Liberty: -- Analysis -- Ten Recurring Economic Fallacies, 1774-2004
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Ten Recurring Economic Fallacies, 1774-2004
by H.A. Scott Trask
As an American historian who knows something of economic law, having
learned from the Austrians, I became intrigued with how the United
States had remained prosperous, its economy still so dynamic and
productive, given the serious and recurring economic fallacies to which
our top leaders (political, corporate, academic) have subscribed and
from which they cannot seem to free themselves-and alas, keep passing
down to the younger generation.
Let's consider ten.
Myth #1: The Broken Window
One of the most persistent is that of the broken window-one breaks and
this is celebrated as a boon to the economy: the window manufacturer
gets an order; the hardware store sells a window; a carpenter is hired
to install it; money circulates; jobs are created; the GDP goes up. In
truth, of course, the economy is no better off at all.
True, there is a sudden burst of activity, and some persons have surely
gained, but only at the expense of the proprietor whose window was
broken, or his insurance company; and if the latter, the other
policyholders who will pay higher premiums to pay for paid-out claims,
especially if many have been broken.
The fallacy lies in a failure to grasp what has been foregone by repair
and reconstruction-the labor and capital expended, having been lost to
new production. This fallacy, seemingly so simple to explain and grasp,
although requiring an intellectual effort of some mental abstraction to
comprehend, seems to be ineradicable.
After the horrific destruction of the Twin Towers in September 2001, the
media quoted academic and corporate economists assuring us that the
government's response to the attacks would help bring an end to the
recession. What was never mentioned was that resources devoted to
repair, security, and war-fighting are resources that cannot be devoted
to creating consumer goods, building new infrastructure, or enhancing
our civilization. We are worse off because of 9-11.
Myth #2: The Beneficence of War
A second fallacy is the idea of war as an engine of prosperity. Students
are taught that World War II ended the Depression; many Americans seem
to believe that tax revenues spent on defense contractors (creating
jobs) are no loss to the productive economy; and our political leaders
continue to believe that expanded government spending is an effective
way of bringing an end to a recession and reviving the economy.
The truth is that war, and the preparation for it, is economically
wasteful and destructive. Apart from the spoils gained by winning ( if
it is won) war and defense spending squander labor, resources, and
wealth, leaving the country poorer in the end than if these things had
been devoted to peaceful endeavors.
During war, the productive powers of a country are diverted to producing
weapons and ammunition, transporting armaments and supplies, and
supporting the armies in the field.
William Graham Sumner described how the Civil War, which he lived
through, had squandered capital and labor: "The mills, forges, and
factories were active in working for the government, while the men who
ate the grain and wore the clothing were active in destroying, and not
in creating capital. This, to be sure, was war. It is what war means,
but it cannot bring prosperity."
Nothing is more basic; yet it continues to elude the grasp of our
teachers, writers, professors, and politicians. The forty year Cold War
drained this country of much of its wealth, squandered capital, and
wasted the labor of millions, whose lifetime work, whether as a soldier,
sailor, or defense worker, was devoted to policing the empire, fighting
its brush wars, and making weapons, instead of building up our
civilization with things of utility, comfort, and beauty.
Some might respond that the Cold War was a necessity, but that's not the
question-although we now know that the CIA, in yet another massive
intelligence failure, grossly overestimated Soviet military capabilities
as well as the size of the Soviet economy, estimating it was twice as
large and productive as it really was. The point is the wastefulness of
war, and the preparation for it; and I see no evidence whatever that the
American people or their leaders understand that, or even care to think
about it. An awareness and comprehension of these economic realities
might lead to more searching scrutiny of the aims and methods that the
Bush administration has chosen for the War on Terror.
Only a few days after 9-11, Rumsfeld declared that the war shall last as
long as the Cold War (forty plus years), or longer-a claim the
administration has repeated every few months since then-without
eliciting the slightest notice or questioning from the media, the
public, or the opposing party. Would that be the case, if people
understand how much a second Cold War, this time with radical Islam,
will cost us in lives, treasure, and foregone comfort and leisure?
