MMT: Not Modern, Not Monetary, Not a Theory

MMT: Not Modern, Not Monetary, Not a Theory

06/24/2020Jeff Deist

Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.

Modern monetary theory (MMT) has a new champion, and a new bible. Stephanie Kelton, economics professor at SUNY Stony Brook, is the author of The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy. Professor Kelton was an advisor to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, and her ideas increasingly find purchase with left progressives. It is certainly possible that she has a future either in a Biden administration or even on the Federal Reserve Board, which is a testament to how quickly our political and cultural landscape has shifted toward left progressivism. And left progressivism requires a "New Economics" to provide intellectual cover for what is essentially a political argument for painless free stuff from government.

Kelton's essential argument, first advanced by MMT guru Warren Mosler in the 1990s, is quite simple: federal spending is unconstrained by revenue. Taxes function only to regulate demand and hence inflation; federal borrowing functions only to regulate interest rates. Sovereign government treasuries can create and spend as much money as they like to stimulate growth, especially when the economy is underperforming. If inflation spikes, taxes can be imposed to take money out of the economy.

Thus the only constraints on unlimited government spending are political. Unleashing ourselves from these "self-imposed" constraints, as Mosler puts it, is purely a matter of political will. Revenue is irrelevant to how you fund a government, so why not use government to fund the economy as a whole?

I direct readers to Dr. Bob Murphy's recent substantive review of Kelton's book here, as Bob does a thorough and effective job of debunking MMT and providing Austrian rebuttals to her claims regarding money, debt, and deficits. But I would make three quick points of my own:

  • MMT is not modern. Kings have used seigniorage and currency debasement for centuries to fund their endeavors, always at the expense of their subjects.
  • MMT is not monetary. It is primarily a fiscal approach to state finance, focused on tax policy as the economic accelerator and brake. Its roots predate the US Federal Reserve Bank, and in fact predate the present notion of "monetary policy." MMT finds origins in early twentieth-century chartalism, whose proponents opposed gold in favor of paper money issued by government and mandated as legal tender. It is also a genealogical heir to the Greenbackers of the late 1800s, who believed Congress should direct the issuance of unbacked paper currency.
  • MMT is not a theory. It is accounting. In fact, it relies on an accounting subterfuge which bizarrely claims government deficits represent private (societal) surpluses. Because government is the font from which currency springs, all financial assets (denominated in that currency of issue) exist thanks to government! Thus, under "national accounting," the more government spends, the richer we the people get. When tax revenue is $100 but government spends $120, Americans are richer by $20. And so on. This is not a theory; this is accounting gimmickry almost purposefully designed to obscure what's really going on.

In the relentlessly circular world of MMT, government is the source of all finance and in effect all wealth. Taxpayers don't fund government, because after all government first provides the "tokens" (currency) taxpayers need to pay their IRS bills! Government funds taxpayers, which is broadly speaking what the American left really believes. It's a version of Obama's "You didn't build that" rewritten into policy.

But let’s not kid ourselves: the US federal government already finances its operations, at least in part, using conjured money. 2020 federal spending may exceed $8 trillion as Congress and the Trump administration blow the roof off the authorized $5 trillion budget with COVID relief bills. More than half of that amount, maybe as much as $4 trillion, will be "deficit financed"—a nice way of saying not financed by tax revenue. This is a first in American history, to put it mildly.

This $4 trillion will not simply issue forth from Treasury Department printing machines, as Kelton would prescribe, but the effect is the same: the Treasury issues debt to cover the shortage, which the "public" buys, implicitly understanding that the Fed will always provide a ready market for such debt. And where does the Fed get the money to buy Treasurys? It creates it from nothing, in Keltonite fashion.

Chicagoites, market monetarists, supply-siders, NDGP targeters, and other free market proponents frankly don't have much to say about MMT. They already accept the premise of "monetary policy," i.e., that government or central banks should issue and control money in society. They already accept treating the money supply and interest rates as forms of policy tools. They already accept deficits and taxes as methods to prime or slow the economy. So although they may object to how Ms. Kelton wants to use money politically, they can't much object to whether money is used politically.1

Kelton deserves credit for writing a book aimed at lay audiences instead of for her peers in academic economics. Unlike most of those peers, she seems genuinely interested in helping us understand how the world works. And unlike most left progressive academics, she also seems interested in helping average people improve their lot in life. Perhaps most importantly, she does not display the kind of contempt and anger toward Red State America we see from the Paul Krugmans and Noah Smiths.

It's easy for those of a free market bent to dismiss MMT out of hand, but the impulse to create something from nothing resides deep in the human psyche, and politics is where this impulse finds expression. We should not underestimate the allure of MMT in the midst of our current upheavals, because it appears to make possible every left progressive program: unlimited public works and federal jobs, useless and uneconomic green energy schemes, reparations for black Americans, Medicare for All, free college, free housing, and a host of others. MMT is the perfect economic proposal for those who sincerely and deeply believe wealth simply exists in America, and will continue to exist, regardless of incentives. All we need to do is figure out how to more fairly divvy it up—and so why not through government spending?

