Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Myth of the Laissez Faire President

It is generally accepted that one must wait several decades before looking back at an event or an era with sufficient “historical perspective.” Only from that vantage point can the significance and long-term effects of any piece of history be objectively observed, quantified, and analyzed. However, there is a dilemma inherent in this long-standing tradition. It is that there are always interested parties who wish to characterize significant events or eras in history in a way that suits their own agenda. As a result, by the time sufficient time has passed to satisfy the need for “historical perspective,” these interested parties have created an official story regarding the events in question and have had time to convince the majority of people that this official story is the truth. By the time a generation has passed, the official story has become both accepted history for academia and “conventional wisdom” for average citizens. Regardless of facts, reason, or any perspective whatsoever, the official story now is the truth.

Such has been the case countless time throughout American history. It is universally accepted that America’s Civil War started over slavery, and credits Abraham Lincoln with “freeing the slaves.” History and conventional also wisdom tells us that the quality of life of the working class in America declined during the industrial revolution, and credits the “progressive movement” for instituting needed reforms that saved the working class from capitalism. Most relevant to our situation in America today, history blames the Great Depression of the 1930’s on Herbert Hoover’s “laissez faire capitalism” and “unregulated free markets,” and credits FDR’s New Deal with ending the Depression and restoring prosperity.

When presented in the textbooks of high school history or college survey courses, there is a certain logic and reasonableness to these versions of historical events that makes them very easy to understand and accept. There is only one problem: none of them are true.

Americans are already familiar with the official story of our present crisis. Too much laissez faire capitalism” has resulted in an unprecedented crisis caused by predatory lenders, irresponsible borrowers, speculators, and other market participants acting in an environment with too little regulation. Without oversight, “unregulated free markets” naturally resulted in market players choosing short term profits over long-term prudence. This process was fueled during the past decade by George W. Bush’s “laissez faire policies.”

There is only one problem with this story – none of it is true, either. None of the problems we face today were caused by unregulated free markets and the policies of George W. Bush were in no way “laissez faire.” This is much more than an academic argument. The premise that unregulated capitalism is to blame for our present economic crisis is the basis for every action that our government is taking right now. If that premise is incorrect, then the results of action taken based upon it could be disastrous.

It is probably a good idea at this point to define some terms. Assuming that “laissez faire capitalism” and “free markets” mean the same thing, what I mean when I use those terms is this: a market economy where all exchanges of property are made with the mutual, voluntary consent of all parties to those transactions. While government’s role is limited in such a system, it is nevertheless crucial: to ensure that all transactions are made with the mutual, voluntary consent of all parties. To put it most succinctly, government’s role in a free market is to protect the property rights of each individual.

Is this what George W. Bush did or at least attempted to do? Let us examine the Bush economic policies and see for ourselves.

Bush campaigned on and did follow through upon a promise to cut taxes. He did this by reducing the income tax on the highest income earners and by sending each American family a “refund” of several hundred dollars. One might be tempted to argue that this was a move in the direction of free markets, as the returned money represented reductions of a government that had grown far beyond its role of defending life, liberty, and property. Thus, the tax money collected for these illegitimate functions was a violation of the property rights government was supposed to protect and the tax cuts were a partial remedy for those violations. This is what any self-respecting Republican would have you believe.

There is only one problem: there were no reductions in government. In fact, Bush greatly increased the size of the government with military and new entitlement spending. As a result, he ran huge deficits and doubled the national debt. Looked at objectively, there was a tenuous relationship at best between the money taxpayers had previously paid in taxes and the checks sent out by the government after all of that tax money was already spent. Furthermore, millions of Americans who hadn’t even paid taxes received “refund” checks anyway. Seen for what it was, this “tax refund” was merely a ploy to buy votes with other people’s money dressed up in Republican rhetoric, as well as a way to perpetuate debt-fueled consumerism for the benefit of President Bush’s friends in corporate America. Handing out money to people to whom it doesn’t belong has nothing to do with free markets, whether that money is borrowed from other nations or printed out of thin air. It represents complete distortion of the markets by government, along with a fundamental violation of the property rights of present and future generations.

