Power & Market

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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Greece Never Really Recovered from Its Financial Crisis

Now that Greece’s bailout program has ended, what are the prospects for economic growth and development in Greece? These two definitions are different, as economic growth is the increase of income while economic development includes factors as increased schooling, life expectancy etc. However, economic growth is mandatory for economic development. There are many theories in the international literature about economic growth. The fundamental theory is  Robert Solow’s that combines two variables — capital and labor — but there are many other such as the theories of Romer and Lucas which focus on human capital and innovation. I am going to examine investment, savings and labor as variables of economic growth in Greece scrutinizing data of Greece from the latest years before I reach a conclusion.

Greece has made numerous efforts to attract foreign investment. While the benefits of foreign direct investment are controversial, as they depend on the kind of investment, this effort seems not to have had significant results in Greece. The first graph depicts the foreign direct investment per year. The straight line shows the trend of foreign direct investment that is almost a horizontal line, there is no sizable increase.


The second graph shows the Foreign Direct Investment as a percentage of GDP from the World Bank. Over the last two years, the FDI does not exceed 2% of GDP:


From my point of view, there are three main factors that have led to this failure. First, it is worth mentioning that Greece has the fifth-highest corporate tax rate in Europe (29%). This reduces the profit margin of a potential investor. It is 5.7 percentage points higher than corporate tax rate in Euro area (23.3%) while the rate of the neighboring countries is on average 14.2%.

Another drawback is the public bureaucracy. It is a problem that governments have tried to solve in recent decades, but little has been done. In any case, the facilitation of potential investors is crucial in order to attract investments.

Finally, political instability undermine investment and growth. The World Bank provides data from which an index has been created that depicts political stability. 2.5 points of the index indicates strength political stability and -2.5 points indicates political instability. The picture below proves the political instability of Greece.


Savings are vital in economic growth according to economic theory as an increase in savings increases the capital stock which is one of the two variables in Solow’s model. A simple way to understand the importance of savings is that someone’s saving could be someone else’s funds for investment. Financial institutions play the role of closing the gap between them. The following graph depicts the savings in Greece per year. Domestic savings have been reduced from 2008 to date dramatically due to consumption needs as Greeks’ income has decreased.


This reduction has a negative effect on economic growth and it is a necessity the savings start to increase again.

The last variable we'll examine is labor. Labor force participation has decreased over the last ten years. An explanation behind this may be the frustration that unemployed citizens feel from the high unemployment rate that the Hellenic Statistical Authority has approximately calculated at 19.9%. This increased by 12.1 percentage points from 2008. But the quantity of the labor force is not the only important factor. One must also consider the quality.

Unfortunately, the quality of workers may be getting worse: approximately 400.000 Greeks have emigrated the last eight years in order to work abroad, the majority of them not only graduates of universities but also holders of a master’s degree. This brain drain has a huge impact on economic growth as affects productivity and innovation, both significant for economic growth. There are many factors that affect productivity but surely education is one of them. Also, according with the European Commission, the innovation performance of Greece from 2010 to 2017 has decreased by 0.9% and Greece is considered as modest innovator. Needless to say, it is the same period that brain drain was more intense. The next graph depicts the trend of labor force participation rate.


Greece still faces many headwinds. Investments have not increased sufficiently, savings are going down, and the labor force is not only reduced compared to previous years, but highly educated Greeks have emigrated. Taking everything into consideration, it seems that Greece will have to change course to improve capital stock (via investment and savings), and labor, in order to achieve higher levels of productivity and actual production. Both are key in improving economic growth — and thus the Greek standard of living.

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Global Child Mortality Falls Again, As Market Trade and Economic Globalization Spread

09/30/2019Ryan McMaken

UNICEF this month released new data on infant and child mortality. As expected, the data shows continued declines in mortality for children, with most of the biggest gains coming in the lowest-income countries and in the developing world.

