Chapter 12—The Economics of Violent Intervention in the Market (continued)
E. The Government as Promoter of Credit Expansion
Historically, governments have fostered and encouraged credit expansion to a great degree. They have done so by weakening the limitations that the market places on bank credit expansion. One way of weakening is to anesthetize the bank against the threat of bank runs. In nineteenth-century America, the government permitted banks, when they got into trouble in a business crisis, to suspend specie payment while continuing in operation. They were temporarily freed from their contractual obligation of paying their debts, while they could continue lending and even force their debtors to repay in their own bank notes. This is a powerful way to eradicate limitations on credit expansion, since the banks know that if they overreach themselves, the government will permit them blithely to avoid payment of their contractual obligations.
Under a fiat money standard, governments (or their central banks) may obligate themselves to bail out, with increased issues of standard money, any bank or any major bank in distress. In the late nineteenth century, the principle became accepted that the central bank must act as the “lender of last resort,” which will lend money freely to banks threatened with failure. Another recent American device to abolish the confidence limitation on bank credit is “deposit insurance,” whereby the government guarantees to furnish paper money to redeem the banks’ demand liabilities. These and similar devices remove the market brakes on rampant credit expansion.
A second device, now so legitimized that any country lacking it is considered hopelessly “backward,” is the central bank. The central bank, while often nominally owned by private individuals or banks, is run directly by the national government. Its purpose, not always stated explicitly, is to remove the competitive check on bank credit provided by a multiplicity of independent banks. Its aim is to make sure that all the banks in the country are co-ordinated and will therefore expand or contract together—at the will of the government. And we have seen that co-ordination of expansion greatly weakens the market’s limits.
The crucial way by which governments have established central bank control over the commercial banking system is by granting the bank a monopoly of the note issue in the country. As we have seen, money-substitutes may be issued in the form of notes or book deposits. Economically, the two forms are identical. The State has found it convenient, however, to distinguish between the two and to outlaw all note issue by private banks. Such nationalizing of the note-issue business forces the commercial banks to go to the central bank whenever their customers desire to exchange demand deposits for paper notes. To obtain notes to furnish their clients, commercial banks must buy them from the central bank. Such purchases can be made only by selling their gold coin or other standard money or by drawing on the banks’ deposit accounts with the central bank.
Since the public always wishes to hold some of its money in the form of notes and some in demand deposits, the banks must establish a continuing relationship with the central bank to be assured a supply of notes. Their most convenient procedure is to establish demand deposit accounts with the central bank, which thereby becomes the “bankers’ bank.” These demand deposits (added to the gold in their vaults) become the reserves of the banks. The central bank can also more freely create demand liabilities not backed 100 percent by gold, and these increased liabilities add to the reserves and demand deposits held by banks or else increase central bank notes outstanding. The rise in reserves of banks throughout the country will spur them to expand credit, while any decrease in these reserves will induce a general contraction in credit.
The central bank can increase the reserves of a country’s banks in three ways: (a) by simply lending them reserves; (b) by purchasing their assets, thereby adding directly to the banks’ deposit accounts with the central bank; or (c) by purchasing the I.O.U.’s of the public, which will then deposit the drafts on the central bank in the various banks that serve the public directly, thereby enabling them to use the credits on the central bank to add to their own reserves. The second process is known as discounting; the latter as open market purchase. A lapse in discounts as the loans mature will lower reserves, as will open market sales. In open market sales, the people will pay the central bank for its assets, purchased with checks drawn on their accounts at the banks; and the central bank exacts payment by reducing bank reserves on its books. In most cases, the assets purchased or sold on the open market are government I.O.U.’s.
Thus, the banking system becomes co-ordinated under the aegis of the government. The central bank is always accorded a great deal of prestige by its creator government. Often the government makes its notes legal tender. Under the gold standard, the wide resources which it commands, added to the fact that the whole country is its clientele, usually make negligible any trouble the bank may have in redeeming its liabilities in gold. Furthermore, it is certain that no government will let its own central bank (i.e., itself) go bankrupt; the central bank will always be permitted to suspend specie payment in times of serious difficulty. It can therefore inflate and expand credit itself (through rediscounts and open market purchases) and, by adding to bank reserves, spur a multiple bank credit expansion throughout the country. The effect is multiple because banks will generally keep a certain proportion of reserves to liabilities—based on estimates of nonclient redemption—and a general increase in their reserves will induce a multiple expansion of fiduciary media. In fact, the multiple will even increase, for the knowledge that all the banks are co-ordinated and expanding together decreases the possibility of nonclient redemption and therefore the proportion of reserves that each bank will wish to keep.
When the government “goes off” the gold standard, central bank notes then become legal tender and virtually the standard money. It then cannot possibly fail, and this, of course, practically eliminates limitations on its credit expansion. In the present-day United States, for example, the current basically fiat standard (also known as a “restricted international gold bullion standard”) virtually eliminates pressure for redemption, while the central bank’s ready provision of reserves as well as deposit insurance eliminates the threat of bank failure. In order to insure centralized control by the government over bank credit, the United States enforces on banks a certain minimum ratio of reserves (almost wholly deposits with the central bank) to deposits.