Amidst this confusion we seem to have forgotten one major contributor to the aforementioned deficits: the Medicare drug plan. The Medicare drug plan was the Bush administration’s program from start to finish, and it was rammed through the legislature despite its dubious administrative plan and complete lack of funding. While it was rightly criticized for both of these faults, no media outlet seems to have recognized its complete antagonism toward free markets. In addition to violating property rights by forcing one group of individuals to pay for the healthcare services of others, Medicare and other government health care programs completely distort the health care market, creating artificial demand that inflates prices and suspends market forces. Here we have another major component of President Bush’s policy that is the complete antithesis of laissez faire capitalism.

The mass illusion about this president’s policies doesn’t stop there. The American public also seems to think that major deregulation occurred under President Bush, but actually the exact opposite is true. It was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (repealing the Glass-Steagall Act) that lead to the massive expansion of derivates in the stock and real estate markets that helped fuel the housing bubble. However, this legislation was actually passed when President Clinton was still in office. In fact, Bush’s only significant effect on the regulatory structure was to increase regulation, not decrease it.

Due to the political fallout from the accounting scandals during the early years of Bush’s presidency, especially the Enron scandal, Bush championed new, completely unnecessary, and profoundly destructive regulations under the Sarbanes-Oxley act. Despite the fact that the accounting scandals were clear cases of fraud, which was already illegal and which could be prosecuted without a single new regulation, President Bush had a political need to show that he was “doing something” about corporate crime.

So, again in complete opposition to “free markets,” Bush signed Sarbanes-Oxley into law, saying as he did so that the bill represented “the most far-reaching reforms of American business practices since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt."[1] Invoking FDR should have been enough on its own to erase any perception of Bush as a champion of free markets, but the hated “laissez faire” moniker seems to be a tough one to shake. As we now know, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has been terribly destructive to American markets and has contributed to a migration of new investment away from America and to more business-friendly countries. Chalk up another victory for Bush against free markets.

Finally, there is Bush’s role in the housing bubble, the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back regarding America’s borrow and spend economy of the past several decades. Here it should be noted that the lion’s share of the blame for this debacle should go to the Federal Reserve System, which kept interest rates artificially low and expanded money and credit to counter what would have been two recessions in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Remember, the private Federal Reserve System does not answer to any branch of the federal government. One could certainly argue that both Clinton and Bush merely happened to be in office while the Federal Reserve blew up two massive bubbles during their presidencies (the NASDAQ bubble and the housing bubble).

However, it was not just low interest rates or the expansion of money and credit that caused the housing bubble to inflate. There was also the role of government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which guaranteed mortgages that would not have been written in a free market. Starting with Clinton and continuing with Bush, the executive branch played cheerleader to the “ownership” society whereby every American was entitled to own their own home, whether they could afford the mortgage that went with it or not.

The mortgage debacle is often cited as an example of the “unregulated free market” producing negative results. Since both the “predatory lenders” and the “irresponsible borrowers” were acting voluntarily, the millions of subsequent defaults are characterized as the result of too little regulation on the market, allowing these freely-acting participants to eschew prudence for short-term profits. However, this analysis omits one very important fact: there were not two parties to most of these mortgage transactions, but three.

The forgotten third party was, of course, the taxpayer. It was the taxpayers’ money that was put up as collateral for the loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the taxpayer was not acting freely. The taxpayer was forced by government to back these loans without his consent and against his best interests. Had the government not committed this crime against property rights to serve its goal of an “ownership society,” none of the defaulting loans would have been made.

