Power & Market
Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.
In a 60 Minutes interview in 2011, gambler Billy Walters said he was swindled by Wall Street, losing big on Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco shares. Walters made his fortune betting on football and basketball games. Professional gamblers have little to bet on these days with most sports shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
They've had to start betting on stocks according to the Financial Times. The FT reports that in March and April, with Wall Street and 401(k)s being rocked by negative economic news, Charles Schwab, ETrade, and Interactive Brokers opened a record number of accounts, "adding a collective 780,000 new customers. March, the high point, amounted to three times the monthly average of the past two years."
If one were looking for clues as to why the stock market has rebounded while daily economic news grows worse, besides the Federal Reserve's Jerome Powell's "flooding of the market" with liquidity, another reason could be the flood of new punters betting on stocks, from high-flying tech shares to dead-in-the-water leisure stocks.
The FT’s Richard Henderson writes,
But brokerages that connect everyday investors to the stock market have seen a surge in account openings, as punters seek thrills in unfamiliar places. This has brought new investors to the market, helping to propel a one-third rise in US stocks from the depths of the pandemic sell-off in March.
Henderson provides Adrian Mallett as an example. Mallett is a business student and works as a greenskeeper at a golf course on Prince Edward Island. The enterprising Mr. Mallett used the CAD 3,000 stimulus he received from the Canadian government to open an account and begin trading.
The twenty-year-old piled into Lyft and Tesla shares. “I’m a little bit up,” he told the FT. "I cut grass at a golf course. I’m on a lawnmower refreshing the app every few seconds—it’s great."
Only five stocks now make up 20 percent of the S&P 500 index: Facebook, Google (Alphabet), Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. This narrowing breadth is a negative sign according to David Kosten at Goldman Sachs.
"For example, in addition to the Tech Bubble, breadth narrowed ahead of the recessions in 1990 and 2008 and the economic slowdowns of 2011 and 2016," the Kosten’s Goldman team told Business Insider. "Historically, sharply narrowing breadth has signaled below-average one month, 3 month, 6 month S&P 500 returns as well as larger than average prospective drawdowns."
For bettors who can’t bring themselves to play the stock market, there is Russian table tennis. Betting on table tennis matches from halfway around the world is keeping bookmakers’ lights on. Jim Barnes writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich has said table tennis has consistently been the No. 1 sport for his book during the pandemic, taking close to $1 million in daily wagers."
There are over a hundred matches a day, with three matches taking place at the same time. A match only lasts ten to fifteen minutes. It goes on for up to twenty hours a day, according to Shawn Harnish, who told the R-J, "It’s like the first Thursday of March Madness over and over again every day on repeat. I call it the keno of sports betting."
Some have questioned the integrity of the matches. Forget about finding table tennis on TV; you must go to live-stream365.com to watch matches online.
Tesla or table tennis, both provide the opportunity to be swindled.
Paul Cantor, longtime Mises Institute scholar and author of Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream, recently was featured in an Arizona State University miniroundtable "The Walking Dead, the Post-Zombie Apocalypse, and the American Capacity for Resilience." Cantor discusses how popular culture has partly formed our views of pandemics. Among the evidence is the portrayal of the CDC as an organization that is either evil or incompetent. Or both. The Walking Dead, for example, implies the CDC may have caused the zombie pandemic. Cantor points out some eerie parallels between the world of The Walking Dead and the world of the 2020 pandemic. Here is the video:
Cantor also mentions the bizarre comic book put out several years ago by the CDC called Zombie Pandemic. It can be read here.
Let me make one thing clear—I’m not downplaying the importance of a strong response to this virus. I believe there is a good reason to be overcautious in the short term before we understand the disease better and are able to apply a more surgical approach to its management and eradication.
Social distancing, working from home, avoiding travel, all of those things help us to avoid the overwhelming and potential collapse of the healthcare systems such as we are witnessing in Italy and Spain.
