Category Archives: Economics

What about the Poor?!


What about the Poor?!

By Duncan Whitmore

When discussing the virtues of a free society libertarians are able to expound with enthusiasm the benefits of private property, free exchange and non-violence. Most of the nagging questions – “how would policing work?”; “how would we regulate unscrupulous companies?”; or the clichéd classic “who will build the roads?!” – can be dealt with fairly straightforwardly as it is not difficult to show how such a free society would deal with these matters in a vastly superior way to one that is imbued with statism. Indeed, the struggle in this regard has less to do with formulating convincing arguments and more to do with tackling an inherent unwillingness to consider radical solutions.

However, there is one question that always presents a seemingly insurmountable difficulty – what would happen to the poor? By this, we do not just mean the accusations of a free economy being “sink or swim” or “dog eat dog”, which, again, are relatively juvenile sound bites that can be disposed of fairly easily. (Indeed, it is social democracies that are the true zero sum games as any redistribution of wealth or gain of power to the benefit of one must necessarily come at the expense of another). Rather, what we mean is the fact that a free world has no means of “caring” for the poor. In particular, there would be no “official” institution or “social safety net” to help those who were genuinely less fortunate. A libertarian might mumble a few words about the importance of charity but, with an outright declaration by one’s opponent that such a system is necessary, one may be tempted to concede that this is the Achilles’ heel of a libertarian society. After all, statists excel at conjuring the illusion that all of the care and compassion is on their side while they are able, quite easily, to paint proponents of the free market as little more than selfish money grabbers.

It is high time that libertarians (and their free market oriented fellow travellers) took the offensive against this problem by turning an apparent weakness into an advantage. By offensive, we mean not just constructing adequate rebuttals to the charge that capitalism cannot care for the poor. Rather, we need to set ourselves the more ambitious goal of proving that capitalism benefits the least well off as its primary effect, and that the poor do not benefit merely as an incidental consequence of making the rich richer. Read more

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Universal Healthcare – an Economic Disaster


Given the recent announcement of a new, long term plan for the NHS it seems like an opportune moment to revisit the topic of universal healthcare. The essay below is a new version of a previously published piece, with some sections revised and elaborated, while figures and references have been updated.

Universal Healthcare – an Economic Disaster

By Duncan Whitmore

“Universal healthcare” (that is, an alleged “right” to “healthcare” provided in some form by the state) is a mainstay of social democratic thought – so much so, in fact, that the UK’s NHS is taken as a given, with any kind of proposed healthcare reform couched in terms of improving “our” state-funded health service rather than ever considering whether it should exist in the first place.

However the consequences of universal healthcare are grave indeed, including spiralling costs and ever increasing numbers of sick – pretty much the effects of the welfare state in general. This is without even considering the ethics of forcibly confiscating the money of one person to benefit another, although this essay will focus on the economic aspects of what is, in effect, the socialisation of medicine. Read more

Immigration – An Austro-Libertarian Analysis


Immigration – An Austro-Libertarian Analysis

By Duncan Whitmore

Both the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as the US President have elevated the topic of immigration to the top of the political agenda. Leftist, liberal elites – previously so sure they would arrive easily at their vision of an open, borderless world – have been scalded now that the lid has been lifted from the bubbling cauldron of the needs of ordinary, everyday citizens seeking to preserve their jobs and the culture of their homelands.

It is high time that this vitriolic, divisive and – frankly – often quite tiresome issue is put to rest. That, alas, is unlikely to happen, particularly as the political globalists seem content to plough on with their vision of open borders through the looming UN Global Compact for Migration. Listening to the mainstream arguments (or at least to how the leftist/liberal media chooses to portray them), one would be forgiven for thinking that the immigration question needs to be met by an all or nothing answer – i.e. that it is either an unqualified good or an unqualified bad. We are led to believe that it is a contest between liberals, or self-styled “progressives”, clamouring for fully porous borders on the one hand, versus elderly, conservative, racist bigots who supposedly want to keep everyone out and preserve England’s green and pleasant land for white faces.

The falsehood of this dichotomy is obvious to almost anyone who is not of the liberal-left, and, in fact, a “sensible” view on immigration is quite prevalent – that it is possible to be in favour of permitted, but regulated immigration, allowing some people to cross the border as immigrants to come and live and work in the territory of the state while denying that privilege to others. It is also recognised that immigration is economically beneficial in some situations, but not in others – i.e. when immigrants are highly skilled and productive instead of welfare consumers.

