Archive for the ‘Free Markets’ Category

The communist economic system was a total disaster, but it wasn’t because of excessive taxation. Communist countries generally didn’t even have tax systems.

The real problem was that communism was based on central planning, which is the notion that supposedly wise bureaucrats and politicians could scientifically determine the allocation of resources.

But it turns out that even well-meaning commissars did a terrible job. There was massive inefficiency and widespread shortages. Simply stated, notwithstanding the delusions of some left-wing economists (see postscript of this column), the system was an economic catastrophe.

Why? Because there were no market-based prices.

And, as explained in this video from Learn Liberty, market-based prices are like an economy’s central nervous system, sending signals that enable the efficient and productive allocation of resources in ways that benefit consumers and maximize prosperity.

And just in case it’s not obvious from the video, a price system can’t be centrally planned. Or, to be more precise, you won’t get good results if central planners are in charge.

Now let’s look at a bunch of economic policy questions that seem unrelated.

What’s the underlying reason why minimum wages are bad? We know they lead to bad effects such as higher unemployment, particularly for vulnerable populations, but how do these bad effects occur?

Why is it bad to have export subsidies such as the Export-Import Bank? It’s easy to understand the negative effects, such as corrupt cronyism, but what’s the underlying economic concern?

Or what’s the real reason why third-party payer is misguided? And why should people be concerned about high marginal tax rates or double taxation? Or Obamacare subsidies? Or unemployment insurance?

These questions involve lots of different issues, so at first glance there’s no common theme.

But that’s not true. In every single case, bad effects occur because politicians are distorting the workings of the price system with preferences and penalties.

And that’s today’s message. We generally don’t have politicians urging the kind of comprehensive central planning found is genuinely socialist regimes. Not even Bernie Sanders. But we do have politicians who advocate policies that undermine the price system on an ad-hoc basis.

Every tax, every regulation, every subsidy, and every handout is going to distort incentives for some people. And the cumulative effect of all these interventions is like a cancer that eats away at prosperity.

The good news is that we don’t have nearly as many of these bad policies as places such as France and Mexico.

But the bad news is that we have more of these policies than Hong Kong and Singapore.

The bottom line is that America could be much richer with less intervention. But that would require less ad-hoc interventionism.

P.S. There’s a bit of economic wisdom in these jokes that use two cows to explain economic systems.

P.P.S. Here are two other videos on the price system, both of which help explain why only a decentralized market system can allocate resources in ways that benefit consumers.

P.P.P.S. A real-world example of the price system helped bring about the collapse of communism.

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A couple of days ago, I (sort of) applauded Senator Bernie Sanders. Not for his views, which are based on primitive redistributionism, but because he challenged Republicans to state whether they support capitalism.

And I think it would be very revealing to see which GOPers were willing to openly embrace free markets, hopefully for both moral and economic reasons.

But not let’s look at this issue from another perspective. Why do some folks on the left oppose capitalism?

I suppose there are several answers. Old-fashioned communists and socialists actually thought capitalism was inferior and they wanted the government to directly plan the economy, run the factories, and allocate resources.

Most leftists today admit that central planning doesn’t work and you need a market-based price system, so their arguments against capitalism usually are based on two other factors.

  1. The rich somehow exploit the poor and wind up with too big a slice of the economic pie. The solution is high tax rates and redistribution.
  2. Capitalism is inherently unstable, causing painful recessions. The solution is to have lots of regulations to somehow prevent bad things.

I think both those arguments are misguided since the first is based on the inaccurate presumption that the economy is a fixed pie and the second overlooks the fact that government intervention almost always deserves the blame for downturns and panics.

Today, though, I want to focus on a new argument against capitalism. Some guy named Matt Bruenig recently argued in the Washington Post that capitalism is coercive.

I’m not joking. This wasn’t parody. He really is serious that a system based on voluntary exchange is anti-freedom.

Here are some excerpts from his column.

Capitalism is a coercive economic system that creates persistent patterns of economic deprivation. …it is well established that capitalism is fundamentally built upon threats of force. …When the physical resources necessary for production are privately held in the hands of very few, as in the United States, the majority of the population is forced to submit itself to well-financed employers in order to live.

And how does he propose to deal with the supposedly coercive nature of capitalism?

