 

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Allocation, Distribution & Fairness

Peter Boettke:
The juxtaposition of the exchange approach to economics with the approach to economics that emphasizes optimal society allocation and just distribution as products of a benevolent social planner sets the stage for Buchanan's distinction between economics and politics, as well as the emphasis on rules and the institutional framework.  Questions of  "just distribution" are never about particular distributions of resources but instead always about the choices over the rules of the game which engender a pattern of exchange, production, and thus distribution.  Fairness is about rules, not outcomes; justice is about process, not end-states. [Living Economics, p. 50]

Monday, September 03, 2012

Congress shall make no law. . . .

You might be interested in an interview of Hayek done by James Buchanan. Hayek made the following suggestion about the Constitution:
Well, among the Founding Fathers, there were some who very clearly saw the very point I am making.  And I believe they did try, by the design of the American Constitution, to achieve a limit on their powers.  After all, the one phrase in the American Constitution, or rather in the First Amendment, which I think most highly of is the phrase, "Congress shall make no law. . . "  Now, that's unique, but unfortunately [it goes] only to a particular point.  I think the phrase ought to read, "Congress should make no law authorizing government to take any discriminatory measures of coercion."  I think this would make all the other rights unnecessary and create the sort of conditions which I want to see.
I like the idea.  If you are interested in Hayek's analysis that leads to this suggestion, then you will want to read Law, Legislation, and Liberty (all 3 volumes), and perhaps The Constitution of Liberty as well.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Humankind's Natural Propensities

Peter Boettke:
I often tell students that humankind has demonstrated two natural propensities--to truck, barter, and exchange (as Adam Smith taught); and to rape, pillage, and plunder (as Thomas Hobbes taught us)--and which propensity is pursued is a function of the institutional framework within which individuals find themselves living and interacting. The life experience can be a virtuous cycle of wealth creation and healthier and wealthier lives, or it can be a nasty and brutish hell on earth.  So while economics cannot give us exact point predictions, it can, as a science, inform us of tendencies and directions of change as well as the wealth-creating or wealth-destroying capacity of the political economic system. [Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, p. 385]

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Doings of Man

Peter Boettke:
If we fail as economic educators, then we fail in our job as economists. . . .The wealth and poverty of nations is at stake; the length and quality of life turns on the economic conditions individuals find themselves living within.
The discipline of economics illuminates all walks of human life, and as such it is an ambitious science.  It explains the doings of man, whether in the marketplace, the voting booth, the church, the family, or any other human capacity.  The economic way of thinking is not just one window on the world; it is the only window that deals with man as a human actor.  This may sound arrogant to the casual reader, but economics also teaches humility.  As F.A. Hayek put it, "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." [Living Economics, p. 383] 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

UNCONSTITUTIONAL?

Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz has recently published a very interesting, and dare I assert important, paper in The Stanford Law Review. He opens his paper with this very interesting idea:
"Two centuries after Marbury v. Madison, there remains a deep confusion about quite what a court is reviewing when it engages in judicial review. Conventional wisdom has it that judicial review is the review of certain legal objects: statutes, regulations. But strictly speaking, this is not quite right. The Constitution prohibits not objects but actions. Judicial review is the review of such actions. And actions require actors: verbs require subjects. So before judicial review focuses on verbs, let alone objects, it should begin at the beginning, with subjects. Every constitutional inquiry should begin with a basic question that has been almost universally overlooked. The fundamental question, from which all else follows, is the who question: who has violated the Constitution?"
Perhaps because I come to study the constitution from the conceptual view of an economist this idea makes perfect sense to me. After all, I recognize that, like Mises, I study human action. Like the neoclassical economist, I study the choices made by an individual.  So, it seems to be in my nature to understand that if the Court declares a statute unconstitutional, the Court is really saying that Congress took an action it did not have the constitutional power to take.  Still, I have to agree with Mr. Rosenkranz that it does seem to be the case that Court opinions, law school faculty, politicians and voters tend to say that it is the statute in question that has some fault.

Is it really important to emphasize who violated the Constitution? I think it probably is very important. Surely it is a good idea for voters to think about the actions of the people they vote for and against. Personally, I can read the Constitution, and when I hear my representative argue publicly that he or she has a power I do not see enumerated in the Constitution I usually vow to vote against that representative in the future.  It seems to me, after all, that when a member of Congress votes to use the power of government in a way that is unconstitutional, that member of Congress is abusing the power of his or her office. 

