Economics Explained — Part III: The Principles Illustrated

This is the third installment of a long post. I may revise it as I post later parts. The whole will be published as a page, for ease of reference. If you haven’t read “Part I: What Is Economics About?“ or “Part II: Economic Principles in Perspective“, you may benefit from doing so before you embark on this part.

What follows isn’t meant to depict the historical evolution of economies and the role of governments in them. The idea, rather, is to contrast various degrees of complexity in economic activity, and the effect of government on that activity — for good and ill.

Communism: The Real Kind

Bands of hunter-gatherers roam widely, or as widely as they can on foot, with young children and old adults (perhaps in their 30s and 40s) in tow. The hunters and gatherers share with other members of the band what they catch, kill, and collect. The stronger members of the band presumably catch, kill, and collect more than their dependents do, and so they probably take more than their “share” because doing so gives them the strength to do what they do for everyone else.

This primitive arrangement — in which producers are necessarily consumer more than non-producers so that non-producers are able to survive — operates exactly in accordance with the maxim “from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs”. But that is not the system envisaged by Marxists and Millennials, in which the state takes from producers and given to non-producers because it’s “only fair” and in the spirit of “social justice”. Primitive peoples know on which side their bread is buttered, which is a lot more than can be said for modern “communists”, state socialists, and the parasites who believe that the goose will continue to lay golden eggs after it has been put down.

That’s what happens when people without “skin in the game” (i.e., political theorists, pundits, politicians, bureaucrats, naive students, and layabouts) get their hands on the levers of government power. But I am getting ahead of myself and will have much more to say about it later in this post.

Barter: An Economy of Relatives, Friends, and Acquaintances

Imagine a simple economy in which goods are exchanged through barter. Implicit in the transaction are the existence of property rights and gains from trade: The producers of the goods own them and can trade them to their mutual benefit.

There is, at this point, no money to clutter our understanding of the economy’s workings, though there could be credit. One producer, Arlo, could give some of his goods to another producer, Brenda, with the understanding that Brenda will repay the loan with a specified quantity of goods by a specified time.

Credit can exist in this barter economy because its participants know each other well, either personally or by reputation. Credit is therefore more firmly based on trust and knowledge than it is in economies that are more widely dispersed and involve total strangers, if not enemies. But credit always carries a cost because the creditor (a) usually has other uses for the goods (or money) that he lends, and must forgo those uses by lending, and (b) takes a risk that the borrower won’t repay the loan. The risk may be lower in a barter economy of friends, relatives, and acquaintances than in a dispersed, money-based economy, but it is nevertheless there.

Credit in a barter economy can finance investment. If Arlo is a baker and Brenda is a butter-maker, Arlo could offer to give Brenda additional bread in the future (over and above the amount that she would normally receive for a certain amount of butter) while he rebuilds his oven so that he can produce bread at a faster rate. (Here, we must assume that the capacity of Arlo’s oven is a bottleneck, and that the availability other resources — flour, for example — is not a constraint.)

Barter, whatever its social advantages — which shouldn’t be overlooked — is cumbersome. Even with the use of central marketplaces, much time and effort is required to arrange, in a timely way, all of the trades necessary to satisfy even a fairly simple menu of wants: food (of various kinds), clothing (of various kinds), construction services (of various kinds), personal-care services (e.g., haircuts) and products (e.g., soap). It is time and effort that could be put to better use in the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor and in the production of more goods (in order to enjoy even more fruits).

Then, too, there is the difficulty of saving in a barter economy. Arlo might stockpile bread, for instance, but how much bread can he stockpile before it spoils or loses value because Brenda can’t use as much as Arlo has on hand? Producers of services face more serious problems. For example, how would a barber save haircuts for a rainy day?

A Closed, Money-Based Economy

We are still in a close-knit economy, that is, a closed one. But money now enters the picture. It eases the task of acquiring goods by allowing the purchaser to acquire them at his leisure (subject to the risk of non-delivery, of course). This is called saving, which is also a form of credit. The purchaser of goods (who is also a producer of goods) needn’t trade all of his output for the output of others. He can defer his purchases, thus effectively giving credit to those who buy his goods while he puts off buying theirs.

How does it work? If Arlo makes bread and Brenda makes butter, Arlo, with Brenda’s consent, can give her some bread in exchange for money instead of butter. (Maybe Arlo doesn’t need butter at the moment, and would rather buy it from Brenda at a later date.) Arlo, at one stroke, is accepting money (as a measure of the value of the goods he can purchase in the future) and extending credit to Brenda.