The task of this essay is to sharpen this “sensible” view with Austro-libertarian theory. We will begin by outlining the core libertarian theory concerning immigration before examining a key area for contention among libertarians – whether, in a world populated by states, any particular state should restrict or otherwise control movements across the border by persons who are not considered to be citizens of that particular state and whether this is in accordance with libertarian theory. We will then move on to exploring the economic and cultural implications of immigration policies. Read more

The Consumption Tax – A Non-Starter


The Consumption Tax – A Non-Starter

By Duncan Whitmore

In a recent essay published on this blog1, the present author proposed a short series of aims that would reduce the burden of taxation on economic prosperity, in comparison to a programme proposed by the Adam Smith Institute (ASI).2 Part of the ASI’s programme consists of “replacing [the] income tax with a progressive consumption tax, so savings are not taxed”.3 In relation to this, we explained, briefly, that all taxes are paid for out of one of two sources of production – either income or wealth – and that

The individual names of all of the different taxes refer not to fundamentally different types of tax; rather, they denote either the specific kind of good to be burdened (i.e. property, alcoholic beverages, etc.) or the particular event that triggers the tax liability. For example, within the category of taxes on income, an income/payroll tax taxes the income at the point it is earned; a VAT or sales tax, on the other hand, taxes the income at the point it is spent.

Consequently, we concluded that a proposal for a consumption tax amounted to little more than simply moving a tax burden around and calling it a different name rather than eliminating its depressing effects upon economic prosperity:

Changing the precise moment when a tax is levied ultimately does nothing to ameliorate the effects of the tax – it simply means that you might be able to hang on to your money for a little bit longer before having to give it up. Neither also does changing the triggering event have any effect upon who, ultimately, pays for the tax. All taxes must be paid for out of production and so the burden of any tax always falls upon producers.

This essay will elaborate on why, for a programme that wishes to give a serious boost to economic prosperity by reforming taxes, the proposal to switch to a consumption tax from an income tax is a relatively pointless endeavour which should not be considered as a priority. We will also explain why the claim that “savings are not taxed” is utterly fallacious before exploring some particular difficulties that are inherent to introducing and operating a consumption tax. Although this essay concerns, mainly, the effects of a consumption tax upon economic prosperity, we will then move on to highlighting some further problems this method of taxation presents from a purely libertarian perspective. Finally, we will conclude by pointing out that any benefits a consumption tax could bring are unlikely to be realised in the absence of fostering a general government commitment to lower tax rates. Read more

“Money Heist”: State Counterfeiting on TV


Money Heist: State Counterfeiting on TV

By Duncan Whitmore

At first, Money Heist seems little different from any run-of-the-mill “cops vs. bad guys” series. A well-prepared group of eight, small time criminals, previously unknown to each other and using city names as pseudonyms, hijacks the Spanish Royal Mint in Madrid. Directed from the outside by their leader, the mysterious “Professor”, they capture tens of Mint staff and visitors to hold as hostages, including (deliberately) the teenage daughter of a prominent politician. Scores of armed police soon surround the building at the beginning of what turns into an epic, eleven-day siege.

One initial question concerns the objective of the hijackers. Is it robbery? Ransom? Terrorism? It soon becomes clear that the group, in spite of being armed to the hilt and having sequestered a major government institution, is imbued with an interesting set of morals. For they intend to neither a) kill anyone (although circumstance forces this scruple to be breached) nor b) steal as much as a penny from anyone’s bank account. They do, as it happens, intend to leave the Mint with more than one billion euros in cash. This, however, they plan to achieve by spending their eleven days holed up in the Mint printing the money they want (with the aid of the captured staff, whom they bribe with some of the loot) instead of raiding the vaults for cash that already exists. Their clever plan, therefore, is to escape with untold riches without having harmed a soul while, in the process, embarrassing the authorities and winning the sympathy of the public as “loveable rogues”. Read more

Misesian Man: Neither a Rock, nor an Island (or why Traditionalists should learn Austrian Economics)


“I am a rock, I am an island” bellows Paul Simon. This man is apparently the man of economics according to some traditionalists– deracinated and purely rational with absolutely no animality whatsoever.  An interesting cultural critic and theologian Alastair Roberts essentially argued he’d learnt lots of economics but then read anthropology which severely undermined economic doctrine. Whilst this criticism is to some extent justified with respect to the utility maximising, mathematicised man of neo-classicism, it is not justified regarding the Austrian school. There is no ex nihilo creation of an idealised economic man in the Austrian school to explain the world but rather it works from visceral features of reality to discover underlying truths.