I think our republican form of government would be improved if our representatives believed it was their personal responsibility to act in a constitutional way.  It seems to me it is possible to hide from this attitude if you are a member of Congress that thinks: "Bummer man, the Court said that law I voted for was unconstitutional."

Consider also that Article VI requires an oath of office for members of Congress. The Oath of Office which is taken by both members of the House and Senate is as follows:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
It seems to me that a member of Congress cannot defend, nor bear true faith and witness to the Constitution if they think it is the statute that is unconstitutional and not their action that is unconstitutional. It is the obligation of each member of the House and the Senate to read the Constitution they take an Oath to defend and be faithful to, and then to act within the bounds of the specific, and enumerated, Constitutional powers granted to their office.  In other words, it seems to me the oath of office makes it the responsibility of each member of Congress not to abuse the power of the office by voting in support of legislation that is inconsistent with the Constitution.

The President also takes a similar oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."  It is not just members of Congress who can act unconstitutionally.  A President that signs a law which is inconsistent with the Constitution is not only violating the constitutional oath of office but is abusing the constitutional power of the office.  I've even read that James Madison believed Presidents would see it their duty to veto Congressional measures that were unconstitutional.  Of course, that doesn't happen today because vetoes are about politics and not about the Constitution.  But why should vetoes be about the Constitution, since it is the job of the Supreme Court to decide which laws, or which parts of laws, are unconstitutional.

It seems to me that by thinking a law is unconstitutional, rather than thinking government is acting to use power in ways that are unconstitutional, we have all come to take the questions of constitutionality too lightly.  Saying "unconstitutional" really should be saying that someone in government, or perhaps many someones, has chosen to abuse the constitutional power of his or her office.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Our Founders and Adam Smith

I guess it has always seemed likely to me that people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were influenced in their views of government by the work of Adam Smith.  Perhaps it was the coincidence of the 1776 publication dates for both the Wealth of Nations and The Declaration of Independence.  Or perhaps it was the similarity in conceptual ideas about liberty.  In any case, I just read an interesting article by Samuel Fleischacker which provides evidence that this intuition of mine was not ill-founded:
Adam Smith's influence was thus deeply present in the founders' thought.  This influence was complex, in part because the founders actually read Smith's tome rather than treating it as a hieroglyph for a free trade slogan.  Smith's influence can be seen in James Madison's subtle notion of the relationship between interest and virtue, in the remarks Madison and others made about the link between economic occupation and moral character, and in the trust in ordinary people's judgment that Madison shared with James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and some of the other founders.  Smith's importance to American political thought in the 1780s should be taken much more seriously than it has been.  It is remarkable that America has a Constitution that, in the functions it gives to government, the structure its provides for the military, and the strict separation it proclaims between religious and secular powers, fits Smith's conception of politics better than any government of his day.  When this remarkable fact is combined with evidence of significant interest in Wealth of Nations among America's political elite--several years before it received much attention elsewhere--it must be concluded that the relative inattention of historians to the influence of Wealth of Nations on the American founding is an oversight badly in need of correction. ["Adam Smith's Reception among the American Founders, 1776-1790," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol 59, No 4 (Oct 2002), 924-924]
I also found it interesting to realize that Adam Smith was especially interested in what was going on in the Colonies and in America.  He apparently thought this was the most likely place for his ideas to take hold.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Politics Of Friends & Enemies

Hayek:
While in the tribal society the condition of internal peace is the devotion of all members to some common visible purposes, and therefore to the will of somebody who can decide what at any moment these purposes are to be and how they are to be achieved, the Open Society of free men becomes possible only when the individuals are constrained only to obey the abstract rules that demarcate the domain of the means that each is allowed to use for his purposes.  So long as any particular ends, which in a society of any size must always be the ends of some particular persons or group, are regarded as a justification of coercion, there must always arise conflicts between groups with different interests.  Indeed, so long as particular purposes are the foundation of political organization, these whose purposes are different are inevitably enemies; and it is true that in such a society politics necessarily is dominated by the friend-enemy relation.  Rules of just conduct can become the same for all only when particular ends are not regarded as justification for coercion (apart from such special passing circumstances as war, rebellion or natural catastrophes). [The Mirage of Social Justice, p. 143]