Of course, even in parts of the world where immense gains have been made, child mortality rates are still depressingly high, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa and in India where the under-five child mortality rates are 77.5 and 35.6 per 1,000 live births, respectively.

The region with the lowest mortality rate was western Europe with 3.7 per 1,000. That's down from 10.4 in 1990.

In the US, the rate fell from 11.2 to 6.5 over the same period.

Meanwhile, some countries long plagued by poverty have nearly attained the sorts of child-mortality rates enjoyed in the first world less than thirty years ago.

For example, as of 2018, Mexico's under-five mortality rate was 12.7. That's only slightly above the USA's 1990 rate of 11.2. Meanwhile, Malaysia and China have both pushed their child-mortality rates below what the first world was experiencing in 1990.


Infant mortality rates show a very similar trend, so on the whole,  these number do show very real improvements.

To add context, however, it is important to consider abortion rates as well.

I know that in order to be intellectually fashionable, one is supposed to pretend that, say, an 8-month fetus is an un-person and that its termination is not to be included in health statistics in any way. But at the very least as an intellectual exercise, it is helpful to consult the available abortion-rate data, just in case infant mortality — as currently measured —  is declining while abortion is increasing.

Moreover, under some regimes — in Cuba, for instance — according to the journal Health Policy and Planning:

Physicians often perform abortions without clear consent of the mother, raising serious issues of medical ethics, when ultrasound reveals fetal abnormalities because ‘otherwise it might raise the infant mortality rate.’ ... At 72.8 abortions per 100 births, Cuba has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.

Fortunately, however, it appears that even if we consider abortion to be a type of infant mortality, mortality is indeed decreasing overall. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, even in Africa, which (along with southern Asia) has long been the poorest region, rates are stable:


Abortion appears to be on the decline throughout Asia:


The abortion rate also has declined in the "developed world" and in "Northern America." Historical data suggests abortion rates in the US have been falling since the 1980s, and are now near a 45-year low.

Combined with a continued decline in child mortality, this should be considered progress indeed.

But what is the source of the progress? In the developed world, this is due to an increasingly globalized economic system that, for all its restrictions on markets, tolerates enough market freedom to allow for continued improvements in living standards. With more wealth comes more doctors, more hospitals, more supplies for sanitary medical services.

Some might claim "no, this economic progress is due to a larger welfare state and more socialism in the West." What this claim ignores, however, is that in order to redistribute wealth it must first be created. And it can only be created through voluntary market transactions such as production, trade, savings, and other types of wealth building. If it is a policy goal of politicians to redistribute ten percent of the wealth of the "rich people," that won't do much good if the rich people aren't that rich thanks to the impoverishment brought by interventionist and socialist policies.

In spite of the left's relentless efforts to crush the capitalist goose that has produced so many golden eggs, good news is nonetheless found in the developing world because so much of it it has moved on from the protectionist, socialistic economies which dominated there prior to the 1990s. Thanks to global trade and increasingly free (although, regrettably, not unhampered) markets, Latin America, southern Asia, eastern Asia, and even Africa have moved toward becoming middle income countries.

What We Mean by Economic Progress

And make no mistake: when supporters of freer markets call for more economic growth, the growth itself is not the end. The end goals are measured by metrics which include greater access to sanitation and clean water, rising literacy rates, and rising life expectancy.

Although it has become fashionable for anti-capitalists to deride as "money-obsessed" those who push for greater growth and greater income, the reality is that growth and income lead to things like healthier children.

Ludwig von Mises was addressing this shallow critique of markets when he wrote:

When the economists referred to progress, they looked upon conditions from the point of view of the ends sought by acting men. There was nothing metaphysical in their concept of progress. Most men want to live and to prolong their lives; they want to be healthy and to avoid sickness; they want to live comfortably and not to exist on the verge of starvation. In the eyes of acting men advance toward these goals means improvement, the reverse means impairment. This is the meaning of the terms "progress" and "retrogression" as applied by economists. In this sense they call a drop in infant mortality or success in fighting contagious diseases progress.