Simple, the government should give everybody money so they don’t have to work

To secure freedom and prosperity for all, it may ultimately be necessary to supplement the welfare state with a universal basic income — a program that would provide all citizens with a basic level of financial support, regardless of whether they’re employed. …no amount of labor regulation can ever undo the fact that workers are confronted daily with the choice between obeying a supervisor or losing all their income. The only way to break the coercion at the core of the employment relationship is to give people the genuine ability to say no to their employers. And the only way to make that feasible is to guarantee that working-age adults, at least, have some way to support themselves whether they work or not.


I don’t suppose Mr. Bruenig has thought through what happens if too many people decide to stop working so they can live off the “universal basic income.”

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsCall me crazy, but I suspect the number of people riding in the wagon would exponentially expand while an ever-growing share people pulling the wagon would decide to “go Galt.”

Of course, some leftists are smart enough to realize that somebody has to produce before the government can redistribute.

But anybody capable of writing these sentences obviously isn’t moored to reality.

True freedom requires freedom from destitution and freedom from the demands of the employer. Capitalism ensures neither, but a universal basic income, if successful, could provide both.

While he’s at it, why doesn’t he wave his magic wand so every little boy can play major league baseball and every little girl can have a pet unicorn?

I’ve previously expressed skepticism about the notion of a government-guaranteed income. The fact that Mr. Bruenig thinks it’s a good idea is confirmation that this idea should be rejected.

P.S. I have a Moocher Hall of Fame to celebrate disreputable deadbeats and a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to highlight overpaid and underworked civil servants. Maybe it’s time to have some sort of Hall of Fame for statists who say make really bizarre arguments. Mr. Bruenig could join Mr. Murphy, Ms. vanden Heuvel, and Mr. Yglesias as charter members.

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Whenever I need to explain the difference between socialism and capitalism, I start by noting that socialism technically is different from Obama-style big-government redistributionism and cronyism.

Socialism involves something more pervasive, involving government ownership of the means of production (which, if you read this postscript, is why Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom is far more radical than previous Labour Party leaders).

It also means eviscerating the competitive price system as a means of determining value and allocating resources, relying instead on politicians and bureaucrats to arbitrarily wield that power (some American politicians favor this latter approach in certain circumstances).

Needless to say, socialism has an unmatched track record of failure. It was such a disaster than only a few supposedly high-ranked academics (see this postscript) thought it worked.

But what about high-ranked communists who grew up under socialism. Did they think it worked?

The Houston Chronicle dug into its archives to produce a story about an incident that may have played a big role in history. It’s about a senior communist functionary who was exposed to a slice of capitalism.

Yeltsin visited mission control and a mock-up of a space station. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Stefanie Asin, it wasn’t all the screens, dials, and wonder at NASA that blew up his skirt, it was the unscheduled trip inside a nearby Randall’s location. Yeltsin, then 58, “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, “there would be a revolution.” …In the Chronicle photos, you can see him marveling at the produce section, the fresh fish market, and the checkout counter. He looked especially excited about frozen pudding pops. “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,” he said.

This random trip to a typical supermarket may have changed history.

About a year after the Russian leader left office, a Yeltsin biographer later wrote that on the plane ride to Yeltsin’s next destination, Miami, he was despondent. He couldn’t stop thinking about the plentiful food at the grocery store and what his countrymen had to subsist on in Russia. In Yeltsin’s own autobiography, he wrote about the experience at Randall’s, which shattered his view of communism, according to pundits. Two years later, he left the Communist Party and began making reforms to turn the economic tide in Russia. …“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people,” Yeltsin wrote. “That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.”

Since the Soviet Union was mired in poverty at the time, Yeltsin presumably was speculating about the potential wealth of his country.

And the good news is that the rigid communism of the Soviet Union is gone. Heck, the Soviet Union doesn’t even exist. Reagan was right when he predicted  the triumph of freedom, with Marxism being relegated to the “ash heap of history.”

But the bad news is that Russia (the most prominent of the 15 nations to emerge after the crackup of the Soviet Union) is a laggard on economic reform. There was a shift away from close-to-pure communism in the 1990s, to be sure, but the country still has a long way to go before it can be considered capitalist.

