Mises Institute: The Property-Based Social Order Is Being Destroyed by Central Banks

The Mises Institute has the article The Property-Based Social Order Is Being Destroyed by Central Banks

Readers of the Mises Wire are no doubt familiar with the negative consequences of central banking and the inflationary capacity of fiat currency and how such a system drives malinvestment and leads to boom-bust cycles. Not only does the business cycle lead to the misallocation of resources from their natural ends of the structure of production, but it also drives resources into financialization, rather than the “real” economy. This financialization, which has been taking place since at least the First World War, has served, over time, to structurally undermine the morality of property in the eyes of the general public. As the increased popularity of socialism, at least in rhetorical terms, among the youth indicates this “evaporation” of property may reach a critical mass within the not-too-distant future.

The Social Effects of Financialization

In his book The Present Age, sociologist Robert Nisbet traces the origin of financialization to the First World War and the decision to finance the war via credit, rather than taxation. He argues that the other negative social effects of the war, combined with the flush of cash and credit into the system drastically altered American’s traditional propensity to save and instead to spend. These changed habits led to the “roaring twenties” where instead of acquiring wealth through hard work and thrift and a focus on producing goods and services, Americans turned to financial means of acquiring wealth. 

This began what Nisbet calls the “evaporation of property” where ownership of hard tangible goods has evolved into the “soft” ownership of highly liquid and mobile forms of property such as stocks. This concept of evaporating property originated in the work of Joseph Schumpeter, an economist and contemporary of Mises in Austria (though not a member of the Austrian school) who identified and explained this phenomenon in his classic work Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.1 Schumpeter criticizes the shareholder mechanism of ownership for separating legal ownership from those responsibilities and actions that are traditionally associated with it. He argues that the owners of publicly traded firms are comprised of three groups of people: the salaried executives and managers, the large shareholders, and the small shareholders, and that “no element of those three groups … takes the attitude” that is generally meant by the word property. The employees, he states, often do not identify with the shareholding interests, and the large shareholders, even if they behave how financial theory predicts, are “at one remove from both the functions and attitudes of an owner.” Schumpeter considers small shareholders to be the least tied to ownership, saying that they often care little and if anything are mobilized by others for “their nuisance value.” He goes on to say that in the end, small shareholders end up feeling ill used and “almost regularly drift into an attitude hostile to ‘their’ corporations, to big business in general and, particularly when things look bad, to the capitalist order as such.”

For Schumpeter, the heart of the problem is that “the capitalist process, by substituting a mere parcel of shares for the walls and machines of a factory, takes the life out of the idea of property” and that “this evaporation of what we may term the material substance of property—affects not only the attitude of the holders but also that of the workmen and the public in general. Dematerialized, defunctionalized and absentee ownership does not impress and call forth the moral allegiance as the vital form of property did.”

Easy Money vs. Private Property 

Nisbet laments that this highly liquid form of property leads to economic perversity where “more and more capitalism tends to ‘exalt the monetary unit’ over the type of property that theoretically alone gives the monetary unit its value.” Nisbet takes especial issue with slick operators who seem to believe “that by raiding a decently run corporation, artificially jacking up its price on the stock market through the use of high-yield credit, including junk bonds, they are in consequence improving the management of the corporation.” 

The sad fate of the once iconic Toys “R” Us is one such example. When Toys “R” Us filed for bankruptcy several years ago, some thirty thousand people lost their jobs. The surface argument is that the brick-and-mortar retailer simply couldn’t keep up with the new online world and was losing out to the Amazons and the Walmarts. However, when examined closer, the case can be made that the company’s doom was sealed when it was purchased by a consortium of private equity firms in the mid-2000s. Thanks to the abundance of credit facilitated by the Fed’s loose monetary policy the firms actually only fronted 20 percent of the buyout, with the rest being borrowed. After the acquisition, the firms then saddled Toys “R” Us with the debt used to purchase them in the first place, adding over $5 billion in debt to the $1.86 billion the company held before the deal. By 2007, 97 percent of the company’s operating profits were being consumed to pay interest expenses. The firms also charged the company hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and The Atlantic reports that “according to one estimate, the money KKR and Bain partners earned from those fees more than covered the firms’ losses in the deal.” Who knows how Toys “R” Us would have fared without being saddled with $5 billion in debt. Perhaps it would have had the flexibility to innovate, or perhaps it would have failed, but in the end it didn’t have a chance to find out.

