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Economics in One Lesson
Economics In One Lesson
By HENRY HAZLITT
SPECIAL EDITION FOR
THE FOUNDATION FOR ECONOMIC EDUCATION, INC.
POCKET BOOKS, INC., ROCKEFELLER CENTER, N. Y.
The Printing History of
ECONOMICS IN ONE LESSON
Harper & Brothers edition published July, 1946
1ST PRINTING………………….……………… JULY, 1946
2ND PRINTING………………….……………… JULY, 1946
3RD PRINTING………………….……………… AUGUST, 1946
4TH PRINTING………………….……………… OCTOBER, 1946
5TH PRINTING………………….……………… FEBRUARY,1947
6TH PRINTING………………….……………… FEBRUARY, 1948
Reader’s Digest condensed version published August, 1946: February, 1948
Spanish edition (Editorial Kraft, Buenos Aires ) published December, 1947
Pocket Book edition published November, 1948
1ST PRINTING………………….……………… October,1948
Special edition for:
The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
This Pocket Book edition is published by arrangement with Harper & Brothers
Henry Hazlitt has been interpreting business trends for the American people for the past 35 years. Starting in the field of economics as a reporter on the Wall Street Journal, he has served on the financial and editorial staffs of several of the great New York newspapers, including the Sun, the Herald, and the Times. In addition, he has been associated with The Nation and edited American Mercury and the Freeman. Mr. Hazlitt has traveled extensively in Europe and South America for on- the-spot studies of world economic conditions. Since 1946, he has been a contributing editor to Newsweek magazine, where his weekly column, “Business Tides,” is a regular feature. Born in Philadelphia, in 1894, he attended the College of the City of New York and served with Air Service, U. S. Army, in World War I. He is the author of many books and pamphlets dealing with economics, among which are Will Dollars Save the World? and The Great Idea. We is also well known as a lecturer and literally critic.
PART ONE : THE LESSON
I. The Lesson
PART TWO: THE LESSON APPLIED
II. The Broken Window
III. The Blessings of Destruction
IV. Public Works Mean Taxes
V. Taxes Discourage Production
VI. Credit Diverts Production
VII. The Curse of Machinery
VIII. Spread-the-Work Schemes
IX. Disbanding Troops and Bureaucrats
X. The Fetish of Full Employment
XI. Who’s “Protected” by Tariffs?
XII. The Drive for Exports
XIII. “Parity” Prices
XIV. Saving the X Industry
XV. How the Price System Works
XVI. “Stabilizing” Commodities
XVII. Government Price-Fixing
XVIII. Minimum Wage Laws
XIX. Do Unions Really Raise Wages?
XX. “Enough to Buy Back the Product”
XXI. The Function of Profits
XXII. The Mirage of Inflation
XXIII. The Assault on Saving
PART THREE: THE LESSON RESTATED
XXIV. The Lesson Restated
XXV. A Note on Books
This book is an analysis of economic fallacies that are at last so prevalent that they have almost become a new orthodoxy. The one thing that has prevented this has been their own self-contradictions, which have scattered those who accept the same premises into a hundred different “schools,” for the simple reason that it is impossible in matters touching practical life to be consistently wrong. But the difference between one new school and another is merely that one group wakes up earlier than another to the absurdities to which its false premises are driving it, and becomes at that moment inconsistent by either unwittingly abandoning its false premises or accepting conclusions from them less disturbing or fantastic than those that logic would demand.
There is not a major government in the world at this moment, however, whose economic policies are not influenced if they are not almost wholly determined by acceptance of some of these fallacies. Perhaps the shortest and surest way to an understanding of economics is through a dissection of such errors, and particularly of the central error from which they stem. That is the assumption of this volume and of its somewhat ambitious and belligerent title.
The volume is therefore primarily one of exposition. It makes no claim to originality with regard to any of the chief ideas that it expounds. Rather its effort is to show that many of the ideas which now pass for brilliant innovations and advances are in fact mere revivals of ancient errors, and a further proof of the dictum that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.
The present essay itself is, I suppose, unblushingly ” classical,” “traditional” and “orthodox”: at least these are the epithets with which those whose sophisms are here subjected to analysis will no doubt attempt to dismiss it. But the student whose aim is to attain as much truth as possible will not be frightened by such adjectives. He will not be forever seeking a revolution, a “fresh start,” in economic thought. His mind will, of course, be as receptive to new ideas as to old ones; but he will be content to put aside merely restless or exhibitionistic straining for novelty and originality. As Morris R. Cohen has remarked: “The notion that we can dismiss the views of all previous thinkers surely leaves no basis for the hope that our own work will prove of any value to others.”* Because this is a work of exposition I have availed myself freely and without detailed acknowledgment (except for rare footnotes and quotations) of the ideas of others. This is inevitable when one writes in a field in which many of the world’s finest minds have labored. But my indebtedness to at least three writers is of so specific a nature that I cannot allow it to pass unmentioned. My greatest debt, with respect to the kind of expository framework on which the present argument is hung, is to Frédéric Bastiat’s essay Cequ’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas, now nearly a century old. The present work may, in fact, be regarded as a modernization, extension and generalization of the approach found in Bastiat’s pamphlet. My second debt is to Philip Wicksteed: in particular the chapters on wages and the final summary chapter owe much to his Common Sense of Political Economy. My third debt is to Ludwig von Mises. Passing over everything that this elementary treatise may owe to his writings in general, my most specific debt is to his exposition of the manner in which the process of monetary inflation is spread.
