Tag Archives: Friedrich Hayek

A suggestion from an economist as to how the free market could be made to work for the benefit of all

All the evidence from the economy suggests that the free market system is failing. The list of markets that are failing seems almost endless. Perhaps the most obvious failing market is the housing market. In 1973 a minister (when the state directly provided social housing) could state with some justification that there were no homeless people, today the reverse is true. Yet despite the evidence of thousands either living in temporary local authority accommodation awaiting rehousing andthe  countless others living in unsatisfactory private rental property, politicians deny that the housing market is broken.

Why do politicians not recognise the failure of the free market system? One answer is political fashion, which to paraphrase George Orwell pigs ‘public sector bad, private sector good’. This belief in the supremacy of the market system for providing goods and services can be traced back to one influential thinker, Friedrich Hayek. In his book ‘The Road to Serfdom’  (1944) lauded the supremacy of the free market over any alternative economy model. In this very readable book he states that freedom is the free exchange of goods and services between individuals. When the state decides what people want it is tyranny, an economic tyranny comparable to the political tyranny exercised in the fascist and communist states of Europe. Although to this economist cannot see how the provision of state subsidised social housing is a deprivation of economic liberty.

Hayek was a voice speaking in the wilderness until the economic crisis of the 1970s happened. In Britain in 1976 inflation hit the unheard rate of 27%. Politicians desperately looked for a solution and found one in the writings of Hayek and his prophet Milton Friedman. The next twenty years saw a bonfire of regulations and a rush to transfer what public sector services and businesses to the private sector. What politicians hoped and believed was that the introduction of the free market economy was the once and for all solution to the economic ills of the this decade.

Hayek still grips the imagination of the political classes. The privatised railway system in Britain is one of the most expensive and inefficient in the developed world. Yet despite polling evidence suggesting that a majority of British voters would welcome the re-nationalisation of the railways, the majority of politicians regard this as beyond the pale. Only an outsider such as the current opposition leader would argue for this popular cause. There is one certain outcome from this election and that is even if the opposition won the election, the consensus view within parliament would effectively nullify any attempt to return to a nationalised rail service.

There is one failing in the free market philosophy of Hayek that is always ignored. He assumes that the exchange of goods and services takes place between individuals who are equals. The worker for him is free to bargain with the employers to obtain the best possible wage. In Hayek’s impossible scenario the worker and employer equally benefit from the exchange. What he does not recognise is that there is no equality of power in this exchange. While the employer is free to buy the workers labour at the lowest possible wage he can negotiate, the employee very rarely has the power to negotiate the highest possible wage. History demonstrates that in a market lacking employment protections and trade unions, the worker rather than being able to negotiate the best possible wage has to accept the going rate, no matter how poor. It is a market in which Says law applies. Rather than workers negotiating for the highest rate of pay possible, they have to accept the wage whatever rate of pay the employers are prepared to offer.

When the market works well it is unrivalled as a means of exchange of goods and services. The problem is that in Britain it rarely works well. It is the unequal distribution of bargaining power that prevents the market working to the benefit of all. When one person has significantly more bargaining power than the other, be that person an employer or landlord, the other person is at a significant disadvantage. They will inevitably lose out, whether it be having to accept a low wage or by paying a high rent for inferior accommodation. The only way to make the market work is to introduce some equality of power into the relationship. Only then will the more powerful not be able to exploit the less powerful.

One solution would be to introduce legislation to remedy the imperfections in the free market, as was the practice in the 1950s and 60s. However this is not possible when the majority of political classes are committed to Neo-Liberalism or the free market economy. A majority of the of the current generation of politicians would oppose any such policy. There is another solution that might appeal to the free market politician. Greater equality could be introduced into the market and through the legal system so making the exchange of goods and services a more equal relationship. At present civil law with its remedies for civil wrongs is unavailable to the majority of the population, because of the high costs of legal action. Not only is there the high  cost but the wealthy subject of a legal action can spin out a case almost indefinitely so discouraging all but the most determined and wealthy of plaintiffs. A reformed legal system that made justice available to all could make Hayek’s free market work in a manner which he intended. The free market politician would have no reason to object as such a change would only be to enforce the rights of the individual and not subject the business to the whims of the almighty state.

