Roger also trusts the state more than I do

There’s another subject that Roger and I disagree about profoundly.  He trusts the state more than I do.  Whenever he sees anything not going the way he’d like it to go, he calls for state action to “put it right.”  This applies to big things, such as instances of what he calls “market failure,” and it applies to little things such as people consuming foods or drinks he disapproves of.  In both cases he wants the state to stop it.

There are undoubtedly cases of market failure.  Left to themselves, business people would probably, like many of us, go for the easy way out, protecting their market share by monopolies or cartels, rather than by trying to keep their quality up and their prices keen.  Certainly we need laws to stop them doing this.  Where I part company with Roger is that he seems to think of politicians and civil servants as dispassionate guardians of the public good.  I see them as being rather like other people in pursuing their own advantage where they can.  Politicians want to be re-elected, and bureaucrats want to be promoted.  Both will, at times, act in their own interests, just as others do, even in some cases where this is against the public good.

When Roger talks of “society,” he doesn’t use it to refer to communities working together for common purposes, he uses it to mean the state, the political body that has monopoly control of the laws and of the powers to enforce them.  The problem is that when those powers are concentrated, people try to use them to impose their agenda on others.  Because some people drink unwisely, Roger supports minimum alcohol pricing.  Because some people become obese, Roger wants ‘fat taxes’ on sugars and fats.  In these cases he claims to be acting in people’s best interests, but when he votes to ban fox-hunting, it’s simply that he doesn’t want them doing it.

Roger is happy to give the state more power, confident it will be used appropriately, whereas I rather suspect that whenever the state gains extra powers, it will use them for whatever purpose it wants.  Surveillance powers granted to thwart terrorists will probably end up being used to prosecute people for not sorting their garbage into the right bins.  In short, Roger sees the state as a means of making people live as he thinks they should, whereas I see it as a source of power waiting to be abused by anyone who can grab control of its levers.

Clement Attlee’s Lesson

Biteback Publishing have published a new biography of Clement Atlee.  Authored by Michael Jago, it explores what motivated Atlee and drove him to become one of the most influential of Labour Party leaders.

Atlee had a remarkable record in putting through his programme.  In 6 years he achieved major structural reform of Britain’s economy and society.  He is thus to be admired dispassionately as an effective Prime Minister.  What he also did was to teach us all an important lesson:  Socialism doesn’t work.  While other European nations were renewing themselves after the destruction and exhaustion of a world war, Britain wallowed in nationalization and allowed its industries to stagnate and decay under state ownership and control.  He left a country impoverished, heading down a slope that left it diminished, impoverished and ineffective.  Only in 1979 did Britain begin to shake off his influence, change direction, and once again climb back to prosperity and significance.  Atlee left a legacy that lasted, it is true, but it was a legacy that left his country ruined for decades.

It was an important lesson, though, and one we learned again just 25 years ago when the Communist empire collapsed and left exposed not just the terror that had sustained it, but the squalor it had concealed for so long.  Socialism doesn’t work and never has done because it goes against the grain of human nature and the desire of peoples to make free decisions that can improve their lives and better the lives of others in the process.

We can only hope that people will not only read the new book about Atlee, but that they will also remember the lesson and the years of suffering that it took to learn it.

Teaching economics in schools

At the weekend I spoke at a conference in Berlin organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation on teaching economics to teenage school students. I took them through my preferred method, which is to avoid jargon and equations, but to build up understanding instead by starting with first principles and building up logically upon them.

Value, I said, is necessarily subjective. Because we are different we value things differently. Value is in the mind; it does not reside in the object itself, and it is because we value things differently from each other that we trade. From value I build up to price, and to specialization and trade, and so on. Those who have looked at my “Economics is Fun” videos on YouTube will see how this works. My audience took delight in the fact that my first 30 seconds dealing with value completely destroyed Marx’s labour theory of value, and with it ‘surplus’ value and exploitation and all the class hatred that follows from it.

My aim fundamentally is not to teach students a set of facts or rules, but to inculcate a way of thinking. I take the view that understanding is more important than learning.

Sometimes I teach this in schools by working through ten widely held and widely propagated views that are in fact wrong. These include claims that the world is running out of scarce resources leaving none for our children, or that the world will become so over-populated that it cannot sustain the numbers.

In showing why and where these are incorrect, I try to have the students thinking things through for themselves and taking a more critical attitude toward popular nostrums. My experience has been that young people appreciate this approach, and that it armours them in the years to come against much of the nonsense that politicians in particular talk about economics.

Some things about equality that Piketty should know

Dr Arthur Shenfield (1909-1990) was a distinguished scholar and a valued member of the ASI’s Academic Board.  In 1981 he published “Myth & Reality in Economic Systems,” based on a lecture series.  The essay “Morality and Capitalism” is very pertinent today, given the recent claim by Thomas Piketty that capitalism must lead to widening inequality.  It is worth reading Shenfield, not least for his pithy turns of phrase:

Thus it ill becomes socialists to assail the inequality of capitalism for, once achieved, socialism produces inequality more gross and obnoxious than anything observable in a developed capitalist country.  However, since there is some merit in a wide degree of a fairly equal condition insofar as it does not hinder desirable incentives of varieties of life styles, it is important to consider which kind of system is most likely to achieve it. The clear answer is capitalism.

Socialism ostensibly pursues equality but produces inequality.  Capitalism pursues liberty but in the process also reduces inequality.  We have already noted that in capitalism wealth comes to those who serve the masses.  Thus in capitalism the inequality of condition is little more than the difference between the Cadillac and the Chevrolet, the Parisian couturier’s model and the excellent mass-produced copies of it, caviar and the equally nutritious cod’s roe. In pre-capitalist societies it was the difference between the mansion and the hovel, between silks and rags, between exquisite luxury and frequent famine.

In socialist societies it is between the luxurious country villa and the miserable worker’s flat, between the special shops carrying high-quality goods imported from capitalist countries reserved for the Party elite and the endless queueing for the shoddy products of socialist industry imposed on the masses.

Gary Becker was right, part six: The family

Becker introduced the family into economic thinking and economic calculation into family life.  He spotted that a family is a miniature economic system like a small factory.  The basic goods it produces are things such as meals, residence, and entertainment.  The costs of these goods are compounded not only of the costs of their input, but include the time spent on producing them.  Since the family interacts with the wider economy including the place of work, there will be trade-offs between the two.

As real wages at work increase, it becomes relatively less attractive to spend time producing some of the family goods.  Some of these will be outsourced, buying in what was once done at home in order to free time for more valuable activity.  Examples include buying home-delivered pizzas or paying tailors to repair garments that used to be mended at home.  Sometimes people turn to outside institutions such as nurseries and schools to take over some of the activity that was once performed within the household.

Sometimes domestic production will become more capital intensive as work wages rise, with people buying labour-saving machines such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines and dishwashers.  The rise in the value of time at work has made domestic time relatively less efficient without them.  In place of the traditional dichotomy between work and leisure, Becker looked at the switch from more to less time-intensive production of home goods.

Becker noted some of the consequences of the large-scale entry of women into the workforce.  The wages they could earn at work made them less ready to spend as much time on domestic activity such as child rearing and childcare.  This provides an economic interpretation of the widely-observed decline in the fertility of societies as their economies develop.  Becker also thought it lay behind rising divorce rates in advanced societies.

Becker made a major contribution to our understanding of how families allocate time and assign tasks to the various members, so much so that we now routinely attempt to estimate the likely social and domestic impact of ongoing economic developments.