When analyzing fallacies, I have thought it still less advisable to mention particular names than in giving credit. To do so would have required special justice to each writer criticized, with exact quotations, account taken of the particular emphasis he places on this point or that, the qualifications he makes, his personal ambiguities, inconsistencies, and so on. I hope, therefore, that no one will be too disappointed at the absence of such names as Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, Major Douglas, Lord Keynes, Professor Alvin Hansen and others in these pages. The object of this hook is not to expose the special errors of particular writers, but economic errors in their most frequent, widespread or influential form. Fallacies, when they have reached the popular stage, become anonymous anyway. The subtleties or obscurities to be found in the authors most responsible for propagating them are washed off. A doctrine becomes simplified; the sophism that may have been buried in a network of qualifications, ambiguities or mathematical equations stands clear. I hope I shall not be accused of injustice on the ground, therefore, that a fashionable doctrine in the form in which I have presented it is not precisely the doctrine as it has been formulated by Lord Keynes or some other special author. It is the beliefs which politically influential groups hold and which governments act upon that we are interested in here, not the historical origins of those beliefs.
I hope, finally, that I shall be forgiven for making such rare reference to statistics in the following pages. To have tried to present statistical confirmation, interfering to the effects of tariffs, price-fixing, inflation, and the controls over such commodities as coal, rubber and cotton would have swollen this book much beyond the dimensions contemplated. As a working newspaper man, moreover, I am acutely aware of how quickly statistics become out-of-date and are superseded by later figures. Those who are interested in specific economic problems are advised to read current “realistic” discussions of them, with statistical documentation: they will not find it difficult to interpret the statistics correctly in the light of the basic principles they have learned.
I have tried to write this hook as simply and with as much freedom from technicalities as is consistent with reasonable accuracy, so that it can be fully understood by a reader with no previous acquaintance with economics.
While this book was composed as a unit, three chapters have already appeared as separate articles, and I wish to thank The New York Times, The American Scholar and The New Leader for permission to reprint material originally published in their pages. I am grateful to Professor von Mises for reading the manuscript and for helpful suggestions. Responsibility for the opinions expressed is, of course, entirely my own.
March 25, 1946
PART ONE : THE LESSON
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Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousand fold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine-the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for them plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.
In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.
In this lies almost the whole difference between good such shallow wisecracks pass as devastating epigrams and the ripest wisdom.
But the tragedy is that, on the contrary, we are already suffering the long-run consequences of the policies of the remote or recent past. Today is already the tomorrow which the bad economist yesterday urged us to ignore. The long-run consequences of some economic policies may become evident in a few months. Others may not become evident for several years. Still others may not become evident for decades. But in every case those long-run consequences are contained in the policy as surely as the hen was in the egg, the flower in the seed.
From this aspect, therefore, the whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
Nine-tenths of the economic fallacies that are working such dreadful harm in the world today are the result of ignoring this lesson. Those fallacies all stem from one of two central fallacies, or both: that of looking only at the immediate consequences of an act or proposal, and that of looking at the consequences only for a particular group to the neglect of other groups.
It is true, of course, that the opposite error is possible. In considering a policy we ought not to concentrate only on its long-run results to the community as a whole. This is the error often made by the classical economists. It resulted in certain callousness toward the fate of groups that were immediately hurt by policies or developments which proved to be beneficial on net balance and in the long run.
But comparatively few people today make this error; and those few consist mainly of professional economists. The most frequent fallacy by far today, the fallacy that emerges again and again in nearly every conversation that touches on economic affairs, the error of a thousand political speeches, the central sophism of the “new” economics, is to concentrate on the short-run effects of policies on special groups and to ignore or belittle the long-run effects on the community as a whole. The “new” economists flatter themselves that this is a great, almost a revolutionary advance over the methods of the “classical” or “orthodox” economists, because the former take into consideration short-run effects which the latter often ignored. But in themselves ignoring or slighting the long run effects, they are making the far more serious error. They overlook the woods in their precise and minute examination of particular trees. Their methods and conclusions are often profoundly reactionary. They are sometimes surprised to find themselves in accord with seventeenth-century mercantilism. They fall, in fact, into all the ancient errors (or would, if they were not so inconsistent) that the classical economists, we had hoped, had once for all got rid of.
It is often sadly remarked that the bad economists present their errors to the public better than the good economists present their truths. It is often complained that demagogues can he more plausible in putting forward economic nonsense from the platform than the honest men who try to show what is wrong with it. But the basic reason for this ought not to be mysterious. The reason is that the demagogues and bad economists are presenting half-truths. They are speaking only of the immediate effect of a proposed policy or its effect upon a single group. As far as they go they may often be right. In these cases the answer consists in showing that the proposed policy would also have longer and less desirable effects, or that it could benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The answer consists in supplementing and correcting the half-truth with the other half. But to consider all the chief effects of a proposed course on everybody often requires a long, complicated, and dull chain of reasoning. Most of the audience finds this chain of reasoning difficult to follow and soon becomes bored and inattentive. The bad economists rationalize this intellectual debility and laziness by assuring the audience that it need not even attempt to follow the reasoning or judge it on its merits because it is only “classicism” or “laissez faire” or “capitalist apologetics” or whatever other term of abuse may happen to strike them as effective.
