I wrote an email about John Maynard Keynes a couple of weeks ago that I want to share with you. It was to my mother. As a university instructor, she receives emails from intellectual colleagues of all fields, who often know little or nothing of economics, but strongly support Keynesian theories. Such professors, living comfortably on the fringes of capitalistic prosperity, compare their salaries with the earnings of industrious geniuses around them, and blame free markets for their conditions, because they are too proud to blame themselves. Mention to them that throughout history, where free markets are absent, famine and misery abound–that government noninterference produced the only society to ever avoid starvation for more than a century–and these intellectuals will not listen, for they are teachers and not learners, and in a planned society they imagine themselves to be the planners, and not the laborers. But before they can plan, they must destroy the system that feeds everyone but makes them irrelevant: capitalism. Their destruction is nearing completion, and they hope to take advantage of the ensuing collapse, become planners, and rule over the creative, industrious, and inventive energies within our society.
So backward are these educators’ attitudes, that they confused my educated mother (M.B.A. and J.D.) into thinking Keynes could be right. I had to set her straight, but I could not blame her for being confused. Even I thought Keynes was right until I started studying macroeconomics. In my first college economics class, I answered one of my professor’s questions about recessions by accurately explaining Keynes’ theory of aggregate demand. His response was, “they’ve got you brainwashed, don’t they?” His firm criticism encouraged me to begin reading economic theory. There was a time (in the 1960s and 70s) when almost every economist was Keynesian, but today Keynes’ theories are rarely taught without a healthy dose of skepticism. This is because much of what happened in the economy of the 1970s and 80s appeared to prove Keynes wrong. The longer I studied, the more I realized that, in America today, almost every economic barrier an individual encounters has been erected by government. I realized that while private entities sometimes invest poorly, which hurts the economy, government often invests poorly, negligently, and with impunity, which hurts and may cripple the economy.
For any argument about suitable means to be valuable, parties must agree on suitable ends. My end is the maximization of individual liberty. I see this also as the maximization of justice. I believe that every individual has rights to political and economic liberties, “life, liberty,” etc. I believe the primary purpose of government is to protect those rights. If that end cannot be agreed upon, then you will find my argument worthless, but knowing you to possess a liberal mind, I suspect you will gain something from my opinion. The best economic means toward protecting individual liberty are, in my opinion, minimal taxation, fiscal responsibility, sound money, and government noninterference (peace would also help). If his goal was to protect our rights (and I strongly suspect it was not), Keynes theory was wrong. If his goal was to improve stability, Keynes was wrong. If his goal was to improve justice, Keynes was wrong. If his goal was to increase the control of the state over the everyday lives of individuals, Keynes was wrong, but successful.
Here is the email I wrote my mom:
“If in the first attempt to create a world of free men we have failed, we must try again. The guiding principle that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy remains as true today as it was in the nineteenth century.” – F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom
After reading The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek’s criticism of J.M. Keynes’ General Theory, Keynes admitted, “morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.” Keynes was praising a book, morally and philosophically, that championed laissez-faire over his own theory. It warned that Keynes’ theory would lead to the enslavement of all mankind (save a small governing elite), and Keynes agreed with “virtually the whole of it,” morally and philosophically.
Keynes was a unique figure, brilliant enough to recognize his own wrongs, and proud enough to refuse to set them right. A supporter of eugenics, he was an arrogant man who always thought himself the most clever person in the room, and on this one point, it is likely that he was always correct. His mind, however, was poisoned by the Old World belief that there must always be two classes of people, the rulers and the ruled, but Americans believe that these classes are neither natural nor necessary, and that every man is his own ruler. Keynes knew his theory would be, on a free people, an immoral imposition, and even admitted its ability to increase economic instability (which it has done), but like a contemptible, soul-selling politician, he dismissed an economic system of justice, honesty, and freedom for “light and transient causes,” to become a ruler, gathering fortune and fame while providing the most efficient immediate remedy to those most in need; and while all this rottenness may be crafty politics, it is bad economics.