In a truly free market, the desire for profit is balanced by the presence of risk. When one is lending one’s own money, the possibility that the borrower will default forces the lender to adhere to high lending standards to avoid making a bad loan. This is not done out of some civic duty or professional integrity (not that many lenders don’t possess both of these qualities), but out of recognized necessity for economic survival. The balance between desire for profit and risk is a naturally occurring market force when all participants are acting voluntarily in their rational self interest. However, by allowing lenders and borrowers to use other people’s money as collateral, this natural market force was suspended. To go on to call the resulting disaster the result of “unregulated free markets” is nonsense in the first degree.

Ironically, Clinton and Bush each pursued the exact same policy regarding the housing market for very different reasons. Clinton pressured Fannie Mae to take more and more risk in order to play to his base: low-income Americans who would not qualify for a mortgage in a truly free market. Bush went right on encouraging the process in order to appease his base: Wall Street investment houses that were making a killing securitizing mortgages. Regardless of the motivation, what is important to realize is that this policy is completely antithetical to the concept of free markets or laissez faire capitalism.

Of course, once the crisis began, most people recognize that nothing President Bush did could be characterized as “laissez faire.” Bush himself admitted that he was abandoning free market principles because “the market is not functioning properly,” a bizarre statement from one who supposedly believes in free markets in the first place. His massive intervention into the economy and egregious redistribution of wealth are characterized by the media as a departure from his previous “laissez faire approach.” Yet, anyone can see that this “laissez faire approach” was complete fiction. So why do all but a few contrarians keep saying it anyway?
There is an answer to that question. Characterizing Bush’s policies as “laissez faire” does serve a very useful purpose for politicians. It provides them with justification to loot more property and seize more power. The all-out war on free enterprise presently being waged by President Obama and his cohorts in Congress would not be possible if most Americans did not believe the official story that Bush’s presidency was an era of “laissez faire capitalism” or “unregulated free markets” and that these policies caused the economic crisis. Only the continued willingness by the majority of Americans to swallow this economic gibberish allows the destruction of our liberty to march forward.

To my fellow Americans, I say this: No politician (save perhaps one) is going to come forward and tell you the truth. Most of them don’t know the truth, and those that do have figured out that this official nonsense serves their own ambitions, just as saying that the world was flat once served the ambitions of medieval rulers. It is up to you to rub your eyes and look at the world as it really is. Two plus two does not equal five and you know that. Similarly, people voluntarily exchanging their own goods and services with one another can never cause anyone harm and deep down you must know that, too. It is time to reject the idiotic history that is being written about our present difficulties and demand that the evil incursions into our liberty cease immediately. You have enormous power when you know what to demand. It all starts with recognizing the obvious despite the well-funded efforts of those who wish to deceive you. As the good book saith, the truth shall set you free.[2]

[1] Bumiller, Elisabeth (2002-07-31). "Bush Signs Bill Aimed at Fraud in Corporations". The New York Times
[2] John 8:32

Check out Tom Mullen’s new book, A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. Right Here!

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3 comments:

B.C. said...

Great article Tom. It put several issues in perspective for me.
Thank you for being one of the few to write about the Republican party's fixation with tax cuts without any regard for the spending cuts to pay for them. (A sore spot with me.)

Jedi Pauly said...

As usual your adherence to natural law and natural principles allows you to cut through the felgacarb and get to the true nature of reality. Great article. One can not argue with the truth! Natural Law Rules! Good work Tom.

spacehabitats said...

Another excellent article, Tom.
For completeness you should have also mentioned Bush's championing of the Community Reinvestment Act which pushed lenders to eliminate down payments and ignore the credit worthiness of mortgage applicants in order to encourage minority home ownership.

This was not only completely antithetical to any semblance of free market capitalism, it also was quite incongruous with the GOP's stereotype of being against minority special interests. (A betrayal of its core constituency for which, by the way, it did not receive any political benefit whatsoever.)

All of this is, of course, consistent with the coordinated attack on middle class America which has been perpetrated by every administration since Calvin Coolidge.