We have stated the nature of the lesson, and of the fallacies that stand in its way, in abstract terms. But the lesson will not be driven home, and the fallacies will continue to go unrecognized, unless both are illustrated by examples. Through these examples we can move from the most elementary problems in economics to the most complex and difficult. Through them we can learn to detect and avoid first the crudest and most palpable fallacies and finally some of the most sophisticated and elusive. To that task we shall now proceed.
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PART TWO : THE LESSON APPLIED
THE BROKEN WINDOW
Let us begin with the simplest illustration possible: let us, emulating Bastiat, choose a broken pane of glass.
A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $50 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $50 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.
Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $50 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace a window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $50 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.
The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.
THE BLESSINGS OF DESTRUCTION
So we have finished with the broken window. An elementary fallacy. Anybody, one would think, would be able to avoid it after a few moments’ thought. Yet the broken window fallacy, under a hundred disguises, is the most persistent in the history of economics. It is more rampant now than at any time in the past. It is solemnly reaffirmed every day by great captains of industry, by chambers of commerce, by labor union leaders, by editorial writers and newspaper columnists and radio commentators, by learned statisticians using the most refined techniques, by professors of economics in our best universities. In their various ways they all dilate upon the advantages of destruction.
Though some of them would disdain to say that there are net benefits in small acts of destruction, they see almost endless benefits in enormous acts of destruction. They tell us how much better off economically we all are in war than in peace. They see “miracles of production” which it requires a war to achieve. And they see a post-war world made certainly prosperous by an enormous “accumulated” or “backed-up” demand. In Europe they joyously count the houses, the whole cities that have been leveled to the ground and that “will have to be replaced.” In America they count the houses that could not be built during the war, the nylon stockings that could not be supplied, the worn-out automobiles and tires, the obsolescent radios and refrigerators. They bring together formidable totals.
It is merely our old friend, the broken-window fallacy, in new clothing, and grown fat beyond recognition. This time it is supported by a whole bundle of related fallacies. It confuses need with demand. The more war destroys, the more it impoverishes, the greater is the postwar need. Indubitably. But need is not demand. Effective economic demand requires not merely need but corresponding purchasing power. The needs of China too are incomparably greater than the needs of America. But its power, and therefore the, “new business” that it can stimulate, are incomparably smaller.
But if we get past this point, there is a chance for another fallacy, and the broken-windows usually grab it. They think of “purchasing power” merely in terms of money. Now money can be run off by the printing press. As this is being written, in fact, printing money is the world’s biggest industry–if the product is measured in monetary terms. But the more money is turned out in this way, the more the value of any given unit of money falls. This falling value can be measured in rising prices of commodities. But as most people are so firmly in the habit of thinking of their wealth and income in terms of money, they consider themselves better off as these monetary totals rise, in spite of the fact that in terms of things they may have less and buy less. Most of the “good” economic results which people attribute to war are really owing to wartime inflation. They could be produced just as well by an equivalent peacetime inflation. We shall come back to this money illusion later.
Now there is a half-truth in the “backed-up” demand fallacy, just as there was in the broken-window fallacy. The broken window did make more business for the glazier. The destruction of war will make more business for the producers of certain things. The destruction of houses and cities will make more business for the building and construction industries. The inability to produce automobiles, radios, and refrigerators during the war will bring about a cumulative post-war demand for those particular products.
To most people this will seem like an increase in total demand, as it may well be in terms of dollars of lower purchasing power. But what really takes place is a diversion of demand to these particular products from others. The people of Europe will build more new houses than otherwise because they must. But when they build more houses they will have just that much less manpower and productive capacity left over for everything else. When they buy houses they will have just that much less purchasing power for everything else. Wherever business is increased in one direction, it must (except insofar as productive energies may be generally stimulated by a sense of want and urgency) be correspondingly reduced in another.
The war, in short, will change the post-war direction of effort; it will change the balance of industries; it will change the structure of industry. And this in time will also have its consequences. There will be another distribution of demand when accumulated needs for houses and other durable goods have been made up. Then these temporarily favored industries will, relatively, have to shrink again, to allow other industries filling other needs to grow.
It is important to keep in mind, finally, that there will not merely be a difference in the pattern of post-war as compared with pre-war demand. Demand will not merely be diverted from one commodity to another. In most countries it will shrink in total amount.
This is inevitable when we consider that demand and supply are merely two sides of the same coin. They are the same thing looked at from different directions. Supply creates demand because at bottom it is demand. The supply of the thing they make is all that people have, in fact, to offer in exchange for the things they want. In this sense the farmers’ supply of wheat constitutes their demand for automobiles and other goods. The supply of motor cars constitutes the demand of the people in the automobile industry for wheat and other goods. All this is inherent in the modern division of labor and in an exchange economy.
This fundamental fact, it is true, is obscured for most people (including some reputedly brilliant economists) through such complications as wage payments and the indirect form in which virtually all modern exchanges are made through the medium of money. John Stuart Mill and other classical writers, though they sometimes failed to take sufficient account of the complex consequences resulting from the use of money, at least saw through the monetary veil to the underlying realities. To that extent they were in advance of many of their present-day critics, who are befuddled by money rather than instructed by it. Mere inflation–that is, the mere issuance of more money, with the consequence of higher wages and prices–may look like the creation of more demand. But in terms of the actual production and exchange of real things it is not. Yet a fall in post-war demand may be concealed from many people by the illusions caused by higher money wages that are more than offset by higher prices.