So long as a country is in any sense “on the gold standard,” the central bank and the banking system must worry about an external drain of specie should the inflation become too great. Under an unrestricted gold standard, it must also worry about an internal drain resulting from the demands of those who do not use the banks. A shift in public taste from deposits to notes will embarrass the commercial banks, though not the central bank. Assiduous propaganda on the conveniences of banking, however, has reduced the ranks of those not using banks to a few malcontents. As a result, the only limitation on credit expansion is now external. Governments, of course, are always anxious to remove all checks on their powers of inducing monetary expansion. One way of removing the external threat is to foster international cooperation, so that all governments and central banks expand their money supply at a uniform rate. The “ideal” condition for unlimited inflation is, of course, a world fiat paper money, issued by a world central bank or other governmental authority. Pure fiat money on a national scale would serve almost as well, but there would then be the embarrassment of national moneys depreciating in terms of other moneys, and imports becoming much more expensive.
With the establishment of fiat money by a State or by a World State, it would seem that all limitations on credit expansion, or on any inflation, are eliminated. The central bank can issue limitless amounts of nominal units of paper, unchecked by any necessity of digging a commodity out of the ground. They may be supplied to banks to bolster their credit at the pleasure of the government. No problems of internal or external drain exist. And if there existed a World State, or a co-operating cartel of States, with a world bank and world paper money, and gold and silver money were outlawed, could not the World State then expand the money supply at will with no foreign exchange or foreign trade difficulties, permanently redistributing wealth from the market’s choice to its own favorites, from voluntary producers to the ruling castes?
Many economists and most other people assume that the State could accomplish this goal. Actually, it could not, for there is an ultimate limit on inflation, a very wide one, to be sure, but a terrible limit that will in the end conquer any inflation. Paradoxically, this is the phenomenon of runaway inflation, or hyperinflation.
When the government and the banking system begin inflating, the public will usually aid them unwittingly in this task. The public, not cognizant of the true nature of the process, believes that the rise in prices is transient and that prices will soon return to “normal.” As we have noted above, people will therefore hoard more money, i.e., keep a greater proportion of their income in the form of cash balances. The social demand for money, in short, increases. As a result, prices tend to increase less than proportionately to the increase in the quantity of money. The government obtains more real resources from the public than it had expected, since the public’s demand for these resources has declined.
Eventually, the public begins to realize what is taking place. It seems that the government is attempting to use inflation as a permanent form of taxation. But the public has a weapon to combat this depredation. Once people realize that the government will continue to inflate, and therefore that prices will continue to rise, they will step up their purchases of goods. For they will realize that they are gaining by buying now, instead of waiting until a future date when the value of the monetary unit will be lower and prices higher. In other words, the social demand for money falls, and prices now begin to rise more rapidly than the increase in the supply of money. When this happens, the confiscation by the government, or the “taxation” effect of inflation, will be lower than the government had expected, for the increased money will be reduced in purchasing power by the greater rise in prices. This stage of the inflation is the beginning of hyperinflation, of the runaway boom.
The lower demand for money allows fewer resources to be extracted by the government, but the government can still obtain resources so long as the market continues to use the money. The accelerated price rise will, in fact, lead to complaints of a “scarcity of money” and stimulate the government to greater efforts of inflation, thereby causing even more accelerated price increases. This process will not continue long, however. As the rise in prices continues, the public begins a “flight from money,” getting rid of money as soon as possible in order to invest in real goods—almost any real goods—as a store of value for the future. This mad scramble away from money, lowering the demand for money to hold practically to zero, causes prices to rise upward in astronomical proportions. The value of the monetary unit falls practically to zero. The devastation and havoc that the runaway boom causes among the populace is enormous. The relatively fixed-income groups are wiped out. Production declines drastically (sending up prices further), as people lose the incentive to work—since they must spend much of their time getting rid of money. The main desideratum becomes getting hold of real goods, whatever they may be, and spending money as soon as received. When this runaway stage is reached, the economy in effect breaks down, the market is virtually ended, and society reverts to a state of virtual barter and complete impoverishment. Commodities are then slowly built up as media of exchange. The public has rid itself of the inflation burden by its ultimate weapon: lowering the demand for money to such an extent that the government’s money has become worthless. When all other limits and forms of persuasion fail, this is the only way—through chaos and economic breakdown—for the people to force a return to the “hard” commodity money of the free market.
The most famous runaway inflation was the German experience of 1923. It is particularly instructive because it took place in one of the world’s most advanced industrial countries.  The chaotic events of the German hyperinflation and other accelerated booms, however, are only a pale shadow of what would happen under a World State inflation. For Germany was able to recover and return to a full monetary market economy quickly, since it could institute a new currency based on exchanges with other pre-existing moneys (gold or foreign paper). As we have seen, however, Mises’ regression theorem shows that no money can be established on the market except as it can be exchanged for a previously existing money (which in turn must have ultimately related back to a commodity in barter). If a World State outlaws gold and silver and establishes a unitary fiat money, which it proceeds to inflate until a runaway boom destroys it, there will be no pre-existing money on the market. The task of reconstruction will then be enormously more difficult.
Inflation, in recent years, has been generally defined as an increase in prices. This is a highly unsatisfactory definition. Prices are highly complex phenomena, activated by many different causal factors. They may increase or decrease from the goods side—i.e., as a result of a change in the supply of goods on the market. They may increase or decrease because of a change in the social demand for money to hold; or they may rise or fall from a change in the supply of money. To lump all of these causes together is misleading, for it glosses over the separate influences, the isolation of which is the goal of science. Thus, the money supply may be increasing, while at the same time the social demand for money is increasing from the goods side, in the form of increased supplies of goods. Each may offset the other, with no general price changes occurring. Yet both processes perform their work nevertheless. Resources will still shift as a result of inflation, and the business cycle caused by credit expansion will still appear. It is, therefore, highly inexpedient to define inflation as a rise in prices.