Here’s a back-of-the-envelope “statism spectrum” that I created. It’s designed to show that there are no pure libertarian paradises, not even Hong Kong. And there are no pure statist dystopias, not even North Korea (though that despotic regime is as close to pure evil as exists in the world).

Russia, I’m guessing, would be somewhere between China and Mexico.

And this gives me a chance to close with an important point.

Perfect economic policy almost surely is an impossible goal. But that’s fine. We can still enjoy good growth so long as we strive to at least move in the right direction. As I explained back in 2012, the private sector is capable of producing impressive results so long as it has sufficient breathing room to operate.

P.S. If you want a simpler and more amusing explanation of different economic systems, here’s the famous “two cows” approach.

P.P.S. The United States isn’t a socialist nation, but we’re not fully immune to that destructive virus. After all, we have a government-run rail company in America, a government-run postal service, a government-run retirement system, and a government-run air traffic control system, all things that would function far more efficiently in the private sector.

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The biggest mistake of well-meaning leftists is that they place too much value on good intentions and don’t seem to care nearly as much about good results.

Pope Francis is an example of this unfortunate tendency. His concern for the poor presumably is genuine, but he puts ideology above evidence when he argues against capitalism and in favor of coercive government.

Here are some passages from a CNN report on the Pope’s bias.

Pope Francis makes his first official visit to the United States this week. There’s a lot of angst about what he might say, especially when he addresses Congress Thursday morning. …He’ll probably discuss American capitalism’s flaws, a theme he has hit on since the 1990s. Pope Francis wrote a book in 1998 with an entire chapter focused on “the limits of capitalism.” …Francis argued that…capitalism lacks morals and promotes selfish behavior. …He has been especially critical of how capitalism has increased inequality… He’s tweeted: “inequality is the root of all evil.” …he’s a major critic of greed and excessive wealth. …”Capitalism has been the cause of many sufferings…”

Wow, I almost don’t know how to respond. So many bad ideas crammed in so few words.

If you want to know why Pope Francis is wrong about capitalism and human well-being, these videos narrated by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey will explain how free markets have generated unimaginable prosperity for ordinary people.

But the Pope isn’t just wrong on facts. He’s also wrong on morality. This video by Walter Williams explains why voluntary exchange in a free-market system is far more ethical than a regime based on government coercion.

Very well stated. And I especially like how Walter explains that markets are a positive-sum game, whereas government-coerced redistribution is (at best) a zero-sum game.

Professor Williams wasn’t specifically seeking to counter the muddled economic views of Pope Francis, but others have taken up that challenge.

Writing for the Washington Post, George Will specifically addresses the Pope’s moral preening.

Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary. They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak… Francis deplores “compulsive consumerism,” a sin to which the 1.3 billion persons without even electricity can only aspire.

He specifically explains that people with genuine concern for the poor should celebrate industrialization and utilization of natural resources.

Poverty has probably decreased more in the past two centuries than in the preceding three millennia because of industrialization powered by fossil fuels. Only economic growth has ever produced broad amelioration of poverty, and since growth began in the late 18th century, it has depended on such fuels. …The capitalist commerce that Francis disdains is the reason the portion of the planet’s population living in “absolute poverty” ($1.25 a day) declined from 53 percent to 17 percent in three decades after 1981.

So why doesn’t Pope Francis understand economics?

Perhaps because he learned the wrong lesson from his nation’s disastrous experiment with an especially corrupt and cronyist version of statism.

Francis grew up around the rancid political culture of Peronist populism, the sterile redistributionism that has reduced his Argentina from the world’s 14th highest per-capita gross domestic product in 1900 to 63rd today. Francis’s agenda for the planet — “global regulatory norms” — would globalize Argentina’s downward mobility.

Amen (no pun intended).

George Will is right that Argentina is not a good role model.

And he’s even more right about the dangers of “global norms” that inevitably would pressure all nations to impose equally bad levels of taxation and regulation.

Returning to the economic views of Pope Francis, the BBC asked for my thoughts back in 2013 and everything I said still applies today.

P.S. Let’s close by taking a look at a few examples of how the world is getting better thanks to capitalism.

We’ll start with an example of how China’s modest shift toward markets has generated huge reductions in poverty (h/t: Cato Institute).

Now let’s look at how a wealthier society is also a safer society (h/t: David Frum).

