Quarantine Chronicles, No. 1: The History of the Austrian School

Quarantine Chronicles, No. 1: The History of the Austrian School

03/25/2020Tho Bishop

With many of our readers having more time on their hands while practicing social distancing, the Mises Institute is exploring our online archives and offering topic-specific collections of curated content. This series, we are calling it the "Quarantine Chronicles: A Shelter-at-Home-Series," will highlight essays, articles, and clips that may not be as widely known, but will provide a deep understanding of important concepts and history.

On the topic of the History of the Austrian School of Economics, we recommend some of the following selections:

Long-Form Reading:

Video:

Audio:

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The Road to Authoritarianism is Paved with Fiat Currency

06/22/2021Ron Paul

Last week, the Federal Reserve announced it will maintain an interest rate target of zero to 0.25 percent for the rest of 2021. The Fed said it will also continue its monthly purchase of 120 billion dollars of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities.

Some Fed board members are forecasting a rate increase by late 2022 or 2023, though with the rate still not reaching one percent. The Fed will neither allow interest rates to rise to market levels nor reduce its purchase of Treasury securities. A significant increase in interest rates would make the government’s borrowing costs unsustainable.

The Fed also raised its projected rate of inflation to three percent, although it still insists the rise in prices is a transitory effect of the end of the lockdowns. There is some truth to this, as it will take some time for businesses to get back to full capacity. However, the Fed began taking extraordinary measures to prop up the economy in September of 2019, when it started pumping billions of dollars a day into the repo market that banks use to make short-term loans to each other. The lockdowns only postponed and deepened the forthcoming Fed-caused meltdown.

Germany’s Deutsche Bank recently released a paper warning about the Federal Reserve continuing to disregard the inflation risk caused by easy money policies designed to “stimulate” the economy and facilitate massive government spending. Germans have reason to be sensitive to the consequences of inflation, including hyperinflation. Out-of-control inflation played a major role in the collapse of the German economy in the 1920s, which led to the rise of the National Socialists.

This pattern could repeat itself in America where we have already witnessed the rise of authoritarian movements. Last summer, groups exploited legitimate concerns about police misconduct to foment violence across the country. Can anyone doubt that an economic crisis that leads to mass unemployment, foreclosures, and maybe even shortages will result in large-scale violence? Or that the violence will be exploited by power-hungry politicians? Or that many people will once again fall for the big lie that preserving safety requires giving up their liberty?

The apparatus of repression already exists in the form of a surveillance state, police militarization, and big tech’s cooperation with big government to stamp out dissent. Now, President Biden and his congressional allies want to use the January 6 US Capitol turmoil to justify expanding government powers in the name of stopping “domestic terrorists.” Part of this new campaign is expanding censorship of “extremism,” defined as any views that threaten the status quo. The Biden administration has taken a page from the Communist playbook in suggesting people report their friends and family who are becoming “radicalized.”

We may still have time to prevent collapse in America, or at least to make sure the collapse leads to a transition to a free society. The key to success is spreading the ideas of liberty until we have the ability to force the politicians to dismantle the welfare-warfare state and the fiat money system that is the lifeblood of authoritarian government.

Reprinted with permission.

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An Antidote to Political Correctness in Schools: Just Walk Away

06/22/2021Patrick Barron

We've all heard about the newest insult to our lives and our children. I refer, of course, to the growing adoption of "critical race theory" as part of public school curriculums. Why should we be surprised? Many of our top colleges have been adopting what can only be called Marxist indoctrination of their students for many years. A friend recently sent me a letter written by a North Korean immigrant who attended Columbia University in New York City. This courageous young woman had escaped North Korea into China at great risk, crossed the Gobi Desert to Mongolia with the help of Christian missionaries, and eventually made her way to South Korea. She then came to America to attend what she thought was a great, prestigious school (Columbia University), only to discover that Columbia's political correctness was perhaps even worse than that of North Korea!

Her story of escape from brutal, communist repression is not unusual. Others have done the same. I did not find as unusual her shock at discovering the same soul-destroying repression on the campus of one of America's supposedly premier institutes of higher learning. What I did find as unusual was her acquiescence to the many insults she suffered at the hands of the administration, teachers, and some of their student sycophants. She admitted that she learned to keep her head down, not offer an opinion, and not fight back! I admire this young lady a lot, so I'm perplexed at her reaction. If she crossed the Gobi Desert in search of freedom, surely she can cross a Columbia University classroom and walk out the door.