Movements in the supply-of-goods and in the demand-for-money schedules are all the results of voluntary changes of preferences on the market. The same is true for increases in the supply of gold or silver. But increases in fiduciary or fiat media are acts of fraudulent intervention in the market, distorting voluntary preferences and the voluntarily determined pattern of income and wealth. Therefore, the most expedient definition of “inflation” is one we have set forth above: an increase in the supply of money beyond any increase in specie.
The absurdity of the various governmental programs for “fighting inflation” now becomes evident. Most people believe that government officials must constantly pace the ramparts, armed with a huge variety of “control” programs designed to combat the inflation enemy. Yet all that is really necessary is that the government and the banks (nowadays controlled almost completely by the government) cease inflating. The absurdity of the term “inflationary pressure” also becomes clear. Either the government and banks are inflating or they are not; there is no such thing as “inflationary pressure.”
The idea that the government has the duty to tax the public in order to “sop up excess purchasing power” is particularly ludicrous. If inflation has been under way, this “excess purchasing power” is precisely the result of previous governmental inflation. In short, the government is supposed to burden the public twice: once in appropriating the resources of society by inflating the money supply, and again, by taxing back the new money from the public. Rather than “checking inflationary pressure,” then, a tax surplus in a boom will simply place an additional burden upon the public. If the taxes are used for further government spending, or for repaying debts to the public, then there is not even a deflationary effect. If the taxes are used to redeem government debt held by the banks, the deflationary effect will not be a credit contraction and therefore will not correct maladjustments brought about by the previous inflation. It will, indeed, create further dislocations and distortions of its own.
Keynesian and neo-Keynesian “compensatory fiscal policy” advocates that government deflate during an “inflationary” period and inflate (incur deficits, financed by borrowing from the banks) to combat a depression. It is clear that government inflation can relieve unemployment and unsold stocks only if the process dupes the owners into accepting lower real prices or wages. This “money illusion” relies on the owners’ being too ignorant to realize when their real incomes have declined—a slender basis on which to ground a cure. Furthermore, the inflation will benefit part of the public at the expense of the rest, and any credit expansion will only set a further “boom-bust” cycle into motion. The Keynesians depict the free market’s monetary-fiscal system as minus a steering wheel, so that the economy, though readily adjustable in other ways, is constantly walking a precarious tightrope between depression and unemployment on the one side and inflation on the other. It is then necessary for the government, in its wisdom, to step in and steer the economy on an even course. After our completed analysis of money and business cycles, however, it should be evident that the true picture is just about the reverse. The free market, unhampered, would not be in danger of suffering inflation, deflation, depression, or unemployment. But the intervention of government creates the tightrope for the economy and is constantly, if sometimes unwittingly, pushing the economy into these pitfalls.
We have thus concluded our analysis of voluntary and free action and its consequences in the free market, and of violent and coercive action and its consequences in economic intervention. Superficially, it looks to many people as if the free market is a chaotic and anarchic place, while government intervention imposes order and community values upon this anarchy. Actually, praxeology—economics—shows us that the truth is quite the reverse. We may divide our analysis into the direct, or palpable, effects, and the indirect, hidden effects of the two principles. Directly, voluntary action—free exchange—leads to the mutual benefit of both parties to the exchange. Indirectly, as our investigations have shown, the network of these free exchanges in society—known as the “free market”—creates a delicate and even awe-inspiring mechanism of harmony, adjustment, and precision in allocating productive resources, deciding upon prices, and gently but swiftly guiding the economic system toward the greatest possible satisfaction of the desires of all the consumers. In short, not only does the free market directly benefit all parties and leave them free and uncoerced; it also creates a mighty and efficient instrument of social order. Proudhon, indeed, wrote better than he knew when he called “Liberty, the Mother, not the Daughter, of Order.”
On the other hand, coercion has diametrically opposite features. Directly, coercion benefits one party only at the expense of others. Coerced exchange is a system of exploitation of man by man, in contrast to the free market, which is a system of co-operative exchanges in the exploitation of nature alone. And not only does coerced exchange mean that some live at the expense of others, but, indirectly, as we have just observed, coercion leads only to further problems: it is inefficient and chaotic, it cripples production, and it leads to cumulative and unforeseen difficulties. Seemingly orderly, coercion is not only exploitative; it is also profoundly disorderly.
The major function of praxeology—of economics—is to bring to the world the knowledge of these indirect, these hidden, consequences of the different forms of human action. The hidden order, harmony, and efficiency of the voluntary free market, the hidden disorder, conflict, and gross inefficiency of coercion and intervention—these are the great truths that economic science, through deductive analysis from self-evident axioms, reveals to us. Praxeology cannot, by itself, pass ethical judgment or make policy decisions. Praxeology, through its Wertfrei laws, informs us that the workings of the voluntary principle and of the free market lead inexorably to freedom, prosperity, harmony, efficiency, and order; while coercion and government intervention lead inexorably to hegemony, conflict, exploitation of man by man, inefficiency, poverty, and chaos. At this point, praxeology retires from the scene; and it is up to the citizen—the ethicist—to choose his political course according to the values that he holds dear.