This might seem an incredible statement but the legal system of the Roman Empire particularly that of Justinian was in some ways superior to that of contemporary Britain. Under this system the aggrieved individual could bring their case before the local magistrate. These magistrates seem to have had more power than contemporary British magistrates. They could interrogate the plaintiff and witnesses before arriving at a verdict. From what I understand of the Roman system there was an approximate equality of position of the plaintiff and defendant, something lacking in British courts.

There already exist in Britain a network of small claims courts(1). The remit of these courts could be extended to include a new category of civil wrongs. These courts would retain the principle of not penalising the less well off plaintiff, by not privileging those defendants that have legal representation and through preventing the defendant claiming their legal fees from the plaintiff. What matters would be that the court proceeding do not privilege the wealthy, making these courts accessible to the poorest.

There is one example demonstrates the ugly nature of our current legal system. The British Human Right act gives every person the  ‘right to enjoy the privacy of your own property.’ In our unbalanced legal system a rich property developer was able to persuade the high court, that privacy meant the right to develop their property regardless of the noise nuisance it caused the neighbour’s. In a fairer legal system there would have been a counter claim by the less well off neighbour, which would have prevented this nonsense becoming law.

One further requirement would be an amendment to the Human Rights Act, an amendment that included new rights such as a fair recompense for work. These rights could be incorporated in a relatively short document as they are only statements of principle and it would be the role of the courts to define what these rights meant in practice.

What I am proposing is a remedy for market failure. A remedy that restores a measure of equality in  the bargaining process in the free market. Rather than looking to government to remedy market imperfections, individuals working through the court system will able remedy the failings of the free market. Employers and landlords will be less inclined to adopt exploitative or abusive practices, if they know doing so will involve them in having to defend such practices in open court. Instead of a race to the bottom in which employers vie to adopt most exploitative cost cutting practices to save, there would be a move upwards towards a fairer employment regime.

A salutary lesson for this left of centre economist is that the legislature cannot be relied upon to protect the rights of citizens. Individual legislators are too easily corrupted by powerful corporate interests. As the recent past demonstrates they are only too willing to legislate away the right of citizens to further the corporate interest. Not so long ago a senior member of the government (of a party claiming to represent the workers) saw his role as frustrate the EU commissions attempt to increase the rights of agency workers.There is an old adage that states that the person who can be best relied upon to defend your rights is yourself. The record of the Westminster parliament over the past forty years only too clearly demonstrates the truth of this adage.

This is only intended to a sketch of how the free market could be changed to the benefit of all. Today’s news has demonstrated the need to find an alternative to seeking remedies through parliament. The Prime Minister announced that she would be introducing a policy which entitled all workers to a 12 month period of absence to care for an ill relative. What she failed to make clear was that this would be unpaid leave. A meaningless reform on a par with all the rights of the Soviet citizen that were written into that country’s constitution. Rights that in a police state were meaningless.

(1) There are a number of tribunals that at present that consider these wrongs,but I have left out reference to them for ease of writing.

A REPLY FROM AN ECONOMIST TO THE ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM OF DONALD TRUMP AND MICHAEL GOVE

(There were many errors in my first draft, it was written in anger and published without  a thorough checking for error.)

Contention

Economists don’t always have the right answers, they can be wrong at times, but their answers to problems are better than those of ill-informed politicians and journalists. There are plenty of never-never land politicians selling an unreal picture of the world to the electorate. There are many fewer such economists because there work would have undergone informed scrutiny by their peers and much that is dubious would have been discarded. The overwhelming majority of economists believe that Brexit will inflict significant economic damage on the economy, while a significant number of politicians and most journalist believe the reverse (who are lacking any evidence apart from their misguided optimism in the rightness of their beliefs).