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Hayek On Social Justice

Here are a few insightful and interesting quotations that I think are relevant to understanding "social justice" from Hayek's The Mirage of Social Justice:
. . . the importance for the functioning of the market order of particular prices or wages, and therefore of the incomes of the different groups and individuals, is not due chiefly to the effects of the prices on all of those who receive them, but to the effects of the prices on those for whom they act as signals to change the direction of their efforts.  Their function is not so much to reward people for what they have done as to tell them what in their own as well as in general interest they ought to do. [pp. 71-72]
It is not good intentions or needs but doing what in fact most benefits others, irrespective of motive, which will secure the best reward. [p. 72] 
The most common attempts to give meaning to the concept of 'social justice' resort to egalitarian considerations and argue that every departure from equality of material benefits enjoyed has to be justified by some recognizable common interest which they differences serve.  This is based on a specious analogy with the situation in which some human agency has to distribute rewards, in which case indeed justice would require that theses reward be determined in accordance with some recognizable rule of general applicability.  But earnings in a market system, though people tend to regard them as rewards, do not serve such a function.  Their rationale (if one may use this term for a role which was not designed but developed because it assisted human endeavour without people understanding how), is rather to indicate to people what they ought to do if the order is to be maintained on which they all rely.  The prices which must be paid in a market economy for different kinds of labour and other factors of production if individual efforts are to match, although they will be affected by effort, diligence, skill, need, etc., cannot conform to any one of these magnitudes; and considerations of justice just do not make sense with respect to the determination of a magnitude which does not depend on anyone's will or desire, but on circumstances which nobody know in their totality. [p. 80] 
I think it is very important to understand that the prices that emerge in the world of voluntary exchange (or, we might say, in The Political Order of a Free People) are signals that can be useful  with respect to choices about future individual human actions as well as future social interactions.  The world of human action is dynamic and evolving, and the prices that emerge with the market process are signals that help people figure out effective ways of adapting to ever changing conditions.  Thus government actions in the name of social justice will amount to introducing force into the political order in a way which necessarily interrupts the function of prices as such signals.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Commerce Clause

Justice Thomas's opinion in the health care case:
I dissent for the reasons stated in our joint opinion, but I write separately to say a word about the Commerce Clause.  The joint dissent and THE CHIEF JUSTICE correctly apply our precedents to conclude that the Individual Mandate is beyond the power granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause.  Under those precedents, Congress may regulate "economic activity [that] substantially affects interstate commerce."  I adhere to my view that "the very notion of a 'substantial effects' test under the Commerce Clause is inconsistent with the original understanding of Congress' powers and with this Court's early Commerce Clause cases."  As I have explained, the Court's continued use of that test "has encouraged the Federal Government to persist in its view that the Commerce Clause has virtually no limits."  The Government's unprecedented claim in this suit that it may regulate not only economic activity but also inactivity that substantially affects interstate commerce is a case in point.
Right on target!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Order & Power

Hayek:
The ultimate justification of the conferment of a power to coerce is that such a power is required if a viable order is to be maintained, and that all have therefore an interest in the existence of such a power.  But this justification does not extend further than the need.  There is clearly no need that anybody, not even the majority, should have power over all the particular actions or things occurring in society. [The Political Order of a Free People, p. 6]

Monday, July 30, 2012

Not Every Legislative Act Is Law

Justice Matthews for the Supreme Court in Hurtado v People of the State of California, 110 US 516, 535-36 (1884):
But it is not to be supposed that these legislative powers are absolute and despotic, and that the amendment prescribing due process of law is too vague and indefinite to operate as a practical restraint.  It is not every act, legislative in form, that is law.  Law is something more than mere will exerted as an act of power.  It must be not a special rule for a particular person or a particular case, but, in the language of Mr. Webster, in his familiar definition, ‘the general law, a law which hears before it condemns, which proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgment only after trial,’ so ‘that every citizen shall hold his life, liberty, property, and immunities under the protection of the general rules which govern society,’ and thus excluding, as not due process of law, acts of attainder, bills of pains and penalties, acts of confiscation, acts reversing judgments, and acts directly transferring one man’s estate to another, legislative judgments and decrees, and other similar special, partial, and arbitrary exertions of power under the forms of legislation.  Arbitrary power, enforcing its edicts to the injury of the persons and property of its subjects, is not law, whether manifested as the decree of a personal monarch or of an impersonal multitude.  And the limitations imposed by our constitutional law upon the action of the governments, both state and national, are essential to the preservation of public and private rights, notwithstanding the representative character of our political institutions.  The enforcement of these limitations by judicial process is the device of self-governing communities to protect the rights of individuals and minorities, as well against the power of numbers, as against the violence of public agents transcending the limits of lawful authority, even when acting in the name and wielding the force of the government.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Conquering Ignorance

