Harnessing Hippogriffs

One of the more interesting aspects of writing these essays is that I can never predict in advance what will get me a flurry of outraged responses each week. It’s a fair bet that something always does; the collective conversation of the modern industrial world has become so overheated in the last decade or so that it’s difficult to say much of anything without getting somebody in a swivet; still, what it is that sets off the swiveteers routinely catches me by surprise.

Last week was no exception. Of all the things in that essay that might plausibly have launched the usual cries of outrage, the one that did so was an offhand reference to the free market fundamentalists of the Austrian school, many of whom insist that the proper solution to every economic problem is to let the market have its way. As it happens, in making that comment I was thinking specifically of Michael Shedlock aka Mish, whose blog is one of the handful I read daily.

Mish is among the most thoughtful and articulate proponents of the Austrian school in today's blogosphere, and he has an excellent eye for the economic news that matters – which is by and large exactly the economic news that the rest of the media avoids covering. Very nearly the only thing on his blog that makes me roll my eyes is his repeated insistence that the market is always right and government regulation is always wrong; no matter how berserk the market gets, its vagaries are for the best, and any problems should be corrected by privatizing even more government functions. Now of course Mish is hardly an official spokesperson for the Austrian school, as if there were such a thing, but he's not exactly alone in his insistence, either.

Enough people in the peak oil scene share similar views that it's probably necessary to say something about the free market and its potential for solving or creating problems during the twilight years of industrialism ahead of us. Any such comments need to be prefaced, though, by a reminder that a spectrum consists of something other than its two endpoints. Just as a great many people on the left have picked up the dubious habit of using labels such as "fascism" for any political system to the right of Hillary Clinton, a great many people on the right seem to have convinced themselves that any form of economic regulation at all is tantamount to some sort of neo-Marxist hobgoblin – a "socialist-communist-ecologist" system, to use a phrase that actually appeared in one of the comments fielded by last week's post.

Now it bears remembering that drowning is not the only alternative to dying of dehydration; there's a middle ground that is noticeably more pleasant than either. The same principle also applies in economics. The experiment of having government own all the means of production in an industrial society, along the lines proposed by Marx, received a thorough test at the hands of the Communist bloc and failed abjectly. At the same time, the experiment of having government keep its hands off the economy altogether in an industrial society, along the lines proposed by a great many free-market proponents these days, received an equally thorough test, and failed just as dismally. The test took place a little earlier; in America, it ran from the end of the Civil War into the first decade of the twentieth century, and the result was a catastrophic sequence of booms and busts, the transfer of most of the nation's wealth to a tiny minority of wealthy people, the bitter impoverishment of nearly everyone else, and a level of social unrest that included two presidential assassinations and so many bomb attacks on the rich and their families that bomb-throwing anarchists became a regular theme of music-hall songs.

Now it's always possible for theorists to contrast a Utopian portrait of a free-market economy against the gritty and unwelcome realities of extreme socialism, just as it's possible for people on the other side of the spectrum to contrast a Utopian portrait of a socialist economy against the equally gritty and unwelcome realities of unfettered capitalism. Both make great rhetorical strategies, since the human mind is easily misled by binary logic: if A is evil, it seems wholly reasonable to claim that the opposite of A must be good. The real world does not work that way, but this is hardly the only case in which rhetoric ignores reality.

The problem with the rhetoric, however, may be stated a bit more precisely: however pleasant they look on paper, free markets do not exist. Strictly speaking, they are as mythical as hippogriffs.

It occurs to me that some of my readers may not be as familiar with hippogriffs as they ought to be. (Tut, tut – what do they teach children these days?) For those who lack so basic an element in their education, a hippogriff is the offspring of a gryphon and a mare; it has the head, body, hind legs, and tail of a horse, and the forelimbs and wings of a giant eagle. Hippogriffs are said to be the strongest and swiftest of all flying creatures, which is why Astolpho rode one to the terrestrial paradise to recover Orlando's lost wits in Orlando Furioso, and why Juss rode one to the summit of Koshtra Pivrarcha to rescue Goldry Bluszco in The Worm Ouroboros. They are splendid creatures, no question; their only disadvantage, really, is the minor point that they don't happen to exist, and drawing up plans to use them as a new, energy-efficient means of air transport in the face of peak oil, for instance, will inevitably come to grief on that annoying little detail.