A good economist considers not only a strategy’s short-term effects on interested groups, but its short- and long-term effects on all groups. To joke that “in the long run we’re all dead,” as Keynes did, is an assault on posterity, and indicates his intent to rob their liberties and fortunes for the sake of temporary splurging. We know individuals that live beyond their means are destined to live beneath them, and this is no less true of nations. Until now, U.S. production and national wealth have increased in spite of government, because capitalism is still operating to some extent, and because by luck, a slow waitress is handling the bill for all this “aggregate demand”. I don’t expect the Department of Treasury will leave her a tip.
There is a lot of bad economics abroad, being taught in universities, being preached in the halls of Washington, and being recorded for wiser generations to lampoon. As Louis XIV had his divine right, Paul Krugman has his Nobel Prize. Bad economics tells us that the government must make us better off (limit our choices), inflate the currency (steal our savings), save the X industry (kill the Y industry, and harm everyone not closely related to the X industry), increase the minimum wage (increase prices), protect our industry with tariffs (limit choices and increase prices) increase credit (increase debt), increase public works (increase taxes), create more jobs (impossible), stop technology from stealing jobs (lose opportunity for increased standard of living), achieve “full employment” (instead of full production), bail out unions (tax all others), stop foreclosures (undermine the price mechanism that guarantees short recessions), increase the velocity of money (tempt hyperinflation), and give away “free” pensions, healthcare, houses, food, and money (remove all incentives for production). But one thing we must never, ever do, under any circumstances (according to this “economics”), is save. There is no rhyme to bad economics. It cherishes credit, and although savings is the only true source of credit, savings is, in their muddled minds, the bane of all good society; the only use of savings is as actual wealth that, in the absence of a gold standard, the government can steal through inflation.
The economic ideas I prefer are what Barack Obama calls “the stale political arguments which have consumed us for so long,” which “no longer apply.” By the context of this quote in his inaugural speech, it appears Obama is attacking arguments in favor of individualism, the philosophy of John Locke, upon which the United States was founded and became prosperous. John Locke died over three hundred years ago, so–though collectivism is much older–individualism may now be called a “stale” argument, but this is totally irrelevant. It matters not whether an idea is new or old, but whether it is right or wrong. I believe that collectivism is wrong and individualism is right, and as it is better to repair a wrong than persist in it, I will halt discussion of contemporary leaders to return to the informative purpose of my writing you.
Bad economics insults reason, starving and torturing the mind, and causing anxiety; but good economics informs reason, satisfying the mind’s natural appetite. I may feed that appetite with my own words, but others have prepared portions so tasteful as to make my own attempts bland. Morsels to follow:
- “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” – Adam Smith
- ““Dying industries absorb labor and capital that should be released for the growing industries. It is only the much vilified price system that solves the enormously complicated problem of deciding precisely how much of tens of thousands of different commodities and services should be produced in relation to each other. These otherwise bewildering equations are solved quasi-automatically by the system of prices, profits and costs. They are solved by this system incomparably better than any group of bureaucrats could solve them. For they are solved by a system under which each consumer makes his own demand and casts a fresh vote, or a dozen fresh votes, every day; whereas bureaucrats would try to solve it by having made for the consumers not what the consumers themselves wanted, but what the bureaucrats decided was good for them. Yet, though the bureaucrats do not understand the quasi-automatic system of the market, they are always disturbed by it. They are always trying to improve it or correct it, usually in the interests of some wailing pressure group.” – Henry Hazlitt
- “It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.” – Henry David Thoreau
- “The evil is inflation. Its weapon of defense is an invisible vapor, the effect of which is to cause people to become economic alcoholics, afflicted with the delusion that they can get rich by destroying the value of money.” – Garet Garrett
- “A government that has arrived at the ultimate goal of total power may dispense with inflation. The power to command obedience enables it to achieve directly what formerly it could only achieve indirectly by inflation. The consuming delusion is that because of what Americans were, this may not or cannot happen.” – Garrett
