Jost Zetzsche Tool Kit

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Henry Hazlitt on the Bailout by Scott A. Kjar

My dear friend Chandrasekaran forwarded me this very interesting article. First the article and then the comments by yours truly Dondu N. Raghavan. Over to Scott A. Kjar. By the way, Scott A. Kjar teaches economics at the University of Dallas.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson needs to change his reading list. Instead of reading the balance sheets and income statements of the failing banking industry, he needs to read Henry Hazlitt's classic book Economics in One Lesson. It will cost Paulson far less than the $700 billion that he is spending on the bailout, and he might just learn a little economics in the process.

Hazlitt delivers his "one lesson" in chapter 1, and proceeds to spend the rest of the book giving examples. His lesson, based on the work of Frédéric Bastiat, is that "the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."

For example, in chapter 2, Hazlitt delivers the well-known "broken window fallacy" in which a hoodlum breaks a shopkeeper's window with a rock. The common folk see it as a tragedy, but an astute Washington bureaucrat could argue that it creates new jobs for glaziers. As Hazlitt points out, though, any resources that the shopkeeper spends on the new window would have been used elsewhere, perhaps for a new suit. So while the glazier gets new business, the tailor loses the same amount of business. There is no net benefit; in fact there is a net loss. Absent the hoodlum, the shopkeeper would have had both a window and a new suit; given the hoodlum, the shopkeeper has a window but no suit. Even though the damage was to the window, it is the suit that is lost to the shopkeeper and, hence, to society.

In chapter 6, entitled "Credit Diverts Production," Hazlitt discusses government lending policies, such as additional credit to farmers or business owners. However, he points out, the recipients of such programs are rarely the more-productive farmers and business owners. After all, the more-productive people are able to borrow their money from private lenders. It is only the less-productive individuals and firms, unable to get funds on the free market, that must turn to government.

For example, suppose that there is a farm for sale. A private lender would normally be willing to lend money to farmer A who has proven his abilities in the past, rather than to farmer B, who has demonstrated a lower level of productivity than has A. However, because government taxes citizens or borrows money itself in capital markets, private lenders have fewer funds available to lend to A. Instead, government lends the money to B on the grounds that B is underprivileged, in need of a hand, or some other politically based argument. The more productive borrower, A, loses out on the scarce land while the less productive borrower, B, gains the resources. Because the less-productive individual acquires the scarce resource, there will be less total production, and the entire society is worse off.

Further, Hazlitt states, the government takes bigger risks with taxpayers' money than private lenders take with their own money. Private lenders who make bad loans will go bankrupt and be forced out of business. But when the government gets involved, it lends funds for riskier ventures since the bureaucrats who approve the loan face no personal recriminations — much less loss of profit — for error.

In other words, private lenders would take Action A while government lenders would take Action B, and Action B is the less-productive path. After all, there is no need for government to take Action A: it can be handled quite well in the free market.

So it is with the current rash of bailouts. Whatever the final price tag — $500 billion, $750 billion, $1 trillion, more — the fact is that government gets its money either from taxes, borrowing, or the printing press. It is hard to raise taxes by $1 trillion on short notice, and since there is a small hurdle that slows the government's ability to print the money,[1] we know that government will issue bonds. In other words, government will borrow the money from private capital markets.

As Hazlitt points out, though, the private capital markets (those that aren't bankrupt and standing in line for a bailout) would otherwise lend their funds to more-productive ventures. If private capital wants to lend directly to the failing banks, it is already capable of doing so. The fact that such private capital is not lending to the banks is a clear indication that the government's current bailout is contrary to free-market principles.

The argument that the government is somehow pumping new capital into the market is absurd. Government is actually borrowing the money from the capital markets that it is in turn injecting into the capital markets. There is no additional source of funding; there is only a diversion of funds from more-productive outlets to less-productive outlets, with government acting as the middleman.

So when Henry Paulson argues that it is necessary to pump money into credit markets to prevent them from freezing up, he doesn't bother to realize that the money he pumps into the credit markets is coming directly out of the very same credit markets. He is doing little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; shuffling the money from one set of financial intermediaries to another does not increase either liquidity or solvency. It merely delays the problem for a few brief moments.

Even the failing banks pay lip service to their fiduciary responsibility, but any privately funded firm that took money from more-productive people to give it to less-productive people would soon go out of business. Only the government can violate Hazlitt's logic and survive, because only government can socialize its losses through the tax system.

Comment on the blog. As I am writing these lines around ten comments have come up and they do need to be reproduced here.

Tim Kern
Did anyone note that in the President's speech, after the House rejected the bailout, one of the reasons offered for the necessity of opening such a lending spigot was "to allow businesses to borrow for their day-to-day needs?"
A business that needs to borrow to cover daily operations is in a whole lot of trouble, already!
Lord, save us from more "experts!"

