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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

The latest bright idea about the housing shortage

Written by Tim Worstall | Saturday 05 April 2014

The latest bright idea from those who would solve the housing crisis seems very much less than bright to me. Here's Polly detailing it:

But land prices are the key. Oxford economist and housing expert Professor John Muellbauer calls for a national land bank, the state acquiring land for garden cities or any building at current land use value and, once given planning permission, selling on to builders, keeping the windfall added value.

Err, yes. The current high price of housing is a result of not much housing being built. OK, so we're OK with that analysis. Polly then tells us that simply building more won't help: in direct violation of this supply and demand thing that we know abouit economics. And then the solution is that the State should be the person buying the land for development. But our problem is that it is already the State that decides what can be built and where.

For that is indeed our problem. The majority of the price of a house, anywhere anyone actually wants to live that is, is in the value of the chitty that allows you to build a house on that particular plot. These chitties are, we might note, State issued. So our problem is simply that said State won't issue enough chitties so as to bring the scarcity value of the chitties down. And our solution to this is to allow the State to collect the value of said chitties?

What?

The solution is, of course, as we here have been saying for some years now, simply to keep issuing those chitties until the scarcity value is exhausted.  It's absolutely true that certain locations will still have scaricity value but housing as a whole won't. Or, if you prefer, the solution is not that the State should be more deeply involved in the planning of housing but that it should laregly withdraw from such planning of housing.

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Should libertarians care about Brendan Eich's resignation?

Written by Ben Southwood | Friday 04 April 2014

Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has resigned his job after just 10 days in the role. This came after it was rediscovered that he gave $1,000 to Proposition 8, a direct democratic move to ban gay marriage in California, that narrowly passed. Upon discovering this, twitter and other areas of the internet mobilised, with 72,000 supporting a petition to the board to sack him.

One libertarian perspective might be that, since no negative rights were infringed, this was an entirely defensible use of social pressure to enforce social norms—Eich contributed to a proposal that many libertarians believe would restrict the rights of gays. For this perspective, the Eich situation is proof that state intervention is not needed to achieve socio-political equality for groups considered oppressed. It's very very interesting that many progressives are actually using the rhetoric of thin libertarianism, which they would usually abhor, to defend their position on the issue.

Contrariwise, an alternative "thick" libertarian perspective would hold that people have the right not to be hounded out of their job for opinions they hold and do not enforce on others—by all accounts Mozilla is a highly equal-opportunities place for LGBT people. For this perspective, Eich's resignation is a worrying indication that First Amendment—freedom of expression—rights are disappearing.

A third perspective might say that although this resignation, considered alone, might not be regrettable, because it advances gays' freedoms, as a rule people should not lose their job for holding certain political perspectives and even actively supporting them. This would hold especially strongly if we agreed that the small donations Eich made were unlikely to actually change anything.

I think all of these perspectives have merit as libertarian responses to what's happened. But whatever the normative issues here, I think the whole situation is much more interesting as an illustration of a positive (i.e. descriptive, not morally loaded) historical trend and tendency that is becoming, in my opinion, more and more obvious. Gay marriage was on almost no one's radar in 1990. In 2000 it was still only an utterly minority idea even among gays.

In 2008 (the same year as Prop 8, and the end of the google ngrams data range in the previous link), US President Barack Obama was elected and specifically opposed gay marriage. Between 2008 and 2014 gay marriage has gone from something a liberal Democrat felt he could not guarantee election without opposing to something that a chief executive (admittedly a Silicon Valley chief executive, of a particularly "socially aware" firm) has to favour, or at least not oppose, to keep their job. This is astonishingly rapid.

And various issues suggest that maybe this ousting had little to do with a cost-benefit analysis. Let's assume the best argument in favour of ousting him is that (a) he tipped the balance in favour of anti-gay marriage in the past, and this delayed gay people gaining their deserved marriage rights, and (b) his position at the top of Mozilla will stop it being truly equal to gay employees and consumers. That is, let's assume that the left-leaning people who got Eich overthrown do in fact wish Eich to have meaningful freedom of conscience and speech, but they also think it's fair to censor him if he acts based on those in ways which increase oppression or reduce social welfare.

