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By George Reisman, October 21, 2008
The news media are in the process of creating a great new historical myth. This is the myth that our present financial crisis is the result of economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism.
The attempt to place the blame on laissez faire is readily confirmed by a Google search under the terms “crisis + laissez faire.” On the first page of the results that come up, or in the web entries to which those results refer, statements of the following kind appear:
“The mortgage crisis is laissez-faire gone wrong.”
“Sarkozy [Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France] said `laissez-faire’ economics, `self-regulation’ and the view that `the all-powerful market’ always knows best are finished.”
“`America’s laissez-faire ideology, as practiced during the subprime crisis, was as simplistic as it was dangerous,’ chipped in Peer Steinbrück, the German finance minister.”
“Paulson brings laissez-faire approach on financial crisis….”
“It’s au revoir to the days of laissez faire.”
Recent articles in The New York Times provide further confirmation. Thus one article declares, “The United States has a culture that celebrates laissez-faire capitalism as the economic ideal….” Another article tells us, “For 30 years, the nation’s political system has been tilted in favor of business deregulation and against new rules.” In a third article, a pair of reporters assert, “Since 1997, Mr. Brown [the British Prime Minister] has been a powerful voice behind the Labor Party’s embrace of an American-style economic philosophy that was light on regulation. The laissez-faire approach encouraged the country’s banks to expand internationally and chase returns in areas far afield of their core mission of attracting deposits.” Thus even Great Britain is described as having a “laissez-faire approach.”
The mentality displayed in these statements is so completely and utterly at odds with the actual meaning of laissez faire that it would be capable of describing the economic policy of the old Soviet Union as one of laissez faire in its last decades. By its logic, that is how it would have to describe the policy of Brezhnev and his successors of allowing workers on collective farms to cultivate plots of land of up to one acre in size on their own account and sell the produce in farmers’ markets in Soviet cities. According to the logic of the media, that too would be “laissez faire”—at least compared to the time of Stalin.
Laissez-faire capitalism has a definite meaning, which is totally ignored, contradicted, and downright defiled by such statements as those quoted above. Laissez-faire capitalism is a politico-economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and in which the powers of the state are limited to the protection of the individual’s rights against the initiation of physical force. This protection applies to the initiation of physical force by other private individuals, by foreign governments, and, most importantly, by the individual’s own government. This last is accomplished by such means as a written constitution, a system of division of powers and checks and balances, an explicit bill of rights, and eternal vigilance on the part of a citizenry with the right to keep and bear arms. Under laissez-faire capitalism, the state consists essentially just of a police force, law courts, and a national defense establishment, which deter and
combat those who initiate the use of physical force. And nothing more.
The utter absurdity of statements claiming that the present political-economic environment of the United States in some sense represents laissez-faire capitalism becomes as glaringly obvious as anything can be when one keeps in mind the extremely limited role of government under laissez-faire and then considers the following facts about the present-day United States.
1) Government spending in the United States currently equals more than forty percent of national income, i.e., the sum of all wages and salaries and profits and interest earned in the country. This is without counting any of the massive off-budget spending such as that on account of the government enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Nor does it count any of the recent spending on assorted “bailouts.” What this means is that substantially more than forty dollars of every one hundred dollars of output are appropriated by the government against the will of the individual citizens who produce that output. The money and the goods involved are turned over to the government only because the individual citizens wish to stay out of jail. Their freedom to dispose of their own incomes and output is thus violated on a colossal scale. In contrast, under laissez-faire capitalism, government spending would be on such a modest scale that a mere revenue tariff
might be sufficient to support it. The corporate and individual income taxes, inheritance and capital gains taxes, and social security and Medicare taxes would not exist.
2) There are presently fifteen federal cabinet departments, nine of which exist for the very purpose of respectively interfering with housing, transportation, healthcare, education, energy, mining, agriculture, labor, and commerce, and virtually all of which nowadays routinely ride roughshod over one or more important aspects of the economic freedom of the individual. Under laissez faire capitalism, eleven of the fifteen cabinet departments would cease to exist and only the departments of justice, defense, state, and treasury would remain. Within those departments, moreover, further reductions would be made, such as the abolition of the IRS in the Treasury Department and the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice.
3) The economic interference of today’s cabinet departments is reinforced and amplified by more than one hundred federal agencies and commissions, the most well-known of which include, besides the IRS, the FRB and FDIC, the FBI and CIA, the EPA, FDA, SEC, CFTC, NLRB, FTC, FCC, FERC, FEMA, FAA, CAA, INS, OHSA, CPSC, NHTSA, EEOC, BATF, DEA, NIH, and NASA. Under laissez-faire capitalism, all such agencies and commissions would be done away with, with the exception of the FBI, which would be reduced to the legitimate functions of counterespionage and combating crimes against person or property that take place across state lines.
4) To complete this catalog of government interference and its trampling of any vestige of laissez faire, as of the end of 2007, the last full year for which data are available, the Federal Register contained fully seventy-three thousand pages of detailed government regulations. This is an increase of more than ten thousand pages since 1978, the very years during which our system, according to one of The New York Times articles quoted above, has been “tilted in favor of business deregulation and against new rules.” Under laissez-faire capitalism, there would be no Federal Register. The activities of the remaining government departments and their subdivisions would be controlled exclusively by duly enacted legislation, not the rule-making of unelected government officials.
5) And, of course, to all of this must be added the further massive apparatus of laws, departments, agencies, and regulations at the state and local level. Under laissez-faire capitalism, these too for the most part would be completely abolished and what remained would reflect the same kind of radical reductions in the size and scope of government activity as those carried out on the federal level.
What this brief account has shown is that the politico-economic system of the United States today is so far removed from laissez-faire capitalism that it is closer to the system of a police state than to laissez-faire capitalism. The ability of the media to ignore all of the massive government interference that exists today and to characterize our present economic system as one of laissez-faire and economic freedom marks it as, if not profoundly dishonest, then as nothing less than delusional.
In this way the enemies of capitalism and economic freedom are able to proceed in their campaign of economic destruction and devastation. They use the accusation of “laissez faire” as a kind of ratchet for increasing the government’s power. For example, in the early 1930s they accused President Hoover of following a policy of laissez faire, even as he intervened in the economic system to prevent the fall in wage rates that was essential to stop a reduced demand for labor from resulting in mass unemployment. On the basis of the mass unemployment that then resulted from Hoover’s intervention, which they succeeded in portraying as “laissez faire,” they deceived the country into supporting the further massive interventions of the New Deal.
Today, they continue to play the same game. Always it is laissez faire that they denounce, and whose alleged failures they claim need to be overcome with yet more government regulations and controls. Today, the massive interventions not only of the New Deal, but also of the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, and of all the administrations since, have been added to the very major interventions that existed even in the 1920s and to which Hoover very substantially added. And yet we still allegedly have laissez faire. It seems that so long as anyone manages to move or even breathe without being under the control of the government, laissez faire allegedly continues to exist, which serves to make necessary yet still more government controls.
The logical stopping point of this process is that one day everyone will end up being shackled to a wall, or at the very least being compelled to do something comparable to living in a zip code that matches his social security number. Then the government will know who everyone is, where he is, and that he can do nothing whatever without its approval and permission. And then the world will be safe from anyone attempting to do anything that benefits him and thereby allegedly harms others. At that point, the world will enjoy all the prosperity that comes from total paralysis.