The major source of government revenue is taxation. Another source is government borrowing. Government borrowing from the banking system is really a form of inflation: it creates new money-substitutes that go first to the government and then diffuse, with each step of spending, into the community. Inflation is discussed in the text above. This is a process entirely different from borrowing from the public, which is not inflationary, for the latter transfers saved funds from private to governmental hands rather than creates new funds. Its economic effect is to divert savings from the channels most desired by the consumers and to shift them to the uses desired by government officials. Hence, from the point of view of the consumers, borrowing from the public wastes savings. The consequences of this waste are a lowering of the capital structure of the society and a lowering of the general standard of living in the present and the future. Diversion and waste of savings from investment causes interest rates to be higher than they otherwise would, since now private uses must compete with government demands. Public borrowing strikes at individual savings more effectively even than taxation, for it specifically lures away savings rather than taxing income in general.
It might be objected that lending to the government is voluntary and is therefore equivalent to any other voluntary contribution to the government; the “diversion” of funds is something desired by the consumers and hence by society. Yet the process is “voluntary” only in a one-sided way. For we must not forget that the government enters the time market as a bearer of coercion and as a guarantor that it will use this coercion to obtain funds for repayment. The government is armed by coercion with a crucial power denied to all other people on the market; it is always assured of funds, whether by taxation or by inflation. The government will therefore be able to divert considerable funds from savers, and at an interest rate lower than any paid elsewhere. For the risk component in the interest rate paid by the government will be lower than that paid by any other borrowers.
Lending to government, therefore, may be voluntary, but the process is hardly voluntary when considered as a whole. It is rather a voluntary participation in future confiscation to be committed by the government. In fact, lending to government twice involves diversion of private funds to the government: once when the loan is made, and private savings are diverted to government spending; and again when the government taxes or inflates (or borrows again) to obtain the money to repay the loan. Then, once more, a coerced diversion takes place from private producers to the government, the proceeds of which, after payment of the bureaucracy for handling services, accrues to the government bondholders. The latter have thus become a part of the State apparatus and are engaging in a “relation of State” with the tax-paying producers.
The ingenious slogan that the public debt does not matter because “we owe it to ourselves” is clearly absurd. The crucial question is: Who is the “we” and who are the “ourselves”? Analysis of the world must be individualistic and not holistic. Certain people owe money to certain other people, and it is precisely this fact that makes the borrowing as well as the taxing process important. For we might just as well say that taxes are unimportant for the same reason.
Many “right-wing” opponents of public borrowing, on the other hand, have greatly exaggerated the dangers of the public debt and have raised persistent alarms about imminent “bankruptcy.” It is obvious that the government cannot become “insolvent” like private individuals—for it can always obtain money by coercion, while private citizens cannot. Further, the periodic agitation that the government “reduce the public debt” generally forgets that—short of outright repudiation—the debt can be reduced only by increasing, at least for a time, the tax and/or inflation in society. Social utility can therefore not be enhanced by debt-reduction, except by the method of repudiation—the one way that the public debt can be lowered without a concomitant increase in fiscal coercion. Repudiation would also have the further merit (from the standpoint of the free market) of casting a pall on all future government credit, so that the government could no longer so easily divert savings to government use. It is therefore one of the most curious and inconsistent features of the history of politico-economic thought that it is precisely the “right-wingers,” the presumed champions of the free market, who attack repudiation most strongly and who insist on as swift a payment of the public debt as possible.
One of the most important philosophical problems of recent centuries is whether ethics is a rational discipline, or instead a purely arbitrary, unscientific set of personal values. Whichever side one may take in this debate, it would certainly be generally agreed that economics—or praxeology—cannot by itself suffice to establish an ethical, or politico-ethical, doctrine. Economics per se is therefore a Wertfrei science, which does not engage in ethical judgments. Yet, while economists will generally agree to this flat statement, it is certainly curious how much energy they have spent trying to justify—in some tortuous, presumably scientific, and Wertfrei manner—various activities and expenditures of government. The consequence is the widespread smuggling of unanalyzed, undefended ethical judgments into a supposedly Wertfrei system of economics.
Two favorite, seemingly scientific, justifications for government activity and enterprise are (a) what we might call the argument of “external benefits” and (b) the argument of “collective goods” or “collective wants.” Stripped of seemingly scientific or quasi-mathematical trappings, the first argument reduces to the contention that A, B, and C do not seem to be able to do certain things without benefiting D, who may try to evade his “just share” of the payment. This and other “external benefit” arguments will be discussed shortly. The “collective goods” argument is, on its face, even more scientific; the economist simply asserts that some goods or services, by their very nature, must be supplied “collectively,” and “therefore” government must supply them out of tax revenue.
This seemingly simple, existential statement, however, cloaks a good many unanalyzed politico-ethical assumptions. In the first place, even if there were “collective goods,” it by no means follows either (1) that one agency must supply them or (2) that everyone in the collectivity must be forced to pay for them. In short, if X is a collective good, needed by most people in a certain community, and which can be supplied only to all, it by no means follows that every beneficiary must be forced to pay for the good, which, incidentally, he may not even want. In short, we are back squarely in the moral problem of external benefits, which we shall discuss below. The “collective goods” argument turns out, upon analysis, to reduce to the “external benefit” argument. Furthermore, even if only one agency must supply the good, it has not been proved that the government, rather than some voluntary agency, or even some private corporation, cannot supply that good.