The promise of something for nothing will never lose its luster. MMT should be viewed as a form of political propaganda rather than any kind of real economics or public policy. And like all propaganda, it must be fought with appeals to reality. MMT, where deficits don't matter, is an unreal place.

  • 1. Austrians have always decried state-ordered or central bank monetary expansion per se, because it produces no new wealth in society but benefits those closely connected to the new money. And Austrians consistently apply Say's law to refute the entrenched idea that demand and consumption form the foundation of a healthy economy.
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How Public Schools Teach Economics

07/02/2020Owen Holzbach

It has long been said that the financial and economic education in the public school system is far from perfect. I, as a current high school student, can vouch for that claim. From promoting crazed statist ideologies to nonsensical Keynesian beliefs, the public school system is nothing short of a tool for the state to harness power.

In school, I was taught that the Federal Reserve was created in 1913 to manage prices and employment. Never once were we taught that the Fed’s mandate did not include anything about prices and employment until the Federal Reserve Act of 1977. It is likely that this was left out of the curriculum so that it would seem that the Federal Reserve has over one hundred years of experience in these matters, thus making them the so-called experts. However, the Federal Reserve’s mandate change was nowhere close to one hundred years ago and its experience has been far from perfect. Of course, its negative track record was left out of the teaching. Never once were we shown the drastic increase in prices and inequality since the mandate change.

In fact, we were told that the free market is the cause of inequality and that government intervention is the only way to fix it. Of course, we never learned about how perverse incentives, quantitative easing, and a fiat system are the forces that cause artificial inequality. It was for the promotion of the same idea—that government is the only answer—that we never learned about the vast inequality that blossomed after the dissolution of the Bretton Woods system.

The reality is that much inequality is the result of artificially high stock market prices due to easy money policies. Speaking of the stock market, I was taught in school that a stock market on the rise depicts a strong economy. Of course, this is not necessarily true. The stock markets of the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe skyrocketed in their respective currencies as a result of their reckless counterfeiting policies, but surely you could not argue that hyperinflation is a sign of a strong economy. In fact, you do not even need to leave the United States for evidence. Recently, the stock market was at record highs before plunging into a recession and a sovereign debt crisis. COVID-19 was merely the catalyst, for the recession was coming anyway. It is hard to argue that a grossly overextended economy is somehow a strong economy simply because stocks were going up. But it was this type of thinking that made my fellow classmates think that since stocks had started to go back up after the mid-March sell-off that everything would be fine and there would be no recession. Sure, stocks may go up in nominal terms, but certainly not in real terms for the foreseeable future. This, of course, was never mentioned by any of my economics teachers. And it is this type of thinking that keeps the state in control. If the younger generation thinks that bailouts and intervention worked, why would they not vote for it in the future?

We were told that quantitative easing was a successful policy. But how is that we then needed multiple QEs after the one following the 2008 recession? If QE1 worked so well, why are we now on QE4? Surely, the dogmatic love of quantitative easing is a sign of insanity in its very essence. In addition to quantitative easing, we also learned about tightening policies and how the government attempts to limit its debt during economic booms. However, that is simply not true. The artificial market boom that took place during the Obama presidency and the first term of the Trump administration happened as the national debt ballooned up to catastrophic heights. Where exactly was the policy of quantitative tightening? Nonexistent. These unfortunate facts for the statists and their failed doctrines were completely left out of the curriculum.

It should be clear by now that the state-run schools cannot be trusted with teaching economics. To be sure, many of the teachers are simply teaching the curriculum mandated by the state and do not want to risk losing their jobs by teaching true economics. But the reality is that the only way to fix the problem is to abolish public schooling and state-mandated standards in exchange for private education—a cheaper and more efficient solution that eliminates the monopoly on schooling. Only then will the ideals of Ludwig von Mises and Rothbard be well understood and manifest into actual policies.

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Want to Kill the Economy Again? Keep Threatening More Lockdowns.

07/01/2020Ryan McMaken

The first time governments imposed business closures in the name of fighting the spread of COVID-19, the job market imploded.

Forty million Americans lost their jobs, and at least 20 million of those are still unemployed. Income in America fell to such low levels that federal tax revenues fell by more than 50 percent year over year in April and remained down more than 25 percent in May. These are losses of historic proportions.

It remains to be seen if the country even began anything that could realistically be called a "recovery" in June. After all, new unemployment claims were still at over a million new applicants according to the most recent data. That's still off-the-charts bad. Nonetheless, we continue to hear about how, any day now, we'll see evidence of a "V-shaped recovery" in which jobs and economic growth will come roaring back.

But now we're already seeing governments—by which I mean a small cadre of governors and unelected bureaucrats who currently rule by decree—announcing another round of business closures and ongoing government regulations that micromanage every aspect of a business's daily interactions with customers.

This is likely to greatly slow any V-shapred recovery that might have been forming, and it will give businesses reason to further put off plans for implementing efforts at recovering from the economic crash experienced in April and May.

This is due to businesses being physically barred from hiring in many cases, but it's also due to "regime uncertainty."

Regime uncertainty is a wealth-killing, job-killing phenomenon in which business and property owners cannot plan for the future because of capricious, unpredictable, and incoherent government interventions.