(This isn't entirely accurate: some do think that people shouldn't be able to be both employed and hold personal anti-gay marriage perspectives. But I see personal opinions (which are very likely genetically heritable and uncontrollable) as a much weaker justification for the hounding and the principle of charity dictates I tackle the strongest possible opposing argument here.)

The fact that showing neither (a) nor (b) has even been attempted in any of the myriad of news and commentary I've seen on the issue is telling (I'm open to being refuted here). But more telling is the fact that none of the commentary I've seen has even mentioned these issues. And what's more I bet Eich-resignation-advocates wouldn't change their minds if we discovered that Mozilla's currently pro-LGBT policies were impervious to CEO influence, and that his $1,000 did pitifully little to change the outcome of Prop 8, never mind the overall progress of gays' marriage rights.

This suggests to me that this is about policing heresies. This is a doctrinal dispute. I wonder if Eich would still be in his job had he publicly stated regret at his old anti-gay marriage perspective and repudiated it forcefully. I bet he would. And this brings me to the final point: libertarians should care, but not because the instance itself is necessarily a bad thing—an ugly, base, low, cowardly, mean thing certainly, but it might pass a cost-benefit analysis if we really did one—but because of this trend. Progress appears to be an unstoppable juggernaught, and it might be speeding up.

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No wonder activists hate the Koch brothers so much

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 04 April 2014

This ia a rather alarming thing for any activist to read in the daily newspaper. From Charles Koch in the WSJ:

Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs—even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished. Koch Industries was the only major producer in the ethanol industry to argue for the demise of the ethanol tax credit in 2011. That government handout (which cost taxpayers billions) needlessly drove up food and fuel prices as well as other costs for consumers—many of whom were poor or otherwise disadvantaged. Now the mandate needs to go, so that consumers and the marketplace are the ones who decide the future of ethanol.

But, but, if a rich guy is fighting for there not to be privileges granted by govenment then what are we all gonna do? Hundreds of thousands of jobs as well paid activists, demonstrators, organisers of petitions, demanders of special privileges, all will disappear! For the entire foundation of all of this social justice stuff is that the rich are using government to screw the working stiff. If anyone actually catches on to the idea that  it's people buying privilege from said government that is the problem then where go our careers in campaigning for privilege for our guys from government?

No wonder the activists actually hate the Koch brothers. They're not playing that part assigned to them in the great political kabuki play and by refusing to do so they're putting those lovely careers "influencing " DC at risk.

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Should the government play the stock market? Or the gold market?

Written by Ben Southwood | Thursday 03 April 2014

A recent report from the National Audit Office found that the government could have made £750m more from the sale of Royal Mail if it had sold at the highest price the shares reached on its first day. This has led many to blame the government for selling off the family silver at the bottom of the market. Others have pointed out that the reason for privatising Royal Mail was to subject it to the disciplines of the market, not to raise money. And that no one knows in advance what a share will be worth. Grey markets undervalued the share as well—and of course some advisers said it would rise higher, just as others said it wouldn't. Perhaps government politicking prior to the sale caused some of the problems. In any case, the value has not disappeared, it has just been distributed differently. There may be weak reasons to question the profile of the distribution (e.g. will it be spent more progressively or efficiently by government?) but realistically we're talking a small amount of the budget and bear in mind that investors who ordered more than £10,000 of shares were shut out completely.

