Unregulated by Government is Still Well Regulated

Steven Horwitz has a post on the FreemanOnline that is just excellent. It makes the point that a market unregulated by the government is not necessarily an “unregulated market” in the sense that nothing governs how it behaves. Rather a market unregulated by the government will then be regulated by the rules of supply and demand. It will be regulated by the constant push and pull of the market and competition. In such a market, companies have to respond to consumer demand or they go out of business. Such an incentive will sharpen the mind. In a government-regulated market it is a small group of people who are making the rules. Their incentives may not align with ours, then what? Even if they have the best of motives, they cannot possibly have as much knowledge about the market as the market itself has – how can they possibly write rules that will make the market function better? The odds are against them – and so is history.

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Powerful because of wealth versus Powerful because of influence. I’ll take the former.

Hayek in the Road to Serfdom makes the point that in a socialist economy the only way to advance is through successfully lobbying the government so that your group is accorded greater privileges. If you have the misfortune to belong to a group with little political clout then you are doomed. Even if wealth affords one more power in a market based economy than the rest of the populace, is that worse than the alternative? Hayek says “And who will deny that a world in which the wealthy are powerful is still a better world than one in which only the already powerful can acquire wealth?” (Location 3315.) Rent seeking – lobbying for rules that work in your favor – is a huge problem in this country, maybe the biggest problem. However the solution is not more government control for that only increases the opportunities and scope of rent seeking. The solution is smaller government. If the government is firm about keeping its fingers out of a particular niche in the economy then there will be no incentive for anyone to lobby them about that particular niche.

Addendum September 15, 2011. Milton Freedman makes the point that businesses by lobbying for special treatment to get a leg up on their competition are fighting against capitalism. See his interview with Russ Roberts on EconTalk. (Thanks to Russ Roberts‘ post.)

Addendum October 31, 2011. Sheldon Richman at The Freeman Online makes the point that in an economy so tightly bound by regulations and laws, the rich have the upper hand in forming policy and will lobby for changes that enhance their wealth. However, expecting government to solve a problem it largely created is unrealistic. The best solution is not to ask for the government to redistribute wealth but for the government to back out of trying to micromanage the economy.

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Unintended Consequences to the max

I have several posts on unintended consequences of government policies, starting with one on November 27, 2010. (Click the Unintended Consequences category to see them all.) I just ran across a book that focuses exclusively on this topic and makes the point that some policies don’t just have minor negative outcomes but actually lead to people dying. The book is Death by Liberalism: The Fatal Outcome of Well-Meaning Liberal Policies by J. R. Dunn. (Amazon).

I have not read the book but have put it on my list to get to someday, hopefully soon.

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Electronic Currency (e.g., BitCoin) – An End Run Around the Fed?

When I first heard the position that the federal government should get out of the business of providing a currency I thought it sounded like the authors were not quite as connected with reality as one would hope. However, I have been reading and hearing more and more about the general idea and I no longer think it is completely nuts. It still seems unlikely we would ever go there in the foreseeable future but I can now see the advantages. In extremely brief form, the argument in favor of private market for money is two-fold. 1. The Federal Reserve has done a lousy job of keeping the economy on an even keel by ‘managing’ the money supply. A money system more decentralized and separated from control of politics and/or a small group of people would stand a better chance of providing a stable and predictable base for economic activity. 2. A private money supply might offer a more innovative and accountable financial system. It would make the managers of the money supply more accountable, which would reduce risk taking. It would reduce the barriers to innovation, which could make it easier for credit to flow where it can do the most good.

Recently I heard two podcasts that made it seem that there is a chance that an internet currency called BitCoin that could grow to the point that it could provide a viable alternative to government-backed money. The first podcast was on Security Now (also linked here) (a podcast mostly about computer security) and the second was on EconTalk. BitCoin is a decentralized electronic currency. Provided you can find a vendor that will take them, you can spend BitCoins to purchase items on the internet. You can hold them in an account and convert them into another currency, say dollars. Security Now discussed the technical aspects and the host, Steve Gibson, gave them a thumbs up for getting the security and technical details right. Gavin Andresen, the Principal of the BitCoin Virtual Currency Project talked to Russ Roberts, the host of EconTalk about the economic and social aspects of BitCoin. If one of the big outfits (e.g., Google, eBay) were to start accepting them I wonder if it could really take off? If it did, it could offer the possibility of a freely floating, non-government-backed currency as a basis for significant economic activity.