However, all of that comes at a cost. Many people will lose their incomes. Lack of social contact will only worsen the impact of the continuous flow of bad news. Anxiety and depression will spike and have real consequences to people's health and lives.
There is a point beyond which to many people these tradeoffs become unacceptable. People, especially the young ones will rather risk getting the disease than losing their income or even missing out on their gym or their flat white fix. The elderly, who are aware of their limited lifespan even under normal circumstances, might be willing at some point to accept the risk for a chance to hold their grandchildren, to travel, or to socialize with their peers.
And although some of those decisions from some angles will look reckless, they have to be made at the individual or community level so that the people who make them for themselves and their loved ones are the ones with the most information about their personal situations, their risk appetites, and their time preference.
Because. in the end, every individual has the means to protect himself or herself against the virus, but when states get involved and introduce top-down measures across the society at large, there will necessarily be massive unintended consequences that hit everyone, many of the most vulnerable especially.
Currently, US governors and European governments are outbidding each other in the strength of the measures they impose, throwing all principles that the Western society was built on out the window for the sake of political showmanship. Curfews and lockdowns have shown no correlation with success in fighting the disease, yet some governments ban people from even going out in nature or to their own backyards. The surveillance state is growing rapidly, using this rare opportunity to a maximum.
Although all of those things are wrong in principle and create a very dangerous precedent, they also potentially introduce unintended consequences that will make the situation worse in the long and perhaps even short run.
Where it is forbidden to freely move around outside. even where it is not only completely safe but beneficial, some people will congregate in hidden places, which are necessarily much more confined. The Swiss government forced ski centers to close down even though it is very easy to avoid contact with others and by doing that sent everyone home at the same time overnight, potentially increasing what would otherwise have been lower, more natural public transport occupancy. Miami and other places did the same thing with their beaches and hotels, sending everyone onto planes in much more concentrated numbers.
The perfect storm of central banking induced an everything bubble, the economy brought to a screeching halt by overzealous governments. The unprecedented fiscal and monetary interventions keeping it on life support while the measures last will be felt not for months, but probably years. Given the dependency of health and life expectancy on economic prosperity, this impact might end up costing more life years than the disease itself.
And finally, the massive infringements of our privacy, our basic human and property rights, might not fully scale back for years, if ever, because of how convenient they will be for the states. Imagine the next time Catalonians so much as utter a thought about independence—how long will it take for the central government to diagnose a person in Barcelona with something and lock the city down?
We have a long battle for our liberty and prosperity ahead of us. As Philip Bagus wrote earlier in this space, there is a shortcut to serfdom. It’s called fear. When we have good reasons to stop being afraid of the virus, we will have to constantly remind those around us of the freedoms they gave up in fear. Otherwise we will not get anywhere close to the imperfect state of affairs before this crisis. It will become this generation’s 9/11, and those under the age of ten will not even believe the levels of freedom we had before it started.
President Trump's pardon of Michael Milken would have delighted Murray Rothbard. Milken, who was famous for his "junk-bond" takeovers of various companies, served twenty-two months in prison for federal crimes that involved market trading. Murray Rothbard thought that Milken was a hero. As he explained in an article written in 1989:
During the 1960s, the existing corporate power elite, often running their corporations inefficiently—an elite virtually headed by David Rockefeller—saw their positions threatened by takeover bids, in which outside financial interests bid for stockholder support against their own inept managerial elites. The exiting corporate elites turned—as usual—for aid and bailout from the federal government, which obligingly passed the Williams Act [named for the New Jersey Senator who was later sent to jail in the Abscam affair] in 1967. Before the Williams Act, takeover bids could occur quickly and silently, with little hassle. The 1967 Act, however, gravely crippled takeover bids by decreeing that if a financial group amassed more than 5% of the stock of a corporation, it would have to stop, publicly announce its intent to arrange a takeover bid, and then wait for a certain time period before it could proceed on its plans. What Milken did was to resurrect and make flourish the takeover bid concept through the issue of high-yield bonds (the "leveraged buyout").