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Gun Laws Create Gun Violence

08/08/2019David Gornoski

Do Leftists believe gun bans will make guns evaporate?

Approximately 5 to 10 million AR-15 style rifles exist in America according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. If we were to ban these guns outright tomorrow, would they just vanish into thin air? That is what gun law advocates seem to be suggesting by their rhetoric. Whenever we hear reports of a shooting tragedy, the TV, newspapers, and social media PR campaigns fire off in unison for bans on “assault rifles” like the AR-15. We are told that supporters of such bans are doing what is necessary to save innocent lives. But how does a top-down prohibition of a desired object actually work in practice? Violently and disastrously, according to every case example we have.

Leftists seem to understand the inhumane disaster of drug prohibition. Marijuana laws have not ceased desire for the substance. Incarcerating suppliers of marijuana has not made the substance harder to find or prohibitively expensive. Rather, a violent black market has opened up that has enjoyed monopoly-level profit margins thanks to the relatively uncontested market space government bans create. Thankfully, the American people are slowly rejecting the violence of banning an object of desire of like marijuana, but millions of children continue to suffer from lifelong separation from their parents for nonviolent choices. Today, families anguish in communities plagued by contagious spells of reciprocal violence all created by drug control laws.

So why do many believe that a ban on AR-15s would defy the reality of the law of supply and demand? Some have suggested government buy-back programs for citizens to turn in their guns for compensation. However, that will only work for people that want to participate. For many others, a ban on AR-15s will only create more dangerous, unnecessary situations for police and peaceful citizens alike. Far from stopping lone wolves from buying an AR-15, gun bans will only harm children caught in the cross hairs. Like Royal Wilson.

Royal Wilson is an 8-year-old African American boy living in Chicago. As he was sleeping, he became a victim of his city's gun laws. Suddenly, an explosion of flashing lights and bullhorn blasted the air. Royal and his family, including other young siblings, faced 31 police officers armed with assault rifles breaking into their home. The officers were acting on a search warrant based on a tip that there was an assault rifle in the house.

The only gun control Royal Wilson deserved that day was more control over government guns having access to his home for a nonviolent choice. What if Royal or his grandmother had made the wrong move in the chaos and triggered one of the dozens of officers to mistake them for a threat? What if he was playing with a toy mistaken for a gun? Where are the champions of AR-15 bans when it came to the assault rifles pointed by agents ordered to enforce a law against assault rifles?

Some cynical defenders of the status quo will try to redirect these questions to one centered only on race. Others focus on the excessive force Royal and his family faced that day in Chicago, as his 8-year-old frame stood outside his house handcuffed for an hour and a half in 37-degree freezing rain. Perhaps racial bias played a role in this case. There is not enough information available for this author to know. But if that is the only takeaway, then the act of violence against the Wilsons' humanity inherent in gun laws remains untouched.

Royal Wilson and his family were terrorized by government assault rifles for the victimless act of allegedly possessing an assault rifle. After the agents ransacked the house completely, they were unable to find any firearm. But the damage was done. The agents were simply enforcing another bad law voters demanded. Why do busybodies have the right to send police into dangerous situations against families owning guns? What if a family wants to own an AR-15 to protect themselves from the ravages of a drug war-torn Chicago?

No family, no matter their race, income, or zip code, should have to face the violence of government gun bans. Although the irony of government assault rifles facing down children in search of assault rifles speaks for itself, it would be just as immoral if the agents were armed with pistols. Owning an AR-15 in the house does not victimize anyone. Enforcing laws against an AR-15 owning family does.

If gun-ban advocates have their way, guns like AR-15s will not disappear. Violent gangs will just have a new cash cow market to corner. Psychologically disturbed would-be shooters will be able to find their weapon of choice from local black market channels the same way they find their prohibited drugs of choice.