Let’s take a paradigmatic economic question which vexed the classical economist, “Why is water so cheap and diamonds so expensive when water is essential but diamonds are mostly decorative?” Well, the jeweller has to pay for the uncut diamonds and his overheads. The mining firm has to pay their miners and buy their digging equipment. So far so good, but who are you ultimately paying to create the equipment in the first place? It must be the labourer who initially transformed nature (land in economic terms) into a tool (a capital good), for example sharpening a stone into an axe head. This reasoning begat the Labour Theory of Value – that the market price of a product is determined by how much labour has been expended into the creation of the product. The problem is, why would anyone want to create diamonds in the first place? Either the miners themselves wanted them or they knew someone else they could sell them to. Therefore it is the demand for the product which ultimately determines costs since entrepreneurs will bid for factors of production based upon their expected future revenues.

Demand, broadly speaking, relates to being willing and also able to purchase a product at a range of prices – essentially it is a trade of one piece of property for another, but whose property?  Today you have corporations who at least de jure own property, however this does not imply that these institutions demand as a complex grouping since only an individual possesses a will. When we say De Beers are investing in a new diamond mine, it is a short hand for saying the board of directors authorised this spending and the board of directors’ decision is made up of individual votes based ultimately on an individual will. In a literal sense you can only ever think for yourself.[i]

To return to the diamond water paradox, diamonds have a higher market price than water, not simply as a direct result of water’s physical properties but because the sum total of individuals’ demand is higher than that of water. Yet this still seems bizarre since most people are not stupid – why die in a diamond encrusted coffin when you can drink and live? The error here is that individuals do not choose between water or diamonds in general but rather discrete units thereof. When an individual acquires his first bottle of water he will put this means to his most highly valued end, so in most cases it will be drinking it to survive. At least in England, the superabundance of water means that whoever sells it will have achieved many of their most highly valued ends which can be realised by water so the value to him of his 1000th unit of water is rather insignificant, therefore he will accept a small price for it. In contrast, the owners of diamonds have so few that they only obtain a few of their most highly valued ends, so the price they are willing to exchange the marginal unit of diamonds for is significantly higher than that of the marginal unit of water. Thus the answer to the diamond water paradox,  and the essence of economic analysis, is marginal analysis and subjective valuation realised in concrete choice – the logic of human action. Since man has to choose between any ends or means at all implies a scarcity of resources and/or time and the choice itself demonstrates preference – the marginal unit of diamonds is worth more to the subject than the marginal unit of water. Further, considering he needs to use an instrumental means[ii], toiling in the field to earn an income to purchase diamonds, implies some form of disutility. All this is to say work can be hard work.

Misesian man is the man of reality. He is not an abstract utility maximiser who cares solely about the lowest possible price. He is a breathing, feeling and fallible man– on his death bed the multimillionaire could regret his goal to be rich since the related hundred hour work weeks caused him to miss his children growing up. Less problematically, man could choose the wrong means to achieve his end – attempting to sell bacon in Bradford to make his fortune. Such a man could well be irrational in the general sense but as long as the behaviour is purposeful, it is in fact rational in the relevant sense.