The new takeover process enraged the Rockefeller-type corporate elite, and enriched both Mr. Milken and his employers, who had the sound business sense to hire Milken on commission, and to keep the commission going despite the wrath of the establishment. In the process Drexel Burnham grew from a small, third-tier investment firm to one of the giants of Wall Street.
The establishment was bitter for many reasons. The big banks who were tied in with the existing, inefficient corporate elites, found that the upstart takeover groups could make an end run around the banks by floating high-yield bonds on the open market. The competition also proved inconvenient for firms who issue and trade in blue-chip, but low-yield, bonds; these firms soon persuaded their allies in the establishment media to sneeringly refer to their high-yield competition as "junk" bonds, which is equivalent to the makers of Porsches persuading the press to refer to Volvos as "junk" cars.
People like Michael Milken perform a vitally important economic function for the economy and for consumers, in addition to profiting themselves. One would think that economists and writers allegedly in favor of the free market would readily grasp this fact. In this case, they aid the process of shifting the ownership and control of capital from inefficient to more efficient and productive hands—a process which is great for everyone, except, of course, for the inefficient Old Guard elites whose proclaimed devotion to the free markets does not stop them from using the coercion of the federal government to try to restrict or crush their efficient competitors.
Last summer when we were both at Mises University, Peter Quiñones and I sat down in the studio and talked about immigration for a full hour. I think we've provided enough to annoy both open borders people and hard-core restrictionists. I cover the horribleness of border guards, the unconvincing nature of economic arguments against immigration, Ludwig von Mises's highly practical views of immigration policy, and the real political and sociological issues potentially raised by large-scale migration.
Today is an interesting milestone for libertarian-minded people, as well as those with a fondness for trivia.
86 years ago today FDR 86’d prohibition.
Drinking became a crime starting on January 17th 1920, and remained a crime until December 5th 1933. Prohibition serves as a leading example of what happens when people in a largely free society lose part of their freedom. Prohibition did not stop Americans from drinking, it just drove an industry underground and into the control of gangs. Consequently, gang violence escalated during the prohibition years.
Prohibition also escalated police raids against harmless commerce. Prohibition fueled speakeasies as dispensers of beer & booze. Speakeasies obviously dealt with violent gangs as suppliers, but speakeasy customers engaged in voluntary transactions for desired goods. Police raids on speakeasies drove willing customers out of these businesses now and then, and these raids prompted both corruption and a minor change in the English language.
One speakeasy was “Chumley’s” located at 86 Bedford Street in Manhattan. Some police acted as informants to the bartenders at Chumley’s: shortly before a raid they would call with the message to “86 the customers”, to stop business and push all customers out the door. Hence the term 86’d began as a term for putting a stop to illicit business in one bar, but developed subsequently into a more general term for getting rid of something or refusing service. Prohibition ended 86 years ago today.
This is perhaps the only day during any year that libertarian-minded person might find it appropriate to raise a toast to FDR.
Cheers to the 32nd President, for just this one occasion.
The Federal Reserve, through its president Jerome Powell, has indicated that it is preparing to increase its balance “organically”. The effort to separate this latest monetary policy change of course from a full-blown new QE (quantitative easing) is, at the very least, amusing. If we look at what is being discussed, it has nothing to do with organic expansion and looks a lot like a new repurchase program.
Why has this announcement not affected the US dollar? The DXY Index is almost at highs of 99.02 at the close of this article. The main reason is that the dollar is appreciating not because the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve is hawkish, but because the central banks of other economies are much more reckless. The US dollar seems to strengthen as a safe-haven currency against other countries’ larger and worse financial repression actions. As such, the US dollar, gold and silver act as the best stores of value into a global slowdown where tother countries implement worse monetary policies as well as negative nominal rates.