The answer for combating political correctness and other insults in our public schools is to refuse to attend them. There is nothing more important than inculcating the proper values in the minds of our children at such an impressionable age. If your actions to stop political correctness and other insults in our schools fails, then all you have to do is leave. Yes! Pull your child from school and send him to another that does not teach this filth. If it's a university, all the easier! Don't send them your children and your money. There are thousands of colleges in America. Find one that teaches values that are important to you. If your child is still in the public school system, you may have to sacrifice, but the rewards are worth it. Pay for your child to attend a private school. If you can't find one, then homeschool your child. Yes, I know that may mean that you may have to alter your work hours or even quit your current job. But this should be easier now. Perhaps the one good thing that has come out of the covid-19 pandemic is that employees and employers have found that many jobs can be done from home.

Find a way. Do not feel that you have no choice but to subject your child to racism, Marxism, or anti-Americanism. WALK!

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Auberon Herbert : "Reject Compulsion in Every Form"

06/18/2021Gary Galles

Voluntaryism. It is an awkward term. Yet that was what political philosopher Auberon Herbert called the only social arrangement that respected people’s self-ownership—mutually voluntary, noncoercive cooperation. Government compulsion, on the other hand, inherently violates it. Herbert saw that preventing violations of others’ self-ownership was the core of the moral case for liberty.

At a time when the practical philosophy of governments is that they own as much of any individual as they choose, it is worth commemorating Herbert’s June 18 birthday by reconsidering his challenge to the idea that others have “a commission to decide what [their] brother-man shall do or not do.” 

  • This is the question…. Do you believe in force and authority, or do you believe in liberty?
  • The weight of argument is strongly on the side of liberty of action and unrestricted competition.
  • Rights of self-ownership are … supreme moral rights…. All social and political arrangements, all employments of force, are subordinate to these universal rights.
  • Force may be employed on behalf of these rights, but not in opposition to them.
  • Force rests on no moral foundations … [because] without freedom of choice … there are no such things as true moral qualities.
  • Each man must be left free … with one most important limitation. His freedom … must not interfere with the exactly corresponding freedom of others.
  • Reject compulsion in every form.
  • Private property [is] inseparably connected with liberty or self‑ownership…. It is idle to say in one breath that each man has the right to the free use of his own faculties, and in the next breath propose to deal by the power of the State with what he acquires by means of those faculties, as if both the faculties and what they produced belonged to the State and not to himself.
  • The fullest recognition of property [provides] both the material and the moral foundations of liberty.
  • To all … belong their own faculties, and as a consequence, equally belongs to them all that they can honestly gain in free competition, through the exercise of those faculties.
  • If we are self-owners, neither an individual, nor a majority, nor a government, can have rights of ownership in other men.
  • Justice requires that you should not place the burdens of one man on the shoulders of another man.
  • Voluntaryism … denies that any good or lasting work can be built upon the compulsion of others…. It invites all men to abandon the barren problems of force, and to give themselves up to the happy problems of liberty and friendly co‑operation; to join in thinking out … how we can do all these things, without at any point touching … the hateful instrument of an aggressive and unjustifiable compulsion. 
  • Under voluntaryism the state would defend the rights of liberty, never aggress upon them.
  • [Groups], without any exception … exist for the sake of the individual…. If they did not minister to his use, if they do not profit him, they would have no plea to exist.
  • No man can have rights over another man unless he first have rights over himself. He cannot possess the rights to direct the happiness of another man, unless he possess rights to direct his own happiness: if we grant him the latter right, this is at once fatal to the former.
  • If you lose your belief in liberty … what can all the gifts of politicians give you in return?
  • There is only one result you can get out of the suppression of the individual, and that is the organized dominant faction triumphing over the defeated faction.
  • You will gain far more by clinging faithfully to the methods of peace and respect for the rights of others than by allowing yourselves to use the force that always calls out force in reply.
  • Far the larger amount of intolerance that exists in the world is the result of … political arrangements, by which we compel ourselves to struggle, man against man.