But one interesting angle is whether this is like Gordon Brown's gold "sell-off" of 1999-2002. As everyone remembers, Brown, as chancellor of the exchequer, sold off the government's gold at what turned out to be the bottom of the market, losing out on potential gains easily ten times more than available with Royal Mail. He is widely criticised for this, but I can't quite see why. I can't think of any good reason why the government should hold any assets whatsoever. On top of this, there are at least four reasons why the state should not hold any specific assets:

1. The government is not well placed to play asset markets. So there's an interesting question as to whether the government should hold net wealth. Maybe there are shocks where easy sources of income will evaporate and the government will need to instantly liquidate some assets in order to pay its normal bills, defend the country against external aggressors, enforce the law etc. This might suggest the government needs to hold net wealth. But we know that even very smart and knowledgeable fund managers with all the right incentives only consistently outperform the market due to luck. So what would make us think, outside of one issue I'll deal with later, that the government's agents, so universally derided for competence in most contexts, could succeed in this either impossible or just really really really hard task? The UK government's Royal Mail and gold holdings were vastly out of proportion to those assets' size in relation to all wealth. If the government wants to hold wealth we know that it should hold a low cost exchange-tracker, as broad-based as possible. Otherwise it will effectively be handing over taxpayer wealth to traders in the markets.

2. Playing asset markets may directly distort those markets. If governments hold given assets (e.g. Royal Mail shares or gold) then it might be because there are social welfare reasons for doing so. It's at least possible that people have the specific desire for the equity of companies to not be held privately or to be held by the state and this something worth at least factoring in. When it comes to gold then individuals might be glad the government has it as a backstop. And of course the state could just be holding these assets on behalf of its citizens, perhaps because there are economies of scale in so doing. Even if there aren't benefits to the state holding assets on behalf of citizens, individuals may take these holdings into account as if they were their own, thus causing only small inefficiencies. But I take most of these considerations to be of minuscule empirical importance. Mainly the government's holdings of assets cannot be justified by these reasons. But since the market will be influenced by their holdings, they will reduce the supply of certain sorts of assets for the market to hold, leading to price shifts and portfolio rebalancing. Since this will be away from the ideal portfolio firms would have held (I can imagine exceptions but none of them are relevant here) this reduces social welfare.

3. Government holding assets means they're unlikely to be used with allocative efficiency. This depends on some of the considerations in 2, but again they're very very unlikely to have empirically large impacts. By contrast, there are probably some very empirically large impacts from the fact that few of the government's assets—totting up to about £600bn, according to a recent ASI report—are ever marketed. As we know from Friedrich A. Hayek's most important work, market pricing is how we rationally allocate resources in society. This was why Hayek and Ludwig von Mises won the socialist calculation debate as even noted Marxist G.A. Cohen agreed. What this means for assets is that we don't know whether they are properly used unless we trade for them. An illustration: if the government sold off all its army barracks the army might then rent the selfsame barracks from their private owners. But it's possible that they would rent somewhere else, and someone might set up a factory or a farm or a theme park on the original site. Without the market competition process we have no idea what would happen and we have no idea what the best use of the land and buildings would be. This applies to big nebulous assets like Royal Mail just as it applies to land and as it applies to gold.

4. If the government holds assets it may have incentives that distort its policy-making decisions. Why does the UK have such an appallingly tight planning regime even though basically all economists think it's extremely inefficient and damaging? It's probably because lots of people own houses and these groups tend to be disproportionately likely to vote and are otherwise politically well-connected. If these groups rented their house and owned the same amount of wealth spread across a wide range of assets it's very unlikely we'd see such economically unjustifiable policies. The same goes, potentially, for government-held assets. After all, the government will be blamed not to mention having less ability to achieve its policy goals if assets it holds lose value. It's not so much that they're likely to directly pursue policies designed to boost the value of state assets. But acts of commission are treated differently to those of omission. It seems highly likely that the government will treat policy changes that affect these particular assets' value differently, just like housing.

So maybe the government should hold some wealth, I can see the arguments for and I can imagine some arguments against. But if it holds wealth it ought hold assets as broadly as possible: because it's not placed to take gambles on particular assets; because doing so may distort markets directly; because holding assets takes them off the market and reduces allocative efficiency; and because holding particular assets may distort the incentives facing policymakers. Thus we should praise Gordon Brown for selling off gold just as we should praise Vince Cable and George Osborne for selling off the Royal Mail.

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What on earth is Germany doing here?

