Quotulatiousness

January 27, 2018

The difference between being “pro-free market” and “pro-business”

Filed under: Business, Government, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

It’s a distinction that really does make a difference, argues Jonah Goldberg:

One of the most difficult distinctions for people in general and politicians in particular to grasp is the difference between being pro-free market and pro-business.

There are many reasons for this confusion. For politicians, the key reason is that businesspeople are constituents and donors, while the free market is an abstraction. Also, because capitalists tend to lionize successful people, we assume they share our philosophical commitments. But it is a rare corporate titan who favors a free market if doing so is bad for his or her bottom line.

Adam Smith recognized this in his canonical 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations. “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion,” he wrote, without the conversation ending “in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

This doesn’t mean that capitalists are evil; it means they’re human beings. Virtually every profession you can think of has a tendency to dig a moat around itself to protect its interests and defend against competition. A few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out against affordable health care for children. Retail chains like Walmart and CVS started opening in-store clinics to provide affordable basic health care like vaccinations. The pediatricians rightly saw this as a threat to their monopoly over kids’ medical care. Obviously, the pediatricians didn’t think they were villains; they simply found rationalizations for why everyone should keep paying them top dollar for stuff that could be done more cheaply.

Similarly, most teachers like kids, but that doesn’t stop teachers unions from doing everything they can to protect themselves from competition or accountability. Indeed, unions, by design, are conspiracies against the public to defend the wages and perks of their members. NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard) is another manifestation of this phenomenon.

[…]

Smith understood this too. After noting how people of the same trade conspire to raise prices, he added: “It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.”

What both Smith and the founders understood is that such conspiracies can only last with the help of government. As the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued, in a system of free competition, monopolies cannot long endure without government protection.

December 15, 2017

QotD: Crony capitalism

Filed under: Economics, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

First, we labor under a ubiquitous threat of being shackled by crony capitalists. [Adam] Smith wondered how internally stable a free market could be in the face of a tendency for its political infrastructure to decay into crony capitalism. (The phrase “crony capitalism” is not Smith’s. I use it to refer to various of Smith’s targets: mercantilists who lobby for tariffs and other trade barriers, monopolists who pay kings for a license to be free from competition altogether, and so on.) Partnerships between big business and big government lead to big subsidies, monopolistic licensing practices, and tariffs. These ways of compromising freedom have been and always will be touted as protecting the middle class, but their true purpose is (and almost always will be) to transfer wealth and power from ordinary citizens to well-connected elites.

David Schmidtz, “Adam Smith on Freedom” (published as Chapter 13 of Ryan Patrick Hanley’s Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy, 2016).

October 1, 2017

Deirdre McCloskey on the rise of economic liberty

Samizdata‘s Johnathan Pearce linked to this Deirdre McCloskey article I hadn’t seen yet:

Since the rise during the late 1800s of socialism, New Liberalism, and Progressivism it has been conventional to scorn economic liberty as vulgar and optional — something only fat cats care about. But the original liberalism during the 1700s of Voltaire, Adam Smith, Tom Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft recommended an economic liberty for rich and poor understood as not messing with other peoples’ stuff.

Indeed, economic liberty is the liberty about which most ordinary people care.

Adam Smith spoke of “the liberal plan of [social] equality, [economic] liberty, and [legal] justice.” It was a good idea, new in 1776. And in the next two centuries, the liberal idea proved to be astonishingly productive of good and rich people, formerly desperate and poor. Let’s not lose it.

Well into the 1800s most thinking people, such as Henry David Thoreau, were economic liberals. Thoreau around 1840 invented procedures for his father’s little factory making pencils, which elevated Thoreau and Son for a decade or so to the leading maker of pencils in America. He was a businessman as much as an environmentalist and civil disobeyer. When imports of high-quality pencils finally overtook the head start, Thoreau and Son graciously gave way, turning instead to making graphite for the printing of engravings.

That’s the economic liberal deal. You get to offer in the first act a betterment to customers, but you don’t get to arrange for protection later from competitors. After making your bundle in the first act, you suffer from competition in the second. Too bad.

In On Liberty (1859) the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill declared that “society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit — namely, fraud or treachery, and force.” No protectionism. No economic nationalism. The customers, prominent among them the poor, are enabled in the first through third acts to buy better and cheaper pencils.

[…]

Indeed, economic liberty is the liberty about which most ordinary people care. True, liberty of speech, the press, assembly, petitioning the government, and voting for a new government are in the long run essential protections for all liberty, including the economic right to buy and sell. But the lofty liberties are cherished mainly by an educated minority. Most people — in the long run foolishly, true — don’t give a fig about liberty of speech, so long as they can open a shop when they want and drive to a job paying decent wages. A majority of Turks voted in favour of the rapid slide of Turkey after 2013 into neo-fascism under Erdoğan. Mussolini and Hitler won elections and were popular, while vigorously abridging liberties. Even a few communist governments have been elected — witness Venezuela under Chavez.

