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Decivilization and What To Do About It

July 29, 2004

Howard Ruff is one of the icons of the investment newsletter business. The Ruff Times is one of the most successful newsletters of all time and his book How to Prosper during the Coming Bad Years sold almost three million copies. He is most famous for recommending the purchase of gold at $120/oz in 1975 and more importantly recommending that people sell the yellow metal near its peak of $850/oz in 1980.

Mr. Ruff has returned with a new book, Safely Prosperous or Really Rich: Choosing Your Personal Financial Heaven, and another recommendation to buy gold. Hey, it was lucky for him in 1975, maybe it will work for him again to sell three million books.

Despite being "nearly canonized as a high priest of the Gold Bug Church," Ruff writes that he is no gold bug and devotes little space in his new book for gold and gold investment opportunities. In fact, Ruff seems to deride gold investors in his chapter "Worshipping the Golden Calf." When he made his recommendation to sell gold he says that he "was castigated as an apostate by the believers." "But I have had the last laugh," Ruff assures the reader. Ruff reminds the reader throughout the book of how smart he is, as opposed to those dumb gold worshipers.

So what does Mr. Ruff prescribe for a safely prosperous life? First of all, lower your time-preference. Of course he doesn't use that term. He does mention a couple of times that he is a devotee of the Austrian school of economics, but uses none of the school's insights to amplify his common sense solutions to the financial woes of many middle-class Americans.

Anyone who grew up during the Depression or was raised by parents who grew up during that period has had most of what Ruff has to say drilled into them since they were knee high to a grasshopper. Ruff tells the reader to save money rather than borrow it, clip coupons, drive an old car, eat at inexpensive Chinese or Thai restaurants, etc. "This is pretty old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy stuff," Ruff writes, "and it's really out of style in today's live-it-up environment, but it has worked throughout history and it will work now and in the future."

But, one has to go Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy — the God that Failed, to understand why these rudimentary basics of finance and prudent behavior are being ignored by so many people. Because of the growth of government and its property rights intrusions, the supply of present and future goods is being reduced, serving to "not only raise time-preference rates (with given schedules) but also time-preference schedules," writes Hoppe.

This increase in the population's time-preference serves to stop the process of civilization. As Hoppe explains, "if government property-rights violations take their course and grow extensive enough, the natural tendency of humanity to build an expanding stock of capital and durable consumer goods and to become increasingly more farsighted and provide for ever-more distant goals may not only come to a standstill, but may be reversed by a tendency toward decivilization: formerly provident providers will be turned into drunks or daydreamers, adults into children, civilized men into barbarians, and producers into criminals."

It is this increasingly decivilized group of people that Ruff is trying to reach with the first part of his book.

Ruff's secret to being really rich takes only half the number pages of the safely prosperous section. Ruff writes about financial leverage and management leverage as a way to be really rich. He surprising touts George Bush as someone we should emulate for his success as a CEO. Ruff described Bush 43's effectiveness as a manager as "so far, so good." Oh, my.

The rest of Ruff's really rich instructions amount to the same old infomercialesque stuff like: accept risk, dream big, believe in your product, don't be afraid to fail, oh, and be sure to write a business plan.

Then, after you've started your business and marketed it well, go to Wall Street, sell part of your company to the public for an inflated price, and guess what: you'll be really rich.

Marketing is clearly near and dear to Ruff's heart. He devotes a chapter to it. But, actually the entire book is just a marketing piece for his newsletter The Ruff Times, which is referenced on 37 different pages in the book (out of a total of 255).

Ruff's best advice is early in the book when he cautions against "worshiping mammon."

He urges the reader to be generous and that giving away a portion of one's income will be deeply satisfying, keep a person out of mischief and serve as an "inoculation against the love-of-money disease."

Ruff tithes to his church, but he points out that "you can do it to any worthy cause." In Safely Prosperous or Really Rich he preaches old-time financial religion, attempting to change the behavior of people who have been decivilized by the actions of an ever more intrusive government. There is one organization that works daily to stop this decivilization by advancing the Austrian School of economics and defending the market economy, private property, sound money, and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention as economically and socially destructive: the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Take Howard Ruff's advice, but tithe to Lew and Burt: there is no cause greater than saving civilization.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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