‘Munibonds’ and the national debt

Bad news from the Telegraph’s daily email:

Local authorities are on the verge of issuing bonds in order to raise revenues and make up for further cuts to their government grant…. The “munibonds” will be issued by a new municipal debt agency, and are backed by 48 local councils and the LGA. Scotland will also acquired the powers to issue its own debt in what have been dubbed “kilt-edged bonds”.

Why is it such bad news? Shouldn’t government be allowed to borrow, for investment, like the rest of us? Few of us could buy a house from our savings: instead we take out a loan. So why should a local authority – or even a country – not borrow to fund its schools, roads and care homes?

I used to read eighteenth-century authors and economists like William Cobbett (of Rural Rides) and Adam Smith (of The Wealth of Nations) and chuckle to myself as they went on and on against the idea of the national debt. Much of the huge rise in prosperity of our times, I supposed, had been built on debt, much of it government debt taken out to fund market-enhancing improvements in roads, bridges, airports, schools, hospitals and housing.

Now I think the Cobbetts and Smiths were right and I was wrong. If we could rely on governments to make rational, objective decisions about the overall benefits and costs of infrastructure finance, then there might be a case for allowing them to borrow for public investment. But we cannot rely on governments to be so dispassionate and high-minded. The very power to borrow is itself too much of a temptation pulling them in the opposite direction. Consider, for example:

(1) It is impossible enough to measure the ‘public’ benefit of government spending, when there is no such thing as the ‘public interest’ – only a clash of opposing interests. (Think airports, and the convenience for travellers of extra flights and the distress of local residents over traffic and noise.)

(2) The problem is compounded when it is confused by electoral interests. (As Khruschev noted, “politicians will build a bridge, even where there is no river.” All the more so, if there is an election coming up.)

(3) With electoral advantage in mind, it is too easy for those who control the public finances to segue from investment to spending. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to his credit, said he would confine borrowing to investment projects. But by his reckoning, anything spent on schools or hospitals was ‘investment’ for the future – even though much of it was patently simply consumption for today.

Such factors help explain why governments have growth so much, and spend money on so many marginal activities. It is too inviting to spend now, earn the applause of the public, and let the next generation, who do not yet have a vote, foot the bill for it all. Public Choice economists call it ‘time shifting’. And in that, of course, the public themselves are complicit. With interest groups, from pensioners to patients, demanding more spending on themselves, and politicians happy to borrow, at little cost to themselves, to provide it, how can we ever expect prudence in the public finances.

It is a draconian answer to say that we should stop government borrowing at all. But actually, the eighteenth century thinkers were right.

It usually begins with Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was born on this day in 1905. “It usually begins with Ayn Rand,” said author Jerome Tuccille of this Russian-American thinker, novelist and screenwriter. An amazing number of people have come to support a free society and a free-market economy through reading her novels, especially The Fountainhead (1935) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), in their student years.

Those novels may not be works of great literature. The characters are little nuanced, more mouthpieces for Rand’s political and philosophical views. But decades on, they remain hugely influential, because they have what young people – and others looking for some purpose in life – actually want. Their weaknesses are the obverse of their strengths. Her heroes are role models: ambitious, purposive, independent and strong; ruthlessly self-interested and yet deeply moral. These are stories with a message, a coherent worldview that conquers all: the morality of rational self-interest. Atlas Shrugged, for instance, describes a world in which industry leaders overcome the stifling controls of over-mighty governments by closing down production and creating an alternate order based on freedom and strict respect for personal property. Unlikely, for sure: but it makes you think.

No surprise, then, that many of the world’s leading businesspeople have been influenced by this twentieth-century Russian émigré to America, whose fiction and philosophy has sold 25 million copies. One, Lars Seier Christensen, founder and CEO of the hugely successful online investment broker Saxo Bank, gave the Adam Smith Institute’s annual Ayn Rand Lecture in London last year. Even though Rand died in 1982, he observed, her robust individualist approach to economic and social life is needed more now than ever.

Rand held that the key thing that makes human beings unique is their reason. We betray our species and our selves if we do not use it. But to act rationally, we need a long-term view of the world. It might sound good to tax the wealthy and spend the money on education, welfare and much else. But there is no free lunch. Those short-term benefits come at a long-term cost, because taxation depresses risk-taking and enterprise. As in Atlas Shrugged, the majority cannot exploit the minority and expect them to put up with it forever.