This has happened a number of times in the past in the United States, an in each case, it prolonged economic depressions.

As shown by economic historian Robert Higgs, regime uncertainty was a significant factor in the long duration of the Great Depression. It again became a factor during the so-called Great Recession, when the US government began implementing a veritable smorgasbord of new regulations and bailouts.

During these periods, there were few limits on government action and the legal environment was prone to be substantially changed on short notice and in a succession of fits and starts.

Not surprisingly, under these conditions, businesses became reluctant to engage in new plans for expansion, employment, or investment.

Now, thanks to the coming "second round" of state lockdowns, businesses are once again in a similar position.

For example, yesterday Colorado governor Jared Polis announced that the governor's office was once again shutting down bars and nightclubs, after only a few weeks of being allowed to remain open. This comes after a tiny uptick in new cases in the state.

What was the legal process for dictating to these businesses that they must now remain closed? There was none. For all we know, Polis just decided in the shower yesterday morning that it "felt right" to close down bars again. There is no debate, no checks and balances, no period for public comment. We live in a world where a politician can simply decide to shut down businesses whenever the mood strikes him.

Polis certainly isn't the only politician of this type.

Governors in a number of states have taken similar actions, from California to New York to Texas and Florida. Bars, and other businesses, are again being closed by government edict. Or as in New York, they are not being allowed to open at all.

Some observers might shrug and say "well, it's only bars and a small minority of businesses. It's no big deal!" This might be true to some extent were other businesses able to obtain any useful information on the likelihood that they too will be shut down. After all, just because it's "only" bars being closed now doesn't mean it won't be all restaurants, barbershops, and offices later.

And how might businesses get this information for planning purposes? It's not as if any objective standards or guidance are offered by the secretive junta of bureaucrats that decides a business's fate.

A business could ask, "At what number of new cases/hospitalizations will you extend new business closures?" But the business is unlikely to receive any answer, because it is clear that governments have established no objective standards of any kind. These government planners apparently decide business closures based on personal whims or on political pressure. What's worse, these changes can occur without any warning at all. Even after months of talk about plans for dealing with COVID-19, governments have yet to announce or establish any standard at all by which to judge whether business closures or lockdowns are necessary. Exactly how many COVID-19 deaths or hospitalizations are necessary to "trigger business closures"? Virtually no government is willing to say. The only governor who appears to have even suggested an actual numerical standard is Greg Abbott of Texas who claims:

As I said from the start, if the positivity rate rose above 10%, the State of Texas would take further action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

But even in this case, government action is vaguely defined only as "further action." That could mean virtually anything. So business owners are left just guessing what governments might do next without anything we might call "due process" or even a "legislative process." It's just a matter of a single man or woman issuing diktats about whether or not a business owner is allowed to use his or her property. Moreover, just because it's someone else's business today, doesn't mean it won't be your business tomorrow. That's the nature of regime uncertainty. One round of regulations now doesn't mean there won't be something quite different and far worse coming down the line soon.

Under these conditions, there is little reason to assume there will be a V-shaped recovery. After a period of only one month of "reopening," governments are already enacting new business shutdowns and claiming the authority to engage in these shutdowns indefinitely. It's as if the system were designed to maximize regime uncertainty and destroy employment and income. For business owners, there's no end in sight.

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Toasting with Bastiat, on His Birthday

06/30/2020Gary Galles

June 30 is Frederic Bastiat’s birthday. That is noteworthy, as his contributions on behalf of liberty were not only massively important, but have stood the test of time.

As Julian Adorney and Matt Palumbo wrote for the Mises Institute, he used "taut logic and compelling prose to bring the dry field of economics to hundreds of thousands of laymen."

Murray Rothbard wrote that he was "a lucid and superb writer, whose brilliant and witty essays and fables to this day are remarkable and devastating demolitions of protectionism and of all forms of government subsidy and control. He was a truly scintillating advocate of an unrestricted free market."

The introduction to The Bastiat Collection, which incorporates his greatest works, summarizes his importance by saying that "If we were to take the greatest economists from all ages and judge them on the basis of their theoretical rigor, their influence on economic education, and their impact in support of the free-market economy, then Frédéric Bastiat would be at the top of the list."

For all the praise Bastiat has deservedly received, however, his greatest works don’t exhaust his wisdom, and people are far less aware of some of those other words of wisdom. In particular, in Frederic Bastiat: The Man and the Statesman, Liberty Fund has published a collection of 207 letters he wrote (including many to Richard Cobden, "the father of free trade"), but they have not gotten the same attention as his major works.

