We can learn many lessons from what is happening in Europe and what will be happening over the next decade or two. We will see in very explicit detail that democracy is at root a destructive system as it attempts to consume very productive asset it can get its hands on. We shall see that borrowing to spend and consume is inherently a dead-end. We shall see again that government controls do not stop destructive behavior and that few know what good behavior is then. Etc.
But we are now witnessing something that I didn’t expect. We are seeing how not to achieve a turn around in an economy. “Austerity” is a failed program.
Okay, first let’s consider what “austerity” is. It is not actually austerity. The term was first picked up from the context of an over-indebted person. If he wanted to get out of his situation, without going back on his word to pay those people who lent him money, he had to reduce his spending and pay off his debts. Then he would be financially healthy and could begin building wealth.
So, the idea went, governments could reduce their spending, too. Except they failed to remember two different aspects of the individual’s context: first, that the individual had to continue to work, i.e., produce. Production is still the key. Second, they failed to remember that the individual had to spend less than his income. Governments regard “austerity” as merely spending less than they were or perhaps spending less than they were planning, although still increasing their spending. I haven’t seen any of the European governments talking about a budget surplus and paying off their debt.
But, the most important lesson to be learned is the first: Production is the key. What I mean is that just spending less in those countries has no positive effect on the economy, only less of a negative effect. What has a positive effect is the creation of goods and services, i.e., production. Those countries aren’t producing more. Actually, since they have grown the government so much, less spending translates immediately into less purchases and a constriction of business. Business has been forced to depend upon government spending. When that spending disappears, businesses do less business, are less profitable and tend to fail. That is what we are seeing across Europe, especially in the countries with the worst situations.
Those economies haven’t gotten to where they are because of the government spending by itself. The major cause of the poor performance of those economies is government controls. Controls limit what businessmen can do and their ability to produce. Government controls are the lid on man’s productive capacity.
As long as the government controls the economy, and the European Union has a staggering level of controls, those economies are going to suffer. In fact, what we see today is the simultaneous reduction of government spending with the increase in numbers and degree of control. We see tighter and tighter restrictions being placed on business and finance, further weakening their ability to produce while the governments are trying to at least slow the rate of their indebtedness. It won’t work.
This is a lesson for us all. We need to realize that as bad as the debt situation is, and as bad as it can get, and that by itself debt can destroy our economy, that it is not the primary issue and should not be our primary target. At least it shouldn’t be.
We must also recognize that if we only talk about debt and the need to reduce spending as our immediate objective we will not succeed in moving any society towards our viewpoint. They see what “austerity” achieves. No one should want any part of that, including us.
No, our focus should be on production. Our campaign should be to unleash the productive abilities of the United States, to reverse governmental economic controls. to free our businessmen. Freedom. That should be our program.
I do not want for a minute for you to think that I am the originator of this insight. As in most all of my understanding of the world, I learned this from Ayn Rand. She did not write about this issue, but she was asked about it more than once in public forums. It is to our benefit that we can read today what she said in response to those questions in Ayn Rand Answers, pages 46-50. Also look at her answer regarding unemployment benefits on page 124. She isn’t in favor of government spending or any activity that isn’t directly protecting individual rights. She wants to stop inappropriate government spending. But she recognizes that what must be done first is to free the economy. Without that first step, and giving it the time to begin producing (probably shorter than we might think), we will see our economy contract just as the European economies are.
My position in this article isn’t new, but I hadn’t realized until recently that the European “austerity” program was exactly that being proposed by my critics. These are the people who argue that the US government spending had to be stopped as soon as possible. The immediate target of these proponents of “austerity” was Social Security and unemployment benefits. I responded that what would happen is just a lot of misery and the destruction of legitimate business, which is just what is happening in Europe, especially Greece and Spain. If “austerity” were begun in the US today, the results might not be as bad. But no good would be achieved as long as government controls were kept in place.
The only direct, economic destructive element of government spending is that it soaks up savings, which is needed for business investment. But the economy can find capital when it has potential profits in sight. We would learn that finding capital would not be an issue. Today, the drag on the US economy isn’t a lack of capital. Banks will tell you that they have plenty to lend. Businesses have plenty of money to invest if they chose. (I am not really conflating fiat money with capital.) Companies could find capital today if they were confident in the future. With all of the proposed additional controls and the fear of BO’s plans for our future, they are wise to avoid the crazy risk inherent in our political situation. And thus the economy stalls. It isn’t the deficit they are afraid of, but government force.