Secondly, the very concept of “collective goods” is a highly dubious one. How, first of all, can a “collective” want, think, or act? Only an individual exists, and can do these things. There is no existential referent of the “collective” that supposedly wants and then receives goods. Many attempts have been made, nevertheless, to salvage the concept of the “collective” good, to provide a seemingly ironclad, scientific justification for government operations. Molinari, for example, trying to establish defense as a collective good, asserted: “A police force serves every inhabitant of the district in which it acts, but the mere establishment of a bakery does not appease their hunger.” But, on the contrary, there is no absolute necessity for a police force to defend every inhabitant of an area or, still more, to give each one the same degree of protection. Furthermore, an absolute pacifist, a believer in total nonviolence, living in the area, would not consider himself protected by, or receiving defense service from, the police. On the contrary, he would consider any police in his area a detriment to him. Hence, defense cannot be considered a “collective good” or “collective want.” Similarly for such projects as dams, which cannot be simply assumed to benefit everyone in the area.
Antonio De Viti De Marco defined “collective wants” as consisting of two categories: wants arising when an individual is not in isolation and wants connected with a conflict of interest. The first category, however, is so broad as to encompass most market products. There would be no point, for example, in putting on plays unless a certain number went to see them or in publishing newspapers without a certain wide market. Must all these industries therefore be nationalized and monopolized by the government? The second category is presumably meant to apply to defense. This, however, is incorrect. Defense, itself, does not reflect a conflict of interest, but a threat of invasion, against which defense is needed. Furthermore, it is hardly sensible to call “collective” that want which is precisely the least likely to be unanimous, since robbers will hardly desire it!Other economists write as if defense is necessarily collective because it is an immaterial service, whereas bread, autos, etc., are materially divisible and salable to individuals. But “immaterial” services to individuals abound in the market. Must concert-giving be monopolized by the State because its services are immaterial?
In recent years, Professor Samuelson has offered his own definition of “collective consumption goods,” in a so-called “pure” theory of government expenditures. Collective consumption goods, according to Samuelson, are those “which all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtraction from any other individual’s consumption of that good.” For some reason, these are supposed to be the proper goods (or at least these) for government, rather than the free market, to provide. Samuelson’s category has been attacked with due severity. Professor Enke, for example, pointed out that most governmental services simply do not fit Samuelson’s classification—including highways, libraries, judicial services, police, fire, hospitals, and military protection. In fact, we may go further and state that no goods would ever fit into Samuelson’s category of “collective consumption goods.” Margolis, for example, while critical of Samuelson, concedes the inclusion of national defense and lighthouses in this category. But “national defense” is surely not an absolute good with only one unit of supply. It consists of specific resources committed in certain definite and concrete ways—and these resources are necessarily scarce. A ring of defense bases around New York, for example, cuts down the amount possibly available around San Francisco. Furthermore, a lighthouse shines over a certain fixed area only. Not only does a ship within the area prevent others from entering the area at the same time, but also the construction of a lighthouse in one place limits its construction elsewhere. In fact, if a good is really technologically “collective” in Samuelson’s sense, it is not a good at all, but a natural condition of human welfare, like air—superabundant to all, and therefore unowned by anyone. Indeed, it is not the lighthouse, but the ocean itself—when the lanes are not crowded—which is the “collective consumption good,” and which therefore remains unowned. Obviously, neither government nor anyone else is normally needed to produce or allocate the ocean.
Tiebout, conceding that there is no “pure” way to establish an optimum level for government expenditures, tries to salvage such a theory specifically for local government. Realizing that the taxing, and even voting, process precludes voluntary demonstration of consumer choice in the governmental field, he argues that decentralization and freedom of internal migration renders local government expenditures more or less optimal—as we can say that free market expenditures by firms are “optimal”—since the residents can move in and out as they please. Certainly, it is true that the consumer will be better off if he can move readily out of a high-tax, and into a low tax, community. But this helps the consumer only to a degree; it does not solve the problem of government expenditures, which remains otherwise the same. There are, indeed, other factors than government entering into a man’s choice of residence, and enough people may be attached to a certain geographical area, for one reason or another, to permit a great deal of government depredation before they move. Furthermore, a major problem is that the world’s total land area is fixed, and that governments have universally pre-empted all the land and thus universally burden consumers.
We come now to the problem of external benefits—the major justification for government activities expounded by economists. Where individuals simply benefit themselves by their actions, many writers concede that the free market may be safely left unhampered. But men’s actions may often, even inadvertently, benefit others. While one might think this a cause for rejoicing, critics charge that from this fact flow evils in abundance. A free exchange, where A and B mutually benefit, may be all very well, say these economists; but what if A does something voluntarily which benefits B as well as himself, but for which B pays nothing in exchange?
There are two general lines of attack on the free market, using external benefits as the point of criticism. Taken together, these arguments against the market and for governmental intervention or enterprise cancel each other out, but each must, in all fairness, be examined separately. The first type of criticism is to attack A for not doing enough for B. The benefactor is, in effect, denounced for taking his own selfish interests exclusively into account, and thereby neglecting the potential indirect recipient waiting silently in the wings. The second line of attack is to denounce B for accepting a benefit without paying A in return. The recipient is denounced as an ingrate and a virtual thief for accepting the free gift. The free market, then, is accused of injustice and distortion by both groups of attackers: the first believes that the selfishness of man is such that A will not act enough in ways to benefit B; the second that B will receive too much “unearned increment” without paying for it. Either way, the call is for remedial State action; on the one hand, to use violence in order to force or induce A to act more in ways which will aid B; on the other, to force B to pay A for his gift.
Generally, these ethical views are clothed in the “scientific” opinion that, in these cases, free-market action is no longer optimal, but should be brought back into optimality by corrective State action. Such a view completely misconceives the way in which economic science asserts that free-market action is ever optimal. It is optimal, not from the standpoint of the personal ethical views of an economist, but from the standpoint of the free, voluntary actions of all participants and in satisfying the freely expressed needs of the consumers. Government interference, therefore, will necessarily and always move away from such an optimum.