Confession of interest

I am one of those experts that Michael Gove spoke abouto he said people are fed up with and who they should be ignored by the people  when making decisions about the future, such as how to vote in the EU referendum. I am one of those people who following Aristotle’s advice  have dedicated the best part of their life to study. What Michael Gove is trashing is the value of learning, I cannot accept that my years of study have been wasted. How can such small minded person go against centuries of a tradition that values learning? He is a graduate of an elite university but he seems to dismiss the value of what he learnt there. I can say to Michael Gove that when teaching in a tough secondary school I never demeaned myself to pretending that I lacked learning. What young people can identify is the phoney, the teacher that pretends to be like them. Michael Gove’s attempt to pretend to be one of the people is as phoney as my colleagues who adopted a fake working class accents and mimicked the words and manners the young in an attempt to win their favour. Behaviour as phoney as that of the Dad who to tries to impress by claiming a knowledge of and love for garage music and rap.

The dangers of contempt for learning

If Michael Gove’s lead is followed as experts such as myself as regarded as just another self interested individual with an agenda to promote, a lot is lost. Economists such as myself are in possession of or can access a body of knowledge about the economy not available to others. Acquiring and understanding the store of economic knowledge takes years and to be honest a life time of study, because the subject is always changing and developing. What Michael Gove is saying is that my learning is of no consequence. I cannot accept that the anti intellectualism of todays politicians will stand future scrutiny. Without wishing to be too unkind Michael is an insignificant figure compared to Adam Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Hayek, Polanyi and Robinson. With time his anti intellectual populism will be a but a minor blip in the progress of humankind. In studying economics I developed a critical faculty which makes it possible to make reasoned judgements about government policy, rather than relying up prejudice and common sense on which to found my judgements. Paraphrasing a much greater thinker than myself who used this phrase in the context of religious belief, those who don’t believe in God are likely to believe in anything; similarly those who don’t believe the truths of  economics are likely to believe any nonsense about the economy.

One such nonsense is the current belief that there is a real knowledge of the world, which is only possessed by men of business, who deal every day with the complexities of the real world, as opposed to the unreal world of academia. One such person held to possess this knowledge is Donald Trump, the next President of the United States. I would question the breadth of his knowledge, he is a real estate developer. Yet one who has failed in several business ventures and has only been saved from bankruptcy by the protection afforded by US law to such people. If you wished to buy and develop a property you would go to a real estate agent or property developer, but one with a better track record than Donald Trump. Apart from his deal making in which he has a very mixed record I cannot see how Donald Trump has a better understanding of the world than me. As a teacher I would be criticised for living and working in an unreal world, which is a silly phrase as the school is as real as the boardroom. One other silly untruth is that teachers lack the toughness to cope with the real world, all I can say is that these people who say that have little understanding of the difficulties of teaching a group of adolescents. One of the most telling examples of the falsity of this stance is a video on Youtube, where Michael Gove is addressing a group of teenagers. They show complete disdain for his lecture and indulge in all the behaviours of disaffection typical of teenagers. What I am saying is that my experience as  teacher of economics is as valid as Donald Trumps as a property developer, although if I’m honest I think mine is the superior knowledge of the world.

When politicians deny the truths of learning they became prey to the teaching of messianic and charismatic charlatans such  as the  novelist – Ayn Rand author of ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ whose followers include Sajid Javid and all politicians of the Neo-Liberal persuasion. Her book paean to billionaires who she believes are the heroic figures that make our civilisation great. The central figure of the book John Galt a man of independent means who is puzzled as to why billionaires keep disappearing from society. He is taken to a mysterious canyon remote from Washington, where the billionaires are hiding, seeking sanctuary from a rapacious Washington. These  billionaires are fed up with being oppressed by a government that so taxes and regulates them, that they are denied their role as the creative driving force of society, a rapacious government has reduced them to impotence. It does not realise that without their enterprise, society would fall into stasis and decline. When these billionaires go on strike society collapses and thousands of the useless poor die as a poor and weak government is forced to withdraw the income on which they depend for their survival. Eventually a discredited government is forced to welcome back the billionaires on their terms and these billionaires put society back on its feet and society develops and prospers. Many politicians of the new right are followers of Ayn Rand and her influence can be seen on government welfare policy. The Ayn Rands in government believe in a policy of brutalising the poor to the extent that they are forced to work at any price for anybody. It’s a cure for the wasteful culture of dependence, to such as ‘Sajid Javid’ homeless and misery is a just punishment for the useless poor. When governments ignore the truth tellers they are prey to the charlatans and other paddlers of fantasies and falsehoods.