Post-war demand in most countries, to repeat, will shrink in absolute amount as compared with pre-war demand because post-war supply will have shrunk. This should be obvious enough in Germany and Japan, where scores of great cities were leveled to the ground. The point, in short, is plain enough when we make the case extreme enough. If England, instead of being hurt only to the extent she was by her participation in the war, had had all her great cities destroyed, all her factories destroyed and almost all her accumulated capital and consumer goods destroyed, so that her people had been reduced to the economic level of the Chinese, few people would be talking about the great accumulated and backed up demand caused by the war. It would be obvious that buying power had been wiped out to the same extent that productive power had been wiped out. A runaway monetary inflation, lifting prices a thousand fold, might none the less make the “national income” figures in monetary terms higher than before the war. But those who would be deceived by that into imagining themselves richer than before the war would be beyond the reach of rational argument. Yet the same principles apply to a small war destruction as to an overwhelming one.
There may be, it is true, offsetting factors. Technological discoveries and advances during the war, for example, may increase individual or national productivity at this point or that. The destruction of war will, it is true, divert post-war demand from some channels into others. And a certain number of people may continue to be deceived indefinitely regarding their real economic welfare by rising wages and prices caused by an excess of printed money. But the belief that a genuine prosperity can be brought about by a “replacement demand” for things destroyed or not made during the war is none the less a palpable fallacy.
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PUBLIC WORKS MEAN TAXES
There is no more persistent and influential faith in the world today than the faith in government spending. Everywhere government spending is presented as a panacea for all our economic ills. Is private industry partially stagnant? We can fix it all by government spending. Is there unemployment? That is obviously due to “insufficient private purchasing power.” The remedy is just as obvious. All that is necessary is for the government to spend enough to make up the “deficiency.”
An enormous literature is based on this fallacy, and, as so often happens with doctrines of this sort, it has become part of an intricate network of fallacies that mutually support each other. We cannot explore that whole network at this point; we shall return to other branches of it later. But we can examine here the mother fallacy that has given birth to this progeny, the main stem of the network.
Everything we get, outside of the free gifts of nature, must in some way be paid for. The world is full of so-called economists who in turn are full of schemes for getting something for nothing. They tell us that the government can spend and spend without taxing at all; that it can continue to pile up debt without ever paying it off, because “we owe it to ourselves.” We shall return to such extraordinary doctrines at a later point. Here I am afraid that we shall have to be dogmatic, and point out that such pleasant dreams in the past have always been shattered by national insolvency or a runaway inflation. Here we shall have to say simply that all government expenditures must eventually be paid out of the proceeds of taxation; that to put off the evil day merely increases the problem, and that inflation itself is merely a form, and a particularly vicious form, of taxation.
Having put aside for later consideration the network of fallacies which rest on chronic government borrowing and inflation, we shall take it for granted throughout the present chapter that either immediately or ultimately every dollar of government spending must be raised through a dollar of taxation. Once we look at the matter. In this way, the supposed miracles of government spending will appear in another light.
A certain amount of public spending is necessary to perform essential government functions. A certain amount of public works-of streets and roads and bridges and tunnels, of armories and navy yards, of buildings to house legislatures, police and fire departments-is necessary to supply essential public services. With such public works, necessary for their own sake, and defended on that ground alone, I am not here concerned. I am here concerned with public works considered as a means of “providing employment” or of adding wealth to the community that it would not otherwise have had.
A bridge is built, If it is built to meet an insistent public demand, if it solves a traffic problem or a transportation problem otherwise insoluble, if, in short, it is even more necessary than the things for which the taxpayers would have spent their money if it had not been taxed away from them, there can be no objection. But a bridge built primarily “to provide employment” is a different kind of bridge. When providing employment becomes the end, need becomes a subordinate consideration. “Projects” have to he invented. Instead of thinking only where bridges must be built, the government spenders begin to ask themselves where bridges can be built. Can they think of plausible reasons why an additional bridge should connect Easton and Weston? It soon becomes absolutely essential. Those who doubt the necessity are dismissed as obstructionists and reactionaries.
Two arguments are put forward for the bridge, one of which is mainly heard before it is built, the other of which is mainly heard after it has been completed. The first argument is that it will provide employment. It will provide, say, 500 jobs for a year. The implication is that these are jobs that would not otherwise have come into existence.
This is what is immediately seen. But if we have trained ourselves to look beyond immediate to secondary consequences, and beyond those who are directly benefited by a government project to others who are indirectly affected, a different picture presents itself. It is true that a particular group of bridge workers may receive more employment than otherwise. But the bridge has to be paid for out of taxes. For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers. If the bridge costs $1,000,000 the taxpayers will lose $1,000, 000. They will have that much taken away from them which they would otherwise have spent on the things they needed most.
Therefore for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing. But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $1,000,000 taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project. More bridge builders; fewer automobile workers, radio technicians, clothing workers, farmers.
But then we come to the second argument. The bridge exists. It is, let us suppose, a beautiful and not an ugly bridge. It has come into being through the magic of government spending. Where would it have been if the obstructionists and the reactionaries had had their way? There would have been no bridge. The country would have been just that much poorer.