The world would be a better place if everyone melted their guns away, including governments. In reality, guns do not disappear when we stomp our feet and scream “Ban!” They just become profitable products for gangs to sell to lone gunmen. Meanwhile, innocent families like the Wilsons are harmed by the foolish myth that governments have any ability to prohibit objects of desire.

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Government Money Is No Substitute for Real Savings

06/21/2019Patrick Barron

Perhaps the most destructive premise of modern, mainstream economics is that a central bank-induced monetary/credit expansion can cause an economy to grow without adverse consequences. Let's be perfectly clear from the start: this policy has been tried by many central banks many times and all such attempts have led to economic disaster. The latest victims are the poor citizens of Venezuela, a once prosperous nation. Furthermore, we Austrian economists have sound economic science to explain why it must be so, despite the fervently held wishes of mainstream economists, politicians, and the public at large.

Born of Depression Era Keynesian economic theory which elevated "aggregate demand" as the driving force of an economy, central banks have constructed a fallacious model of how an economy works. Repeated failures of this model have served only to embolden them to double down and double down again and again, driving interest rates in some countries below zero in order to force the world to conform to their dogmatic theory. The simplest explanation of this theory is that counterfeiting money will cause people to spend and it is a dearth of spending that holds back prosperity. If people won't spend enough themselves, then it is incumbent upon government to do it for them by paying people the equivalence of digging holes in the ground and filling them back up. No, I am not making this up. Keynes himself said it! (See: book 3, chapter 10, section 6, page 129 of The General Theory).

The theory of lack of aggregate demand fails to recognize two essential facets of how an economy really works. The first is that production must precede consumption. In other words, we cannot consume what we have not first produced, and one's production constitutes one's demand either through direct or indirect exchange. This is the essence of Say's Law, which Keynes unsuccessfully attempted to refute in developing his theory of an economy driven not by production but by aggregate demand.

The second is that the structure of production is determined by time preference: the structure of production is merely all the intermediate steps that constitute production. There are fewer steps taking less overall time in an economy with a high time preference, meaning that people wish to spend most of their production-borne income in the short term. Likewise there are more steps taking more overall time in an economy with a low time preference, meaning that people wish to save more of their current income in order to have more in the future.

A simple example is that one must plant seeds in order to grow vegetables for current consumption. (Please keep in mind that what I describe is applicable for all types and levels of production.) The steps in this process are the saving of seeds from previous crops, the tilling of the soil, the planting of the seeds, the watering and perhaps fertilizing of the seeds, the spraying or covering of the young plants from the predations of birds, insects, and bacteria. You get the idea. The "structure" is the steps and the amount of production that is involved in each step. In a high-time-preference economy in which people wish to consume almost all of their crop production, saving more seeds is a waste of resources. Likewise, producing more fertilizer than is necessary for the size of the crop is also a waste of resources. Time preference is the underlying guide. However, if people are more future oriented, they will save more from current production in order to plant more crops; they will clear and till more land for the extra seeds; they will buy more fertilizer, etc. The increase in crop yields spurs a new level of production in the preservation of excess production for future consumption. The refraining from current consumption — i.e., savings — is what funds this increase in the new level of production. The preservation process takes more time, but in the end there is more to consume in the future, especially in cases of future crop failure. Think of the children's story of the ant and the grasshopper.

Substituting Money For Real Savings

Keynes thought that an economy could bypass the savings process and substitute an increase in the medium of exchange for real savings. The obvious flaw in this argument is that counterfeit money is not a substitute for saving real, fungible production. Counterfeit money is simply a watered down medium of exchange. Think of the old adage of watering down the soup when uninvited guests show up for dinner. The cook can serve more bowls of soup, but the nutritional value per bowl is less.