Written by Tim Worstall | Thursday 03 April 2014

This looks to me like an extraordinarily silly decision over there in Germany:

BERLIN—Germany's cabinet Wednesday adopted a bill to introduce a statutory pay floor of €8.50 ($11.72) an hour, a change in policy after Europe's largest economy for decades let business groups and trade unions set pay and working times in collective agreements. The measure, which targets the five million German workers who currently earn less than €8.50 an hour, will be introduced in 2015 with a two-year transition period given to existing regional and sector-wide wage deals.

Where do we expect to see the unemployment effects of a minimum wage? Quite, in the unemployment rate of the young, untrained and unskilled. So, what can we note about the youth unemployment rate in Germany, given that up until now it hasn't had a minimum wage that bites? Yes, quite, we can see that it's very low compared to that of other European countries.

What do we expect to happen with the introduction of a minimum wage, especially one this high? That the youth unemployment rate will start to look more like that of other European countries of course.

Oh, and Germany also has another problem:

Government officials have said that former East Germany with its lower wage and higher unemployment levels will likely be hit hardest by the new minimum wage.

Yup. Just doesn't look like a sensible decision to me.

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The conscience of the constitution

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Wednesday 02 April 2014

The Conscience of the Constitution by Timothy Sandefur, is a new Cato book that can be read with profit by anyone interested in classical liberalism, not just Americans. Some regard the US Constitution as a great bastion of democracy, yet the word, says Sandefur, appears nowhere in it. What the Constitution actually enshrines is liberty.

This liberal purpose and foundation is expressed in very plain terms by the Declaration of Independence, which is, in Sandefur's term, 'the conscience of the Constitution'. Where the Constitution says how the power of government should be limited, the Declaration explains why. Not to empower majorities and their representatives, but to restrain them.

Sandefur's thesis is that over a long period of usurpations, the liberty role of the Constitution has been eclipsed by its democracy rule. Its principles go back to Magna Carta, which declared that rulers and officials themselves had were subject to the 'law of the land' – the deep sense of justice and fairness that grows up through the voluntary interactions of free people. Governments cannot pass any rule they like, no matter how arbitrary, irrational, unfair, unclear or contradictory, and properly call it 'law'. It is this that 'due process' is all about – laws and their execution must be substantively fair and just. Americans do not simply enjoy a list of 'rights' but are protected (or should be) by a general rule against exploitation and unfairness.

In any particular case, that general rule might of course outrage the majority. And in recent years, says Sandefur, the courts have come to place the majority decisions in the legislature above the principle of safeguarding liberty, hardly ever striking down official powers. It is called 'judicial activism' but actually it is a baleful inactivity. Justices claim that legislators are nearer to the public and therefore better equipped to know what is in the 'public interest'. But that, says Sandefur, gives legislators carte blanche to pass almost any law, covering it with some or other 'public interest' fig-leaf. Also, majority decisions are actually made through the rent-seeking of interest groups, pressuring politicians, as described so well by the Public Choice economists. And much law today is made by unelected regulators anyway, so the 'nearer to the public' argument is plainly a sham.

Deliberately upholding unjust laws, concludes Sandefur, is no less damaging than accidentally striking down just ones. The courts should be in no doubt that, as the Constitution and Declaration specify, liberty is the primary object of their actions. However much democracy we have, our rulers have no right to go beyond the Constitution and thereby put the liberty of individuals at risk.

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Art museums are simply too expensive, sell everything and close them down

Written by Tim Worstall | Wednesday 02 April 2014

This is based on a recent piece in the NYT which I cannot now find so apologies both for the repeat and also for the possible garbling of the argument. But art is simply to valuable to be hanging in museums these days. We should sell the lot off and close them all down.

Take, for example, the mythical Vermeer, "Girl who has lost her ears let alone her pearl earring". This is worth, in these days of Russian oligarchs, $100 million. It is also hanging in a public museum in London, owned by some arm of the State.