- “Wealth brings with it its own checks and balances. The basis of political economy is non-interference. The only safe rule is found in the self-adjusting meter of demand and supply. Do not legislate. Meddle, and you snap the sinews with your sumptuary laws. Give no bounties, make equal laws, secure life and property, and you need give no alms. Open the doors of opportunity to talent and virtue and they will do themselves justice, and property will not be in bad hands. In a free and just commonwealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile to the industrious, brave and persevering.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “Anyone who has observed how aspiring monopolists regularly seek and frequently obtain the assistance of the power of the state to make their control effective can have little doubt that there is nothing inevitable about this development.” – Hayek
- “The money rate can, indeed, be kept artificially low only by continuous new injections of currency or bank credit in place of real savings. This can create the illusion of more capital just as the addition of water can create the illusion of more milk. But it is a policy of continuous inflation. It obviously is a process involving cumulative danger. The money rate will rise and a crisis will develop if the inflation is reversed, or merely brought to a halt, or even continued at a diminished rate.” – Hazlitt
- “Government-guaranteed home mortgages, especially when a negligible down payment or no down payment whatever is required, inevitably mean more bad loans than otherwise. They force the general taxpayer to subsidize the bad risks and to defray the losses. They encourage people to ‘buy’ houses that they cannot afford. They tend eventually to bring about an oversupply of houses as compared with other things. They temporarily overstimulate building, raise the cost of building for everybody (including the buyers of the homes with the guaranteed mortgages), and may mislead the building industry into an eventually costly overexpansion. In brief, in the long run they do not increase overall national production but encourage malinvestment.” – Hazlitt (1946, if heeded, we may have avoided current recession)
- “There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch its currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate secretly and unobserved an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this means they not only confiscate, but confiscate arbitrarily, and while the process impoverishes many it actually enriches some.” – Keynes
- “As to the assumed authority of any assembly in making paper money, or paper of any kind, a legal tender, or in other language, a compulsive payment, it is a most presumptuous attempt at arbitrary power. There can be no such power in a republican government: the people have no freedom, and property no security where this practice can be acted: and the committee who shall bring in a report for this purpose, or the member who moves for it, and he who seconds it merits impeachment, and sooner or later may expect it.” – Thomas Paine
- “Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the confiscation of wealth. Gold stands in the way of this insidious process. It stands as a protector of property rights. If one grasps this, one has no difficulty in understanding the statists’ antagonism toward the gold standard.” – Alan Greenspan
- “What is called economic power, while it can be used as an instrument of coercion, is, in the hands of private individuals, never exclusive or complete power, never power over the whole life of a person. But centralized as an instrument of political power it creates a degree of dependence scarcely distinguishable from slavery.” – Hayek
- “You cannot make a man worth a given amount by making it illegal for anyone to offer him anything less. You merely deprive him of the right to earn the amount that his abilities and situation would permit him to earn, while you deprive the community even of the moderate services he is capable of rendering. In brief, for a low wage you substitute unemployment. You do harm all around, with no comparable compensation.” – Hazlitt
- “The question is not whether we wish to see everybody as well off as as possible. Among men of good will such an aim can be taken for granted. The real question concerns the proper means of achieving it. And in trying to answer this we must never lose sight of a few elementary truisms. We cannot distribute more wealth than is created. We cannot in the long run pay labor as a whole more than it produces. The best way to raise wages, therefore, is to raise marginal labor productivity. This can be done by many methods: by an increase in capital accumulation–i.e., by an increase in the machines with which the workers are aided; by new inventions and improvements; by more efficient management on the part of employers; by more industriousness and efficiency on the part of workers; by better education and training. The more the individual worker produces, the more he increases the wealth of the whole community. The more he produces, the more his services are worth to consumers, and hence to employers. And the more he is worth to employers, the more he will be paid. Real wages come out of production, not out of government decrees. So government policy should be directed, not to imposing more burdensome requirements on employers, but to following policies that encourage profits, that encourage employers to expand, to invest in newer and better machines to increase the productivity of workers–in brief, to encourage capital accumulation, instead of discouraging it–and to increase both employment and wage rates.” – Hazlitt
- “‘Adequate’ relief will cause some men not to seek work at all, and will cause others to consider that they are in effect being asked to work not for the wage offered, but only for the difference between the wage and the relief payment.” – Hazlitt
“A malady… once known is half cured.” – Jefferson
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