It is amusing that while each line of attack is quite widespread, each can be rather successfully rebutted by using the essence of the other attack! Take, for example, the first—the attack on the benefactor. To denounce the benefactor and implicitly call for State punishment for insufficient good deeds is to advance a moral claim by the recipient upon the benefactor. We do not intend to argue ultimate values in this book. But it should be clearly understood that to adopt this position is to say that B is entitled peremptorily to call on A to do something to benefit him, and for which B does not pay anything in return. We do not have to go all the way with the second line of attack (on the “free rider”), but we can say perhaps that it is presumptuous of the free rider to assert his right to a post of majesty and command. For what the first line of attack asserts is the moral right of B to exact gifts from A, by force if necessary.
Compulsory thrift, or attacks on potential savers for not saving and investing enough, are examples of this line of attack. Another is an attack on the user of a natural resource that is being depleted. Anyone who uses such a resource at all, whatever the extent, “deprives” some future descendant of the use. “Conservationists,” therefore, call for lower present use of such resources in favor of greater future use. Not only is this compulsory benefaction an example of the first line of attack, but, if this argument is adopted, logically no resource subject to depletion could ever be used at all. For when the future generation comes of age, it too faces a future generation. This entire line of argument is therefore a peculiarly absurd one.
The second line of attack is of the opposite form—a denunciation of the recipient of the “gift.” The recipient is denounced as a “free rider,” as a man who wickedly enjoys the “unearned increment” of the productive actions of others. This, too, is a curious line of attack. It is an argument which has cogency only when directed against the first line of attack, i.e., against the free rider who wants compulsory free rides. But here we have a situation where A’s actions, taken purely because they benefit himself, also have the happy effect of benefiting someone else. Are we to be indignant because happiness is being diffused throughout society? Are we to be critical because more than one person benefits from someone’s actions? After all, the free rider did not ask for his ride. He received it, unasked, as a boon because A benefits from his own action. To adopt the second line of attack is to call in the gendarmes to apply punishment because too many people in the society are happy. In short, am I to be taxed for enjoying the view of my neighbor’s well-kept garden?
One striking instance of this second line of attack is the nub of the Henry Georgist position: an attack on the “unearned increment” derived from a rise in the capital values of ground land. We have seen above that as the economy progresses, real land rents will rise with real wage rates, and the result will be increases in the real capital values of land. Growing capital structure, division of labor, and population tend to make site land relatively more scarce and hence cause the increase. The argument of the Georgists is that the landowner is not morally responsible for this rise, which comes about from events external to his landholding; yet he reaps the benefit. The landowner is therefore a free rider, and his “unearned increment” rightfully belongs to “society.” Setting aside the problem of the reality of society and whether “it” can own anything, we have here a moral attack on a free-rider situation.
The difficulty with this argument is that it proves far too much. For which one of us would earn anything like our present real income were it not for external benefits that we derive from the actions of others? Specifically, the great modern accumulation of capital goods is an inheritance from all the net savings of our ancestors. Without them, we would, regardless of the quality of our own moral character, be living in a primitive jungle. The inheritance of money capital from our ancestors is, of course, simply inheritance of shares in this capital structure. We are all, therefore, free riders on the past. We are also free riders on the present, because we benefit from the continuing investment of our fellow men and from their specialized skills on the market. Certainly the vast bulk of our wages, if they could be so imputed, would be due to this heritage on which we are free riders. The landowner has no more of an unearned increment than any one of us. Are all of us to suffer confiscation, therefore, and to be taxed for our happiness? And who then is to receive the loot? Our dead ancestors, who were our benefactors in investing the capital?
An important case of external benefits is “external economies,” which could be reaped by investment in certain industries, but which would not accrue as profit to the entrepreneurs. There is no need to dwell on the lengthy discussion in the literature on the actual range of such external economies, although they are apparently negligible. The suggestion has been persistently advanced that the government subsidize these investments so that “society” can reap the external economies. Such is the Pigou argument for subsidizing external economies, as well as the old and still dominant “infant industries” argument for a protective tariff.
The call for state subsidization of external economy investments amounts to a third line of attack on the free market, i.e., that B, the potential beneficiaries, be forced to subsidize the benefactors A, so that the latter will produce the former’s benefits. This third line is the favorite argument of economists for such proposals as government-aided dams or reclamations (recipients taxed to pay for their benefits) or compulsory schooling (the taxpayers will eventually benefit from others’ education), etc. The recipients are again bearing the onus of the policy; but here they are not criticized for free riding. They are now being “saved” from a situation in which they would not have obtained certain benefits. Since they would not have paid for them, it is difficult to understand exactly what they are being saved from. The third line of attack therefore agrees with the first that the free market does not, because of human selfishness, produce enough external-economy actions; but it joins the second line of attack in placing the cost of remedying the situation on the strangely unwilling recipients. If this subsidy takes place, it is obvious that the recipients are no longer free riders: indeed, they are simply being coerced into buying benefits for which, acting by free choice, they would not have paid.
The absurdity of the third approach may be revealed by pondering the question: Who benefits from the suggested policy? The benefactor A receives a subsidy, it is true. But it is often doubtful if he benefits, since he would otherwise have acted and invested profitably in some other direction. The State has simply compensated him for losses which he would have received and has adjusted the proceeds so that he receives the equivalent of an opportunity forgone. Therefore A, if a business firm, does not benefit. As for the recipients, they are being forced by the State to pay for benefits that they otherwise would not have purchased. How can we say that they “benefit”?