But monetary/credit expansion does more than just reduce the value of each monetary unit. Because the counterfeit money appears no different than existing money, entrepreneurs are fooled into believing that something real has been set aside and that people have chosen a lower time preference. With a lower interest rate level their plans for expansion appear to be achievable. Canning and/or freeze-drying facilities, for example, are constructed over a longer period of time in anticipation of an increase in sales of vegetables that may be consumed much later. Eventually the entrepreneurs realize that no such longer-term demand really exists. They have wasted time and capital, neither of which may be recovered. The workers who left jobs in businesses that served the higher time preference economy for higher paying jobs in the vegetable preservation plants must find new work. This takes time, and the ranks of the unemployed grow until the economy has once again achieved a structure of production more in tune with the people's higher time preference. Businesses lose money; the owners may even go bankrupt. Stock prices collapse. Banks may fail. Such a transition is called a recession. It is inevitable and unavoidable.

Yet it is highly likely — in fact it is almost a certainty — that central banks will fight the latest economic slowdown with the same old money printing and lowering of the interest rate. This was the conclusion drawn by Thorsten Polleit in his latest essay, published on Mises Wire: "The Fed Has No Choice But to Return to Ultra-Low Interest Rates." The Keynesians at the Fed are baffled that the world won't conform to their theory of aggregate demand. Their theory is a straightjacket from which they cannot escape intellectually. Unfortunately we all will pay the price.

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Greg Mankiw Loves the Federal Reserve—and the Labor Theory of Value

Prominent economist and super successful textbook author Greg Mankiw writes:

I have a confession to make: I love the Federal Reserve. And I suspect that, in their heart of hearts, most other economists love the Federal Reserve, too.

But why this gushing profession of love by Mankiw for the Fed?  Is it because the Fed provides valuable services to the U.S. economy? Mankiw's answer leaves this all-important question unaddressed:

The nation’s central bank employs about 20,000 Americans. They monitor the economy, develop analyses to help set monetary policy and regulate the banking system. None are paid the extraordinary salaries found at the nation’s private banks. But they do their jobs with solemnity and tenacity and without a whiff of scandal. And, most important, they do their jobs well.

Even the admittedly "unforced errors" that deepened the financial crisis "did not diminish [Mankiw's] love for our central bank." For people, "should not be judged by the standard of perfection. They should be judged by whether they are doing the best they can." On this score, Mankiw gives the Fed a "top grade."  And what constitutes the  Fed's success "as a public institution"?  There are "two ingredients" to its success.  First, the the Fed "aims 'to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible and more stable monetary and financial system.'”  Note the emphasis I place on the the word "aims."  Mankiw does not say something like "by and large, succeeds in attaining."   It appears that maximum effort in pursuit of advertised goals rather than actual results achieved is the first criterion by which Mankiw evaluates the Fed.  But Mankiw's theory of the Fed's value is even more clearly revealed in the second input to success he proposes:

The second ingredient to the Fed’s success are the talented people who dedicate their lives to it. Every year the Fed recruits new research assistants from top colleges and new staff economists from top Ph.D. programs in economics. Over the years, I have known many great students who have taken these jobs. For someone interested in economic policy, there is no better place to work.

Well, if your beloved public institution doesn't succeed in producing desired results . . . simply appeal to Ricardo's outmoded labor theory of value.

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Good Statistics, and Bad

04/12/2019Gary Galles

Suppose someone wanted to misrepresent a public policy to you. How could they do so most effectively? And who can help you resist?

It’s certainly a believable hypothetical. With two major parties who seem to disagree on everything, multiple intra-party fault-lines, and a plethora of interests who wish to turn laws and regulations in their favor, whipped together by a press in search of partisan scandal and ratings, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. In fact, for almost every issue, it seems very likely that some, if not many, groups, will be tempted to promote their interests using techniques ranging along the spectrum from “putting one’s best foot forward” to bald-faced lies.

There are plenty of common political tricks that fall short of outright lying. For instance, one can bury desired changes in the paper avalanche of an omnibus bill, as in the Minnesota legislature’s recent attempt to sneak in enactment of the National Popular Vote project. Or one can pass vague legislation that passes the buck for what it will mean in practice to executive agencies and the courts. But such forms of subterfuge are not my interest here.