The value of the money, to Arlo, depends on his confidence that Brenda will deliver to him the quantity of butter that he would have received by trading his bread for her butter on the spot. If Arlo is unsure about Brenda’s ability to deliver the desired quantity of butter at a future date, he will ask for the monetary equivalent of additional butter. This is equivalent to the issuance of credit by Arlo to Brenda; that is, he is giving her time in which to produce more butter, and getting a share of the additional output in return.

A money-based economy is, perforce, a credit-based economy. And the value of money depends on the holder’s assessment of his ability to get his money’s worth, so to speak.

The existence of money enables producers to save a portion of their income in a non-perishable, fungible form. This facilitates investment by, for example, enabling the investing party to subsist on what he can purchase from the money he has saved while turning his time and effort toward improving the way in which he produces his goods, devising new goods that might yield him more income, or even wandering far and wide to seek new buyers for his goods.

Thus money is a beneficial economic instrument — as long as the terms of its use are established by those who actually produce and exchange goods. This included the “middlemen” (i.e., wholesalers, retailers, bankers, lenders) whose services are sought and valued by producers of other goods. As I will discuss later, outside interference in the creation and valuation money will distort the terms of trade between producers, causing them to make choices that are less beneficial to them than the choices they would make in the absence of such interference.

In an economy where there is no outside interference in the issuance and valuation of money (and credit), defaults aren’t distorting; that is, they don’t change the “normal” flow of economic activity. Those who give and accept credit do so willingly and after balancing the risks involved (including the possibility of unforeseen calamities) against the gains from trade. Moreover, other “middlemen” known as insurers come to the fore. For a fee, which is paid willingly by the participants in this economy, they absorb the costs of losses from unforeseen calamities (personal injury and illness, fire, flood, etc.).

An Open, Money-Based Economy

An open economy is simply one in which goods are exchanged across territorial boundaries. This kind of exchange is inherently beneficial because it enables all parties to improve their lot by giving them access to a wider range of goods. It also fosters specialization, so that a greater abundance of goods is produced, given available resources. Though inter-territorial trade can be conducted through barter, money obviously facilitates inter-territorial trade, inasmuch as it is (by definition) conducted over a wider area, making direct trades even more difficult than they are within smaller area.

Inasmuch as government isn’t yet in the picture, there is practically no downside to inter-territorial trade. It is simply an expansion of what has gone before — voluntary exchanges of goods (usually through the medium of money) for the mutual benefit of the parties to the transactions. With government out of the picture, there are less likely to be distortions of the kind that are caused by tariffs and subsidization, both of which are aimed at benefiting the citizens (or elites) of one territory at the expense of persons in other territories.

An Open, Money-Based Economy with Government

It is time to introduce government. I am not suggesting that government is a necessary or inevitable outgrowth of a money-based economy. Government probably came first, in the guise of a tribal leader to whom certain decisions were referred and who was responsible for settling disputes within the tribe and seeing to its defense from outside force.

The point of introducing government here is to highlight its potential economic value, and to draw attention to the ways in which it can destroy economic value — and liberty as well. I must say, at the outset, that government, when it comes to domestic affairs, can do no better than enforce prevailing social norms that not only bind a people but also protect them from each other. Such norms include the prohibition of — and social punishment of — acts that cause harm, including the disruption of economic activity. They may be summarized as acts of force (e.g., murder, battery, theft, and vandalism) and fraud (e.g., lying and deliberate deception). There is a related peace-keeping function that is best performed by a third party, and that is the settlement of civil disputes, which in some cases must be done by government, as a referee of last resort.

The point of government with respect to such acts is to ensure the enforcement and punishment of prohibitions in an even-handed way by a party that is presumed to be impartial. (I won’t get into the many historical deviations from this ideal, but will later address how those deviations might have been minimized.) With the assurance that government will enforce and punish harmful acts, the populace as a whole — including its economic units — can more freely go about the business of life (and business) and spend less time, effort, and money on self-defense. In this way, government can be a boon to an economy, especially one that spans a large and diverse populace of strangers.

Ensuring that the business of business can be conducted freely (within the constraint that otherwise illegal transactions are prohibited and punished), requires the national government to prevent subsidiary governments from erecting barriers to trade between the territories of the subsidiary governments. The national government may, on the other hand, restrict trade between entities inside the nation and entities outside of it, where such restrictions (a) keep dangerous materials and technologies out of the hands of actual or potential enemies or (b) prevent foreign regimes from undermining parts of the national economy by subsidizing foreign producers directly or through tariffs on imports to the foreign country.

Government can also protect the populace (and the business of business) from attacks by outsiders. The ideal way of doing this is to mount a defense that is robust enough to deter such attacks. Failing that, the defense must be robust enough to defeat attacking outsiders in a way the prevents much of the damage that they might otherwise do to the populace and its economic activities.