It will be fun to see how this develops. I’m not quite ready to go out and buy some BitCoin but I will be watching shopping sites to see if they start taking BitCoins.

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Obama’s magic math – can I use that at home?

Today President Obama announced a new plan “for America’s energy security, including increased responsible domestic production and winning the future through a clean energy economy.” I find it puzzling that Obama can claim to be fighting high oil prices by supporting several approaches that all work to increase costs. Obama proposes:

1. More domestic drilling – if it were cost effective wouldn’t oil companies already be doing it? If he would propose to make changes to get the government out of the way, say by reducing regulation, then this could indeed save us all money. However, Obama is proposing a mixture of increased regulation and increased subsidies, which means chasing oil that is more expensive. We would be better off buying our oil from the cheapest source and using that money for a more productive effort.

2. Biofuels – Same question as for drilling – if it were cost effective to create biofuels as substitutes for imported oil then why would we need the government to get involved? Ethanol from corn is a classic example of a non-economic approach to energy production. Again, this means we are paying more to get our fuel than we would if we purchased from the low-cost supplier. How could that possibly be better for the country as a whole?

3. Greater fuel efficiency in cars. – Sure this would reduce energy use, but at a cost of more expensive vehicles. That isn’t saving us any money, it is just shifting our money from oil companies to auto companies.

I wonder if I can succeed with Obama’s approach with my own budget? I’ll go out and buy more expensive versions of everything I consume and surely I will end the day with more money in my bank account, right?

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Rights, Wants, Needs, Take Your Pick

We are in a hurry to advance social causes. We can now get 3 square meals a day and have a roof over our heads, it is high time for us as a country to [take your pick] end poverty, provide everyone with clean water, provide everyone with access to great medical care, etc. Those are all grand and moral aims. The rub is in how we achieve them. The method we choose to get to those fine goals makes all the difference for some methods will be more effective than others, some may actually work against our goals. Part of the debate about how to go about achieving these goals often included talk of “rights” with some loudly proclaiming that, say “everyone has a right to clean water” or “everyone has a right to medical care”. The cry to provide for the rights of those oppressed or left out by the current system is loud and frequent. But are those actually “rights” or are they “wants”? Is it possible for us to have a lofty aim, but not equate the aim with a right? Is it possible that some lofty aims are explicitly NOT rights? Is it possible that the mass enumeration of “rights” has muddied the water for rationally discussing the best means for achieving lofty ends? To this last question, I answer “Yes”. Ben O’Neil wrote a very insightful posting on rights (also to be had as a podcast) for the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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Watch What You Wish For

Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom that we need to think long-term about the policies and ideas we propose for when you combine all the ideas adopted together over time in a nation and follow their natural consequences out into the future they can lead to serious, negative consequences that the original proponents would find objectionable, and which might do serious damage to the fabric of society as well as the welfare of the entire nation. Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom in a world reeling from World War II, however he recognized that the forces that brought the world to that sorry state were not confined to Germany and Italy, but rather were woven into the discourse of most of the western world at that time. If only more had recognized the tragic but natural consequences of the intellectual movements of the time we might have faced a very different century. Hayek’s quote below stresses this point.

That hodgepodge of ill-assembled and often inconsistent ideals which under the name of the Welfare State has largely replaced socialism as the goal of the reformers needs very careful sorting out if its results are not to be very similar to those of full-fledged socialism. This is not to say that some of its aims are not both practicable and laudable. But there are many ways in which we can work toward the same goal and in the present state of opinion there is some danger that our impatience for quick results may lead us to choose instruments which, though perhaps more efficient for achieving the particular ends, are not compatible with the preservation of a free society. The increasing tendency to rely on administrative coercion and discrimination where a modification of the general rules of law might, perhaps more slowly, achieve the same object, and to resort to direct state controls or to the creation of monopolistic institutions where judicious use of financial inducements might evoke spontaneous efforts, is still a powerful legacy of the socialist period which is likely to influence policy for a long time to come.
F.A Hayek, The Road To Serfdom

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Happy Birthday Wealth of Nations!

Today is the 325th birthday of the publishing of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations! Join the celebration by listening to Russ Roberts on Cato or reading Mark Skousen on the centrality of the phrase “the invisible hand” in Smith’s thinking (HT Russ Roberts).

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The Effect of Unions on Employment and Wages

We are seeing a lot of heated rhetoric here in Wisconsin about the governor and unions. The clearest treatment I have read of the effect of unions is Chapter 20 in Henry Hazlitt’s book Economics In One Lesson. Jeffrey Miron, a Senior Lecturer at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, provides a nice, compact blog post that is along the same lines as Hazlitt.