I wish to ask how people would misrepresent things in the open, rather than behind such political camouflage? As I warn my public policy students, the general principle is that people will lie to you in whatever areas you are most vulnerable.

If you are American, one of those weak spots is typically mathematics, and particularly statistics, which is why it earns its place of shame along with lies and damned lies. That is why the tricks for how to misrepresent statistics discussed in Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics still keep the book selling 65 years after its initial publication.

However, widespread ignorance goes deeper than the science of statistics itself. Very few people have a clear idea on what the data involved actually measures, under what assumptions and limitations, which can lead to careless and irresponsible usage. For instance, few people can articulate why both the employment and unemployment rates could go up at the same time, and which would be a more reliable economic indicator in such a case, when their names suggest it shouldn’t be possible.

Thomas Sowell , in his most recent book, Discrimination and Disparities, describes the problem as “overlooking simple but fundamental questions as to whether the numbers on which… analyses are based are in fact measuring what they seem to be measuring, or claim to be measuring,” which, in order to defend ourselves against misrepresentation, requires “much closer scrutiny at a fundamental level.” But far too few apply such careful, fundamental scrutiny.

However, there are a few people who do yeoman work in this area, providing valuable “insurance” against errors others would encourage us to make. They deserve our appreciation for toiling in that underserved area, and I would like to express thanks to several whose efforts I have particularly benefitted from.

Thomas Sowell is one such author who has provided a great deal of clarification over decades of prolific publication. For example, one common theme of his is the need to distinguish between what happens to a particular category of people (e.g., “the rich” or “the poor”), interpreted as a stable group, which lends itself to class-based conclusions, and the very different experiences of real people who move in an out of such categories over time, which upsets such analyses.

Discrimination and Disparities reiterates that theme from his earlier books. But my favorite illustration is his discussion of the famous Card and Krueger minimum wage study, which purported to overturn the conclusion that raising the minimum wage increases unemployment. It surveyed the same employers, asking how many employees they had before and after a minimum wage increase. The problem is that “you can only survey the survivors.” Anyone who went out of business, and the jobs that consequently disappeared, would not be included, so even if surveyed survivors did not reduce employment, many jobs invisible to their approach could still have been lost. To reinforce the image, he notes that a similar before-and-after survey of those who played Russian Roulette would show that no one was hurt, and cites a quip by George Stigler that if it had been used in a survey of American veterans in both 1940 and 1946, it would “prove” that “no solider was mortally wounded” during the war.

Another very prolific watchdog for statistical malfeasance is Mark J. Perry . He points out so many useful “red flags” in multiple outlets that I look forward to what is almost a one-a-day pleasure. A good example is his evisceration of “Equal Pay Day” discussions that attribute differences between median yearly incomes to unjustifiable discrimination against women “doing the same work as men.” He points out that the data fails to adjust for differences in “hours worked, marital status, number of children, education, occupation, number of years of continuous uninterrupted job experience, working conditions, work safety, workplace flexibility, family friendliness of the workplace, job security, and time spent commuting,” each of which would lead men to be paid more, on average.

Andrew Biggs is another stickler for statistical responsibility, particularly in areas connected to retirement security and retirement plans. For instance, in Forbes , he showed that a recent GAO report concluding that 48% of U.S. households aged 55 and over in 2016 “had no retirement savings” was far different from reality, as 72% of people had such savings plan, when those with traditional defined benefit pensions are counted, and 83% of married households had such savings when including those where only one had a retirement plan. Just those two changes massively changed the conclusions. And he pointed out other biases, as well.

These three people have each helped me understand measurement issues far better than before, enabling me to avoid errors that would have undermined my analyses of policy issues. I owe them thanks. But readers might also give them more attention, for similar “tutoring.” Many others have also been of use to me, and as I continue to learn, perhaps I can give a shout-out to others in the future, especially as this labor pool is still far too shallow. But mainly I wanted to put out a serious warning about ignorance not only of statistical applications and presentations, but also of the data that is often misused in reaching policy conclusions.