In our era, where myriad government bodies tax and regulate away our self-ownership in many ways, either ignorant or uncaring about “the odiousness of compelling men to act against their own wishes,” we need to reflect on, and act on, Auberon Herbert’s compelling case for liberty and voluntary arrangements as the only morally defensible organizing principle of society. Only that allows us to cooperate with one another “without at any point touching with the least of our fingers the hateful instrument of an aggressive and unjustifiable compulsion.” As he recognized, the alternative involves the widespread abuse of people’s rights in themselves and is ultimately futile, because “all the methods of restriction … are wrong and will only end in disappointment.”

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Fed June Meeting: Misunderstanding Economics

06/18/2021Robert Aro

The June Federal Open Market Committee Meeting (FOMC) presented more of the same problem, the continual purchase of $120 billion in bonds a month and near zero interest rates. Only this time, the Fed increased the interest it pays on bank reserves from 0.10 to 0.15 percent. The stated purpose, per Chair Jerome Powell, was

in order to keep the federal funds rate well within the target range and to support smooth functioning in money markets.

This “smooth functioning” market explanation endorses the same proverbial green-light to all central bank interventions. If it wasn’t for the Fed, markets wouldn’t function properly, or at least that is the basis for all inflationist policies put forward by the Fed.

He goes beyond routine talking points, this time illustrating the complete disconnect between the central bank and reality. When discussing long-term (price) inflation expectations, he says:

They moved down during the beginning of the pandemic, you know, sort of further exacerbating concerns that we might find ourselves where, for example, the ECB and the Bank of Japan [have] been where you have expectations and inflation itself sliding down, and you have a really hard time stopping that process once it begins. So that was a concern.

Stated simply, there exists a belief that if prices of goods and services decrease, bad things happen. Indirectly, he is saying that in Europe and Japan, there was some sort of failure which led to prices decreasing. How bad it is there versus how bad it could be here is never articulated. The Fed aims to do things differently, intervening to make sure prices don’t “slide” down.

He continues:

So, it's good actually to see longer-term inflation expectations move back up to a range—it's a range that's consistent with what our objectives are.

Literally saying it’s good prices are expected to go higher in the foreseeable future.

His elation over inflation expectations ensues:

It's gratifying to see them having moved up off of their pandemic lows. And, you know, as you know, it's fundamental in our framework …

In a world ravaged by a government shutdown, where millions are rendered without jobs, claiming the cost of everything should increase in prices will make one’s life better remains without merit.

Often people say things like “it’s good for business,” or something only half thought out. They will only see the seller who has sold at a higher price and think this is beneficial, failing to consider the inputs the seller must pay to bring his product to production. Also there is the failure to realize the same seller must then go out and live in this world, consuming products, also now higher in price.

There is an unhealthy affixation to the perpetual increase in prices, as measured by a price index. That has been the cause for generational loss of purchasing power of our dollars, increase in debt levels and overall hardship for the masses.

The misunderstanding of economics doesn’t stop at prices. Listen to Powell as he shares a concern over the “full employment” mandate:

And I think during the last cycle, there were waves of concern that we were reaching full employment as early, you know, as 2012 when I arrived at the Fed …

There were “waves of concern” that full employment was coming earlier than anticipated, the supposed dreaded scenario of living in a nation where too many people are all working at once, creating businesses, manufacturing goods or providing services for the needs and wants of others. The America of 2012 must have been so bad with all these people working, according to the chair.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether the Fed is a clandestine force operating nefariously against public interest, or whether they are so high in their ivory tower really believing they are a force for positive change; we may never know what is said behind closed doors. What we can say for certainty is that not only are they not taking us in a direction towards prosperity, liberty and freedom, but they are steering us, with all of their might in the exact opposite direction.

Until this becomes both proverbial and literal front page news, “they” will continue to win, and everyone not closely tied to them will continue to lose.

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Why Didn't China Industrialize First?

06/17/2021Lipton Matthews

Historians still ponder why, despite its dominance in prior centuries, China failed to industrialize before Europe. Some contend that the culture of conformity engendered by Confucianism prevented the influx of disruptive ideas able to spark an economic revolution. Meanwhile, there are those who posit that the Chinese preferred employment in the government service, instead of pursuing commercial activities. Although there is a kernel of truth in these arguments such assumptions are insufficient to explain the sluggishness of China, relative to Western Europe.