Saving in an inflationary environment is costly, borrowing is logical.
"income taxes, inflation, risk"
You can avoid any two, it's the third which is hard to avoid.

Atleast the comedians have not drank the Keynesian Kool-Aid... very funny

Dayle Van Alstine
The article is a timely reminder of the wisdom which is available to those whom have influence in our national economic policies. We can be sure that they are familiar with it. This is what makes our current situation so frustrating. Our economic policy leaders have decided that it is not expedient to follow the the wise counsel and impose the proper prescription.
Our government, fortified and emboldened by a lazy and irresponsible citizenry, has no compunction about disregarding the wisdom and warnings provided by the observations of Messrs. Hazlitt, Mises, or Bastiat. When the ordinary people on the street do not recognize the responsibility they have to understand the consequences of purchasing things that they know they cannot afford; when the political elite reinforce such conduct by demanding that more credit be made available to such people; when financial leaders do not stand firm against such policies; when politicians are more concerned with acquiring and maintaining power and influence than doing what is best for the nation and its people, then we will all have to prepare to contend with the consequences of this folly.
Hazlitt is right, of course; but we in the choir already know that. What to do? Share the wisdom in hopes of enlarging the choir; stay out of debt; develop a portable skill.

Enjoy Every Sandwich
Our "leaders", if they don't already know the principles described in Hazlitt's book, would not be interested in learning them. Following the principles would reduce their power, and that they cannot abide.

Stanley Pinchak
Enjoy Every Sandwich is quite right. The number of men who can follow the course of Cincinnatus is small indeed. We as the people must act on the consul of Étienne de La Boétie. We must remove our consent, refuse to subjugate our fellow man for the false promise of living on the backs of others. We end up as the associates of the tyrant do, subjects of tyrannical action ourselves, or worse when the administration changes. We weld our own bars. We forge the very chains which bind us.
Rothbard calls for radicalism. A radical call for liberty. A radical denunciation of the state and its works. Until we heed this advise we remain prisoners in an open cage, terrified of the unknown just across the threshold. Stuck in a liminal state, abused by our own inaction, fearful of change. Servants willingly submitting to an unworthy master. A master who's hands we have placed around our throats.
The emperor wears no clothes! The state must be itself subjugated. We must throw off the mental yoke, reach out and grasp freedom.

Greg Fisher
The hoodlum breaks a window, it cost the economy a window. If he continues to break windows, he must be stopped before he underminds the economy. And if the shop keepers cannot pay to fix their windows, it would be in the best intersest of the society to help fix the windows to keep the shops open and contributing to society.
Since the world is not static, things change. The unproductive farmer may become more productive with additional capital. Many times it is these people that come up with better ways of doing things and the economy advances.
We need to understand the problem in order to form a solution and the role of society.

Michael A. Clem
And if the shop keepers cannot pay to fix their windows, it would be in the best intersest of the society to help fix the windows to keep the shops open and contributing to society.
If the shopkeepers cannot pay to fix the windows, where do you think the money to fix them is going to come from?? And why should the unproductive farmer become productive, when he's getting paid to remain unproductive? You fail to see the moral hazards of your proposed actions. The problem is that it is the government that is "breaking the windows", instead of some hoodlum, with their flawed policies and interventionism. We do indeed need to stop breaking the windows, but the bailout is like breaking more windows in the hopes that it will fix the other windows.

The wise entrepreneur would foresee that the hoodlums out there like to break glass and so might invest in Plexiglas.
Alternatively, the entrepreneur might invest in security services. Then only those that remain open for business (with non-broken windows) would continue to make profits. Others, with less business sense, would go bust - and society would benefit from having a smarter class of shop owners in business.
However, if society bails out the shop owner as Greg suggests they should, then society would be subsidizing "mal" shop owner behavior. In addition, not only doesn't this solve the real problem, but it makes any real solution less likely to be discovered.
Moreover, there'd be little incentive for the shop owner to upgrade his windows (or security or whatever else would solve the problem) even if he knew how to solve it. This is the moral hazard produced by bailouts.
Therefore, the same theory that describes bailouts of industry X can be used to analyze the broken window fallacy.

Back to yours truly, Dondu N. Raghavan
As I read the above lines, I am more and more reminded of Ayn Rand's Atlas shrugged. There was in that novel a story about a private owner turning over her ownership to all the workers and every worker started discussing company policy. Since all were responsible no one felt any particular responsibility. Each one was out to get more for himself at the expense of others. One or two with some initiatives were saddled with more work and they too rapidly lost that initiative and kept mum. At the end the factory folded and only the ex-owner was surprised. That she was spat upon is but a feeble comfort to yours truly Dondu N. Raghavan.

Dondu n. Raghavan


Jay said...

thanks for the post.

reunionpi said...

Henry Paulson and Goldman Sachs:

Scattered from California to New York: The judgments from the Department of Labor, tax liens against 401-K plans, state tax liens, mechanics lien, judgments from other companies