Economists do possess a knowledge of the economy which is invaluable  for the effective running of government. One such economist is Anne Pettifor who is constantly ignored by governments because she tells them truths they don’t want to hear. Economists such as her can be compared to the Old Testament prophets who were constantly ignored by the rulers of Israel.

Anne Pettifor -is the author of ‘The First World Debt Crisis’. While most politicians are aware that economic growth is driven by consumer spending and debt, such as the popular car leasing system, they have little awareness of the dangers of this policy. The growth of consumer debt is so large that it has created a credit or debt mountain of unsustainable proportions – UK bank debt in 2009 – 586% of GDP it falling to around 400% of GDP in 2009 (Dominic Raab), but has since risen. Even Germany has similar problems the collective debts of its banks are over 300% of GDP (much of the money lent to Greece was recycled back to the German banks who had made too many ill-judged loans to the Greeks, so as to prevent them experiencing a liquidity crisis).The UK vies continually with Japan for the title of most indebted country of the industrial developed world.

David Cameron was right that Britain was maxed out on its credit card, he was just wrong about which credit card.

Rather than tackle the problem the government spends billions on quantitative easing to provide the cash to keep the banks afloat. At the height of the financial crisis in 2008/9 Gordon Brown was willing to spend a sum equivalent to the almost the total national income to keep the banks afloat. The official policy is to kick the problem can down the road leaving it to a future government to tackle the problem.

Why do governments fail to tackle this problem? They fear the electorate reaction, if they brought the credit boom to an end. Loans of various kinds account for a significant proportion of people’s spending and to reduce lending would in effect to reduce people’s incomes in that they would be unable to spend as much as previously on various consumer goods. What they are most scared of is cutting spending in the housing market which would lead to a fall in house prices. The belief amongst politicians is that falling house prices equal lost election.

The best informed of politicians know that the risk is that the whole financial house of cards will come tumbling down in a crash as bad as that of 1929, yet they prefer the risk of a future catastrophic crash to taking action now.

The right and wrong of economics

Although I can as an economist make more accurate predictions about the future than any politician there are limitations to the usefulness of my predictions. I cannot say exactly when a predicted event will occur or how great will be its impact on the economy. The economy is a dynamic social institution that is constantly changing and changes can maximise or minimise the impact of the predicted event.

Last year The Observer published one of my letters in I which predicted an economic downturn in 2017. I made my prediction on the basis that all free and largely unregulated markets are liable to exuberant booms that always end in a crash. Past history shows that such crashes occur every nine years, that is 1990, 1999 and 2008/9.

This contention is supported by the economist Hayek. What he stated was that there is a period when the benefits of innovation are exhausted and economic growth falls and the economy falls into recession. This has happened to the UK as the benefits from the mass production of consumer goods begin to tail off. Since the mid 1980s there has been too many car manufacturers in Europe, making cars that were needed. The consequence was retrenchment in the car industry and in Britain the disappearance of the native car industry. When industry fails to deliver alternative sources of income need to be found. In the UK, USA and Western Europe that has been the development of the speculative industry, increases in income no longer come from employment but from the increase in the value of assets, such as houses. A speculative economy is particular prone to booms and busts, as there become periods when it is generally believed that prices have peaked and they can only go down. These downs are quite spectacular and cause widespread distress.

However although I can predict with confidence that a downturn will occur, there are a number of proviso’s that I must make about prediction:

There is no iron law that states a downturn will occur every nine years, but evidence from the past shows that this is likely, it is events that may change the date of the crash.

Brexit – if Teresa May calls an early  election the uncertainty generated by that can bring the date of the crash forward to whatever she makes that announcement.

Events may occur that halt the downward trend – if the government panics at the thought of there being held responsible for the negative effects of Brexit and states that it will do whatever deal is is necessary to ensure that Britain remains in the single market, this could result in a boost to business confidence with businesses now rushing to make the investments that they had postponed due to the uncertainties of Brexit. This rush to investment will lead to a temporary boost to the economy that will delay the economic downturn. However it will only postpone the crash.

Conclusion – Economists are not infallible but they are closer to infallibility that most politicians. What economists possess that politicians do not is an understanding of the workings of the economy.