For example, notwithstanding the perceived conformity of medieval Europe there were pockets of intellectual dissent. Eminent medievalist Edward Grant posits that contrary to the stereotype of medieval Europe being mired in ignorance - the academy was characterized by lively debates. It is also largely unknown that during this era most students studied law and natural philosophy, since theology was a graduate degree requiring mature students. Moreover, Aristotle was the undisputed king of medieval philosophy and his arguments were frequently applied to the study of religion. Medieval scholars were never slaves to the scriptures as some would have us believe. Neither were they unwilling to engage with scientific experimentation. Let us not forget that the monk Theodoric provided scientific explanations of rainbows in the 14th century, using experiments with a water-filled spherical flask designed to imitate a raindrop.

However, compared to contemporary societies medieval Europe may seem conformist, but critics forget that the character of conformity is equally important. Whereas students in China were encouraged to regurgitate classical philosophers, the medieval scholar Bernard of Chartres promoted the view that one ought to enhance learning by refining the ideas of his intellectual ancestors, this outlook is expressed by the metaphor “Standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Hence the substance of conformity can positively impact creative output. By this account both medieval Europe and China were conformist, but they differed in their concept of conformity.

Furthermore, like in China, some scholars in Europe avoided technical professions, yet their ideas nonetheless revolutionized society. For example, the Protestant reformers placed a high value on literacy. Because people were becoming literate, they acquired an interest in books other than the bible, so indirectly the Protestant Reformation resulted in the secularization of society. Essentially the individualistic ethos of the Reformation implored people to seek knowledge on their own. As such, with the diminished importance of religion, men were primed to pursue science, economics, and other non-religious affairs.

Therefore, the Reformation indicates that ideas are crucial to revolutionary changes. Hence the paucity of highly intelligent men working in technical professions is an inept explanation for the failure of China to industrialize, because gifted people do not need to be industrialists for their ideas to promote growth. We have explored theories proffered by academics to describe China’s inability to industrialize before Europe, so we will now discuss possibilities offered by economic studies.

According to economist Mark Elvin, China suffered from a high-level equilibrium trap meaning that the efficiency of production processes limited the demand for innovations. Yet Jan Luiten Van Zanden and Bozhong Li in a 2010 paper note that lower labor costs in China did not stimulate the adoption of machines to minimize labor expenses. Based on these findings and those of Stephen Broadberry, it is apparent that economists exaggerated the productivity of pre-industrial China.

Another intriguing theory is proposed by scholars who argue that the clannish nature of Chinese society obstructed the formation of institutions facilitating large-scale partnerships. Avner Greif and Guido Tabellini write: ‘Clan loyalty and the absence of formal impartial enforcement limited inter-clan cooperation. There were, obviously cities in China. Yet, intra-clan loyalty and interactions limited urbanization, city size and self-governance. Considering large cities, China’s urbanization rate remained between three and four percent from the eleventh to the nineteenth century, while the initially lower urbanization rate in Europe rose to about ten percent. Including small cities, urbanization rates were comparable, but China’s small cities were venues for cooperation among members of local clans rather than their melting polt. While the European cities gained self-governance, this did not happen in China until the modern period.”

Unfortunately, kinship structures in China hindered institutional transfers across cities since they precluded the formation of associations independent of tribal ties. By impeding the creation of widescale trust kinship groups deterred the networks required to create successful innovations and boost growth.

Evidently, examining the failure of China to industrialize is a complicated task. Though it appears that this is due to an intricate interplay of factors ranging from economics to culture. Therefore, it is prudent for economists to adopt a multi-faceted approach by exploring how dynamic interactions between cultural beliefs and institutions aided in delaying the rise of an industrial China.

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The Intangible Benefits of Economic Freedom

06/17/2021Lipton Matthews

Societies are more prosperous when citizens produce and innovate without government intervention. Undoubtedly, regulations can slow the progress of innovation and by extension economic  growth. Because economically free societies enable the efficient creation of wealth it is unsurprising that the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation have documented a positive relationship between economic freedom and income growth.

However, less appreciated is that economic freedom improves well-being in ways not easily calculated on any ledger. Higher incomes afford people the opportunity to purchase high-quality amenities thereby enriching their quality of life. When increasing affluence allows people to secure better health care and superior schools they can expect to live longer and acquire lucrative jobs.  Freed from worrying about the bare necessities of life makes it easier for people to pursue leisure and invest in building quality relationships.