Myth #3: The Best Way to Finance a War is by Borrowing
Beginning with the War of Independence and continuing through the War on
Terror, Americans have chosen to pay for their wars by borrowing money
and inflating the currency. Adam Smith believed that the war should be
financed by a levy on capital. This way the people of the country
understand how much the war is costing them, and then can better judge
whether it is really necessary. While he conceded that borrowing might
be necessary in the early part of a war, before the revenue from war
taxes began to flow into the treasury, he insisted that borrowing be
kept to a minimum as a temporary expedient only.
Borrowing increases the costs of war in the form of interest. Inflating
the currency, which often accompanies massive borrowing, as it did
during the War of Independence, the War Between the States, and the War
in Vietnam (just to name three), is the worst method of war finance,
for it drives up prices, increases costs, enlarges debt, spawns
malinvestments and speculation, and worsens the redistributive effects
of war spending.
In 1861, the Lincoln administration decided that the people of the north
would not stand for much taxation, and that it would increase the
already considerable opposition to the southern war. According to
Sumner, the financial question of the day was "whether we should carry
on the war on specie currency, low prices, and small imports, or on
paper issues, high prices, and heavy imports?" The latter course was
chosen, and the consequences were a national debt that soared from $65
million in 1860 to $27 thousand million ($2.7 billion) in 1865, and a
massive redistribution of wealth to federal bondholders.
In 1865, the financial question recurred. It was: "Shall we withdraw the
paper, recover our specie [gold and silver coin], reduce prices, lessen
imports, reduce debt, and live economically until we have made up the
waste and loss of war, or shall we keep the paper as money, export all
our specie which had hitherto been held in anticipation of resumption,
buy foreign goods with it, and go on as if nothing had happened?"
The easy route was taken again (specie payments were not resumed until
1879, fourteen years later, and almost twenty years after the 1861
suspension) and the consequences were an inflation-driven stock market
and railroad boom that culminated in the panic of 1873, the failure of
the House of Cook, and the Great Railway Strike of 1877, the first
outbreak of large-scale industrial violence in American history.
Myth #4: Deficit Spending Benefits the Economy and Government Debt
Three years ago, when then treasury secretary Paul O'Neill objected to
the Bush administration's policy of guns, butter, and tax cuts he was
told by the vice president, Dick Cheney, that, "deficits don't matter."
Of course, they don't matter- to him , but they matter to the country.
John Maynard Keynes's prescription for curing a recession included tax
cuts and increased government spending. "We are all Keynesians now"
should be the new motto inscribed on the front of the Treasury building
However, Keynes taught that once the recession was over government
spending should be reduced, taxes increased, and the deficit eliminated.
Current American policy is to continue deficit spending after the
recession is over, and to borrow in peace as well as war. One
longstanding criticism of such policies is that government borrowing
"crowds out" private investment, thus raising interest rates.
In an era when credit creation is so easy, and interest rates remain low
despite massive deficits reaching $500 billion per annum, economists no
longer take this objection seriously. Another criticism is that an
accumulating debt saddles future generations with a heavy burden, which
is both unfair and detrimental to future growth. Once again, economists
and politicians regard this objection as groundless. They reason that
future generations derive benefits from deficit expenditures-greater
security, more infrastructure, improved health and welfare-and that
since the principal need never be paid, it is not much of a burden
They are wrong. By avoiding having to increase taxes, borrowing hides
the price to be paid for increased government spending (the destructive
diversion of capital and labor from private pursuits to government
projects), and defuses potential public opposition to new or expanded
government initiatives, here and abroad. It is thus both unrepublican
Second, depending on how long the redemption of the principal is
deferred, accumulating interest payments can double, triple, quadruple,
. .the cost of the initial expenditure (This country has never yet
discharged its Civil War debt!)Third, interest payments represent a
perpetual income transfer from the working public to the bondholders-a
kind of regressive tax that makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer.