The repo market crisis shows something that we have mentioned in this column several times. Central banks have created a monetary tsunami and thought they could manage the magnitude of the waves. The need to inject more than 270 billion US dollars into the short-term money market teaches us that liquidity is much lower than the Federal Reserve estimated and the agents’ debt much greater. If this happens in a dynamic economy and financial sector like the US and with huge liquidity providers, imagine when it happens in Europe, where those mechanisms do not exist with the scale of the US counterparts.
What the Fed proposes has very little to do with organic expansion. The Quantitative Easing programs repurchased between 60 to 85 billion dollars in assets per month. If we look at the organic growth of the Federal Reserve balance sheet prior to quantitative easing, it barely reached 3 billion dollars in a month. The Federal Reserve is discussing between 200 and 300 billion per quarter. That is not organic expansion but it is neither the type of measure that would trigger a surge in risk appetite from financial agents. So it is quite a lot more than organic expansion and also a lot less than what beta-chasing investors may require to keep their negative dollar carry-trade on cyclical assets.
This is a measure that will not satisfy those who need more excess liquidity and more stimuli to continue playing against the dollar but, at the same time, it further distances the Federal Reserve from normalization. If we assume the figures mentioned in different sources, the Federal Reserve balance sheet is unlikely to go below 25% of GDP in the next years.
The average investor may find contradictory messages in the Fed statements. Powell confirms that the economy is growing at a good pace, that unemployment is at the lowest level in 50 years and that core inflation remains above the Federal Reserve threshold, yet they also tell us that they have to cut rates and expand the balance sheet. Something does not match, and the explanation may lie in the need to keep an excessively leveraged market afloat and prevent the chain of bubbles in financial assets from bursting.
To me, these apparent contradictions in communication mean that the Federal Reserve is looking to prevent a financial asset meltdown while at the same time trying to avoid a higher concentration of risk. It may be, again, trying to manage the waves in the tsunami.
Originally published at DLacalle.com
Recent Democratic debates focused on rising wealth inequality, as candidates introduced various ideas to roll back disparity by taxing the affluent and redistribute their wealth. This would punish working professionals and small business owners without capital market access nor legislative influence. Meanwhile, malinvestment reliant on central bank stimulus and the unproductive of “zombie firms” sustained by ultra-low rates would proliferate unabated.
Both the GOP and Democrats tolerate monetary stimulus, for elected officials view effects of easy money (higher equities and lower bond yields) as beneficial to economic growth. This enabled the triumph of asset owners over wage earners to create the most potent inequality catalyst of the 21st century.
Inherent risks in the financial market used to decimate malinvestment and define capital gain in terms of risk-adjusted returns. However, central banks’ volatility suppression policies such as quantitative easing and negative rates have enabled a decade of policy-fueled capital gain to outpace wage growth. In the case of QE, relentless bond buying and “reach-for-yield” would immediately boost asset prices, while impacts on the real economy (and especially wage earners) would materialize over Milton Friedman’s famous “long and variable (policy) lags.” Under monetary intervention, fortunes have diverged along the lines of asset ownership.
If central banks release volatility back into the market, malinvestment will reprice and valuations will again couple with risks, while prudent management would reward astute investors. This is an organic path to solve the inequality puzzle, but prolonged easing (as central banks mistaken structural low inflation from globalization for cyclical weakness) have increased developed economies’ sensitivity to higher interest rates. As major central banks grab the volatility tiger by the tail, they have fostered a vicious cycle where brittleness under ultra-low rates would beget even more easing:
Wealth Redistribution Follows Monetary Intervention
As rampant asset price appreciation worsen inequality, angry voters left behind by a buoyant market would give rise to anti-establishment candidates unsympathetic to consensus views. As protectionist policies take hold, erosions to global value chains (GVCs) would lift inflation and threaten major economies’ debt-fueled growth model. To make matters worse, central banks resorting to money printing would risk sending bonds yields soaring under higher inflation and subsequently threaten risky assets.