As expected, Belasen and Hafer (2012) argue that across American states improvements in economic freedom led to higher levels of well-being even after controlling for other factors.  Economic freedom gives people a sense of control over their affairs by ensuring the pursuit of entrepreneurial projects unfettered by government regulations.  As such, economically free societies breed optimism.  In a 2017 paper Boris Nikolaev and Daniel L. Bennett contend that people residing in economically free societies are more likely to report positive feelings. The authors further note that such people are also inclined to report feelings of excitement, success, and jubilation. Interestingly, those living in these societies are also less likely to feel restless, bored, or lonely.

Indeed, by boosting incomes, economic freedom avails us of new opportunities beyond mere material possessions. The truth is that having money increases our propensity to purchase worthwhile experiences. In fact, related research indicates that the degree of economic freedom in US states has a positive effect on both individual reported happiness and state average happiness. These findings are predictable since economic freedom boosts life satisfaction by directing people to chart their own course.

Another channel through which economic freedom improves society is tolerance. Open markets permit people to socialize and conduct business with outsiders thus engendering trust and respect for cultural differences. Nicolas Berggren and Therese Nilsson in the research article “Economic Freedom as a Driver of Trust,” posit that  in economically free societies people are motivated to be trustworthy and entertain connections with outsiders in order to succeed in the marketplace. Moreover, doing business with outsiders forces us to become appreciative of diversity and embrace our universal humanity.  Furthermore, it must be noted that the absence of government regulations ensures that people interact with each other as individuals with unique preferences and not as impersonal agents. In general, government regulations create barriers to commercial interactions.

Similarly, research by Thomas Coyle, Heiner Rindermann, and Dale Hancock shows that in free and open economies, innovative people are more productive with the human resources available.

Obviously, when government regulations do not hinder innovation, people are more likely to embark on risky ventures.  Adam Thierer in Permissionless Innovation opines that the American start-up Free World Dialup (FWD) failed, because it sought approval from the FCC to operate whereas the founders of Skype bypassed U.S. regulatory approvals; therefore enabling the company to build a user base, so in the long-term it was able to outperform FWD.

But economic freedom is not only useful in the economic realm. Research reveals that it mitigates the effects of pandemics.  Vincent Geloso and Jamie Pavlik in a fascinating paper exploring the effects of economic freedom on the Pandemic of 1918 submit that countries with higher levels of economic freedom tempered the damage induced by the pandemic because they were allowed to recover faster than regulated economies whose policies dampened recovery. Intriguingly, more recent research has confirmed the findings of Geloso and Pavlik by arguing that open economies in Europe demonstrate greater resilience in adjusting to the crisis of Covid-19.

Despite the rantings of regulators and politicians economic freedom is an ideal strategy for creating prosperous and resilient societies.  Our failure to remained wedded to the principles of economic freedom will redound to our detriment, because it is the solution to ensuring a strong society, not the problem.

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Frank Buckley on Secession

06/16/2021David Gordon

Because of the deep division in America between red states and blue states, there has been much talk of secession. Is the United States too big? Would people be happier in smaller communities? Frank Buckley, a distinguished professor at the Scalia Law School, breaks with most of his fellow legal academics by taking these questions seriously. In a recent article in the American Mind, he suggests that secession today would be difficult but not impossible. “As I argued in  American Secession (2020), a civil war would be unlikely, and we’d be more likely to see a pacific James Buchanan in the White House than an indominable Abraham Lincoln.”

Against those who argue that secession is unconstitutional, Buckley offers some strong arguments: “Finally, the legal barriers to secession are weaker than most think. Originalists on the Court would recognize that the framers had thought secession permissible, while its more liberal members would find it difficult to ignore the expressed wishes of voters in a state. Is an indissoluble union a more fundamental constitutional norm than democracy? Canada and Great Britain posed that question, and answered no. While the Supreme Court held that secession was unconstitutional in Texas v. White, that was a decision of a unionist Court right after the Civil War. Moreover, the decision assumed that the 1781 Articles of Confederation, which spoke of a “perpetual” union, had survived when the Constitution was adopted. Had that been the case, however, the Constitution would not have been ratified until the last state signed on in 1790, and George Washington’s election two years earlier would have been a nullity.”

Buckley is someone who “thinks outside the box,” and we badly need this quality today.

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Wall Street Journal Remembers the Great Inflation

06/16/2021Robert Aro

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) joined the chorus of headlines about rising prices by recounting price inflation with the article: When Americans Took to the Street Over Inflation, warning readers:

Today, after decades of nearly invisible inflation in the U.S., many Americans have little idea what it looks like... But America’s long inflation holiday shows signs of ending…

Ringing the alarm after the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) reading showed 5% in May, the author tells us:

History provides some useful lessons.