Here again the government spenders have the better of the argument with all those who cannot see beyond the immediate range of their physical eyes. They can see the bridge. But if they have taught themselves to look for indirect as well as direct consequences they can once more see in the eye of imagination the possibilities that have never been allowed to come into existence. They can see the unbuilt homes, the unmade cars and radios, the unmade dresses and coats, perhaps the unsold and ungrown foodstuffs. To see these uncreated things requires a kind of imagination that not many people have. We can think of these non-existent objects once, perhaps, but we cannot keep them before our minds as we can the bridge that we pass every working day. What has happened is merely that one thing has been created instead of others.
The same reasoning applies, of course, to every other form of public work. It applies just as well, for example, to the erection with public funds of housing for people of low incomes. All that happens is that money is taken away through taxes from families of higher income (and perhaps a little from families of even lower income) to force them to subsidize these selected families with low incomes and enable them to live in better housing for the same rent or for lower rent than previously.
I do not intend to enter here into all the pros and cons of public housing. I am concerned only to point out the error in two of the arguments most frequently put forward in favor of public housing. One is the argument that it “creates employment”; the other that it creates wealth which would not otherwise have been produced. Both of these arguments are false, because they overlook what is lost through taxation. Taxation for public housing destroys as many jobs in other lines as it creates in housing. It also results in unbuilt private homes, in unmade washing machines and refrigerators, and in lack of innumerable other commodities and services.
And none of this is answered by the sort of reply which points out, for example, that public housing does not have to be financed by a lump sum capital appropriation, but merely by annual rent subsidies. This simply means that the cost is spread over many years instead of being concentrated in one. It also means that what is taken from the taxpayers is spread over many years instead of being concentrated into one. Such technicalities are irrelevant to the main point.
The great psychological advantage of the public housing advocates is that men are seen at work on the houses when they are going up, and the houses are seen when they are finished. People live in them, and proudly show their friends through the rooms. The jobs destroyed by the taxes for the housing are not seen, nor are the goods and services that were never made. It takes a concentrated effort of thought and a new effort each time the houses and the happy people in them are seen, to think of the wealth that was not created instead. Is it surprising that the champions of public housing should dismiss this, if it is brought to their attention, as a world of imagination, as the objections of pure theory, while they point to the public chousing that exists? As a character in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan replies when told of the theory of Pythagoras that the earth is round and revolves around the sun: “What an utter fool! Couldn’t he use his eyes?
We must apply the same reasoning, once more, to get projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority. Here, because of sheer size, the danger of optical illusion greater than ever. Here is a mighty dam, a of steel and concrete, “greater than anything capital could have built,” the fetish of photographers, heaven of socialists, the most often used miracles of public construction, ownership Here are mighty generators and power ho whole region lifted to a higher economic level, attracting factories and industries that could not otherwise have existed. And it is all presented, in the panegyrics of its partisans, as a net economic gain without offsets.
We need not go here into the merits of the TVA or public projects like it. But this time we need a special effort of the imagination, which few people seem able to make, to look at the debit side of the ledger. If taxes are taken from people and corporations, and spent in one particular section of the country, why should it cause surprise, why should it be regarded as a miracle, if that section becomes comparatively richer? Other sections of the country, we should remember, are then comparatively poorer. The thing so great that “private capital could not have built it” has in fact been built by private capital –the capital that was expropriated in taxes (or, if the money was borrowed, that eventually must be expropriated in taxes). Again we must make an effort of the imagination to see the private power plants, the private homes, the typewriters and radios that were never allowed to come into existence because of the money that was taken from people all over the country to build the photogenic Norris Dam.
I have deliberately chosen the most favorable examples of public spending schemes–that is, those that are most frequently and fervently urged by the government spenders and most highly regarded by the public. I have not spoken of the hundreds of boondoggling projects that are invariably embarked upon the moment the main object is to “give jobs” and “to put people to work.” For then the usefulness of the project itself, as we have seen, inevitably becomes a subordinate consideration. Moreover, the more wasteful the work, the more costly in manpower, the better it becomes for the purpose of providing more employment. Under such circumstances it is highly improbable that the projects thought up by the bureaucrats will provide the same net addition to wealth and welfare, per dollar expended, as would have been provided by the taxpayers themselves, if they had been individually permitted to buy or have made what they themselves wanted, instead of being forced to surrender part of their earnings to the state.
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TAXES DISCOURAGE PRODUCTION
There is a still further factor which makes it improbable that the wealth created by government spending will fully compensate for the wealth destroyed by the taxes imposed to pay for that spending. It is not a simple question, as so often supposed, of taking something out of the nation’s right-hand pocket to put into its left-hand pocket. The government spenders tell us, for example, that if the national income is $200,000,000,000 (they are always generous in fixing this figure) then government taxes of $50,000,000,000 a year would mean that only 25 per cent of the national income was being transferred from private purposes to public purposes. This is to talk as if the country were the same sort of unit of pooled resources as a huge corporation, and as if all that were involved were a mere bookkeeping transaction. The government spenders forget that they are taking the money from A in order to pay it to B. Or rather, they know this very well; but while they dilate upon all the benefits of the process to B, and all the wonderful things he will have which he would not have had if the money had not been transferred to him, they forget the effects of the transaction on A. B is seen; A is forgotten.