The long-term view reveals that most regulation is irrational. Minimum wage laws, for example, might boost the wages of poorer workers; but by making it too costly for employers to hire unskilled or untested applicants, they deny hundreds of thousands of young people jobs and consign them to the welfare rolls. American regulations that forced banks to lend to poorer people gave families ‘affordable housing’ but created the sub-prime crisis and the crash.

It is the same in business. Rational self-interest means long-term self-interest, not short-term greed. Greed comes back to haunt you, as certain bankers will testify. It is interesting that about the only American bank to come out of the financial crash unscathed was BB&T, run by John Allison – an adherent of Ayn Rand’s principles and another past Ayn Rand Lecturer. There are only two stable relationships, he insists: win-win or lose-lose. You don’t need self-sacrifice or even altruism. You benefit yourself by benefiting others.

Money is not the end. Happiness is. If people in a business – from the CEO to the cleaners in the works canteen – know that they are part of an enterprise that makes a positive difference to others, they will have purpose and self-esteem. That will make it a better business – and will make them happier, more complete human beings.

One cheer for democracy

Today (20 January) is hailed in the UK as Democracy Day – the 750th anniversary of the establishment of the first parliament of elected representatives in Westminster. Let’s not get too dewy-eyed. We classical liberals are democrats, but we are sceptical democrats. Yes, some (minimal) functions require collective action. We think that the public, not elites, should make those decisions – and that representative government is probably the best way to do it.

But we are fully aware hat the democratic process is far from perfect. It is not about reconciling different interests (as markets do), but about choosing between conflicting interests – a battle in which only one side can win. Democracy is tainted by the self-interest of electors, of representatives and of officials; it can produce deeply irrational results; and all too often it leads to minority groups being exploited, and their liberties curbed, all in the name of ‘democracy’.

That is why democratic decision-making must be bound by certain rules, and should focus, with precision, only on those issues that cannot be decided in any other way. Many people (and almost all of those who happen to be in power) argue that more and more things should be decided through the democratic process. But that means deciding them through the political process; and politics is not always a benign force. The more things that are decided politically, the easier it becomes for the rights and liberties of individuals to be eroded, and for minority groups to be exploited or suppressed by those who are wield the coercive power of the state.

But rights and freedoms are for everyone: they are not a matter of numbers and majorities. Election success does not license the winning majority to treat other people exactly as it chooses. The power of majorities needs to be restrained.

That restraint really has to come from within the understanding and culture of the people. A constitution might curb the excesses of politicians for a while, but even countries with seemingly strong liberal constitutions are not immune from rapid increases in the size of government and from the erosion of individual rights and liberties by majorities. Constitutional freedoms are hard to protect if the general public loses its understanding of their importance and its will to protect them. Let’s hear it for Limited Democracy Day.

Farmers are milking it through state subsidies

Milk is now cheaper than bottled water in some UK supermarkets. So of course there is much wailing that our dairy industry is in terminal trouble and needs subsidy and protection from foreign imports. Wrong.

One reason why milk is so cheap right now is that supermarkets are using it as a loss leader. They hope that while customers are buying cheap milk, they might be tempted by less cheap other stuff. They are not actually paying farmers any less.

The dairy industry is indeed in a sorry state, but not because of the lack of state support. Rather, the problem is too much of it. When you protect industries from foreign competition through tariffs (as EU countries like the UK do), and then go on to subsidise them, you kill off competition, both international and domestic. Subsidies and protections allow production to carry on in old, outdated, inefficient, expensive ways. The result is higher prices, lower quality and less choice for customers.

Cold, rainy Britain is not a good place to raise cattle. It’s fine in the summer, but in the winter the cattle have to be brought into shelters and given heat, silage and hay, all of which adds to the cost. So other, warmer countries, inevitably have the competitive edge on us.

Dairy producers can compensate for this a bit by creating much larger farms, which can be sited in the sunnier parts of the country, and where large-scale winter housing can be run much more efficiently than countless small-farm cattle sheds. In large, modern facilities, new technology can be employed, such as dry bedding, using other farm by-products for feed, recycling heat, and recapturing methane. And while we are on the subject of greenhouse gases, how much more energy-efficient is it to collect milk from one 8,000-cow farm than from 100 with 80 cows?