Faced with voter anger and eager to counter the rise of anti-establishment challengers, elected officials would resort to another policy intervention to placate voters: wealth redistribution. In other words, wealth redistribution programs are often attempts to “amend” monetary policies’ distributional effects . Rather than unwinding policy disruption, authorities would double down with further measures to offset effects of prior policies. In the end, repeated interventions would exacerbate socioeconomic distortions to beget further redistribution.
At the July FOMC meeting, “a number of” Fed officials urged the central bank to be even more aggressive at interventions such as deploying quantitative easing, for they were encouraged by the perception many of the potential costs of the Committee's asset purchases had failed to materialize.” The Fed officials did not connect the dots between rapid asset price appreciation, worsening inequality, and the 2016 election. As a result, their actions will likely pave way for further waves of follow-up wealth redistribution, as well as elected officials losing their seats to political insurgents capitalizing on popular discontent.
Was Mises for open borders, as the term currently is used?
The short answer is "No," as Professor Ben Powell from Texas Tech University explains in a new academic paper titled "Solving the Misesean Migration Conundrum." But Powell goes further than merely explaining Mises's view— he also proposes a solution to the problem of immigrants dramatically altering the liberal institutions of destination nations and failing to assimilate (two problems open borders advocates generally deny). The resulting policy prescription takes the form of "unrestricted immigration with selective restrictions," designed to achieve economic gains from immigration while addressing such concerns. Powell's own work on immigration is well known, as is his strong support for completely open borders—so it is noteworthy that he does not attempt to distort Mises to fit his own policy preference.
Unfortunately the paper is behind a paywall imposed by its publisher, the Review of Austrian Economics, so we can only excerpt here. (We can only lament the absurd and stubborn refusal to put all academic journals online, free of charge. Academics struggle to generate interest in their work, and this is especially true for Austrian-friendly economists and others with minority viewpoints. In our age of on-demand content, paywalls are laughably out of touch).
Powell starts by examining two primary sources for Mises's views on immigration, namely Nation, State, and Economy (1919) and Liberalism (1927). Both were written during Mises's prolific interwar period, before the rise of Nazism and his flight from Vienna to Geneva and ultimately New York City. But neither book gives us a thorough treatment of the matter. As Powell points out, "in his voluminous writings Ludwig von Mises dedicated relatively few pages to the topic of immigration." In fact, as pointed out early in our Immigration Roundtable series at mises.org, Human Action contains only a few small references to the issue. We can only wish he had written more later in his career, with the hindsight of World War II and the reordering of national boundaries it caused.
Powell recognizes, as did our article linked above, that Mises primarily saw immigration as a matter of international labor mobility. Thus any restrictions on migration have the same destructive effects of protective tariffs on goods:
The economic theory underlying the trade of goods, capital, and labor is fundamentally the same. On narrowly economic grounds, for anyone concerned with maximizing economic output, or in Misesian terms “the commonwheel,” unrestricted migration is optimal. Mises recognizes this point when discussing Ricardo in Nation, State, and Economy, writing that “the tendency inheres in free trade to draw labor forces and capital to the locations of most favorable natural conditions of production without regard to political and national boundaries.
But "in Mises we find a tension that prevents him from unequivocally advocating for unrestricted migration," Powell tells us. Nation, language, and culture exist independent of government, an obvious point Mises took pains to allow for. Powell quotes Mises from Nation, State, and Economy:
When “immigration takes place into a country whose inhabitants, because of their numbers and their cultural and political organization, are superior to the immigrants. Then it is the immigrants who sooner or later must take on the nationality of the majority” The process of assimilation “proceeds the faster the closer are the contacts of the minority with the majority and the weaker the contacts within the minority itself and the weaker its contacts with fellow nationals living at a distance” Furthermore, assimilation is “furthered if the immigrants come not all at once but little by little, so that the assimilation process among the early immigrants is already completed or at least already underway when the newcomers arrive."