That is why it is worth celebrating Bastiat’s 1801 birth by looking to his letters for added words of wisdom, following his recognition that "Truth has power only when it is defused." Here are some that I found particularly striking:

  • "As long as our deputies want to further their own business and not that of the general public, the public will remain just the tail end of the people in power."
  • "Although there are a few souls who instinctively would like freedom to a certain extent, there are none who understand it in principle."
  • "Let us raise the flag of absolute freedom and absolute principle, and let us wait for those with the same faith to join us."
  • "We would not even be able to mention the word justice if we accepted the shadow of protection."
  • "The liberation of trade will lead to political liberation…invasive politics will have ceased to exist."
  • "I want not so much free trade itself as the spirit of free trade for my country. Free trade means a little more wealth; the spirit of free trade is a reform of the mind itself…the source of all reform."
  • "The cause we serve is not bounded by the borders of a nation. It is universal and will find its solution only in its acceptance by all peoples."
  • "[Many] have the same goal, tyranny. They differ only on the question of…in whose hands the despotism will be placed. This is why the thing they fear most is a spirit of true freedom."
  • "The plentiful bounty of the state…the whole mechanism consists in taking away ten to give it back eight, not to mention the true freedom that will be destroyed in the operation!"
  • "Anything that can, directly or indirectly, damage property, undermine confidence, or weaken security is an obstacle to the accumulation of capital and has an unfavorable effect on the working classes. This is also true for all taxes and irritating governmental interference."
  • "How can industry revive when it is accepted in principle that the scope for regulation is unlimited? When every minute a decree on earnings, working hours, the cost of things, etc., can upset all economic decision making?"
  • "The dominant notion…that has permeated every class of society, is that the state is responsible for providing a living for everyone….The real cause of the evil is certainly the false ideas of socialism."
  • "The state has been required to provide for the welfare of its citizens directly. But….This means that the state or the public treasury has been plundered."
  • "Every class has demanded from the state the means of subsistence, as of right. The efforts made by the state to provide this have led only to taxes and restrictions and an increase in deprivation, with the result that the demands of the people have become more pressing….[All] have called upon the law to intervene to increase their share of wealth. The law has been able to satisfy them only by creating distress in the other classes, especially the working classes. These therefore raised a clamor, and instead of demanding that this plundering should cease, they demanded that the law should allow them to take part in the plundering as well. It has become general and universal."
  • "Each person should call upon his own forces to provide his means of existence and expect the state to provide only justice and security."
  • "You need to be uncommonly absurd and foolish to believe that it is an act of courage to vote in favor of might…the majority, the passions of the moment, and the government."
  • "Protectionism [is] the negation of the right of property."
  • "Protectionism is a plague."
  • "As long as the state is regarded…as a source of favors, our history will be seen as having only two phases, the periods of conflict as to who will take control of the state and the periods of truce, which will be the transitory reign of a triumphant oppression, the harbinger of a fresh conflict."
  • "The legitimate functions of the government…once these functions have been understood and these limits set, the people governed will no longer expect prosperity, well-being, and absolute good fortune but equal justice for all from their governments….governments will have their ordinary action circumscribed, will no longer repress individual energy, will no longer dissipate public assets…and will themselves be freed from the illusionary hopes pinned on them by their peoples."
  • "[Even] the best assembly is good only for preventing evil."
  • "What I ask of the law is that it should be neutral between us and that it should guarantee my property in the same way as that of the blacksmith."
  • "The government should guarantee security to each person and…should not concern itself with anything else."

"A keen wit and a clear pithy writing style," as Adorney and Palumbo described it, is clearly on display in Bastiat’s letters as well as his other, better-known writing. That is why his letters are worth our consideration as well. They even provide us with a toast worthy of emulating:

Allow me, in closing…this toast: To free trade among peoples! To the free circulation of men, things, and ideas! To universal free trade and all its economic, political, and moral consequences!

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Will the Police Crack Down on Lockdown Violators the Second Time Around?

06/26/2020Ryan McMaken

Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.

As I mentioned on Friday, a second round of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders will be both more economically damaging and more difficult to enforce. Yet politicians have clearly signaled they have more lockdowns in store.

Yet as economic hardship increases, and as more people doubt the official experts' demands, fewer will be willing to comply.

The first time around, lockdowns were largely peaceful.

Nationwide, we witnessed relatively few altercations with police during the first round of lockdowns. Certainly, there were still repugnant abuses committed by police who claimed to be enforcing "social distancing" laws. Here are just some examples:

But given the sheer scale of the lockdowns, we could have seen a lot more. The reason we didn't see more was that an overwhelming majority of Americans complied voluntarily out of fear of the disease.

It's now clear, however, that while total mortality may indeed be heightened in the age of COVID-19, it's certainly not catastrophic or apocalyptic. This is clear in US states, and in entire countries like Sweden that never imposed coerced lockdowns. Moreover, as incomes wane, rent payments are missed, and unemployment endures, many Americans will be even less inclined to comply with stay-at-home orders.

But if there's less voluntary compliance, that means a greater need for police to force compliance. Will the police make it happen?

Certainly, during the first lockdown, few police had qualms about destroying lives and businesses in the name of "public safety."

But that was before the "defund the police" movement grew, and some police departments have implemented work slowdowns in response.

In New York and Atlanta, for example, police officers have called in sick or called for strikes in protest against an alleged "anti-police climate."

The idea here is that police refuse to arrest violent criminals as a means of applying political pressure to both elected officials and the voters.

But will police forget about their slowdowns and strikes in time to crack down on peaceful citizens who violate the future stay-at-home orders now being threatened by politicians?

If the police—who in some cases acted with considerable restraint against protestors who were obviously in violation of bans on mass gatherings—engage in mass arrests against Americans who refuse to "#stayathome" or otherwise fail to comply with lockdown orders?