A standard reply is that the recipients “could not” have obtained the benefit even if they had wanted to buy it voluntarily. The first problem here is by what mysterious process the critics know that the recipients would have liked to purchase the “benefit.” Our only way of knowing the content of preference scales is to see them revealed in concrete choices. Since the choice concretely was not to buy the benefit, there is no justification for outsiders to assert that B’s preference scale was “really” different from what was revealed in his actions.
Secondly, there is no reason why the prospective recipients could not have bought the benefit. In all cases a benefit produced can be sold on the market and earn its value product to consumers. The fact that producing the benefit would not be profitable to the investor signifies that the consumers do not value it as much as they value the uses of nonspecific factors in alternative lines of production. For costs to be higher than prospective selling price means that the nonspecific factors earn more in other channels of production. Furthermore, in possible cases where some consumers are not satisfied with the extent of the market production of some benefit, they are at perfect liberty to subsidize the investors themselves. Such a voluntary subsidy would be equivalent to paying a higher market price for the benefit and would reveal their willingness to pay that price. The fact that, in any case, such a subsidy has not emerged eliminates any justification for a coerced subsidy by the government. Rather than providing a benefit to the taxed “beneficiaries,” in fact, the coerced subsidy inflicts a loss upon them, for they could have spent their funds themselves on goods and services of greater utility.
There is a fourth way by which a central bank may increase bank reserves: in countries, such as the United States, where banks must keep a legally required minimum ratio of reserves to deposits, the bank may simply lower the required ratio.
Foreign central banks and governments are still permitted to redeem in gold bullion, but this is hardly a consolation for either foreign citizens or Americans. The result is that gold is still an ultimate “balancing” item between national governments, and therefore a kind of medium of exchange for governments and central banks in international transactions.
The transition from gold to fiat money will be greatly smoothed if the State has previously abandoned ounces, grams, grains, and other units of weight in naming its monetary units and substituted unique names, such as dollar, mark, franc, etc. It will then be far easier to eliminate the public’s association of monetary units with weight and to teach the public to value the names themselves. Furthermore, if each national government sponsors its own unique name, it will be far easier for each State to control its own fiat issue absolutely.
Cf. the analysis by John Maynard Keynes in his A Tract on Monetary Reform (London: Macmillan & Co., 1923), chap. ii, section 1.
On runaway inflation, see Mises, Theory of Money and Credit, pp. 227–31.
Costantino Bresciani-Turroni, The Economics of Inflation (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937), is a brilliant and definitive work on the German inflation.
Inflation is here defined as any increase in the money supply greater than an increase in specie, not as a big change in that supply. As here defined, therefore, the terms “inflation” and “deflation” are praxeological categories. See Mises, Human Action, pp. 419–20. But also see Mises’ remarks in Aaron Director, ed., Defense, Controls, and Inflation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 3 n.
See George Ferdinand, “Review of Albert G. Hart, Defense without Inflation,” Christian Economics, Vol. III, No. 19 (October 23, 1951).
See Mises in Director, Defense, Controls, and Inflation, p. 334.
See section 8F above.
A recent objection of this sort appears in James M. Buchanan, Public Principles of Public Debt (Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1958), especially pp. 104–05.
It is incorrect, however, to say that government loans are “riskless” and therefore that the interest yield on government bonds may be taken to be the pure interest rate. Governments may always repudiate their obligations if they wish, or they may be overturned and their successors may refuse to honor the I.O.U.’s.
Hence, despite Buchanan’s criticism, the classical economists such as Mill were right: the public debt is a double burden on the free market; in the present, because resources are withdrawn from private to unproductive governmental employment; and in the future, when private citizens are taxed to pay the debt. Indeed, for Buchanan to be right, and the public debt to be no burden, two extreme conditions would have to be met: (1) the bondholder would have to tear up his bond, so that the loan would be a genuinely voluntary contribution to the government; and (2) the government would have to be a totally voluntary institution, subsisting on voluntary payments alone, not just for this particular debt, but for all in transactions with the rest of society. Cf. Buchanan, Public Principles of Public Debt.
In the same way, we would have to assert that the Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II really committed suicide: “They did it to themselves.”
For the rare exception of a libertarian who recognizes the merit of repudiation from a free-market point of view, see Frank Chodorov, “Don’t Buy Bonds,” analysis, Vol. IV, No. 9 (July, 1948), pp. 1–2.
One venerable example, used constantly in texts on public finance (an area particularly prone to camouflaged ethical judgments) is the “canons of justice” for taxation propounded by Adam Smith. For a critique of these supposedly “self-evident” canons, see Rothbard, “Mantle of Science.”
The analysis of the economic nature and consequences of government ownership in this book is Wertfrei and does not involve ethical judgments. It is a mistake, for example, to believe that anyone, knowing the economic laws demonstrating the great inefficiencies of government ownership, would necessarily have to choose private over government ownership although, of course, he may well do so. Those who place a high moral value, for example, on social conflict or on poverty or on inefficiency, or those who greatly desire to wield bureaucratic power over others (or to see people subjected to bureaucratic power) may well opt even more enthusiastically for government ownership. Ultimate ethical principles and choices are outside the scope of this book. This, of course, does not mean that the present author deprecates their importance. On the contrary, he believes that ethics is a rational discipline.
Thus, cf. Molinari, Society of Tomorrow, pp. 47–95.