Why does our government seem to be determined to increase the levels of criminality in our society

claudeduval

The famous incident in which Claude Duval the notorious highwayman tells a lady  whose coach that he has just held up that in exchange for a dance he will refrain from robbing her.

Our current government claims to be one that is tough on crime, yet in practice it seems to being doing the opposite. What I am going to suggest that the government through its policies is reverting back towards an earlier model of society, one similar to that of the 18th century. In that century policing was massively under resourced. Crime prevention and detection was in the hands of the Parish Constable. A man who had to rely on the support of his parishioners to arrest criminals. Policing was so ineffective that the government had to resort to the extreme measure of making most offences capital offences as a means of deterring crime. The Black Act of 1723 tried to compensate for the lack of an effective police force by making some 50 offences punishable by hanging, for example the punishment for breaking a farmer’s gate was hanging.The only way the to keep one’s household safe was to ensure that all the doors where secured by good locks and a variety of loaded guns where at hand to fend off any intruders. Ominously I was told by a member of the police force that his recommendation was to secure one’s house with good locks and stay in at night, he thought the policing levels were inadequate to guarantee the public’s safety. One senior police office ventured the opinion that he would not go into the centre of Manchester at night because it was not safe.

The combination of weak governments and under resourced policing is all to evident in Eire. Even before the financial crash and the austerity programme that forced large cuts on the Garda (Eire’s police force), this force was struggling to cope with the criminal activities of both terrorist groups and criminal gangs. These gangs were then so powerful that they could shoot a campaigning journalist at a busy cross roads and get away unhindered. Now an even more depleted police force is unable to prevent tit for tat killings that are occurring between these criminal gangs. Yet in spite of the evidence of the evident dangers of relying on an under resourced and undermanned police force to contain these dangerous criminal gangs the government is insistent on following the unwise path already trodden by Eire.

There is ominous evidence from my home city that this is already happening. Cuts to the number of the police have meant the ending of an effective pro active drugs strategy. The teams that were used to break up and disrupt the drug dealing gangs have been disbanded and the remaining police officers used to street patrols. The police will now only react to evidence of drug crime and only if it is thought that the individual in question has drugs in excess of a street value of £10,000. This means that the street dealers which are the bread and butter of the organised drugs trade are given a relatively free hand.

Why despite all the evidence of the dangers of allowing the drugs gangs to flourish has the government adopted policies that will encourage these gangs to flourish.

Why?

There are several possible answers but the most likely is the change in the philosophy of the government. The adoption of the brutalist philosophy of Neo-Liberalism, which emphasised the supremacy of free market, competition and the end of regulation. Regulation it was argued did not prevent wrong doing so much as impose additional and unnecessary burdens on business. However Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) who was the founding father of Neo-Liberalism did not argue for the extreme Neo-Liberal system of today. He believed in the good society, a society in which all paid tax for finance those items that made up the common good. He never once in his writings claimed that the ideal state is one in which the tax authorities collaborated with the rich in a programme of tax avoidance. He would have been horrified at the programme of tax cuts that reduced the effectiveness of the police and other public services.

Rather than looking to Hayek it is the writings of a novelist and minor philosopher called Ayn Rand that are the inspiration for the new Neo-Liberal State. In her influential novel “Atlas Shrugged” she wrote that the billionaires are the saviours of society. It is their energy and drive that moves society forward. Any restrictions on the activities of these people negatively impact on society as it prevents them fulfilling their primary purpose which is wealth creation. Therefore in her good society there are to be few regulations imposed on the billionaires or the businesses they run. Regulations that protect workers at their place of work are no more an unnecessary increase in costs as they disproportionately increase the costs of labour far beyond the contribution labour makes to wealth creation. All these high labour costs do is reduce the number of goods and service produced as what might have been produced if labour was fairly priced is now uneconomic. Similarly high rates of taxation on the rich do little more than reduce the amount of money that they have available for investing in the economy. In contrast the poor and the great majority contribute little to the economy, they are merely the simple tools that the billionaire uses to create wealth. Only if the billionaire class is freed from all restriction will they be able to use their energies creatively to add to the wealth of society. It is this author who is the inspiration behind the new Neo-Liberal State, that is the Britain of 2016.