Will police ignore murders while they rush to close businesses and arrest fathers who take their children to a park?

Experience suggests this would just be par for the course. After all, the evidence has long shown that police focus on petty crimes while devoting few resources to serious violent crimes. There would be nothing shocking about a police force that refuses to pursue dangerous criminals while bringing the full wrath of a SWAT team against patrons at a tavern. It is easier—both practically and politically—to arrest a middle-aged mom who refused to close her business while letting violent rioters go free.

Politically, however, police would be well advised to refuse to enforce stay-at-home orders. After all, the police departments' list of allies grows thin. Middle-class voters are often inclined to be sympathetic to police, because middle-class voters don't want their homes and businesses burned down or broken into.

But if the cops plan to continue arresting business owners for noncrimes related to stay-at-home orders, they should expect little help the next time they want yet another budget increase.

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Fixating on Consumer Prices While Ignoring Asset Prices

06/25/2020Robert Aro

For most fields of study, the goal is to progress ideas and seek truth. This doesn’t seem to be the case in economics.

It’s not just the Fed; it’s the entire global community. The Central Bank of Sweden recently shared a press release showing they have similar concerns to the Fed and want to facilitate the “supply of credit” while striving to hold market rates down. The bank further stated the difficulties faced with interpreting its inflation statistics during times of pandemic, noting:

For one thing, prices have been lacking for certain goods and services, as these have not been consumed, and for another thing the actual consumption by Swedes during the pandemic does not correspond to the weights in the consumer price index. Quite simply, the Swedish people have bought more toilet paper and fewer trips abroad than the weights in the consumer price index imply.

The problem with measuring “inflation” has also been expressed by the Bank of Canada. It’s not just the relative weights which are problematic, but also the volatility of the data that impacts the “inflationary experience” of the Consumer Price Index sample size, making interpretation difficult:

in any given month, the CPI can be quite volatile and not reflect its long-term trend. That’s because prices of items such as fresh fruit and vegetables or gasoline can jump around a lot, affecting the CPI.

Especially since “these aren’t normal times,”

Canadians are spending much less on gasoline and air travel, and more on food purchased from stores. And until very recently, they weren’t spending anything on haircuts. The implication is that the CPI isn’t fully reflecting people’s current inflationary experience.

In formulating an arbitrary basket of goods to include items such as gasoline, fruits, vegetables, and toilet paper and then assigning an arbitrary weight of relative importance to these items, central bankers obsess over consumer prices while ignoring asset prices such as those of stocks, bonds, and real estate.

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Our Endless State of "Emergency" and De Facto Dictatorship

06/25/2020Ryan McMaken

Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.

In a great many states and municipalities, government executives have declared states of emergency. These are in most cases mayors and state governors who first declare a state of emergency and then begin unilaterally issuing a wide variety of executive orders without consent from any elected legislative body.

Historically, these emergency periods were limited to a specific duration, often thirty days.

The Lawfare blog has helpfully summarized the emergency declaration power of most states:

  • In Texas, " A state of emergency concludes when the disaster has been deemed to have passed, if the legislature decides to terminate it, or if the declaration is not renewed by the governor after thirty days."
  • In Colorado, "A state of emergency cannot last more than thirty days without the governor renewing it and the general assembly, by joint resolution, can terminate a state of disaster emergency."
  • In Florida, "The state of emergency cannot continue for longer than 60 days unless the governor renews it."
  • In New Jersey, "A public health emergency is automatically terminated after 30 days unless the governor renews it under the described standards."
  • In New York, "any action the governor takes using his emergency power must not last for longer than 30 days. The governor can renew this emergency action for an additional 30 day period after reconsidering all of the relevant facts and circumstances."

Notice a potential problem here: the "time limits" are essentially meaningless, because all that is required to extend them is for a single person—the governor in these cases—to declare the emergency extended. Even worse, the same person who declares the emergency is the one who rules by decree during the emergency.

The only possible veto in many cases exists if the state's legislative body convenes and passes a resolution to end the emergency declaration, as happened recently in Pennsylvania. Such a process, however, throws the status quo strongly in favor of one-man rule by decree. It is assumed that a single person can declare an emergency and then govern as he or she wishes with virtually no institutional opposition until the full legislature can convene and take a vote. In some states, there isn't even a clear means for the legislature to meet when it is not already convened according to the usual calendar. After all, many state legislatures only meet part of the year. Some legislatures meet only once every two years.

In practice, the system should be the reverse: emergency declarations should provide for a veto from a small legislative committee or some other group of elected officials outside the governor's office.

F.A. Hayek discusses this in volume 3 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty:

"Emergencies" have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded—and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist. Indeed if all needs felt by important groups that can be satisfied only by the exercise of dictatorial powers constitute an emergency, every situation is an emergency situation. It has been contended with some plausibility that whoever has the power to proclaim an emergency and on this ground to suspend any part of the constitution is the true sovereign. This would seem to be true enough if any person or body were able to arrogate to itself such emergency powers by declaring a state of emergency.