December 3, 2016

Capitalists and communists

Filed under: Bureaucracy, History, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

David Warren notes an odd similarity:

The last generation of Communists in power, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, suffered from a debilitating foible. They did not themselves believe in the ideology they were preaching. Their efforts were thus directed to getting around the realities their forebears had not anticipated. They thus became their own enemies, working against their own unworkable socialist principles, and in the course of their tireless if frazzled ministrations, the Berlin Wall came down.

Capitalism suffers from the same problem today. The principles of Adam Smith are not seriously believed by any of its nominal advocates. They are not even known. Nor could they be, for like Marx, Smith is not even read. I have derived pleasure, on many occasions, from pointing out to some ideological enthusiast for Capitalism, that its supposed author was refulgently opposed to joint-stock companies. Which is to say, to the form of business ownership that controls — oh, I don’t know — ninety-five percent of the so-called “private sector” economy today?

I observed that, apart from any consideration of morality (and he was, after all, only an amateur economist, but a professional Perfesser of Moral Philosophy), Smith believed that joint-stock companies were inefficient, because essentially bureaucratic. This is inevitable when ownership is separated from management. “Growth,” or Bigness, subtly replaces profit (both mercenary and non-mercenary) as the principal aspiration.

As a general rule of thumb, when you want to get something done, use the smallest possible organization to achieve your desired goal. I always found it a warning sign of future decline when small companies I worked for started to take on the trappings of bigger companies … when the bureaucratic rot began to set in. In some cases, just the transition to having an “HR Department” (rather than managers hiring directly) was enough to trigger bureaucracy growth and efficiency losses.

July 21, 2016

QotD: The economic folly of mercantilism

Filed under: Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

At the heart of [Trump’s] argument is the belief that selling to countries is good and buying from them is bad, the crude mercantilist fallacy that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations debunked in the same year that America embraced the Declaration of Independence. Smith, the brilliant British political economist, argued that unless people start eating gold bullion, the point of wealth is to buy not sell; to consume not produce. If China starts shipping free plasma TVs to America, a few American companies may be thrown out of business, but American consumers will be better off. What’s more, they’ll be able to spend their savings on goods from other companies. The only folks that protectionist policies benefit are crony capitalists who face less competition — the very thing that Trump says he’s fighting.

Shikha Dalmia, “Donald Trump’s free-trade follies”, The Week, 2016-06-30.

November 18, 2015

Adam Smith – The Inventor of Market Economy I THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Published on 22 Feb 2015

Adam Smith was one of the first men who explored economic connections in England and made clear, in a time when Mercantilism reigned, that the demands of the market should determine the economy and not the state. In his books Smith was a strong advocator of the free market economy. Today we give you the biography of the man behind the classic economic liberalism and how his ideas would change the world forever.

January 17, 2014

Have you read these books or have you lied about having read them?

Filed under: Books, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:16

Ben Domenech discusses the books that “everyone must read”, but very few have actually done more than turn the pages a bit, or perhaps scanned the Wikipedia entry for:

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: Smith’s invisible hand is all that many people seem to know about his work, but his contributions were more sophisticated than that, rejecting a simplistic view of self-interest and greed as the motivating factors in a healthy economy.

4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: If you haven’t managed this one yet, consider that William F. Buckley, Jr. did not actually read this until he was 50, remarking then to friends: “To think I might have died without having read it.”

3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Misunderstood and misapplied by people who’ve never bothered to read it, Sun Tzu’s advice is as much a guide to war as it is to avoiding combat via deception and guile, and to only fight battles one is certain of winning.

2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Viewed by people who don’t understand the context as a guide to mendacious political gamesmanship and the use of hypocrisy and cruelty as political tools, Machiavelli’s work is likely a brilliant work of sarcastic trolling which contradicts everything else he wrote in life – which is one reason it was dedicated, sarcastically, to the Medicis who exiled and tortured him.

1. Ulysses, James Joyce: I own this book but have never read it.

Yeah, there are a few books I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read or, in the wonderful phrase used on the Bujold mailing list, “bounced off”. I’ve read lots of Rand’s non-fiction, but have only ever finished We, the Living in her fiction works. I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and own copies of most of the others, but haven’t finished most of them (and haven’t even begun with the Darwin, Dickens, Hugo, or Melville titles).

November 6, 2012

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”

Filed under: Books, Economics, History, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

From LearnLiberty.org

Why are some countries wealthy while other nations are poor? Prof. James Otteson, using the ideas of Adam Smith, explains how the division of labor is a necessary and crucial element of wealthy nations. Additionally, Otteson explains Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, which explains how human beings acting to satisfy their own self interest often unintentionally benefit others.

