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


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

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


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.