Language and culture evolve, of course, but for Mises the problem is illiberal states and the potential weaponization of state apparatus by newcomers:
The problem, for Mises, lies in the fact that states, in his time and ours, are not liberal. They are interventionist. Once states interfere with economic activity, some people are able to use the state to secure economic gains for themselves at the expense of others living under that same government. Once different nations are living under the same government, they come into conflict with each or, as Mises put it, “Migrations thus bring members of some nations into the territories of other nations. That gives rise to particularly characteristic conflicts between people.”
And Powell provides this uneasy quote from Liberalism:
The entire nation, however, is in unanimous in fearing inundation by foreigners. The present inhabitants of these favored lands fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country and that they would then have to suffer all the horrors of national persecution…. It cannot be denied that these fears are justified. Because of the enormous power that today stands at the command of the state, a national minority must expect the worst from a majority of a different nationality. As long as the state is granted the vast powers which it has today and which public opinion considers to be its right, the thought of having to live in a state whose government is in the hands of members of a foreign nationality is positively terrifying.
Powell then lays out his summary of Mises's objections, i.e. the "conundrum":
However, the institutions of freedom are not exogenously given. Among other factors,they depend on the ideology, political beliefs, and culture of the population controlling the state. Immigrants often migrate from origin countries with dysfunctional institutional environments that lack economic freedom. If the immigrants’ own belief system, was, in part, responsible for that dysfunctional system, and they bring those beliefs with them to the destination country in too great of numbers, too rapidly, to assimilate to the beliefs in the destination country, they could erode the very institutions responsible for the high productivity that attracted them in the first place. Thus, immigration itself could, in principle, turn a relatively free destination country, where Mises wouldn’t see immigrants as a problem, into a more interventionist state where immigration does create the problems Mises fears.
Powell's solution? Start with a "baseline presumption of free trade and unrestricted immigration," given the strong economic case for labor mobility and free trade. Then target narrow exceptions from the optimal policy for war, national defense, and fears of institutional deterioration.
A plausible deviation from the optimality of free trade can be found in the “national defense” exemption. If a particular good is vital to national defense, and a particular country is geographically situated such that potential adversaries would be able to cut off the supply of this good, in the event that they go to war with each other, then, in times of peace, the country in question may find it optimal to protect (or subsidize) the industry producing the vital good, so that a domestic supply would be available in the event that the countries go to war with each other. Note how specific this deviation from free trade is. General protection against imports of many goods is not justified. Protection is justified in only the one specific good. Also note, that even if this specific protection is justified in one country, that does not imply that it is justified in another. If protection is justified in land-locked and surrounded Lesotho, that does not imply that the United States, with large coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, could justify the same protection.
Fears of institutional deterioration, and Mises’ specific fears that large sudden flows of immigrants could lead the immigrants to become the majority and turn an interventionist state against the native born, should be similarly thought of as “national defense” exceptions to the baseline of unrestricted immigration. As with the trade example, these exceptions need to specific and well identified, and any deviation from unrestricted migration should be as narrow as possible to only target the problem, while leaving in place as much of the gains from unrestricted immigration as possible. Also, as with trade, just because one country can identify a specific exception, that does not mean that the same exception is justified in other countries.
Powell applies this institutional lens to the controversial issue of Muslim immigrants in Europe:
...in the European Union there are roughly 13 million predominantly Muslim immigrants who originated in the Middle East or North Africa. 4 This too is clearly below the threshold of them becoming the majority “nation” that Mises fears. Absent any concrete evidence of these immigrants decreasing European economic freedoms, or otherwise harming European institutions, the presumption of unrestricted migration should remain. But it’s conceivable that, after a period of unrestricted migration, the stock and continued flow of Middle Eastern and North African immigration could reach a level that one of these two fears become justified. If it does, then the appropriate immigration policy response is to put a quantitative limit on Middle Eastern and North African immigration, while leaving immigration from all other regions of the world unrestricted.