Or how about this remarkable measure of higher living standards (h/t: Mark Perry).

Here’s an amazing chart showing how something as basic as light used to be a luxury good but now is astoundingly inexpensive for the masses (h/t: Max Roser).

These are just a few random examples of how free markets, when not overly stifled by government, can produce amazing things for ordinary people.

We may not notice the results from one year to the next, but the results are remarkable when we examine data over longer periods of time.

And if our specific goal is to help the poor, there’s no question that economic growth is far more effective than government dependency.

Which is why I’ve explained that it’s better to be a poor person in a capitalist jurisdiction.

I’d much rather be a poor person in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore rather than in a “compassionate” country such as France. France might give me lots of handouts, but I’d remain poor. In a free-market society, by contrast, I could climb out of poverty.

P.P.S. Methinks Pope Francis would benefit from a discussion with Libertarian Jesus.

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Last month, I cited data from Economic Freedom of the World to explain that the United States was becoming less competitive because of creeping protectionism and reductions in the rule of law and property rights.

Now I have more bad news to share.

Last year, the United States ranked #12 for economic liberty.

But according to the new rankings released yesterday, the United States now has dropped to #16. Here are the new rankings (based on a 0-10 scale), with Hong Kong and Singapore once again leading the pack.

Why did the United States drop? In part, because our score fell from 7.81 to 7.73, but also because of what happened to the scores of other nations.

The bottom line is that Georgia, Taiwan, Qatar, Ireland, and the United Kingdom jumped ahead of the United States, while Finland fell behind America.

Now let’s get more depressed.

If you dig through the archives and get the rankings for 2000, you can see that the latest fall from #12 to #16 is part of a very disturbing pattern. The United States used to be #3 in the world, with a score of 8.5.

Wow, falling from 8.5 to 7.73. That’s definitely an indictment of statist policy during the Bush and Obama years.

But I’m going to share even more depressing data.

The folks at the Fraser Institute who put together Economic Freedom of the World retroactively alter scores and rankings as they get more data (sort of the way the U.S. government periodically revises GDP and employment data).

So if you look at their big excel spreadsheet, you’ll see that the United States actually wound up ranked #2 in 2000 with a score of 8.65, marginally ahead of Singapore, which had a score of 8.61.

So we’ve actually dropped from #2 to #16 in the rankings, and our score has plunged from 8.65 to 7.73.

I’ve saved the worst for last. I crunched the numbers to see which nations suffered the biggest declines since 2000. As you can see, the United States has the unfortunate distinction of being on a list with basket case economies such as Venezuela and Argentina.

To make matters worse, at least the U.K. has been moving in the right direction in recent years, with a slight increase from 7.80 to 7.87 between 2010 and 2013. And Iceland also has been trying to improve. Its score has jumped from 6.43 to 6.87 over the past three years.

The United States, by contrast, has downward momentum.

P.S. The nation with the biggest improvement since 2000 is Romania. Thanks to reforms such as the flat tax, its score has skyrocketed from 5.31 to 7.69, an increase of 2.38 points. At this rate, they’ll easily pass the United States in next year’s rankings.

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At the risk of stereotyping, the Chinese people are remarkably productive when given the chance. Hong Kong and Singapore are dominated by ethnic Chinese, and those jurisdictions routinely rank among the world’s top economies.

Taiwan is another high-performing economy with an ethnic Chinese population.

Ironically, the only place where Chinese people don’t enjoy high average incomes is China. And that’s because there’s too much statism. If you peruse the indispensable Economic Freedom of the World from Canada’s Fraser Institute, you’ll see that China is ranked #115 out of 152 jurisdictions, which is even below nations such as Greece, Haiti, and Vietnam.

As I explain in this interview, China’s politicians are undermining prosperity with a system based on cronyism rather than capitalism.

China’s in the news, of course, because of recent instability in its financial markets. And I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to give my two cents on this issue (see here and here).

But I was making the same criticisms even when China’s economy was perceived as a big success. I wrote in 2010 that America didn’t need to fear the supposed Chinese economic tiger. I pointed out in 2011 that China was way behind the United States.

And I was at least somewhat prescient when I warned about a bubble in the Chinese economy in this 2011 debate.