It is by no means necessary, however, that one and the same agency should possess the power to declare an emergency and to assume emergency powers. The best precaution against the abuse of emergency powers would seem to be that the authority that can declare a state of emergency is made thereby to renounce the powers it normally possesses and to retain only the right of revoking at any time the emergency powers it has conferred on another body. In the scheme suggested it would evidently be the Legislative Assembly which would not only have to delegate some of its powers to the government, but also to confer upon this government powers which in normal circumstances nobody possesses. For this purpose an emergency committee of the Legislative Assembly would have to be in permanent existence and quickly accessible at all times. The committee would have to be entitled to grant limited emergency powers until the Assembly as a whole could be convened which itself would then have to determine both the extent and duration of the emergency powers granted to government.

As is often the case, Hayek is quite milquetoast here, assuming that the civil government ought to enjoy significant leeway in what it can do during an emergency. But even this highly moderate view of Hayek's would be an immense improvement from the current status quo, which is one in which governors can appoint themselves de facto dictators for an open-ended amount of time, and in which the only way of ending the one-man rule is for the legislature to take extraordinary measures. It's a truly odd state of affairs in a country that claims—less convincingly with each passing day—to be a country that values the rule of law and opposes the arbitrary rule of a tiny number of privileged government agents.

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Voting for Integrity over Hypocrisy

06/23/2020Gary Galles

I have long been a fan of science fiction. I like it for the escapism it allows me. But sometimes I also find some real nuggets of understanding there. I found one example that bears upon America’s coming election in a Jack Campbell novel:

People are always talking about demanding more and better performance from elected officials, but when you get right down to it, shouldn’t a democracy demand more and better performance from the citizens who vote? If they do their job well, then the quality of those they elect will naturally follow.

That is one of the best summaries I have ever seen of Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read’s view on voting. Since Americans will soon be assaulted with questionable election year assertions of why they must vote and who they must vote for in 2020, his rationale for why not voting can better defend our liberty merits consideration.

As Read articulated in in his classic, Anything That’s Peaceful (1964):

  • "Today…often a voter cannot cast a ballot except for one of two trimmers."
  • "A trimmer…trims his personal idea of what is morally right, tailors his stand to the popular fancy. Integrity…is sacrificed to expediency."
  • "Why, asks the responsible voter, should I endorse dishonesty by voting for such a candidate?"
  • "When both candidates for public office are judged to be trimmers, the one who trims less than the other is often regarded as 'the lesser of two evils.' But, is he really?"
  • "Principles do not permit of compromise; they are either adhered to or surrendered….To trim is to ignore the dictates of higher conscience…to take flight from integrity. Is not the candidate who will trim…ready to abandon the dictates of conscience[?]…Does not the extent or quantity of trimming merely reflect a judgment as to how much trimming is expedient?"
  • "When one must choose between men who forsake integrity…there is little relief at the polling level except as candidates of integrity may be encouraged by voters of integrity."
  • "How can candidates of integrity be encouraged by voters (and non-voters) of integrity?"
  • "One candidate will stand for the coercive expropriation of the earned income of all citizens…to those in groups A, B, and C…[H]is opponent differs from him only in advocating that the loot be given to those in groups X, Y, and Z."
  • "Does responsible citizenship require casting a ballot for either of these political plunderers? The citizen has no significant moral choice but only an immoral choice [made because] one of the candidates will deliver some of the largess to him or to a group he favors."
  • "Does responsible citizenship require voting for irresponsible candidates?…To cast a ballot for a trimmer, because no man of integrity is offering himself, does as much as one can with a ballot to encourage other trimmers to run for office…to urge, as strongly as one can at the polls, that men of integrity not offer themselves as candidates."
  • "What would happen if we adopted as a criterion: Never vote for a trimmer!"
  • "Would the end result of this…large-scale demonstration of 'voting by turning our backs,' compound our problem?…In time…Men of integrity and high moral quality—statesmen—might show forth."
  • "Would a return to integrity by itself solve our problem? No…But it is only among men of integrity that any solution can begin to take shape."
  • "If respect for a candidate’s integrity were widely adopted as a criterion for casting a ballot, millions…would not cast ballots. Yet, in a very practical sense, would not those of us who protest in this manner be voting…who, by our conscious and deliberate inaction, proclaim that we have no party. What other choice have we at the polling level? Would not this encourage men of statesmanlike qualities to offer themselves in candidacy?"
  • "There is no moral or political or social obligation to vote merely because we are confronted with ballots…doesn’t this 'obligation' deny to the citizen the only alternative left to him—not to endorse persons or measures he regards as repugnant? When presented with two trimmers, how else, at this level, is he to protest? Abstinence from ballot-casting would appear to be his only way to avoid being untrue to himself."

Leonard Read rejected much of the current civic religion of political involvement, because it amounted to "regardless of integrity, vote." He argued for making integrity our central focus. And if we reflect on how infrequently we would use the word's common meanings or synonyms, such as incorruptibility, adherence to moral and ethical principles, honesty, reliably doing the right thing, uprightness, rectitude, sincerity or honor, to describe those we "must vote for," it certainly might improve things. Instead we see and hear its antonym—hypocrisy—demonstrated daily.