Finally, the debt introduces new and wholly artificial forms of
uncertainty into financial markets, with everyone left to guess whether
the debt will be paid through taxes, inflation, or default.
Myth # 5: Government Policies to Promote Exports are a Good Idea
The fallacy that government is a better judge of the most profitable
modes of directing labor and capital than individuals is well
illustrated by exporting policies. In the twentieth century, the federal
government has sought to promote exports in various ways. The first
was by forcing open foreign markets through a combination of diplomatic
and military pressure, all the while keeping our own markets wholly or
partially closed. The famous "open door" policy, formulated by Secretary
of State John Hay in 1899 was never meant to be reciprocal (after all,
he served in the McKinley administration, the most archly protectionist
in American history), and it often required a gun boat and a contingent
of hard charging marines to kick open the door.
A second method was export subsidies, which are still with us. The
Export-Import Bank was established by Roosevelt in 1934 to provide
cash grants, government-guaranteed loans, and cheap credit to exporters
and their overseas customers. It remains today-untouched by "alleged"
free market Republican administrations and congresses.
A third method was dollar devaluation, to cheapen the selling price of
American goods abroad. In 1933, Roosevelt took the country off the
gold standard and revalued it at $34.06, which represented a significant
devaluation. The object was to allow for more domestic inflation and to
boost exports, particularly agricultural ones, which failed ; now Bush
is trying it.
A fourth method, tried by the Reagan administration, was driving down
farm prices to boost exports, thereby shrinking the trade deficit. The
plan was that America would undersell its competitors, capture
markets, and rake in foreign exchange. (When others do this it is
denounced as unfair, as predatory trade.)What happened?Well, it turned
out that the agricultural export market was rather elastic. Countries
like Brazil and Argentina , depending on farm exports as one of their
few sources of foreign exchange, which they desperately needed to
service their debt loads, simply cut their prices to match the
Americans. Plan fails.
But it got worse: American farmers had to sell larger quantities (at the
lower prices) just to break even. Nevertheless, although the total
volume of American agricultural exports increased, their real value (in
constant dollars) fell-more work, lower profits. Furthermore, farmers
had to import more oil and other producer goods to expand their
production, which worsened the trade deficit. Then, there were the
unforeseen and deleterious side-effects. Expanded cultivation and
livestock-raising stressed out and degraded the quality of the soils,
polluted watersheds, and lowered the nutritional value of the expanded
crop of vegetables, grains, and animal proteins.
Finally, the policy of lower price/higher volume drove many small
farmers, here and abroad, off the land, into the cities, and across the
border, our border. Here is an economic policy that not only failed in
its purpose but worsened the very problem it was intended to alleviate,
and caused a nutritional, ecological, and demographic catastrophe.
Myth #6: Commercial Warfare Works
Sumner pointed out that the Americans declared their political
independence, they had not entirely freed themselves from the fallacies
of mercantilism. Mercantilists believed that government should both
regulate and promote certain kinds of economic activity, the economy
being neither self-regulating, nor capable of reaching maximum
efficiency if left alone. Thus, in their struggle for independence, the
Americans turned to two dubious policies: commercial warfare; and
inflationary war finance.
I won't rehash the history of the depreciating Continental-which led to
the confiscation of property without adequate compensation, defrauded
creditors, impoverished soldiers and sailors, price controls, a larger
war debt-but I will point out what Sumner so amply demonstrated in his
financial history of the Revolutionary War: the commercial war harmed
the Americans far more than the British.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, commercial war took the form
of boycotts and embargoes. The idea was that by closing our markets to
British goods, or by denying them our exports, agriculture and raw
materials, we could coerce them, peacefully, into changing their
policies. This policy worked only one time, helping to persuade the
British to repeal the Stamp Act of 1765; but each time thereafter it was
tried it only antagonized them and led to some form of retaliation. In
1774-75, on the eve of war, the Americans stood in desperate need of
supplies to prepare for war, and the English offered the best goods at
the best prices.