But planning policy, that great UK obstacle to progress, is making it hard to build such facilities – a plan for one in Lincolnshire has recently been scrapped. And the existence of subsidies makes it less urgent for inefficient dairy farmers to leave the business, and for more efficient ones to replace them.

Some people argue that we should subsidise UK agriculture to cut down on ‘food miles’. Tosh. 80% of food-related emissions are from production, only 4% from transport. So it is 20 times more important to make efficiencies in production. That means super-farms here, or importing products from countries where the climate is more suitable. We do that with wine, why not with other agricultural products? And in any case, domestic production is an environmental nightmare, what with the fertilisers, pesticides and heating that have to be used. DEFRA figured that the carbon footprint of Spanish-grown tomatoes is probably smaller than that of UK tomatoes grown under glass. Remember too that food is transported, efficiently, in bulk. Most ‘food miles’ are getting small quantities of the stuff from the supermarket to your fridge, which is not going to change even if it is grown locally.

If we scrapped the subsidies and protections, the market could do its stuff, weeding out inefficient production and diverting investment into something better. That would be good for the industry, good for customers in terms of lower prices, good for taxpayers in terms of lower taxes, and good for the planet.

Freedom of speech in a free society

Some people might be deeply shocked by the words, images, arguments and ideas that are sometimes put forward in a free society. But in a free society, we have no right to prevent free speech and block other people’s opinions, even if we all disagree with what is said or find it offensive or immoral.

There is certainly a case for curbing language that incites people to violence against others, or that recklessly endangers life and limb – like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a theatre. And there is a case that children need special protection too, which is why we have age classifications on movies and games.

That is very different from preventing particular words, images, arguments and ideas from being aired at all. There can be no such censorship in society of free individuals – for then they would not be free.

There is a practical case for free speech too. People must understand the options available to them if they are to choose rationally and try new ideas – ideas that might well improve everyone’s future. Censorship closes off those choices and thereby denies us progress.

Nor can we trust the censors. Truth and authority are different things. Those in power may have their own reasons–such as self-preservation–to forbid certain ideas being broadcast. But even if the censors have the public’s best interests at heart, they are not infallible. They have no monopoly of wisdom, no special knowledge of what is true and what is not – only debate, argument and experience determines that. And censors may suppress the truth simply by mistake: they can never be sure if they are stifling ideas that will, eventually, prove to be correct. Some ideas may be mostly wrong, and yet contain a measure of truth, which argument can eke out, while the truth of other ideas may become obvious only over time.

The way to ensure that we do not stifle true and useful ideas is to allow all ideas to be aired, confident that their merits or shortcomings will be revealed through debate. That means allowing people to argue their case, even on matters that the majority regard as unquestionable. Truth can only be strengthened by such a contest. It was for this reason that, from 1587 until 1983, the Roman Catholic church appointed a ‘devil’s advocate’ to put the case against a person being nominated for sainthood. It is useful to expose our convictions to questioning. If we believe others are mistaken in their views, those views should be taken on and refuted – not silenced.

From Socrates onward, history is littered with examples of people who have been persecuted for their views. Such persecution often cowers people into staying silent, even though their ideas are subsequently vindicated. Fearing the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church, Nicolaus Copernicus did not publish his revolutionary theory that the planets rotated about the sun until just before his death in 1543. His follower Galileo Galilei was tried by the Inquisition and spent his remaining days under house arrest. Subsequent scientific endeavour and progress in Europe moved to the Protestant north.

Ideas that cannot be challenged rest on a very insecure foundation. They become platitudes rather than meaningful truths. Their acceptance is uncritical. And when new ideas eventually do break through, it is likely to be violently and disruptively.

Certainly, it can be unsettling when people say things with which we fundamentally disagree, express ideas we believe are profoundly wrong, do things we regard as deeply shocking, or even scorn our moral and religious beliefs. And in a free society we are at liberty to disagree with them and to say so publicly. But that is not the same as using the law, or violence, to silence them. Our toleration of other people’s ideas shows our commitment to freedom, and our belief that we make more progress, and discover new truths faster, by allowing different ideas to be debated rather than suppressed.

Adapted from Foundations of a Free Society.

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