Free markets are subject to essentially the same little problem. There have been many examples of market economies in history that were not controlled by governments, but there have been no examples of market economies that were not controlled, and if one were to be set up, it would remain a free market for maybe a week at most. Adam Smith explained why in memorable language in The Wealth of Nations: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or some contrivance to raise prices." When a market is not controlled by government edicts, religious taboos, social customs, or some other outside force, it will quickly be controlled by combinations of individuals whose wealth and strategic position in the market enable them to maximize the economic benefits accruing to them, by squeezing out rivals, manipulating prices, buying up their suppliers, bribing government officials, and the like: that is to say, behaving the way capitalists behave whenever they are left to their own devices. This is what created the profoundly dysfunctional economy of Gilded Age America, and it also played a very large role in setting up the current debacle.

There's a rich irony here, in that the market economy portrayed in textbooks – in which buyers and sellers are numerous and independent enough that free competition regulates their interactions – is exactly the sort of commons that so many free market proponents insist should be eliminated wholesale in favor of private ownership. All commons systems, as Garrett Hardin pointed out in a famous essay a while back, are hideously vulnerable to abuse unless they are managed in ways that prevent individuals from exploiting the commons for their own private benefit. This year's Nobel laureate in economics, Elinor Ostrom, won her award for demonstrating that it's entirely possible to manage a commons so that Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" does not happen, and she's quite right – there have been many examples of successfully managed commons in history. Strip away the management that keeps it from being abused, however, and the free market, like any other commons, rapidly destroys itself.

This does not mean that the best, or for that matter the only, alternative to the unchecked rule of corporate robber barons is Marxist-style state ownership of the economy; once again, dying from heatstroke is not the only alternative to dying from hypothermia. It means, rather, that something between these two extremes might be worth trying, especially if it can be shown by historical evidence to work tolerably well in practice. Of course this is what history shows; broadly speaking, economies that leave the means of production in private hands, but use appropriate regulation to harness their energies to the public good, consistently produce more prosperity for more people than either unfettered capitalism or extreme socialism.

This being said, the midpoint between these extremes may not lie where today's conventional wisdom tends to place it. Consider an example from the not too distant past: a large industrial nation with a capitalist economy, but remarkably tough regulations restricting the growth of private fortunes and the abuses to which capitalist economies are so often prone. The wealthiest people in that nation paid more than two-thirds of their annual income in tax, and monopolistic practices on the part of corporations faced harsh and frequently applied judicial penalties. The financial sector was particularly tightly leashed: interest rates on savings were fixed by the government, usury laws put very low caps on the upper end of interest rates for loans, and hard legal barriers prevented banks from expanding out of local markets or crossing the firewall between consumer banking and the riskier world of corporate investment. Consumer credit was difficult enough to get, as a result, that most people did without it most of the time, using layaway plans and Christmas Club savings programs to afford large purchases.

According to the standard rhetoric of free market proponents these days, so rigidly controlled an economy ought by definition to be hopelessly stagnant and unproductive. This shows the separation of rhetoric from reality, however, for the nation I have just described was the United States during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower: that is, during one of the most sustained periods of prosperity, innovation, economic development and international influence this nation has ever seen. Now of course there were other factors behind America's 1950s success, just as there were other factors behind the decline since then; still, it's worth noting that as the economic regulations of the 1950s have been dismantled – in every case, under the pretext of boosting American prosperity – the prosperity of most Americans has gone down, not up.

It makes a good measure of how far we have come as a nation – and not in a useful direction – that the economic policies of one of the most successful 20th century Republican administrations would be rejected by most of today's Democrats as too far to the left. A case could be made, in fact, that far and away the most sensible thing the US Congress could do today, in the face of an economy that has very nearly choked to death on its own bubbles, is to reenact the economic legislation in place in the 1950s, line for line. (When you're hiking in the woods, and discover that you've taken a trail that leads someplace you don't want to go, your best bet is normally to turn around and go back to the last place where you were still going in the right direction.)

Yet there's an interesting point that also ought to be made about the economic regulation of the 1950s. Outside of antitrust legislation, not that much of it applied to the economy of goods and services on any level, whether that of Mom and Pop grocery stores or big industrial conglomerates. The bulk of it, and very nearly all the strictest elements of it, focused on the financial industry. More broadly speaking, instead of regulating the production and consumption of goods and services, the economic policies of the Eisenhower era focused on regulating money: on ensuring that too much of it did not end up concentrated unproductively in too few hands, and on controlling its propensity to multiply as enthusiastically as rabbits on Viagra. The relative success of these measures points toward a distinction already made in these posts, and to practical steps that will be explored in next week's post.