Further, explanatory value subjectivism (explaining behaviour in terms of the actor’s own values) does not necessarily imply normative value subjectivism – that ethics is mere subjective, content-less preference. This is a mistake made by some traditionalists when interacting with Austrian Economics although it is understandable in some cases given the ethical relativism of thinkers such as Mises himself and in particular some online Austrian keyboard warriors – on a similar note Austrian economics does not imply egoism, individual anarchism or general libertarianism. The traditionalist political philosopher who is also an Austrian economist is a perfect coherent possibility. Mises and Rothbard do make some ethical claims in some of their economics works but this is the voice of the political philosopher, not the economist. To abandon Austrian economics because of some political statements would be deeply unwise. Whether there is objective value, or more precisely the good, the true and the beautiful in reality itself, is outside the scope of Austrian economics. That said, such a view is in fact more complementary than a hardcore relativist position. Within a purely relativistic position you don’t value diamonds because of certain objective qualities but rather diamonds have value simply because you choose them to have value – your values are purely arbitrary.[iii] On the other hand, an objective external reality which is sifted by the individual actor to then create his value scale is more consistent with Misesian man as he can have genuine reasons for his choices (This is of course consistent with a softer relativism too). Thus economics is consistent with other avenues of investigation such as history, anthropology and sociology to understand why the individual acts as he does – contingent factors regarding  geography, genetics, sex and the family matter for what the acting man chooses, it is just outside the scope of economics. Further, whilst economics studies individual action (methodological individualism) it does not necessarily preclude the existence of any social ontologies in other areas of study. Economics is perfectly consistent with families, nations and other institutions having a form beyond just the individuals who comprise them, all it will insist is that only individuals can act. Thus the complaint that economics causes you to see man as an atomised individual is simply a category mistake.

In conclusion, Austrian economics is a vital component of any social study of mankind. To neglect it in favour of sociology or anthropology is to think that since I have a bowl and soup I do not need a spoon to eat it. Economics isn’t above psychology, sociology and anthropology but an equal and necessary partner in social science. Therefore I implore everyone: learn basic Austrian economics and the scales will fall from your eyes.

 


[i] One could attempt to go behind the individual’s will by investigating biology, chemistry and ultimately physics. Such a view implies a grand form of determinism in which the base unit(s) of reality determine everything thereby making choice a mere illusion. This is clearly counter intuitive since we act everyday believing that our choices are genuinely our own.  More substantively, genuine choice (a choice which is caused by an individual human, where the human is more than just the chemicals that constitute his body) can only be denied by choosing to declare your opposition to it. Now it is conceivable that choice is an illusion and that you just happened to declare this at the right time in a debate on the subject. Probabilistically this seems highly unlikely and secondly, if choice was an illusion you couldn’t prove it: you would use your mind to follow appropriate methodology to prove this, only to simultaneously discover that you did not follow the correct rules of inference but were rather pushed along by the irresistible forces of fate; thus your belief in determinism was justified not by reason but fate which cannot justify anything. Thus we have the bedrock foundation upon which economics is built – human choice: the choice between a myriad of ends and also the choice between various means to achieve the end(s).

[ii] A means used only for the sake of achieving a goal. This is in contrast to a constitutive means which is one where the means is in a sense part of the end – for example, playing all the notes to perform Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor is internal to the end in a way that working in the field to purchase diamonds is not.

[iii] Hulsmann makes a similar point in his masterful Realist Approach to Equilibrium Analysis (https://mises-media.s3.amazonaws.com/qjae3_4_1.pdf?file=1&type=document) although it isn’t in the context of objective ethics: it merely states that individuals choose certain means and ends for particular reasons beyond just choosing such means or ends, yet ex post their internal valuation system could recognise these choices as successful or as a failure.

 

Ludwig von Mises – An Annotated Bibliography


Ludwig von Mises – An Annotated Bibliography

By Duncan Whitmore

As an appendix to a series of three essays on the importance of Mises for libertarian thought, the following is an annotated bibliography of his major works.

There is little point in beating about the bush when it comes to the accessibility of Mises’ work for a prospective student – Mises can be relatively difficult to read, and one does require a considerable investment in time and mental effort to grasp the substance of his writing.

Mises is certainly not difficult in the sense that he is unclear, opaque, or inconsistent. In fact, he is remarkable for avoiding almost any lapse into one or more of all three, an ability that is largely sustained between his individual works as well as within each one. But his writing style is very different from that of say, Rothbard. To be sure, both writers are extremely systematic and logical in the progression of their ideas. With Mises, however, one can feel the years of thought and wisdom pouring off of every page, and, even in translation, oodles of meaning and ideas are packed concisely into very carefully chosen sentences. Thus, one must often invest an extended amount of time in absorbing every detail. With Rothbard, on the other hand, one almost feels as though he sat down at the typewriter, began tapping at the keys and didn’t stop until the book was finished. The result is that even Rothbard’s scholarly work is imbued with something of an improvisatory or, perhaps, conversational style that makes it more accessible to the lay reader.

Fortunately, some of Mises’ works are more accessible than others, and there are a number of study guides available to assist with the reading of the most difficult works. Read more

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