In our modern world there is never the same percentage of income tax levied on everybody. The great burden of income taxes is imposed on a minor percentage of the nation’s income; and these income taxes have to be supplemented by taxes of other kinds. These taxes inevitably affect the actions and incentives of those from whom they are taken. When a corporation loses a hundred cents of every dollar it loses, and is permitted to keep only 60 cents of every dollar it gains, and when it cannot offset its years of losses against its years of gains, or cannot do so adequately, its policies are affected. It does not expand its operations, or it expands only those attended with a minimum of risk. People who recognize this situation are deterred from starting new enterprises. Thus old employers do not give more employment, or not as much more as they might have; and others decide not to become employers at all. Improved machinery and better-equipped factories come into existence much more slowly than they otherwise would. The result in the long run is that consumers are prevented from getting better and cheaper products, and that real wages are held down.
There is a similar effect when personal incomes are taxed 50, 60, 75 and 90 per cent. People begin to ask themselves why they should work six, eight or ten months of the entire year for the government, and only six, four or two months for themselves and their families. If they lose the whole dollar when they lose, but can keep only a dime of it when they win, they decide that it is foolish to take risks with their capital. In addition, the capital available for risk-taking itself shrinks enormously. It is being taxed away before it can be accumulated. In brief, capital to provide new private jobs is first prevented from coming into existence, and the part that does come into existence is then discouraged from starting new enterprises. The government spenders create the very problem of unemployment that they profess to solve.
A certain amount of taxes is of course indispensable to carry on essential government functions. Reasonable taxes for this purpose need not hurt production much. The kind of government services then supplied in return, which among other things safeguard production itself, more than compensate for this. But the larger the percentage of the national income taken by taxes the greater the deterrent to private production and employment. When the total tax burden grows beyond a bearable size, the problem of devising taxes that will not discourage and disrupt production becomes insoluble.
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CREDIT DIVERTS PRODUCTION
Government “encouragement” to business is sometimes as much to be feared as government hostility. This supposed encouragement often takes the form of a direct grant of government credit or a guarantee of private loans.
The question of government credit can often be complicated, because it involves the possibility of inflation. We shall defer analysis of the effects of inflation of various kinds until a later chapter. Here, for the sake of simplicity, we shall assume that the credit we are discussing is non-inflationary. Inflation, as we shall later see, while it complicates the analysis, does not at bottom change the consequences of the policies discussed.
The most frequent proposal of this sort in Congress is for more credit to farmers. In the eyes of most Congressmen the farmers simply cannot get enough credit. The credit supplied by private mortgage companies, insurance companies or country banks is never “adequate.” Congress is always finding new gaps that are not filled by the existing lending institutions, no matter how many of these it has itself already brought into existence. The farmers may have enough long-term credit or enough short-term credit, but, it turns out, they have not enough “intermediate” credit; or the interest rate is too high; or the complaint is that private loans are made only to rich and well-established farmers. So new lending institutions and new types of farm loans are piled on top of each other by the legislature.
The faith in all these policies, it will be found, springs from two acts of shortsightedness. One is to look at the matter only from the standpoint of the farmers that borrow. The other is to think only of the first half of the transaction.
Now all loans, in the eyes of honest borrowers, must eventually he repaid. All credit is debt. Proposals for an increased volume of credit, therefore, are merely another name for proposals for an increased burden of debt. They would seem considerably less inviting if they were habitually referred to by the second name instead of by the first.
We need not discuss here the normal loans that are made to farmers through private sources. They consist of mortgages; of installment credits for the purchase of automobiles, refrigerators, radios, tractors and other farm machinery, and of bank loans made to carry the farmer along until he is able to harvest and market his crop and get paid for it. Here we need concern ourselves only with loans to farmers either made directly by some government bureau or guaranteed by it.
These loans are of two main types. One is a loan to enable the farmer to hold his crop off the market. This is an especially harmful type; but it will be more convenient to consider it later when we come to the question of government commodity controls. The other is a loan to provide capital-often to set the farmer up in business by enabling him to buy the farm itself, or a mule or tractor, or all three.
At first glance the case for this type of loan may seem a strong one. Here is a poor family, it will be said, with no means of livelihood. It is cruel and wasteful to put them on relief. Buy a farm for them; set them up in business; make productive and self-respecting citizens of them; let them add to the total national product and pay the loan off out of what they produce. Or here is a farmer struggling along with primitive methods of production because he has not the capital to buy himself a tractor. Lend him the money for one; let him increase his productivity; he can repay the loan out of the proceeds of his increased crops. In that way you not only enrich him and put him on his feet; you enrich the whole community by that much added output. And the loan, concludes the argument, costs the government and the taxpayers less than nothing, because it is “self-liquidating.”
Now as a matter of fact this is what happens every day under the institution of private credit. If a man wishes to buy a farm, and has, let us say, only half or a third as much money as the farm costs, a neighbor or a savings bank will lend him the rest in the form of a mortgage on the farm. If he wishes to buy a tractor, the tractor company itself, or a finance company, will allow him to buy it for one-third of the purchase price with the rest to be paid off in installments out of earnings that the tractor itself will help to provide.
But there is a decisive difference between the loans supplied by private lenders and the loans supplied by a government agency. Each private lender risks his own funds. (A banker, it is true, risks the funds of others that have been entrusted to him; but if money is lost he must either make good out of his own funds or be forced out of business.) When people risk their own funds they are usually careful in their investigations to determine the adequacy of the assets pledged and the business acumen and honesty of the borrower.