This is precisely the problem. How can any supposed solution of the 1970’s be applied to today?

The author begins the narrative:

The nagging inflation of the late 1960s and 1970s didn’t happen overnight. It took root over years, building through a cascade of policy missteps and misfortunes… It would take two deep recessions and new ways of thinking about economics to tame the inflation of that period.

Going back to as early as 1966, protests began to sweep the nation:

Fed up with the increasing cost of living, they marched outside of supermarkets with placards demanding lower prices...

Ironically, the CPI data illustrates the limitation of trying to understand price increases through the use of CPI data. Per the chart below, the mid-1960’s rise in the index doesn’t look anymore remarkable than the periods before:

aro

The stated resolution of this inflation problem is the concerning point. It took two recessions and new economic ideas to somehow “tame” inflation.

This alleged taming remains stated but not proven. Suspension of belief is required to accept (price) inflation was defeated without prices ever decreasing. Two recessions being the cure is a grandiose claim! However, it’s difficult to disprove, as this commonly accepted thesis cannot be proven to begin with. Like a nod to Keynes himself, victory is declared through the declaration of victory itself.

Tidbits of history are provided, explaining various government failures in fighting price increases. There was LBJ’s Vietnam War effort and “Great Society” social programs which did nothing to lower prices. Nixon severed the international exchange of dollars for gold and the USD exchange rate went tumbling, while he also imposed price caps on meat. His administration famously urged housewives to try “shopping wisely.” Jimmy Carter had the Council on Wage and Price Stability, described by one director of the program as a “complete failure.”

The Fed gave into government, acquiescing to LBJ and Nixon’s urges to keep pumping money into the system to maintain low rates obliterating the strength of the dollar. As for mainstream economists, their models of the Phillips-Curve proved disastrous:

Some economists had thought that when unemployment rose, inflation would fall. Instead, both went up, giving rise to yet another new term, “stagflation.”

And to no surprise, women took some blame for the various missteps:

A flood of women into the labor force also made it harder to decipher a stable rate of unemployment. 

Perhaps when “too many” women go to work it ruins the Fed’s predictive models?

Last but not least, Fed Chair (1979-1987) Paul Volcker continues to play the role of hero, the Chair who raised interest rates and, per the author, restricted growth of the money supply. How higher rates fixed the problem is peculiar. The restrictive money supply idea is curious as well. The M2 Money supply from 1960 to 2000 table below shows that under Volker, the money supply saw a steeper increase than the decades before, never decreasing.

aro

We should learn from the past. But this becomes difficult when the method in which these problems were resolved was never made clear. Between government, the Fed and economists, it seems no one had an adequate solution, save for the legend of Paul Volker who apparently fought inflation. At least that is the prevailing story.

Few people want to say the obvious, that the Fed did nothing to stop price increases; society simply managed to live through hardship caused by government and central planners. Unfortunately, the most honest and consistent pattern over the decades is perpetual decline of the dollar, unaffordability of life for the masses, and ever-increasing debt levels showing no signs of letting up anytime soon. Society continues to not be capable of “taming” inflation as much as simply finding ways to “live through” inflation, made easier when we ascribe great feats to leaders said to have carried us through such trying times. 

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3 Common Criticisms of Crypto—and Why They're Wrong

06/14/2021Kyle Ward

Peter Schiff is a well-known critic of bitcoin, and while he is an excellent resource on many economic and political topics, he misses the mark on cryptocurrency. To be fair, he is right that bitcoin and other crypto assets are high risk and volatile, and he correctly points out that using leverage or going into debt to buy bitcoin could end in financial disaster. However, he makes several errors in his analysis of bitcoin. He is wrong about its scarcity and its ability to hedge inflation, but his largest mistake is his guiding principle: that bitcoin (unlike gold) has no fundamental value.