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Galles: Remembering Gustave de Molinari

03/08/2019Gary Galles

March 3 marked the bicentennial of Belgian-born philosopher/economist Gustave de Molinari’s birth. Based on self-ownership and the private property derived from it, he forcefully defended every form of liberty. No wonder Frederic Bastiat named Molinari his successor.

Remembering Molinari’s across-the-board defense of liberty is particularly necessary at a time Americans pay lip service to it, but constantly say “there ought to be a law” that restricts it.

His recognition that individual sovereignty is a far superior replacement for government sovereignty from the perspective of justice, respect for natural rights, and of effective social cooperation is worth revisiting on 200 years after his birthday.

Read the full article at The Orange County Register

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Gustave de Molinari's Short-Lived Flirtation with the Socialists

Some of the French economists centered around the Journal des Economistes were elected officials. For example, Louis Wolowski was elected to the Assemblée Constitutionelle in 1848;1 so was juge de Paix Frédéric Bastiat. Decades earlier, Jean-Baptiste Say and Benjamin Constant were famously defending Classical Economics in the Tribunat where they opposed Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte returned the favor and expelled both of them in 1804 and 1802 respectively.2

Unlike the aforementioned economists, Gustave De Molinari never was a politician himself. However, this does not mean that he never ran for office. He had briefly attempt to join the ranks of the liberal party in 1859.

Left or Right?

In his 1864 book review of De Molinari's Cours d'économie politique, Lord Acton points out the turbid relationship between the Liegeois-born economist and the Liberal Party: "[In] 1848, he returned to his own country, and finished his course of political economy at the Musée d'Industrie of Brussels, where, we believe, he has not been altogether well treated by the Liberal ministry. This gives a personal significance to his protest against the nomenclature of the two parties, which falsely implies that the one comprises all that is religious, and the other all that loves liberty, in Belgium".3

Indeed, De Molinari wasn't the keenest on political demarcations; in earlier writings, he had presented the fluidity between the nomenclature of liberal, religious, and even socialist party structures. Historian Roderick T. Long pointed out that De Molinari favored a collaboration with the French socialist party.4 According to him, both economists and socialists favored the same principles. In his Lettre aux socialistes (1848), the anonymous author (later identified as De Molinari) stressed that both economists and socialists favored a society in which justice was prevalent for every individual member. However, both groups used a different methodology. Economists thought of liberty and freedom as the necessary means to reach said goal, as history has shown them time and time again. Socialists, on the other hand, used statist recipes with taxes.

Blanc VS Coquelin

One place Molinari clashed with the socialists, however, and thus distinguished himself as a true supporter of laissez-faire, was in his opinions on banking.

While living in Paris, De Molinari must have read his friend Charles Coquelin's research on banks. Coquelin defended a free-market approach on banking; he preached the concept that the government should have no involvement in the role of banking. Rather, banks should be left alone. After empirical research on business cycles, Coquelin concluded that banking crises were the result of privileged monopolies and governmental regulation.5

Journalist and socialist Charles Potvin, however, opposed this vision: “Mr. De Molinari views align with the following principle. Legal persons should have the opportunity to gather themselves without governmental intervention. The role of the government should be limited to registration instead of active participation, isn’t it Mr. De Molinari? (Mr. De Molinari nods in agreement). If we follow Mr. De Molinari’s vision, wouldn’t priests and bankers run Belgium?6

Potvin’s opinion on banking changed over time — whilst always remaining in the realm of radical socialism. In his biography, historian Christophe De Spiegeleer argues that Potvin shows appreciation for the works of PJ Proudhon in his essays (Du Gouvernement de soi-même, La Banque Sociale).7 Proudhon proposes "la Banque du Peuple"; a company in which the people (ipse facto: the poorest individuals within a society) could borrow a lump sum of money without paying an extra fee. The poorest individuals were shareholders as well.8 Potvin praised these "mutualistic companies" in his magnum opus Du Gouvernement de Soi-Même (1877).