By refusing to trade, hoping to coerce the British into abandoning their
own Coercive Acts, the Americans began the war suffering from a supply
shortage, which only grew worse; after a few years of war, they found
themselves under the necessity of trading with the enemy, which was
carried on through the Netherlands and the West Indian islands of
Antigua and St. Eustatius. President Jefferson's embargo of 1807-09 was
a complete fiasco. Not only did it fail to accomplish its purpose of
forcing the British and French to respect our neutral commerce; it
devastated the New England economy, which was dependent on commerce
and ship-building, hurt southern planters (who could no longer export),
reduced federal tariff revenue, and drove the New England states to
the brink of secession.
Myth #7: The Late Nineteenth Century was an Era of Laissez-Faire
Certainly, the late nineteenth century was not an era of laissez-faire,
despite the stubborn and persistent myth to the contrary. True, there
were few government regulations on business, but high tariffs, railroad
subsidies, and the national banking system prove that the government was
no neutral bystander. Sumner more accurately termed it the era of
plutocracy, in which politically organized wealth used the power of the
state for selfish advantage.
He also warned, "Nowhere in the world is the danger of plutocracy as
formidable as it is here." For these indiscretions, the manufacturing
and bond-holding hierarchy tried to get him kicked out of Yale, where
they thought he was poisoning the minds of their sons with free trade
heresies. Only during two periods since 1776 has the government mostly
left the economy alone: during the early years of the federal republic;
and in the two decades previous to the Civil War. The political
economist Condy Raguet called the first period of economic freedom, from
1783 to1807, "the golden age" of the republic: Trade was free, taxes
were low, money was sound, and Americans enjoyed more economic freedom
than any other people in the world. Sumner thought the years from 1846
to1860-the era of the independent treasury, falling tariffs, and gold
money-was the true "golden age."
(Historians consider the presidents during this last period-Fillmore,
Pierce, and Buchanan-as among the worst we have ever had. Yet, from
1848-1860, the country was at peace, the economy prosperous, taxes low,
money hard, and the national debt was shrinking. This tells us how
historians define political greatness.
Myth #8: Business Corporations Favor a Policy of Laissez-Faire
Never in the history of our country have corporations, Wall Street
financiers, bond holders, and other large capitalists, as a class or
interest , favored a policy of economic liberty and nonintervention by
government. They have always favored some form of mercantilism. It is
surely significant that the second Republican Party, founded in
Michigan in 1854, was funded and led by men who wished to overthrow the
libertarian desideratum of the 1840s and 50s. Of course there have been
The merchants and ship-owners of maritime New England put up a good
fight for free trade and sound money in the early years of the republic,
and the New York City bankers in the nineteenth century were
conservative Democrats who supported free trade, low taxes, sound money,
and the gold standard. But these were exceptions . Consider the
testimony of William Simon, who was Secretary of the Treasury under
I watched with incredulity as businessmen ran to the government in every
crisis, whining for handouts or protection from the very competition
that has made this system so productive. I saw Texas ranchers, hit by
drought, demanding government-guaranteed loans; giant milk cooperatives
lobbying for higher price supports; major airlines fighting deregulation
to preserve their monopoly status; giant companies like Lockheed seeking
federal assistance to rescue them from sheer inefficiency; bankers, like
David Rockefeller, demanding government bailouts to protect them from
their ill-conceived investments; network executives, like William Paley
of CBS, fighting to preserve regulatory restrictions and to block the
emergence of competitive cable and pay TV.