In brief, both Hazlitt and Miron argue that unions have two effects, they transfer money from the general public to union members and they increase unemployment. These effects are a natural and unavoidable outcome of any union that negotiates to increase wages and/or benefits above those that an unfettered market would provide. When unions achieve higher wages or benefits for their members, they raise the cost of labor to the employer. The employer has a few choices.

1.    Increase the price of their product to cover the added costs.
2.    Hold prices stable and absorb the added costs as reduced profit.
3.    Invest relatively more in capital in order to reduce the need for labor.
4.    Shift production to a location with lower labor costs.

Option #1 will pass the extra labor costs on to the market – everyone purchasing the product will pay more. This shifts money from customers to union members. The money that the customers would have spent elsewhere is now in the union members’ pockets. This reduces employment in other areas in the economy because consumers have less money to spend there.

Option #2 shifts money from investors and owners to union members. The money that the investors would have spent elsewhere or that the owners would have re-invested in their business is now in the union members’ pockets. This reduces employment in other areas in the economy because less money is being to spend there.

Options 3 and 4 directly reduce employment for union members.

Thus we see that if unions succeed in raising labor costs above their natural level the country as a whole will have higher unemployment one way or the other. I fail to see how that is a morally acceptable position. I believe high unemployment creates far worse social problems than lower wages for union members. The damage it does to individual lives is far higher than the damage caused by lower than desired income. If I had to choose between a policy that increases employment or one that transfers money into a relatively small number of pockets at the cost of higher unemployment, I would have little difficulty choosing.

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Fun with Numbers or “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”

In my work we use statistics to support or disprove a point. We mine data to look for patterns, answer questions, and search for evidence of impacts. We try very hard to be objective and accurate in our use of statistics. I spend a lot of time reviewing work of others and must be on guard against biases and mistakes in using statistics. Time after time I have asked authors and analysts to go back to the data to take another look – to look at the data from a different perspective, to slice and dice it in different ways to see if a different story emerges. In the process I have grown to appreciate the beauty and danger in data – they can be used and misused in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are misused on purpose, sometimes by accident, sometimes because our biases lead us to look for patterns we believe must be there.

Two articles I read recently led me to start this post as a way of providing examples of the misuse of statistics that are occurring in current political dialog. The first I described in my previous post on measuring educational achievement. Blogger IowaHawk examines ACT/SAT scores and demonstrates that if you do not think clearly about the numbers they can lead to faulty conclusions. He compares scores between Wisconsin and Texas. Wisconsin, with high union involvement in education, has an average SAT score significantly higher than non-union Texas. However, IowaHawk shows that comparing SAT scores for people of the same ethnicity produces very different results. Texans of the same ethnicity tend to score higher on SAT scores than those in Wisconsin. (Which pains me to write, given I live in Wisconsin.) Texas is home to significantly more minorities than Wisconsin – and that is the driver of the average SAT score difference. IowaHawk concludes “In other words, students are better off in Texas schools than in Wisconsin schools – especially minority students.”

The second article was a blog post by Russ Roberts on CafeHyek. Much fussing has been done lately about the plight of the middle class. One bit of that fuss has been about the apparently meager progress made in middle class incomes over the past few decades. Median household income in North America did not change much between 1980 and 2005. On the face of it, that sounds like a bad story – particularly when you place that against the high profile high earners that we read about in the paper including from bankers, Wall Street types and professional athletes. However, Roberts demonstrates that we ought to dig deeper into the story before we draw the conclusion that we have seen 25 years of going nowhere. Over these 25 years the composition of households has changed significantly. Single parent families, particularly households headed by single mothers, have grown dramatically as a percent of the population over the past 25 years. That means the median household in the 1980 family was much different from the median household in 2005 – or perhaps better stated, the composition of households below the median changed dramatically over that time and changed in a way that would reduce household income.
Roberts concludes

There has been an increase in workers and households well above the rate of population growth, and that increase is concentrated among below-median earners. That means that if you looked at the median income worker in 1980, that person could have made great progress over time but it is obscured and distorted when you look at the two medians over time.

Roberts points out that if you follow the same type of person over time you will find that their average income went up significantly over the past 25 years. This seems to be a much better use of the data.

I do not have a good feeling on whether income disparity is a larger problem now than in the past but I do believe that the evidence is strongly on the side of those who claim that we are all better off now than we were 25 years ago (or 50 or 100, you name it). Doom mongers should lighten up.

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