(The problematic side of peace-keeping, both domestically and against outsiders, is that its costs must be borne in some manner by the people and economic units it protects. Further, those costs must be borne, in many cases, by persons who have some objection to peace-keeping; for example: outright pacifists, bleeding-hearts who loath to believe that certain classes of human beings are more prone to criminality than others, and yet-to-be-mugged innocents who simply believe the best of everyone. That said, there is no “fair” way to apportion the costs of peace-keeping, but there is a fairer way than the is now the case: the imposition of a truly flat tax.)

A government that is limited as outlined above must be subject to several checks if it is to remain limited:

  • A written constitution that specifies the powers of the national government and subsidiary governments.
  • Onerous provisions for amending the written constitution.
  • A judiciary that is empowered to review all governmental actions to ensure their consistency with the written constitution.
  • A mechanism for rejecting judicial decisions that are inconsistent with the written constitution.
  • Regular elections through which qualified voters pass judgment on government officials.
  • The restriction of voting to persons of mature age who have “skin in the game”.

The failure to institute and maintain any of these checks will result, eventually, in a system of government that routinely does more than defend the populace and ensure that the business of business can be conducted freely. In the United States, the lack of oversight of the judiciary and the expansion of the franchise (rather than its restriction) have proved fatal to the otherwise clever design of the original Constitution.

The result is an badly distorted economy, which produces things (or fails to produce them) in accordance with the desires (mostly) of unelected bureaucrats, and redistributes income and wealth (and such antecedents as jobs and university admissions) in accordance with the desires of persons without “skin in the game” (i.e., political theorists, pundits, politicians, bureaucrats, naive students, and layabouts). The economy isn’t only badly distorted, but as a result of myriad government interventions, it produces far less than it would otherwise produce, to the detriment of almost everyone, including the supposed beneficiaries of government interventions.

Macroeconomics

What I have discussed thus far is microeconomic activity — the actions of individuals and firms that result in the exchange of economic goods, either directly or with the aid of money and credit. I have also addressed the effects of government interventions, but mainly in terms of the microeconomic effects of such interventions.

What I have avoided, except in passing, is the thing called macroeconomics, which is supposed to deal with aggregate economic activity and things that influence it, such as the monetary and fiscal tools wielded by government.

Toward a Risk-Free Economy

If the real economy — which produces goods and services — could be disconnected from financial markets, the Great Depression (and thus the New Deal) and the Great Recession (and thus TARP and “stimulus”) would not be part of history. The problem is that financial markets are a necessary part of the real economy — unless your idea of an economy is one that functions without money, banking (as we know it), credit, and risk-pooling (e.g., insurance companies and corporations).

Money is the root of all financial crises because it eases the buying and selling of goods and services. That sounds good, but money also enables its holders to more readily change their minds about what and when they buy and sell. When Farmer Joe trades wheat to Farmer Jake in exchange for butter, he does so, in part, because wheat isn’t nearly as portable as money. If Farmer Joe gets money for his wheat, there’s no telling what he’ll do with the money from one day to the next. He might even decide to save some of it, thus depriving Farmer Jake of sales that he was counting on and triggering a Keynsian rollback in aggregate demand.

Banks would be okay, as long as they are warehouses for goods and are not in the business of holding money and lending it out. Instead of paying interest, banks would charge customers for storage services.

Why shouldn’t banks lend money? Because lending by banks is a form of credit, and credit is to be eschewed. If money is the root of all financial crises, credit is the thing that allows money to do its dirty work. When borrowers don’t repay their loans, banks (and other lenders) go belly-up, which just triggers another kind of Keynsian rollback in aggregate demand. Government actions to make lenders whole simply transfer the risk of lending from particular depositors and investors to taxpayers at large, whose natural reaction is to spend less now because they can see higher taxes in their future.

Risk-pooling goes hand-in-hand with credit. People who pool their money to underwrite risky propositions (e.g., business ventures) do so knowing that not all propositions will succeed. Obviously, the thing to do is to back only those propositions that are ensured of success, but there’s no way to do that. Solution: Don’t allow risk pooling because it’s too, well, risky.

So there you have it, a prescription for a risk-free economy: no money, no credit, no banking, no risk-pooling. Just plod down the road to Farmer Jake’s place and trade some of your wheat for some of his butter. And don’t worry about the fact that you live in a thatched hut with a dirt floor, drive a rickety cart which is pulled by a rickety donkey, dig potatoes out of the ground, and eat those potatoes (with a little butter) by the dim light of a few home-made candles.

Wait a minute! There’s still the risk of bad weather, which could stunt or ruin your wheat crop. I guess there’s no such thing as a risk-free economy, is there? But don’t tell that to the regulators, you’ll spoil their fun.