So, how much does it cost for people to look at this picture? A reasonable discount rate might be 5%. That's what we could get if we flogged the piece and stuck the money into a stock market fund concentrating on yield. Maybe 3% for FTSE as a whole. But with 5% that means that not selling it costs us £5 million a year.  Or £13,700 a day, which if museums are open for 10 hours a day means £1,370 an hour. A period of time in which this one picture might have, what, 10 people look at it? Thus, the cost to us of this one picture hanging in a gallery in London is £137 per viewer.

At which point we have to ask whether this is worth it. And we've a method of working that out to. Do we think that we could charge those 10 people an hour £137 each to be able to view the painting? No, clearly and obviously, we do not. Therefore the costs to us as a whole of our possession and display of this painting are less than the benefits that come from our owning and displaying this painting. Having costs higher than benefits is also known as destroying value, something which is properly known as "making us all poorer".

We should therefore sell off all such art and close down the museums.

If those who purchase it then wish to show it to the public all well and good. But they'll be doing that on their dime, not our.

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Video: the state of the minimum wage debate

Written by Sam Bowman | Tuesday 01 April 2014

Last month I spoke on the minimum wage at LibertarianHome's meet-up, and they have uploaded the video of the talk, as well as a very good summary write-up of my comments. I had a great time at the talk and I'm looking forward to attending more of their meet-ups in future. 

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The sale of Royal Mail was well handled

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Tuesday 01 April 2014

The National Audit Office, some of the media, and the Opposition (of course) are saying that the sale of Royal Mail was "too cautious" and lost "hundreds of millions of pounds" for the taxpayer.  This is nonsense, and its currency shows how little some people understand about privatization, or perhaps how much people have forgotten by not doing it.

It was the first major privatization in two decades, and the aim was not to raise the greatest possible sum for the government, but to turn a state-run corporation into a successful and flourishing private business.  This was always the aim of the privatizations of the 1980s and 1990s.  When the major state industries and utilities were brought to the stock market and put into private hands the aim was always to achieve a first-day premium so that investors would feel satisfied that it was a success, and feel confident about its future.

No-one knew what the "correct" price was for Royal Mail, any more than they did for BT, British Gas and the dozens of others.  Since they had not traded in the private sector, or had to attract private investment, no-one knew how they would be valued.  Government took expert advice knowing that it would be, at best, an estimate.  It covered itself by retaining a proportion of the shares so it could gain later from any increase in value.  In the case of Royal Mail it has retained 30% for later sale at a higher price.

The pricing was cautious, as it was in the earlier privatizations, because government wanted a successful launch into the private sector more than it wanted the highest possible price.  Privatization was always a political as well as an economic act.  Its major aim was to replace state ownership and direction of industry by commercial and (where possible) competitive private sector activity.  It did so because the private sector is exposed to improving disciplines absent from nationalized industries.

The threat at the time of a Royal Mail strike cast more uncertainty over the company's valuation, even though that threat was later withdrawn.  We now have a successful private company holding its own in a competitive market, a company that has become one of the UK's leaders, and one whose future prospects look good.  This was a successful sale, and those who carp about not gaining the maximum possible price simply do not understand what privatization is all about.  It isn't about selling off stuff for the top price; it's about building up companies that can thrive by providing goods and services in a dynamic competitive market.

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Regulatory clampdown on regulators

Written by Blog Editor | Tuesday 01 April 2014

New research today (1 April) reveals that errors made by regulators are persistent and predictable. Regulators misjudge key facts and are inconsistent, say behavioural economists, so greater supervision of regulators is needed. Fortunately the Regulatory Conduct Authority (RCA) is there to improve things.

Examples of regulators' mistakes includes over-simplifying the complex world of retail products, focusing only on prices and neglecting product innovation. They also over-discount the future, introducing regulations for immediate gratification. And they are overconfident in their ability to identify what customers actually want.

The RCA plans to identify and prioritise the problems caused by regulators and to 'name and shame' the least competent. It is also attempting to discover whether it is just some, or all, regulators who mess things up. The RCA will then 'nudge' regulators into upping their game. Former water regulator Sir Ian Byatt and former gas regulator Claire Spottiswoode have both supported the RCA initiative.

Download this paper.

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