If the government operated by the same strict standards, there would be no good argument for its entire field at all. Why do precisely what private agencies already do? But the government almost invariably operates by different standards. The whole argument for its entering the lending business, in fact, is that it will make loans to people who could not get them from private lenders. This is only another way of saying that the government lenders will take risks with other people’s money (the taxpayers’ that private lenders will not take with their own money. Sometimes, in fact, apologists will freely acknowledge that the percentage of losses will be higher on these government loans than on private loans. But they contend that this will be more than offset by the added production brought into existence by the borrowers who pay back, and even by most of the borrowers who do not pay back.
This argument will seem plausible only as long as we concentrate our attention on the particular borrowers whom the government supplies with funds, and overlook the people whom its plan deprives of funds. For what is really being lent is not money, which is merely the medium of exchange, but capital. (I have already put the reader on notice that we shall postpone to a later point the complications introduced by an inflationary expansion of credit.) What is really being lent, say, is the farm or the tractor itself. Now the number of farms in existence is limited, and so is the production of tractors (assuming, especially, that an economic surplus of tractors is not produced simply at the expense of other things). The farm or tractor that is lent to A cannot be lent to B. The real question is, therefore, whether A or B shall get the farm.
This brings us to the respective merits of A and B, and what each contributes, or is capable of contributing, to production. A, let us say, is the man who would get the farm if the government did not intervene. The local banker or his neighbors know him and know his record. They want to find employment for their funds. They know that he is a good farmer and an honest man who keeps his word. They consider him a good risk. He has already, perhaps, through industry, frugality and foresight, accumulated enough cash to pay a fourth of the price of the farm. They lend him the other three-fourths; and he gets the farm.
There is a strange idea abroad, held by all monetary cranks, that credit is something a banker gives to a man. Credit, on the contrary, is something a man already has. He has it, perhaps, because he already has marketable assets of a greater cash value than the loan for which he is asking. Or he has it because his character and past record have earned it. He brings it into the hank with him. That is why the hanker makes him the loan. The banker is not giving something for nothing. He feels assured of repayment. He is merely exchanging a more liquid form of asset or credit for a less liquid form. Sometimes he makes a mistake, and then it is not only the banker who suffers, but the whole community; for values which were supposed to be produced by the lender are not produced and resources are wasted.
Now it is to A, let us say, who has credit, that the banker would make his loan. But the government goes into the lending business in a charitable frame of mind because, as we saw, it is worried about B. B cannot get a mortgage or other loans from private lenders because he does not have credit with them. He has no savings; he has no impressive record as a good farmer; he is perhaps at the moment on relief. Why not, say the advocates of government credit, make him a useful and productive member of society by lending him enough for a farm and a mule or tractor and setting him up in business?
Perhaps in an individual case it may work out all right. But it is obvious that in general the people selected by these government standards will be poorer risks than the people selected by private standards. More money will be lost by loans to them. There will be a much higher percentage of failures among them. They will be less efficient. More resources will be wasted by them. Yet the recipients of government credit will get their farms and tractors at the expense of what otherwise would have been the recipients of private credit. Because B has a farm, A will be deprived of a farm. A may be squeezed out either because interest rates have gone up as a result of the government operations, or because farm prices have been forced up as a result of them, or because there is no other farm to be had in his neighborhood. In any case the net result of government credit has not been to increase the amount of wealth produced by the community but to reduce it, because the available real capital (consisting of actual farms, tractors, etc.) has been placed in the hands of the less efficient borrowers rather than in the hands of the more efficient and trustworthy.
The case becomes even clearer if we turn from farming to other forms of business. The proposal is frequently made that the government ought to assume the risks that are “too great for private industry.” This means that bureaucrats should he permitted to take risks with the tax payers’ money that no one is willing to take with his own./p>
Such a policy would lead to evils of many different kinds. It would lead to favoritism: to the making of loans to friends, or in return for bribes. It would inevitably lead to scandals. It would lead to recriminations whenever the taxpayers’ money was thrown away on enterprises that failed. It would increase the demand for socialism: for, it would properly be asked, if the government is going to bear the risks, why should it not also get the profits? What justification could there possibly be, in fact, for asking the taxpayers to take the risks while permitting private capitalists to keep the profits? (This is precisely, however, as we shall later see, what we already do in the case of “non-recourse” government loans to farmers.)
But we shall pass over all these evils for the moment, and concentrate on just one consequence of loans of this type. This is that they will waste capital and reduce production. They will throw the available capital into had or at best dubious projects. They will throw it into the hands of persons who are less competent or less trustworthy than those who would otherwise have got it. For the amount of real capital at any moment (as distinguished from monetary tokens run off on a printing press) is limited. What is put into the hands of B cannot be put into the hands of A.
People want to invest their own capital. But they are cautious. They want to get it back. Most lenders, therefore, investigate any proposal carefully before they risk their own money in it. They weigh the prospect of profits against the chances of loss. They may sometimes make mistakes. But for several reasons they are likely to make fewer mistakes than government lenders. In the first place, the money is either their own or has been voluntarily entrusted to them. In the case of government-lending the money is that of other people, and it has been taken from them, regardless of their personal wish, in taxes. The private money will be invested only where repayment with interest or profit is definitely expected. This is a sign that the persons to whom the money has been lent will be expected to produce things for the market that people actually want. The government money, on the other hand, is likely to be lent for some vague general purpose like “creating employment;” and the more inefficient the work-that is, the greater the volume of employment it requires in relation to the value of product-the more highly thought of the investment is likely to be.