March 7, 2011

QotD: Mercantilism

Filed under: Economics, History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:56

You actually had a short, but interesting chapter in your book explaining why you think our trade balance with China is mostly irrelevant. Could you give people a short, but sweet synopsis of that argument?

Adam Smith was the first to point this out in the Wealth of Nations. The common wisdom at the time, mercantilism was the name it went by, was that the way a nation got rich was by exporting things. In return for the exports they’d get gold. And Smith’s going, I’m paraphrasing broadly here, “You can’t eat gold, you can’t kiss gold, and gold won’t keep you warm at night. Gold is just gold.”

He said the exports, that’s real stuff, and you’re giving it away in favor of gold. He said imports are the good thing. Imports are when you’re getting something you like. You’re getting French wine. You’re getting American tobacco. You’re getting furs from Russia, getting whatever they were getting back in those days. He said exports are the way you pay for those imports. So imports are Christmas morning. Exports are January’s Visa bill.

People getting so upset because everything seems to be made in China — I understand it on the level of the jobs have moved overseas. I think it’s probably an important thing to remember that if the jobs hadn’t moved overseas, they probably would have just gone away. So, it’s not like the Japanese have all of our car making jobs.

John Hawkins, “The P.J. O’Rourke Interview”, Grendel Report, 2010-10-11

February 11, 2011

How “those evil speculators” actually provide a very useful public service

Filed under: Economics, History, Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:59

Tim Worstall has a very good summary of Adam Smith’s explanation of the very useful public service provided by speculators:

Back to food: this is exactly the argument that Adam Smith put forward to explain the activities of a wheat merchant (Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter V, start at para 40, here, for a decent dose of 18th century prose). When wheat is plentiful (although he calls it corn — the English did not call maize corn until some time later), say after a harvest, the merchant buys it up and stores it. He then waits until prices have risen before he sells it. If his expected shortage in the future doesn’t arrive then he’s shit out of luck and loses money. If it does, then the happy populace now have wheat to eat. For, and here’s the crucial point: what our merchant, our speculator, has done is move prices through time.

If we all ate wheat like it was that bounteous time just after harvest all the time then we would run out of wheat entirely before the next harvest. Prices would, at that point, become really rather high. However, by buying in the time of plenty, he’s raised prices in that time of plenty: thus making everyone consume a little less in that Harvest Festival gluttony. He’s also lowered prices in the Hungry Time (in medieval times, the six weeks before the harvest was indeed known as this, it was the worst time of year for food supplies) because he has at least some grain available rather than none.

So we’ve reduced price volatility, stretched the available supply over more time, possibly even stopped some starvation, by someone being enough of a bastard to speculate on food prices.

Now note, this is physical speculation, actual purchase, taking delivery and storage.

Derivatives speculation, using futures and options, has less effect on prices. It gives us information about what people think prices might be in the future, for sure, but it will only affect today’s prices if high future prices lead to that actual physical storage and hoarding. Which could happen, to be sure, but won’t necessarily.

All of this leads us to what people like M Sarkozy are trying to say and what the WDM are screaming about. The latter, in their report linked above, come right out and say that as more people are playing with food derivatives, this is what has been pushing up food prices. This is nonsensical, in the absence of any physical hoarding. For a start, WDM seems not to realise than a futures market is zero sum: for any profit made by someone then someone else must have made an equal and opposite loss. For everyone going long (betting on a price rise) someone else must have made an equal and opposite bet going short (betting that prices will fall). That’s just how these markets are. It really doesn’t matter to spot (current) prices whether three people are betting £50 or 30,000 are betting $50bn: there will be an equal and opposite number of people long as there are short, by definition.

So it absolutely cannot be that “more people speculating increases food prices”.

WDM’s second point is that more speculation means more volatility in prices: something that almost all economists would regard with a very jaundiced eye. For the general assumption is that futures act upon prices as does Smith’s wheat merchant: they reduce price volatility. Fortunately, the WDM, in its own report, provide us with an example of this. In the 2006/8 price rises, it notes that there’s a deep and liquid speculative market for wheat and corn (maize), while there’s only a very thin one for rice. And yet it was rice that was vastly more volatile in price in this period: despite the fact that it was wheat and maize which people were turning into ethanol for cars (the true cause of the price rises) rather than rice.

The price of a good is also a signal of availability: the more scarce the item is, the higher the price will go. The higher the price goes, the greater the incentive to either limit the use of the item or to search for substitute goods. This is a key feature of free markets: without the price change signalling, consumers cannot accurately guage whether to increase or decrease their use of a particular good. This is why the worst possible reaction to a sudden price increase is price controls: remember the first oil crisis in the 1970s? Price controls meant that people could still buy gasoline at the “old” price . . . until there wasn’t enough to go around. Controlling the price creates artificial shortages and fails to rationally indicate to consumers to conserve or limit their consumption.

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