Hayek:
In one sense the saying that our civilization rests on the conquest of ignorance is of course a mere platitude.  Yet our very familiarity with it tends to conceal from us what is most important in it: namely that civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.  And one of the ways in which civilization helps us to overcome that limitation on the extent of individual knowledge is by conquering ignorance, not by the acquisition of more knowledge, but by the utilization of knowledge which is and remains widely dispersed among individuals. [Rules and Order, p. 15]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Selection and Society

Hayek:
It is simply not true that our actions owe their effectiveness solely or chiefly to knowledge which we can state in words and which can therefore constitute the explicit premises of a syllogism.  Many of the institutions of society which are indispensable conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view.  We live in a society in which we can successfully orientate ourselves, and in which our actions have a good chance of achieving their aims, not only because our fellows are governed by known aims or known connections between means and ends, but because they are also confined by rules whose purposes or origin we often do not know and of whose very existence we are often not aware.   
Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one.  And he is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations. [Rules and Order, p. 11]

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Economic History of the World


Here we have the economic history of the world in one picture, as summarized for us by Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms:
The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. . . . Before 1800 income per person--the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head--varied across societies and epochs. . . . the average person in the world in 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC.  Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world's population was poorer than their remote ancestors. . . . Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers: thirty to thirty-five years. . . . average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800.  The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.  The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed forever the possibilities of material consumption.  Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries.  The richest modern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average.  Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled.  There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest. [Introduction, pp. 1-3]
In other words, for most of human history and in most places in the world, almost all people lived very near subsistence.  But, something happened around 1800 in some places, and the masses of people in those places began to break away from subsistence living and to prosper.

This is the Great Fact of history, as Deirdre McCloskey refers to it in Bourgeois Dignity.  This Great Fact seems to be something most people are unaware of, even among the people who are living in those places in the world where most people live far from subsistence.  It is a fact which seems to be missing from the curricula materials in our schools.  It even seems that this missing fact contributes to many people taking our own prospering for granted.  So, I suppose it should be no surprise that many people seem to believe ideas that are inconsistent with the explanation for why, in some parts of the world, the masses of people began to prosper and continue to prosper today.

What explains the Great Fact of history?  I was reminded of this question earlier this morning while finishing Hayek's The Political Order of a Free People:
However little it may often appear to be true, the social world is governed in the long run by certain moral principles on which the people at large believe.  The only moral principle which has ever made the growth of an advanced civilization possible was the principle of individual freedom, which means that the individual is guided in his decisions by rules of just conduct and not by specific commands.  No principles of collective conduct which bind the individual can exist in a society of free men.  What we have achieved we owe to securing the individuals the chance of creating for themselves a protected domain (their 'property') within which they can use their abilities for their own purposes. [pp. 151-152]
There are lots of specific details we might pay attention to in answering this question, but the simple bottom line seems to me just what Hayek writes here, i.e., individual liberty.  Unfortunately, our system of political economy today seems to move farther and farther away from a society of a free people.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unlimited Democracy

Hayek:
The true value of democracy is to serve as a sanitary precaution protecting us against an abuse of power.  It enables us to get rid of a government and try to replace it by a better one.  Or, to put it differently, it is the only convention we have yet discovered to make peaceful change possible. . . . In its present unlimited form democracy has today largely lost the capacity of serving as a protection against arbitrary power.  It has ceased to be a safeguard of personal liberty, a restraint on the abuse of governmental power which it was hoped it would prove to be when it was naively believed that, when all power was made subject to democratic control, all the other restraints on government power could be dispensed with.  It has, on the contrary, become the main cause of a progressive and accelerating increase of the power and weight of the administrative machine. . . . As everything tends to become a political issue for which the interference of the coercive powers of government can be invoked, an ever larger part of human activity is diverted from productive into political efforts . . . . In other words, we have under the false name of democracy created a machinery in which not the majority decides, but each member of the majority has to consent to make bribes to get majority support for his own special demands. [The Political Order of a Free People, 137-138]

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Political Incentives

Hayek:
People who hope to be re-elected on the basis of what their party during the preceding three or four years has conferred in conspicuous special benefits on their voters are not in the sort of position which will make them pass the kind of general laws which would really be most in the public interest. [The Political Order of a Free People, p. 28]

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Roberts & No Reason

Justice Roberts in the health care opinion:
The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it, and for over 200 years both our decisions and Congress's actions have reflected this understanding.  There is no reason to depart from that understanding now. [p. 24]
I agree with the first sentence.  Congress does not have the constitutional power to compel commerce, either interstate or intrastate.  This should be thought to be the case regardless of Congressional actions in support or to the contrary.