The private lenders, moreover, are selected by a cruel market test. If they make bad mistakes they lose their money and have no more money to lend. It is only if they have been successful in the past that they have more money to lend in the future. Thus private lenders (except the relatively small proportion that have got their funds through inheritance) are rigidly selected by a process of survival of the fittest. The government lenders, on the other hand, are either those who have passed civil service examinations, and know how to answer hypothetical questions hypothetically, or they are those who can give the most plausible reasons for making loans and the most plausible explanations of why it wasn’t their fault that the loans failed. But the net result remains: private loans will utilize existing resources and capital far better than government loans. Government loans will waste far more capital and resources than private loans. Government loans, in short, as compared with private loans, will reduce production, not increase it.
The proposal for government loans to private individuals or projects, in brief, sees B and forgets A. It sees the people in whose hands the capital is put; it forgets those who would otherwise have had it. It sees the project to which capital is granted; it forgets the projects from which capital is thereby withheld. It sees the immediate benefit to one group; it overlooks the losses to other groups, and the net loss to the community as a whole. It is one more illustration of the fallacy of seeing only a special interest in the short run and forgetting the general interest in the long run.
We remarked at the beginning of this chapter that government “aid” to business is sometimes as much to be feared as government hostility. This applies as much to government subsidies as to government loans. The government never lends or gives anything to business that it does not take away from business. One often hears New Dealers and other statists boast about the way government “bailed business out” with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Home Owners Loan Corporation and other government agencies in 1932 and later. But the government can give no financial help to business that it does not first or finally take from business. The government’s funds all come from taxes. Even the much vaunted “government credit” rests on the assumption that its loans will ultimately he repaid out of the proceeds of taxes. When the government makes loans or subsidies to business, what it does is to tax successful private business in order to support unsuccessful private business. Under certain emergency circumstances there may be a plausible argument for this, the merits of which we need not examine here. But in the long run it does not sound like a paying proposition from the standpoint of the country as a whole. And experience has shown that it isn’t.
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THE CURSE OF MACHINERY
Among the most viable of all economic delusions is the belief that machines on net balance create unemployment. Destroyed a thousand times, it has risen a thousand times out of its own ashes as hardy and vigorous as ever. Whenever there is a long-continued mass unemployment, machines get the blame anew. This fallacy is still the basis of many labor union practices. The public tolerates these practices because it either believes at bottom that the unions are right, or is too confused to see just why they are wrong.
The belief that machines cause unemployment, when held with any logical consistency, leads to preposterous conclusions. Not only must we be causing unemployment with every technological improvement we make today, but primitive man must have started causing it with the first efforts he made to save himself from needless toil and sweat.
To go no further back, let us turn to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. The first chapter of this remarkable book is called “Of the Division of Labor,” and on the second page of this first chapter the author tells us that a workman unacquainted with the use of machinery employed in pin-making “could scarce make one pin a day, and certainly could not make twenty,” but that with the use of this machinery he can make 4,800 pins a day. So already, alas, in Adam Smith’s time, machinery had thrown from 240 to 4,800 pin makers out of work for every one it kept. In the pin making industry there was already, if machines merely throw men out of jobs, 99.98 per cent unemployment. Could things be blacker?
Things could he blacker, for the Industrial Revolution was just in its infancy. Let us look at some of the incidents and aspects of that revolution. Let us see, for example, what happened in the stocking industry. New stocking frames as they were introduced were destroyed by the handicraft workmen (over 1,000 in a single riot), houses were burned, the inventors were threatened and obliged to fly for their lives, and order was not finally, restored until the military had been called out and the leading rioters had been either transported or hanged.
Now it is important to bear in mind that insofar as the rioters were thinking of their own immediate or even longer futures their opposition to the machine was rational. For William Felkin, in his History of the Machine Wrought Hosiery Manufactures (1867), tells us that the larger part of the 50,000 English stocking knitters and their families did not fully emerge from the hunger and misery entailed by the introduction of the machine for the next forty years. But insofar as the rioters believed, as most of them undoubtedly did, that the machine was permanently displacing men, they were mistaken, for before the end of the nineteenth century the stocking industry was employing at least a hundred men fur every man it employed at the beginning of the century.
Arkwright invented his cotton-spinning machinery in 1760. At that time it was estimated that there were in England 5,200 spinners using spinning wheels, and 2,700 weavers-in all, 7,900 persons engaged in the production of cotton textiles. The introduction of Arkwright’s invention was opposed on the ground that it threatened the livelihood of the workers, and the opposition had to he put down by force. Yet in 1787–twenty-seven years after the invention appeared–a parliamentary inquiry showed that the number of persons actually engaged in the spinning and weaving of cotton had risen from 7,900 to 320,000, an increase of 4,400 per cent.
If the reader will consult such a book as Recent Economic Changes, by David A. Wells, published in 1889, he will find passages that, except for the dates and absolute amounts involved, might have been written by our technophobes (if I may coin a needed word) of today. Let me quote a few:
During the ten years from 1870 to 1880, inclusive, the British mercantile marine increased its movement, in the matter of foreign entries and clearances alone, to the extent of 22,000,000 tons . . . yet the number of men who were employed in effecting this great movement had decreased in 1880, as compared with 1870, to the extent of about three thousand (2,990 exactly). What did it? The introduction of steam-hoisting machines and grain elevators upon the wharves and docks, the employment of steam power, etc.
In 1873 Bessemer steel in England , where its price had not been enhanced by protective du
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