However, in his exchange with De Molinari, Charles Potvin outs himself as a disciple of socialist Louis Blanc. According to Blanc, the involvement of a government in the realm of banking was of the utmost importance. According to Potvin, spontaneous order and liberty would lead to anarchy in Belgium! For this particular reason, Louis Blanc claimed it necessary to seek government intervention and lift up the competition, in favor of a single, nationalized bank.9

"Pourquoi j’ai retiré ma candidature"

In a pamphlet (Pourquoi j'ai retiré ma candidature), written a couple of days after the fulminations of Potvin against Molinari, De Molinari announced the renunciation of his candidacy. In 1855, however, he had already predicted his fate within the party. In an article "Dialogue entre un électeur et un candidat," he criticized uninformed vocal minorities that forsake their own responsibilities. In the fictional dialogue, the voter expects politicians to take care of everything; protectionism, warfare, parish relief funds, subsidizing religion, ... To which the politician responds whether the voter would favor higher taxes. How would we fund these services? To which the voter responds: “How should I know? That’s up to you and that is why we elected you!”10

  • 1. RAMBAUD, Jules, l’oeuvre économique de L. Wolowski, Paris, L. Larose & Forcel, 1882, 9-29.
  • 2. MINART, Gérard, Entrepreneur et esprit d’entreprise. L’avant-gardisme de Jean-Baptiste SAY, Paris, l’Harmattan, 2013, 158-159.
  • 3. ACTON, John Emerich Edward Dalberg, “Review of Gustave de Molinari’s Course of Political Economy (1855)”, The Home and Foreign Review, 4, 1864, 313.
  • 4. LONG, Roderick T., “Rothbard’s “Left and Right”: Forty Years Later”, Mises Institute, 2006.
  • 5. MALBRANQUE, Benoît, “Réformer les banques: les propositions originales de C. Coquelin”, Laissons Faire, 1, 2013, 20-24; DE NOUVION, Georges, Charles Coquelin. Sa vie et ses travaux, Paris, Institut Coppet, 2017 [1908], 24-25.
  • 6. "M[onsieur] De Molinari proclame ce principe: les personnes civiles ont le droit de se constituer sans l'intervention de l'Etat. [...] La personne civile vient au monde, et l'Etat enregistre [...], n'est ce pas M[onsieur de] Molinari? (De Molinari fait un signe d'approbation). La Belgique ne serait-il pas exposée à une double invasion de moines et des banquiers?"“Après l’autel le coffre-fort”, Le Bien Public, 6 juni 1859.
  • 7. DE SPIEGELEER, Een blauwe progressist. Charles Potvin (1818-1902) en het liberaal-sociale denken van zijn generatie, Gand/Brussels, Liberaal Archief, 2011.
  • 8. PROUDHON, Pierre-Joseph, “Banque du peuple: déclaration”, Le Peuple, 1849, 1-13.
  • 9. CHARRUAUD, Benoît, Louis Blanc, la république au service du Socialisme, Unpublished PhD, Université Strasbourg III. Robert Schuman, 2008, 50.
  • 10. Cela vous regarde. Nous ne vous nommons pas pour autre chose" DE MOLINARI, Gustave, “Dialogue entre un électeur et un candidat”, l’Economiste belge, 1855, 1.
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Great New Lew Rockwell Interview

09/13/2018Ryan McMaken

I've been following Lew Rockwell's work pretty closely for more than 15 years, but there's a lot of good stuff I haven't heard before in this new interview between Tom Woods and Lew. He goes a little more deeply into some of his work with Ron Paul in Congress, and Lew apparently has a new book coming out soon, called Against the Left.

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