It might be argued that the correct approach to cutting spending would include some advanced warning. Perhaps people should be given a year or two to get their lives in order in preparation for changes in government spending. Yet, that still doesn’t address the underlying problem. If there isn’t sufficient economic activity, sufficient investment, sufficient production, sufficient productive jobs, advanced warning would provide no benefit. There are no economic alternatives to prepare with. Advanced warning only is beneficial if the person affected has alternatives to what he is currently relying upon.
At this point the response that I receive is that I am evading the moral issue of the theft of the property of those who are paying the taxes (either direct or indirect from the borrowing and inflation). It is wrong, I am told, for the theft to continue. It should be stopped immediately.
Aside from the fact that Ayn Rand did not advance this point when she had the chance, and aside from the fact that I am not disagreeing with either the immorality of the taxes or the spending, and aside from the fact that I vehemently argue that the spending and borrowing has to stop, and aside from the fact that I recognize the moral hazard from the dependency upon government spending, I reject the argument that the morality requires us to act without considering the immediate consequences and how very bad ones can be avoided.
I would argue that Objectivist morality is fundamentally a morality of consequences, that is, of causes and effects, of ends and means. If implementing a moral decision means the destruction of those who are the intended beneficiaries, the innocent and the productive in this case, then there is something wrong with the reasoning. And destruction of the productive and innocent is definitely a result of “austerity.” It isn’t just the person receiving the government handout who is suffering but the entire economy, the productive and innocent. Real, honest businesses are going under. People who made rational decisions within the context of their country are loosing all they possess. It is these people who a morality of self-interest and the social-economic system of capitalism is suppose to protect. It is they who should flourish. “Austerity” is destroying their lives as thoroughly as socialism itself. Therefore, “austerity” is the wrong approach.
While government spending upon anything but the protection of individual rights is automatically a violation of rights and a move toward the destruction of those rights, the spending itself isn’t a major catastrophe, in the sense of the immediate, economic consequences. Just as with a household, it isn’t the spending per se, it is the spending in relation to the income, which means the economy’s production. If the spending is higher than the production allows (not even considering the savings necessary to increase production), then there will be problems. That is true for either a household or a business or a government. It is worse when the overspending is for unproductive consumption, which is always true of governmental spending. “Infrastructure” is consumption. Something constructed by the government might sit there for a while, like a bridge, but it is not paying its own way and replacing itself, as a business investment would, is consumption.
Of course, governmental spending is often accompanied by restrictions on the population because the government wants to keep its monopoly, i.e., only the government can build roads, etc. If there was competition, the incompetence of the government would be clearly demonstrated. Look at the U.S. Post Office.
No, government spending isn’t the cause of a country’s economy failing to grow.
On the other hand, the best any of the commentators that I have read have made only the slight suggestions that regulation has any effect on production and prosperity. It is recognized that regulation has a cost in time and money, but not on an economy’s ability to produce and grow. This is a complete blind spot. I attribute this lack of knowledge to the general rationalist trend found in economics and business schools. Looking at how things actually work is not an acceptable practice. At least at one point in time efficiency studies were all the rage. If there are still such studies they most likely don’t question government mandated business practices. They just treat regulations as acts of nature.
However, the point is that government regulation is treated as just a part of life and is not questioned and its consequences are not considered. This last point is true in a wider scale than you probably realize. Few look to see if the supposed good consequence of government regulation actually happened. No follow up studies are done to evaluate the success of the regulation. Those consequences are assumed and bragged about but never proved or evaluated. Recently, I received an email from Ending Big Government, the website set up by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins in connection with their new book, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government. This email was entitled “Story about Stories” in which people who were impacted by government regulations explained what was happening (See here). This is a great idea. The consequences of regulations have to be concretized for people. They have to see in detail that regulation is destructive in order to understand that it has to be stopped. For example, people don’t know how extensive, intrusive, expensive, and anti-productive the FDA regulation is. These details need to be made public. The media won’t do it. The Republicans won’t do it. Who will?
So, let me suggest that you continue to watch Europe attempt to practice “austerity” and how they go into recessions. I think that Spain is already in a depression, or will be soon. Greece certainly is. Think about the consequences as the government just spending less. Think about why their economies can’t seem to grow. What is stopping them?
Next week I hope to finish up a post that will be more specific about Europe and the backlash against “austerity.” I think that we will see another lesson there as well.