Another example of the institutional principle? Israel, which Powell states "would soon cease to be Israel" if it allowed unrestricted immigration from surrounding Middle East countries. But does allow unrestricted immigration for Jews worldwide, and thus represents a "case of selective unrestricted immigration."
This is a fascinating paper, and worthy of greater attention. We only wish it were available online.
As an addendum, critics of the Mises Institute sometimes claim our writers fail to "follow" Mises on immigration (when they are not claiming we follow Mises cultishly). This paper refutes that argument. But Mises's views are not dispositive on immigration or any other issue, and nobody truly knows what he would say about current conditions were he alive today. And more importantly, mises.org and our academic journals offer a variety of perspectives on this thorny issue: from Walter Block's homesteading of government property to Hans-Hermann Hoppe's "full cost principle" to Ryan McMaken's call for wholly local, decentralized immigration policy. The term for this is "diversity of thought."
Although many conservative and libertarian commentators have vehemently criticized the various user bans imposed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, many have also expressed at least guarded support on this controversial action by the social media giants.
Often, even those who criticize social media giants for "censorship" stop short of calling for government regulation because of a regard for private property rights.
In his 1970 book Power and Market, Murray N. Rothbard wrote, “Property rights are indissolubly also human rights.” He argued that free speech, as a human right, was constrained, not by responsible usage, but by property considerations.
Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, there is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property rights: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.
On this basis, Rothbard rejected the standard argument that free speech did not extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater because that right was constrained by responsibility or the possibility of dire consequences. Instead, Rothbard argued that, if the owner of the theater shouts “Fire!” he has defaulted on his contract with the patrons and so violated their property rights. If a patron shouts “Fire!”, by the same token, he has violated the property rights of the owner and the other patrons. “There is no need, therefore, of placing limits upon … the absolute nature of rights,” Rothbard wrote.
Applying this perspective to social media platforms brings a clarity that is not found is purely philosophical arguments about rights. When an individual uses Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, they are using someone else’s property. This means that the owners can dictate what content is allowable and can ban anyone they like, because their “rental contract” explicitly says so. The argument that these social media giants constitute the modern public square does not fly, either logically or legally, because the public square is by definition not private property.
At the same time, morally speaking, a social media firm retains a large amount of flexibility over just how much it ought to protect others from the effects of words used in social media forums. For example, a social media firm would not be morally obligated to manage or control public discourse by deleting or censoring “libelous” or “slanderous” content.
This is because the mere use of words in this fashion rarely constitutes a violation of property rights. In his magnum opus, Man, Economy and State, Rothbard wrote: “In a free society, as we have stated, every man is a self-owner. No man is allowed to own the body or mind of another, that being the essence of slavery. This condition completely overthrows the basis for a law of defamation…A man has no objective property as ‘reputation’. His reputation is simply what others think of him, i.e., it is purely a function of the subjective thoughts of others. But a man cannot own the minds or thoughts of others. Therefore I cannot invade a man’s property right by criticizing him publicly. Further, since I do not own others’ minds, either, I cannot force anyone to think less of the man because of my criticism.”
So even those who agree that libel, let alone offense, is not sufficient grounds for constraining free speech would still hold that the owners of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have the right to ban anyone they want from what is their property.
The controversies over social media bans, de-platforming and informal censorship, therefore, all arise from this basic question: which right is more important: property or expression? Philosophically, the libertarian answer is straightforward: since all human rights are rooted in property rights, property is more important. But this question is also an empirical one: will more negative consequences come from allowing free speech by constraining the right to private property, or from supporting property rights by allowing constraints on free speech?
History provides a clear answer. Over time, all states have tried to extend their interventions into citizens’ lives and, by so doing, limited people’s life choices. Over the same period of time, the most powerful of firms have vanished or been downgraded, to be replaced by more efficient entities. Thus, this Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube controversy, too, shall pass. It would be unwise to let their main legacy be the extension of state control over us for our own supposed good.