Ibid., p. 63. On the fallacy of collective goods, see S.R., “Spencer As His Own Critic,” Liberty, June, 1904, and Merlin H. Hunter and Harry K. Allen, Principles of Public Finance (New York: Harpers, 1940), p. 22. Molinari had not always believed in the existence of “collective goods,” as can be seen from his remarkable “De la production de la sécurité,” Journal des Economistes, February 15, 1849, and Molinari, “Onzième soirée” in Les soirées de la Rue Saint Lazare (Paris, 1849).
Antonio De Viti De Marco, First Principles of Public Finance (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936), pp. 37–41. Similar to De Viti’s first category is Baumol’s attempted criterion of “jointly” financed goods, for a critique of which see Rothbard, “Toward A Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics,” pp. 255–60.
Paul A. Samuelson, “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditures,” Review of Economics and Statistics, November, 1954, pp. 387–89.
Stephen Enke, “More on the Misuse of Mathematics in Economics: A Rejoinder,” Review of Economics and Statistics, May, 1955, pp. 131–33; Julius Margolis, “A Comment On the Pure Theory of Public Expenditures,” Review of Economics and Statistics, November, 1955, pp. 347–49. In his reply to critics, Samuelson, after hastening to deny any possible implication that he wished to confine the sphere of government to collective goods alone, asserts that his category is really a “polar” concept. Goods in the real world are supposed to be only blends of the “polar extremes” of public and private goods. But these concepts, even in Samuelson’s own terms, are decidedly not polar, but exhaustive. Either A’s consumption of a good diminishes B’s possible consumption, or it does not: these two alternatives are mutually exclusive and exhaust the possibilities. In effect, Samuelson has abandoned his category either as a theoretical or as a practical device. Paul A. Samuelson, “Diagrammatic Exposition of a Theory of Public Expenditure,” Review of Economics and Statistics, November, 1955, pp. 350–56.
Charles M. Tiebout, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,” Journal of Political Economy, October, 1956, pp. 416–24. At one point, Tiebout seems to admit that his theory would be valid only if each person could somehow be “his own municipal government.” Ibid., p. 421.
In the course of an acute critique of the idea of competition in government, the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph wrote as follows:
Were the taxpayer free to act as a customer, buying only those services he deemed useful to himself and which were priced within his reach, then this competition between governments would be a wonderful thing. But because the taxpayer is not a customer, but only the governed, he is not free to choose. He is only compelled to pay. . . . With government there is no producer-customer relationship. There is only the relation that always exists between those who rule and those who are ruled. The ruled are never free to refuse the services of the products of the ruler. . . . Instead of trying to see which government could best serve the governed, each government began to vie with every other government on the basis of its tax collections. . . . The victim of this competition is always the taxpayer. . . . The taxpayer is now set upon by the federal, state, school board, county and city governments. Each of these is competing for the last dollar he has. (Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, July 16, 1958)
The problem of “external costs,” usually treated as symmetrical with external benefits, is not really related: it is a consequence of failure to enforce fully the rights of property. If A’s actions injure B’s property, and the government refuses to stop the act and enforce damages, property rights and hence the free market are not being fully defended and maintained. Hence, external costs (e.g., smoke damage) are failures to maintain a fully free market, rather than defects of that market. See Mises, Human Action, pp. 650–53; and de Jouvenel, “Political Economy of Gratuity,” pp. 522–26.
For some unexplained reason, the benefits worried over are only the indirect ones, where B benefits inadvertently from A’s action. Direct gifts, or charity, where A simply donates money to B, are not attacked under the category of external benefit.
“If my neighbors hire private watchmen they benefit me indirectly and incidentally. If my neighbors build fine houses or cultivate gardens, they indirectly minister to my leisure. Are they entitled to tax me for these benefits because I cannot ‘surrender’ them?” (S.R., “Spencer As His Own Critic”).
There is justice as well as bluntnesss in Benjamin Tucker’s criticism:
“What gives value to land?” asks Rev. Hugh O. Pentecost [a Georgist]. And he answers: “The presence of population —the community. Then rent, or the value of land, morally belongs to the community.” What gives value to Mr. Pentecost’s preaching? The presence of population—the community. Then Mr. Pentecost’s salary, or the value of his preaching, morally belongs to the community. (Tucker, Instead of a Book, p. 357)
As Mises states:
. . . the means which a government needs in order to run a plant at a loss or to subsidize an unprofitable project must be withdrawn either from the taxpayers’ spending and investing power or from the loan market. . . . What the government spends more, the public spends less. Public works . . . are paid for by funds taken away from the citizens. If the government had not interfered, the citizens would have employed them for the realization of profit-promising projects the realization of which is neglected merely on account of the government’s intervention. Yet this nonrealized project would have been profitable, i.e., it would have employed the scarce means of production in accordance with the most urgent needs of the consumers. From the point of view of the consumers the employment of these means of production for the realization of an unprofitable project is wasteful. It deprives them of satisfactions which they prefer to those which the government-sponsored project can furnish them. (Mises, Human Action, p. 655)
Ellis and Fellner, in their discussion of external economies, ignore the primordial fact that the subsidization of these economies must be at the expense of funds usable for greater satisfactions elsewhere. Ellis and Fellner do not realize that their refutation of the Pigou thesis that increasing-cost industries are over-expanded destroys any possible basis for a subsidy to the decreasing-cost industries. Howard S. Ellis and William Fellner, “External Economies and Diseconomies,” in Readings in Price Theory (Chicago: Blakiston Co., 1952), pp. 242–63.