Monday, 22 August 2016

Cobden, von Mises and Shostak

Is there a role for Government spending?

Under the heading “DOES UK NEED LOOSER FISCAL STANCE TO CUSHION BREXIT?”,  Dr. Frank Shostak elaborates the 'Austrian' argument that 'The Market' is the only way of determining what is in the best interests of the world as a whole; the argument that government intervention inevitably distorts prices and generates inefficiencies. It is a beguiling theory, that of the ‘invisible hand’. Many years ago I also marvelled at how, in our small  market town, there appeared to be just the right number of milkmen, butchers, etc. I was thrilled to realise that there need be no external planner; that adjustment was automatic; no less thrilled than Adam Smith 2 centuries earlier. 

Dr. Shostak ridicules the idea of government-funded work projects by considering the building of an unnecessary and unwanted pyramid, which generates no  wealth, (either directly or indirectly), which is worse than pointless, because such building misdirects resources that could have been put to work creating wealth.

However, I think Dr. Shostak overstates the case against government intervention, and therefore the case for letting the market decide. Consider, instead of a pointless pyramid, the building of a motorway, or a channel-tunnel; a project that requires enormous capital resources and 20 years before showing a profit. The ‘invisible hand’ points, but there may be no entreprenuers who are both able and willing. What about monopolies, as when one operator buys up and destroys his competitors?  Bang goes the vaunted market. What if he does not, and we end up with two parallel railway lines running between London and Birmingham, squandering resources and both running at a loss?  Perhaps we should desire that governments act minimally; and wisely.

Cobden spoke forcefully in favour of letting the market decide the price of corn, and the price of money. He said “I hold all idea of regulating the currency to be an absurdity.” He saw that by abolishing tariffs against imported corn, the price of corn would automatically fall to the ‘just’ price, benefiting humanity as a whole; the foreign producers would benefit, the shippers would benefit, the British public would have cheaper food, and consequently would be able to buy more manufactured goods; only the British farmers would lose, but justifiably. However, Cobden’s motivation was not the logical beauty of the free market; it was this consequential humanitarian benefit that motivated him. His was a lifetime of concern for “the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men”.

Frank Shostak follows in the footsteps of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who also advocated letting the market decide, but with his eye on the beautiful theory, not on the humanitarian benefits. Von Mises was a supporter of ClassicalLiberalism, with its logical but brutal attitudes to poverty, the welfare state, and any action whatever by the state against individual liberty. He saw Keynesian-style intervention in the economy as little better than communism. He mistrusted, and denounced, the application of mathematics and even empirical observation to economics. He was both loyal and inflexible in his adherence to the articles of his a priori ‘faith’; you could say he was ’continental’, in contrast to Hayek who, though born in Austria, drifted toward British empiricism.

Against the a priori, von Mises, approach, I would suggest that human motivation is not simple, and is not logical. You cannot assume that every individual unit in a complex economy will value money above fresh air, so you cannot proceed a priori. Some people may like to starve their workers into accepting low wages, while others may not; or only sometimes. Of course it is logical to let indigent and surplus people starve or emigrate, but it is not humane. (Ah! the humane; the ‘bleeding heart’ of humanity; that contagious wrecker of perfect symmetries, that wanders like a virus from unit to unit of the social organism, and then vanishes.)

It is odd to find Richard Cobden and Ludwig von Mises sharing a website. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, if there are common elements, except that some articles may seem flawed, simplistic or harsh, to people who read other articles on the site with enthusiasm. 

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