For example, Schiff is quick to point out that gold has uses outside of being money. It is used in electronics, dentistry, and jewelry, to name a few. Given this, it's easy to see how—as Carl Menger noted—money could emerge in a free market from a state of barter. In short, gold had use cases independent of being money, but over time, it was recognized as a useful medium of exchange to facilitate more complex and indirect transactions. This led people to value it over and above its original use cases.1

Unlike gold, bitcoin cannot be used in dentistry; it cannot be fashioned into jewelry; and it cannot be used in electronics. This leads to Schiff to claim that bitcoin is unlike gold in that it has no fundamental (or objective) value. His mistake is obvious: there is no such thing as objective value, whether we're talking about gold or bitcoin. Value is subjective and determined internally by individuals. Bitcoin has no objective value, but neither does gold. Yes, gold can be used to build electronics, but that only has value because consumers subjectively value electronics (See Menger’s theory of imputation).

Schiff is also mistaken when he claims that bitcoin provides no shelter from inflation. Millions of people across the world have already used it to partly escape their failing currencies. In 2018, for example, the price of bitcoin in Venezuelan bolívares was doubling every eighteen days. It's important to keep in mind that any product can serve as a hedge against a devaluing currency—not just precious metals or cryptocurrencies. In the past, whiskey and cigarettes have been used for this purpose, as have many other consumer products. When a currency is failing, the demand for the currency declines and consumers rush to put their currency into physical products or other currencies. 

On the other hand, Schiff may be correct that a dollar crash could lead to a decline in bitcoin prices (at least in the short term), but such an event would be disruptive to many assets. The most recent example of these effects occurred on March 6, 2020. As the US stock market crash deepened, both gold and bitcoin sold off sharply. When the margin calls hit, everything got sold. The simple truth is that anything that's not a dollar or a promise to pay dollars (i.e., bonds) represents a hedge against dollar inflation. This does not make them immune (in the short term) from a collapse of the global reserve currency.

Schiff’s last major mistake concerns bitcoin’s scarcity. The ultimate supply of bitcoin is fixed at 21 million units. Schiff discounts this limited supply by pointing out that thousands of crypto coins and tokens have been created since bitcoin. These copies, he claims, prove that bitcoin is not scarce. Would Schiff extend this logic to reproductions of the Mona Lisa? There is only one original, and it will remain scarce no matter how many copies are made. His stance also ignores the significant network effects that bitcoin enjoys. Like other networks, the value increases as the number of participants grows. Numerous forks of bitcoin have learned this lesson the hard way as their tokens have steadily lost value against the original. Finally, the existence of multiple cryptocurrencies is no more problematic than the existence of multiple precious metals. The total demand is simply divided between silver, gold, palladium, and others. It is likely that we are in a boom stage of crypto like the dot-com bubble. New coins are being created almost daily and most will not survive. It is up to the marketplace to determine if the price of bitcoin will go up or down. The same is true for gold. 

  • 1. Anyone who has played an online role-playing game in the past twenty years has experienced this phenomenon firsthand. Think "Stones of Jordan" in Diablo 2.
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Be Very Afraid: Why Today's Bureaucrats Love Fear-Based Politics

06/11/2021Gary Galles

Outside of the D.C. Beltway, state capitols and city halls, bureaucrats receive something less than adulation from citizens. And libertarians often lead the chorus. But some bureau employees are necessary. One libertarian who recognized this long ago was Leonard Read, in “The Worrycrats,” part of his 1972 To Free or to Freeze.

Even when government is limited to codifying the taboos, invoking a common justice, and keeping the peace, there is…an operating staff: a bureaucracy…[following] procedures.

In other words, even a nation of “laws and not men” needs some people to enforce what laws there are, even though those people will often have far worse incentives in their bureaucratic determinations than in their private relationships (why America’s founders were so keen on carefully monitoring their behavior).

However, despite the necessity for some bureaucrats to defend legitimate laws, some clearly deserve our mistrust. Read called them Worrycrats.

Worrycrats…are a special breed of totalitarian bureaucrats who spawn rapidly as society is socialized. These people concern themselves with our health, education, welfare, auto safety, drug intake, diet, and what have you. Worrycrats today outnumber any other professionals in history, so rapidly have they proliferated.

Why should we mistrust them?

The activities of these worrycrats in no way resemble a free market operation. Freedom in transactions has no part in this political procedure. Citizens are coerced to pay these professional worriers whether they want their services or not. A nongovernmental operation of similar nature would be called a racket.

I question the propriety of our being coerced to pay worrycrats to worry about us. We worry enough on our own without paying to have our worries multiplied.

What is the evidence for the plethora of bureaucrats who want us to worry more?