And always, such gentlemen proclaimed their devotion to free enterprise
and their opposition to arbitrary intervention into our economic life by
the state. Except, of course, for their own case, which was always
unique and which was justified by their immense concern for the public
During the nineteenth century, those who clamored loudest and most
effectively for government intervention in the economy were businessmen;
of course farmers sometimes did so as well. Businessmen sought
promotional policies in the form of protective tariffs, a national bank,
and public funding of "internal improvements," such as turnpikes,
bridges, and canals. By the 1820s, proponents of this program called it
"the American System," with Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky its most
prominent champion. Raguet more accurately referred to it as the
"British System."Clay ran for president on this platform three times,
and lost three times (1824, 1832, and 1844). His protégé, Abraham
Lincoln, learned from this experience, and so when he ran for president
in 1860, hoping to implement the same program, he rarely mentioned it;
instead, he promised to save the western territories from the blight of
slavery and to overthrow the "slave power"-political camouflage that
The American System was an egregious form of redistributive
special-interest politics. It enriched Louisiana sugar planters,
Kentucky hemp growers, New York sheep herders, Pennsylvania iron
mongers, New England textile magnates, canal companies, and railroad
corporations-all at the expense of planters, farmers, mechanics, and
consumers. The antebellum protectionist movement reached its apogee with
the tariff of 1828, doubling tax rates on dutiable imports to an average
of 44 percent in 1829 and 48 percent the next year.
At the time, Raguet calculated that the average American worked one
month a year just to pay the tariff. To his readers, who paid no direct
federal taxes at all, nor any excise taxes, this figure was shocking. In
1830, tax-freedom day was the first of February; today it is in June,
rendering our tax burden five times greater.
Another income transfer was affected by the vicious banking system of
the time, under which incorporated bankers, without capital , charged
interest for lending out pieces of paper and deposit credit, which cost
them nothing except the cost of printing. Some libertarians have
contended that this was the era of free banking. It was nothing of the
sort. Bankers were protected under the shield of limited liability and,
during financial panics and bank runs, by special laws authorizing the
suspension of specie payments-when they refused their contractual
obligation to pay specie for their notes.
And their paper was accepted by the federal and state governments;
whether one was buying land, paying import duties, purchasing a bond, or
buying bank stock, for the government, bank paper was as good as gold.
These plutocratic measures thus effected a redistribution of wealth,
long before the emergence of socialism. Sumner said that the plutocrats
of his own postbellum era (manufacturers, railroad barons, national
bankers, and federal bond holders) were "simply trying to do what the
generals, nobles, and priests have done in the past-get the power of the
State into their hands, so as to bend the rights of others to their own
advantage."The plutocrats of today are still at it, even more
successfully, with almost no opposition.
Myth #9: Hamilton Was Great
Another myth is that the financial genius and economic statesmanship of
Alexander Hamilton saved the credit of the infant United States and
established the sound financial and economic foundation essential for
future growth and prosperity. Ron Chernow's hagiographic biography of
Hamilton is now moving up the best seller charts, cluttering the
display tables of Borders and Barnes & Noble, and taking up time on
C-Span's Booknotes; but its greatest contribution will be to perpetuate
the Hamilton myth for another generation.
Sumner's concise and devastating biography of that vainglorious
popinjay, written over a hundred years ago, remains the best. He closely
studied Hamilton's letters and writings, including the big three-his
Report on the Public Credit (1790), Report on a National Bank (1790),
and Report on Manufactures (1791)-and came to three conclusions:
first, the New Yorker had never read Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776),
the most important economic treatise written in the Anglo-American world
in that period; second, he was a mercantilist, who would have been quite
at home serving in the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole or Lord North; and
third, Hamilton believed many things that are not true-that federal
bonds were a form of capital; that a national debt was a national
blessing; that the existence of banks increased the capital of the
country; that foreign trade drained a country of its wealth, unless it
resulted in a trade surplus; and that higher taxes were a spur to
industry and necessary because Americans were lazy and enjoyed too much
The idea here was that if you taxed Americans more, they would have to
work harder to maintain their standard of living, thus increasing the
gross product of the country and providing the government with more
revenue to spend on grand projects and military adventures. Hamilton
was once stoned by a crowd of angry New York mechanics. Is it any
Myth #10: Agrarianism or Industrialism:We Must Choose
Historians teach that Americans in the 1790s and 1800s had two economic
choices-Hamilton and the Federalists who believed in sound money,
banking, manufacturing, and economic progress, and the Jeffersonians who
believed in inflation, agrarianism, and stasis. This is a gross
simplification. Not all Federalists were Hamiltonian; many despised him.