I find the conceptual view implied by the second sentence to be of concern.  The second sentence seems to me to imply that if Justice Roberts did believe there was a reason to depart from "that understanding," then he might have been willing to make that departure by way of the Court's opinion at hand.  If this is not implied, then it seems to me Justice Roberts would have chosen to leave this sentence out of his opinion.  I wish he had.

So, why is this of concern?  I think the conceptual view implied by this sentence is that, when useful, the Court should change the way the Constitution is understood by way of Court opinions.  Of course, the proper, constitutional way to change the meaning of the Constitution is to amend the Constitution.  Article V specifies the proper way to change the meaning of the Constitution, and the proper way does not include a grant of power to the Court to do so.

The Court should make the constitutional view clear, nor murky as I think this sentence does.  If it seems appropriate to point out there is no reason to depart from the historical understanding of the Constitution now, then I suggest that Justice Roberts should also add: "and if there was reason to change this understanding, then the Court cannot and will not attempt to do that.  If there is such reason, then the constitutional way of changing the meaning of the Constitution is to carry out the requirements found in Article V."

Sadly, for me, it seems that long ago most of the Justices have come to see their constitutional role in the conceptual way implied by this quote.

Hayek on The Value of Science

Hayek in Rules and Order:
There is another related misconception about the aim and power of science which it will be useful also to mention at this point.  This is the belief that science is concerned exclusively with what exists and not with what could be.  But the value of science consists largely in telling us what would happen if some facts were different from what they are.  All the statements of theoretical science have the form of 'if  . . . , then . . .' statements, and they are interesting mainly in so far as the conditions we insert in the 'if' clause are different from those that actually exist. . . . the chief value of all science is to tell us what the consequences would be if conditions were in some respects made different from what they are. . . . Fruitful social science must be very largely a study of what is not: a construction of hypothetical models of possible worlds which might exist if some of the alterable conditions were made different.  We need a scientific theory chiefly to tell us what would be the effects if some conditions were as they have never been before.  All scientific knowledge is knowledge not of particular facts but of hypotheses which have so far withstood systematic attempts at refuting them. (p. 17)

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Court & The Commerce Clause

Reading a Court opinion, as I am doing this morning, I am some times bored, some times entertained, some times nauseated, and some times I'm just baffled.  Consider the following tidbits from Chief Justice Roberts in the health care opinion announced yesterday:
1. The Federal Government "is acknowledged by all to be one of enumerated powers."
2. The enumeration of powers is also a limitation of powers, because "[t]he enumeration presupposes something not enumerated.
3. If no enumerated power authorizes Congress to pass a certain law, that law may not be enacted, even if it would not violate any of the express prohibitions in the Bill of Rights or elsewhere in the Constitution. 
4. The Constitution authorizes Congress to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."
5. We have recognized, for example, that "[t]he power of Congress over interstate commerce is not confined to the regulation of commerce among the states," but extends to activities that "have a substantial effect on interstate commerce." 
I'm baffled.

Of course these quotes come from what Justice Roberts has written over several pages.  Quotes 1-3 summarize the meaning of our Constitution of enumerated powers.  Quote 4 is the enumerated power in our Constitution which is known as the commerce clause.  Quote 5 is a good statement of what the Court has come, over the years, to actually think about the Constitution's commerce clause.

I don't understand how quotes 1-4 can fit with quote number 5.  The last quote says that Congress has been granted more power over commerce, specifically it has been granted power to regulate intrastate commerce, than the power we find granted to Congress when we read the words actually written in the Constitution.

I do like the Justice's choice of words "not confined."  I think this is telling.  I think it is inconsistent with quote 2 which says our Congress is a legislature of limited powers.  It seems to me reasonable to suggest that "not confined" is pretty much the opposite in meaning to "a limitation of powers."

It also seems to me reasonable to conclude that over the years the Court has come to change the meaning of the commerce clause.  But, in doing that, the Court has done more.  It seems the Court has turned a constitution for a government of limited powers into a constitution for a government that is "not confined" to expressly enumerated powers.

And, if so, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Court, over the years, has essentially amended the Constitution.  Of course, if you read the Constitution, you will not find that the Court has the constitutional power to amend the Constitution.

Perhaps it is time to put away the Court's commerce clause jurisprudence and end the contortions the Court must go through in presenting it's opinions to convince us that a written constitution for a limited government can also be a constitution for a government that is unconfined?