Observe the massive outpourings of the worrycrats—over TV, radio, and in the press—about lung cancer, heart failure, mercury, cranberries, cyclomates, seat belts, groceries, and so on. Unless one sees through all of these unsolicited oral and verbal counsels, he is going to be unnecessarily concerned…ordinary fears and worries substantially multiplied...[but] fear and worry are far deadlier menaces than all the things from which the worrycrats pretend to protect us.

What are the qualifications of worrycrats as more effective worriers for us than we are? Little more than know-it-all overconfidence, reinforced by ignoring huge differences among individuals.

Are these political saviors really concerned about your welfare and mine? Actually, they do not know that you or I exist…What…[do] they know about what is good or bad for me…What is their competence...they are not experts when it comes to your welfare or mine.

Suppose that these worrycrats are the world’s most advanced physicians and scientists. Would they know enough of what is injurious or helpful to you or me to justify forcing this information upon us or frightening us about it?

Individuals vary widely…there is no average person!

I care not who sits behind the worrycrat desk…Prescribing for and presiding over 200 million distinctive, unique individuals is no more within man’s competence than… directing the Universe. Contrary to socialist doctrine, we are discrete beings—not a mass, a collective.

In fact, those worrying on our behalf may actually be undermining our health and well-being.

[There are] many illustrations of how death is hastened through fears, anxieties, rage, worries…The outpourings of the worrycrats tend to multiply our stresses, anxieties, worries…literally scaring us to death.

That does not mean there is not a role for government with regard to our health, but the role is essentially the same, rather than multiplied compared to other areas of the economy.

Ideally, there is a role for government with respect to health, education, welfare. That role is to inhibit misrepresentation, fraud, violence, predation, whether by doctors…or others. No false labels! No coercive impositions on anyone!...all of us should be prohibited from injuring others. Actions that harm others—not what one does to self—define the limits of the social problem and of governmental scope.

Americans are now confronted with an even vaster crazy-quilt of federal executive agencies, mandates, regulations, czars, etc., than when Read wrote (just under 50 years ago). Those bureaucracies now house phalanxes of worrycrats who inhibit choices individuals and groups would take in search of their own growth, fulfillment and well-being as they saw it, by infringing our right to choose how to live our lives, so long as we do not violate others’ equal rights.

Much that worrycrats do interferes with individual choices and mutual agreements with regard to risk. They try to scare us into “voluntary” compliance with what they decide is good for all of us, despite the huge variance in preferences, circumstances, health histories, etc., among us. Failing that, they move to forcibly override what we would choose because while they may not know us at all, supposedly they still “know better.”

It is not hard to see how such do-gooder regulations harms our economic health. What if mining, logging, cab driving, etc., were hugely restricted because they are “too risky,” even though people chose to take those risks voluntarily. Similarly, aren’t police and fire personnel, health care providers, etc., exposed to elevated risks? Should we ban those jobs? Asking the questions provides the answers. Even though there are vast differences in risks across many professions, that does not justify over-riding the choices adults make to bear those risks.

We are also faced with risk-justified restrictions and impositions that can actually impose greater risks in other areas. A good example is traffic-calming policies that may well increase heart attack deaths more than they decrease traffic deaths, by causing congestion that slows emergency vehicle response times. But there are many more.

Those also include many “green” policies that increase other forms of pollution and environmental hazards, such as wind farms (e.g., disposing of blades or the massive carbon emissions from the cement required) or battery backup systems, electric vehicle mandates, etc. (e.g., with cobalt and rare earth metals), or even kill oil pipeline projects, moving oil transportation into trucks with far greater pollution and risk of environmental harms. FDA regulations that unduly delay life-saving drugs in the name of safety fall in the same category. Similarly, efforts that force up energy costs reduce economic output and incomes, reducing the resources available to improve our health.

Leonard Read described worrycrats as practicing chicanery. And it is striking how much the scope of that chicanery has expanded since he wrote. But many people have started to see that as a result of the multiple forms of malfeasance COVID provided cover for, including a notable increase in more direct coercion and more violations of individual rights (e.g., mask mandates and the CDC’s unconstitutional ban on evictions). And Read ends his article with a good reminder for those thinking of such issues today:

You know yourself better than anyone else does. Better that you turn yourself toward what you think is your advantage than be turned by a worrycrat toward what he thinks is your advantage. You at least know something, whereas he knows nothing of you as an individual.

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