Hamilton dogmatically believed that the United States should become a
manufacturing nation like England and that it was the duty of the
federal government to bring this about by promotional policies.
Jefferson , on the other hand, oscillated between liberalism and
agrarianism. At his best, he was liberal, but for a long time he
dogmatically believed that the United States should remain an
agricultural nation, and that it was the duty of the federal government
to keep it in such a state by delaying the onset of large-scale
Hence, to expand trade, it should fight protectionist powers and hostile
trading blocs, acquire more agricultural land through purchase or war,
and, after obtaining the requisite amendment, fund the construction of
internal improvements to foster the movement of agricultural produce to
Thus, Jefferson authored the Louisiana Purchase, the Tripolitan War, the
Embargo; and his chosen successor, James Madison, the War of 1812, all
designed to fulfill this agrarian vision. As president, Madison became
ever-more Hamiltonian, supporting the re-establishment of the Bank of
the United States , the raising of tariffs, conscription, and the
appointment of nationalists to the Supreme Court. He appointed Joseph
Story, which is like Ike appointing Earl Warren, or Bush appointing
Souter. Meanwhile, in retirement, Jefferson advocated manufacturing to
achieve national economic self-sufficiency.
Why not Freedom?
Besides industrialism and agrarianism, there was a third position-call
it liberalism, or laissez-faire-which maintained that the government
should promote neither manufacturing nor agriculture, but leave both
alone, to prosper or not, expand or recede, according to the unerring
guides of profitability, utility, individual choice, and economic law.
Inspired by the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but even more
those of the French radical school of Turgot, Say, and de Tracy, whose
mottos laissez nous faire (leave the people alone) and ne trop
gouverneur (do not govern too much) captured the essence of good
Outstanding representatives of this liberal philosophy were the young
Daniel Webster, who made his reputation for oratory with fiery speeches
on behalf of free trade, hard money, and state rights as a New Hampshire
congressman, and the great John Randolph of Virginia, who broke with
Jefferson over the embargo and opposed the War of 1812, losing his seat
as a consequence, and Condy Raguet, the influential political economist,
who was the first American to develop a monetary theory of the business
cycle, which he did in response to the panic of 1819. Laissez-faire was
the cause of those who opposed plutocracy and supported the people. It
represented both the moral high ground and sound economic reasoning.
When he was writing his masterful History of American Currency , Sumner
grappled with the question of how North America had withstood levels
of inflation and indebtedness that would have ruined any European
country. His answer: "The future which we discount so freely honors our
drafts on it. Six months [of] restraint avails to set us right, and our
credit creations, as anticipations of future product of labor, become
In other words, the country was so productive that the losses engendered
by these excesses were quickly made up. He went on: "We often boast of
the resources of our country, but we did not make the country. What
ground is there for boasting here?
The question for us is: What have we made of it?No one can justly
appreciate the natural resources of this country until, by studying the
deleterious effects of bad currency and bad taxation, he has formed some
conception of how much, since the first settlers came here, has been
wasted and lost."
The unseen again. Let us begin with geography and resources, to which
Sumner alludes. The lower 48 states are entirely in the temperate zone.
Apart from the desert states of the southwest, all receive ample
rainfall. Most of the land is fertile, and it is abundant. The country
teems with natural resources.
Then there are the people. Until very recently, the United States
enjoyed a low density of population, which meant high wages and low land
prices. And for centuries, the population has been one of the hardest
working in the world, creating an infrastructure to build on. Then there
is the culture. Largely because of the influence of Christianity, the
debilitating sin of envy has no social standing here, unlike the Third
World where it is perhaps the chief impediment to wealth-creation and
Also, for the same reason, there is little bribery, which also impedes
growth. Finally, there is the tradition of law, respect for private
property, tradition of profit, and contractual freedom. These
institutions-and not the fallacious ideas, corrupt institutions, and bad
policies named above-form the core of American prosperity.
- "Politics is the womb in which war is developed." General Karl von
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