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The Federal Reserve is Getting Desperate

06/23/2020Ron Paul

In a sign that the Federal Reserve is growing increasingly desperate to jump-start the economy, the Fed’s Secondary Market Credit Facility has begun purchasing individual corporate bonds. The Secondary Market Credit Facility was created by Congress as part of a coronavirus stimulus bill to purchase as much as $750 billion of corporate credit. Until last week, the Secondary Market Credit Facility had limited its purchases to exchange-traded funds, which are bundled groups of stocks or bonds.

The bond purchasing initiative, like all Fed initiatives, will fail to produce long-term prosperity. These purchases distort the economy by increasing the money supply and thus lowering interest rates, which are the price of money. In this case, the Fed’s purchase of individual corporate bonds enables select corporations to pursue projects for which they could not otherwise have obtained funding. This distorts signals sent by the market, making these companies seem like better investments than they actually are and thus allowing them to attract more private investment. This will cause these companies to experience a Fed-created bubble. Like all Fed-created bubbles, the corporate bond bubble will eventually burst, causing businesses to collapse, investors to lose their money (unless they receive a government bailout), and workers to lose their jobs.

Under the law creating the lending facilities, the Fed does not have to reveal the purchases made by the new facilities. Instead of allowing the Fed to hide this information, Congress should immediately pass the Audit the Fed bill so people can know whether a company is flush with cash because private investors determined that it is a sound investment or because the Fed chose to “invest” in its bonds.

The Fed could, and likely will, use this bond buying program to advance political goals. The Fed could fulfill Chairman Jerome Powell’s stated desire to do something about climate change by supporting “green energy” companies. The Fed could also use its power to reward businesses that, for example, support politically correct causes, refuse to sell guns, require their employees and customers to wear masks, or promote unquestioning obedience to the warfare state.

Another of the new lending facilities is charged with purchasing the bonds of cash-strapped state and local governments. This could allow the Fed to influence the policies of these governments. It is not wise to reward spendthrift politicians with a federal bailout—whether through Congress or through the Fed.

With lending facilities providing to the Federal Reserve the ability to give money directly to businesses and governments, the Fed is now just one step away from implementing Ben Bernanke’s infamous suggestion that, if all else fails, the Fed can drop money from a helicopter. These interventions will not save the economy. Instead, they will make the inevitable crash more painful. The next crash can bring about the end of the fiat monetary system. The question is not if the current monetary system ends, but when. The only way Congress can avoid the Fed causing another Great Depression is to begin transitioning to a free market monetary system by auditing, then ending, the Fed.

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"Protestors" Deface Bust of Miguel Cervantes, a Former Slave

06/22/2020Ryan McMaken

In a bit of ironic vandalism, San Francisco protestors painted "bastard" on a bust of Miguel Cervantes and defaced it in other ways. It's hard to imagine what the motivation was behind attacking the Cervantes bust, beyond, of course, total ignorance of who he even was. Cervantes was a sixteenth-century writer who penned Don Quixote, possibly the most influential work of Spanish-language literature ever written.

Did the protestors even know who Cervantes was? It's impossible to know. Perhaps his "crime" was being a white man, although that is not even known for sure, and Cervantes may have been descended from Spain's large Sephardic Jewish population, as were many Spaniards whose ancestors had been "encouraged" to convert to Christianity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The great irony here, however, is that Cervantes, unlike every person "protesting" his image, knew what it was like to be a slave. As described by Fiona MacDonald for the BBC:

In 1575, after fighting in military campaigns against the Turks in the Mediterranean, the Spaniard was captured by Barbary pirates and taken to Algiers. There, he was kept as a slave for five years. When he was freed – with a ransom raised by Trinitarian friars attached to the convent he was to be buried beneath – he had become the man who would write one of the greatest novels in history.

“His five-year captivity in Algiers left an indelible impression on his fiction,” Cervantes scholar María Antonia Garcés tells BBC Culture. “From the first works written after his liberation, such as the play Life in Algiers (c. 1581–1583) and his novel La Galatea (1585), to his posthumous book The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda (1617), the story of this traumatic experience continuously speaks through his work.”

Cervantes was just one of countless Europeans enslaved by slave traders (especially the Muslim Barbary pirates) over the centuries, kidnapped in coastal raids by pirates along the coasts of Italy, Britain, Ireland, and the eastern Mediterranean. Saint Patrick, of course, had been enslaved in such a way, by Irish pirates.

Such nuances of history, of course, matter nothing to the protestors or indeed to Americans in general. The average American (whether white, black, left, or right) knows about as much about the sixteenth century (or any century before the twentieth) as he knows about the intricacies of astrophysics.

So we should not be surprised that the protestors are also vandalizing statues of abolitionists, as happened to a memorial for Philadelphia abolitionist Mathias Baldwin.

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Germany’s Greatest Philosopher of Freedom

06/22/2020Gary Galles

Americans, as a rule, are poorly informed about the vast insights into liberty that some their countrymen have offered them. But moving beyond our borders and language, many know next to nothing. That is why it is valuable to find, in Star Trek lingo, that “undiscovered country” of understanding.