Although her books are widely read amongst students at our elite universities, there has to be another reason as to why she has been adopted as the political philosopher of choice by our political classes. I think part of the answer is that they identify with her billionaire class. They see themselves as much victims of society as the billionaires of Ayn Rand. These leaders are continually frustrated in their great schemes for change and reform by the opposition of the little people. People of little worth, who lacking the skills or even intelligence for government think they have to right to a say in how policy is made. This contempt for the little people is demonstrated in the distain our leaders show for them. One former leader spoke of constantly being stabbed in back by public sector workers who failed to understand that the policies he was introducing were for their benefit and the good of society. Another continually referred to his opponents as the ‘blob’, abusive terms are the common currency of politicians who want to minimise the role of the people in a democracy.

It must also be mentioned that the political classes believed that the political and economic reforms espoused by Ayn Rand would if adopted would lead to a new political and economic dynamism in what they saw as a moribund society and economy , too rooted in the practices of the past.

Rather than continue with a psychological analysis of the political classes, what I want to demonstrate is the impact of what I shall call ‘Randism’ has on society and crime in particular. If the billionaires and their proxies the great business corporations are to be freed from almost controls and regulations, there are other greater predators the will benefit, which are the organised crime networks.

Changes in the legal system, in that is company law and tax law have created a situation in which the big corporations are largely outside the law (at least in the UK). What has been created is an opaque system of company organisation the will frustrate any attempt at regulation or control. However such a system is open to abuse and it offers possibilities for criminal organisations that had not previously existed. Formerly in the UK criminal groups used small businesses as a front for their illegal activities, such as scrap metal dealing, now they have the opportunity given the opaque nature of company organisations to move into large scale legitimate business. What is to be feared that the change or weakening of company regulation could result in a similar situation to that in southern Italy where the criminal gangs have penetrated legitimate businesses.This has already happened in the meat processing trade, there was a recent scandal in Britain where it was discovered that criminal gangs had infiltrated the food processing industry and were able to pass off horse meat as beef. While a few minor wrong doers were arrested the members of major criminal gangs were never arrested. The abolition of most regulation relating to food production has not freed the large supermarkets from unnecessary regulation but opened up a new field of opportunity for organised crime.
Perhaps the fate of the National Crime Agency illustrates best the dangers of an opaque legal system. The National Crime Agency was set up to tackle organised crime or more particularly the large drug gangs. It was to be a British FBI, with some of the best detectives seconded to it. However it has been largely ineffective in its main purpose which is to seize the assets of the big criminal gangs as a means of rendering them ineffective. Its ineffectiveness is a consequence of legal changes designed to minimise the impact of regulation on the big corporations and it is this lack of legal powers to intercept the flows of cash within big business that means this agency is unable to disrupt the large organised crime enterprises. It is not only in Britain that the law enforcement agencies are unable to confiscate the income of these criminal empires but also in Eire where the crime lords can amass their ill gotten gains without any apparent interference from the legal authorities.

Governments know that the lack of effective financial regulation means that the large income flows that enable the criminal gangs to prosper. What prevents them taking effective action is the corporate interest which is opposed to any stricter regulation of international finance. They see any change as a threat to them, what they want least of all is to be liable for their fair share of taxation. They will continue to work against any effective control of financial transactions, even if it means tolerating the growth of large scale criminal empires.

The political classes in Britain with the belief in Ayn Rand’s Neo-Liberal dream would never countenance any change in law which might disadvantage the billionaires or their proxies the large business corporation. Their rigid adherence this extreme ideology or dogma means that effective action will never be taken against these criminal empires as the consequence of any such actions may have what the big corporations see as negative consequences for them.

This belief is all to clearly illustrated in the actions of the British Treasury who believe that any government spending reduces national income and so the minimum should be spent on public services such as policing. Newspaper columnists can continue to write horror stories about the iniquities of the trades trade but the Treasury would never countenance any increase in spending on the police as they believe it would negatively impact on the nations wealth. They believe that if the price of greater wealth is increased criminality, that is a price worth paying, as its better to live in a dynamic society that has high growth and crime than in one that is the reverse.