Though plenty of folks on the left actually argued that China’s state-controlled economy was something to mimic. Writing for Reason, Ronald Bailey cites some of their silly statements.

As the world watches China’s Communist Party leaders try to order markets around, my mind turned to those pundits who earnestly recommended that the United States emulate the brilliant beneficient Chinese planners in running our economy. The most fulsome China booster was New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. …So enamored of China’s industrial policy was Friedman that in 2010 he likened Chinese economic planning boldness to making “moon-shots.” …And then there is the inevitable Robert Reich. Reich, who is a former Clinton Secretary of Labor, has never been right about anything when it comes to economic policy prescriptions. For example, Reich was convinced in the 1980s the Japan would bury the United States due to the planning acumen of that country’s savvy bureaucrats. …Just shy of 30 years later Reich sang the same stale tune in 2011, only instead of Japanese planners, he was praising the wonders of Chinese industrial planning… As late as 2012, Richard D’Aveni, a Professor of Strategy at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, declared in The Atlantic that “The U.S. Must Learn From China’s State Capitalism to Beat It.”

Actually, Professor D’Aveni is right for the wrong reason. We can learn a lot from statist economies. But we should learn what to avoid, not what to copy.

To conclude, this post shouldn’t be perceived as being anti-China. I want there to be more prosperity in that country, which is why I defended China from an absurd attack by the IMF.

Moreover, I commend China for reforms that move policy in the right direction. And as I pointed out in the interview embedded above, China’s reforms in the 1980s and 1990s may have been limited, but they did help lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

Since I mentioned the interview, one of the quirky parts of the discussion was whether politicians should be held criminally responsible for economic mismanagement. Here’s what I wrote a few years ago about an example of that happening in Iceland.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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I’m a huge fan of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World.

I always share the annual rankings when they’re released and I routinely cite EFW measures when writing about individual countries.

But even a wonky economist like me realizes that there is more to life than economic liberty. So I was very excited to see that Ian Vásquez of the Cato Institute and Tanja Porčnik of the Visio Institute have put together The Human Freedom Index.

Here’s their description of the Index and some of the key findings.

The Human Freedom Index… presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint. It uses 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom… The HFI covers 152 countries for 2012, the most recent year for which sufficient data is available. …The United States is ranked in 20th place. Other countries rank as follows: Germany (12), Chile (18), Japan (28), France (33), Singapore (43), South Africa (70), India (75), Brazil (82), Russia (111), China (132), Nigeria (139), Saudi Arabia (141), Venezuela (144), Zimbabwe (149), and Iran (152).

Hong Kong and Switzerland are the top jurisdictions.

Here’s the Freedom Index‘s top 20, including scores on both personal freedom and economic freedom.

The United States barely cracks the top 20. We rank #12 for economic freedom but only #31 for personal freedom.

It’s worth noting that overall freedom is strongly correlated with prosperity.

Countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher per capita income ($30,006) than those in other quartiles; the per capita income in the least-free quartile is $2,615. The HFI finds a strong correlation between human freedom and democracy. Hong Kong is an outlier in this regard. The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being

And here are some notes on methodology.

The authors give equal weighting to both personal freedom and economic freedom.

One of the biggest challenges in constructing any index is the organization and weighting of the variables. Our guiding principle is that the structure should be simple and transparent. …The economic freedom index receives half the weight in the overall index, while safety and security and other personal freedoms that make up our personal freedom index receive the remaining weight.

Speaking of which, here are the top-20 nations based on personal freedom. You can also see how they scored for economic freedom and overall freedom.

To be succinct, Northern European nations dominate these rankings, with some Anglosphere jurisdictions also getting good scores.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that nations with economic freedom also tend to have personal freedom, but there are interesting exceptions.

Consider Singapore, with ranks second for economic freedom. That makes the country economically dynamic, but Singapore only ranks #75 for personal freedom.

Another anomaly is Slovenia, which is in the top 20 for personal freedom, but has a dismal ranking of #105 for economic freedom.

By the way, the only two nations in the top 10 for both economic freedom and personal freedom are Switzerland and Finland.

I’ve already explained why Switzerland is one of the world’s best (and most rational) nations. Given Finland’s high ranking, I may have to augment the nice things I write about that country, even though I’m sure it’s too cold for my reptilian temperature preferences.

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