One of the most valuable foreign sources of libertarian thought comes from Wilhelm von Humboldt. Born June 22, 1767, in Prussia, his book, translated from German into English, titledThe Sphere and Duties of Government (or The Limits of State Action in another translation) was a major work in liberty.

Humboldt’s own description of the heart of his book was that “The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument…directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”

J.W. Burrow wrote that “Humboldt explores the role that liberty plays in individual development, discusses criteria for permitting the state to limit individual actions, and suggests ways of confining the state to its proper bounds. In so doing, he uniquely combines the ancient concern for human excellence and the modern concern for what has come to be known as negative liberty.” And The Sphere also inspired John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (though Barrow noted that “many commentators even believe that Humboldt’s discussion of issues of freedom and individual responsibility possesses greater clarity and directness than Mill’s”). In fact, Mill wrote in his Autobiography that “the only author who had preceded me…of whom I thought it appropriate to say anything, was Humboldt.”

George Smith wrote that The Sphere was “one of the best defenses of limited-government libertarianism ever written.” It led Friedrich Hayek to call him “Germany’s greatest philosopher of freedom.” Ralph Raico wrote that Humboldt came to “passionately defend personal liberty,” which led him to ask, “To what end ought the whole apparatus of the state to aim, and what limits ought to be set to its activity?” What was his answer? “The one good which society cannot provide for itself is security against those who aggress against the person and property of others.” As a result, “the provision of security, against both external enemies and internal dissensions must constitute the purpose of the state, and occupy the circle of its activity.” But “for the [other] services which it is commonly held must fall within the scope of government action…Humboldt believes that they need not be provided by political institutions, but can safely be entrusted to social ones” (a theme strongly echoed by Albert Jay Nock). Humboldt’s approach also infused Leonard Read’s work at the Foundation for Economic Education, with its central focus on enabling individual growth or “blooming.”

Even though The Sphere was first published in its entirety in 1850, and first translated into English in 1854, long after Humboldt’s death, few American writers can claim a closer connection to America’s revolutionary era. Humboldt was born in 1767, just ten days before the British passed the Townsend Acts, a major impetus toward our revolution. He completed the book in 1792, when George Washington won a second term. Much of his adult life overlapped that of James Madison (Humboldt died one year before him), whose efforts dealt with related themes. Further, few works have better caught the spirit of liberty that infused our revolution.

Consider a selection of Humboldt’s insights below as food for thought.

  • “Inquiry into the proper aims and limits of State agency [is]…more vitally momentous than any other political question.”
  • “The due limits of State agency must conduct us to an ampler range of freedom.”
  • “The freedom of private life always increases in exact proportion as public freedom declines.”
  • “The highest ideal…consist[s] in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own inmost nature, and for his own sake.”
  • “Reason cannot desire for man any other condition than that in which each individual…enjoys the most absolute freedom of developing himself by his own energies, in his perfect individuality…restricted only by the limits of his powers and his rights.”
  • “State measures…accustom men to look for instruction, guidance, and assistance from without, rather than to rely upon their own expedients.”
  • “In proportion as each individual relies upon…the State, he learns to abandon to its responsibility the fate and wellbeing of his fellow-citizens.”
  • “Men are not to unite themselves together in order to forego any portion of their individuality.”
  • “The State, in its positive solicitude for the external and physical well-being of the citizen, cannot avoid creating hindrances to the development of individuality….[S]uch a solicitude should not be conceded to it.”
  • “The whole argument conducts us [to] the necessity of securing the consent of every individual.”
  • “The more a man acts for himself, the more does he develop himself.”
  • “Now, without security, it is impossible for man either to develop his powers, or to enjoy the fruits of his exertion; for, without security, there can be no freedom.”
  • “The State…is not to meddle in anything which does not refer exclusively to security.”
  • “The State may not attempt to act upon the citizen’s peculiar condition with any reference to positive ends.”
  • “The citizens of a State [are] secure, when, living together in the full enjoyment of their due rights of person and property, they are out of the reach of any external disturbance from the encroachments of others.”
  • “The State…is not to withhold a man from the free exercise of his chosen pursuit because he has not submitted himself to its tests of capability.”
  • “The less a man is induced to act otherwise than his wish suggests or his powers permit, the more favorable does his position as a member of a civil community become.”
  • “The manifold and ever-varying plans and wishes of individual men are to be preferred to the uniform and unchangeable will of the State.”
  • “Secure a due regard to the rights of others.”
  • “The nation can accomplish [many important objects] as effectually and without incurring the evils which flow from State interference.”
  • “Fatal consequences…flow for human enjoyment, power, and character, from confounding the free activity of the nation with that which is enforced upon its members.”
  • “The government whose activity we have so narrowly circumscribed does not stand in need of such abundant sources of revenue.”
  • “The grand point to be kept in view by the State is the development of the powers of all its single citizens in their perfect individuality.”

As Ralph Raico summarized The Sphere and Duties of Government, “Humboldt shows himself to be a thoughtful but passionate believer in the efficacy of truly social forces, in the possibility of great social ends being achieved without any necessity for direction on the part of the state.”

That is something our current age, in which the presumed sphere of government extends to virtually everything, would profit from remembering. And for those interested in reading further, more of his insightful words can be found here and here.

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