Were Nisbet alive, he would not have been surprised by such an event in the slightest. Loose money leads to loose morals and loose people who see no problem in such a scheme that demonstrates very little actual economic value being produced. 

Rather than exercising the responsibilities typically associated with property and ownership, these private equity firms treated Toys “R” Us worse than a rented mule and in doing so created loads of anticapitalist sentiment. One can’t help but think of Bruce Springstein’s 2012 song “Death to My Hometown,” in which he attacks such firms by lamenting that even though no “shells ripped the evening sky” or “blood soaked the ground” and “no armies stormed the shores for which we’d die” “marauders raided in the night” and “just as sure as the hand of God they brought death to my hometown.” Springstein concludes with a warning to “be ready for when they come for they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun.”

A people that comes to view the capitalist class as rampaging Huns in suits who “ate the flesh of everything they’ve found” is not a people that will be living under a market system for much longer. And when one looks at what happened to Toys “R” Us and similar firms, how the stock market was booming in the midst of the covid lockdown disaster, or how, as Ryan McMaken recently pointed out, GDP is expected to go through the roof even though the true unemployment rate is dismal, it is not hard to understand why people have such hostile opinions of capitalism.

Similarly, all this financialization has made it much more difficult for people to preserve their wealth against inflation and to save and invest in the traditional manners. Instead, people are driven into the stock market. As Jörg Guido Hülsmann notes in his book The Ethics of Money Production, people “must invest their money into the financial markets, lest its purchasing power evaporate under their noses.” He goes on to note that while such a thing may be good for financial brokers, it is not good for the average citizen who is incentivized into debt due to chronic inflation, pushed into a state of financial dependency, and now at the mercy of the financial winds.

The GameStop saga is example of this idea in action. Flush with cash from government “stimulus,” numerous average joes have taken up day trading and pumped the price of a stock into the stratosphere that is in no way connected to reality. The first wave of “meme investors” soon learned that the financial system is not exactly friendly to their method, as the actions of brokers like Robinhood quickly demonstrated. In the long run the reality is that most day traders will lose money and when that happens there is little doubt that their small foray into “financial capitalism” will leave these small investors with the attitude that Schumpeter predicted: hostile to the company they supposedly own and to the capitalist system in general. 

Misplaced Hostility Toward the Marketplace

Hostility towards capitalism seems to be growing everywhere one looks. It is not surprising that envy fueled leftists despise capitalism, but on the political right more and more populists have taken to bashing capitalism and the “market fundamentalists” who are supposedly running the GOP. Yet, populist conservatives have so far seemingly failed to notice the way in which the Federal Reserve and our inflationary fiat currency have contributed to all of the social problems and ills that they are greatly concerned with. Perhaps such populists can be given a pass for not being familiar with Hülsmann’s work on the cultural consequences of fiat money, but what is perplexing is that midcentury authors who conservative populists are more familiar with, such as Robert Nisbet and Wilhelm Röpke, wrote at length about the scourge of inflation and its negative social consequences and yet the issue still raises nary a peep out of the likes of Tucker Carlson and Sohrab Ahmari.

While such a situation is distressing, those within the Austrian tradition should see an opportunity here to harness the populist energies that seem to be growing larger by the day and to reveal to the aggrieved masses that the true target of their wrath should be the state and central banking system. Had Bruce Springsteen had access to a sound economic education he would have been singing at Ron Paul rallies, rather than at those of Bernie Sanders. The task of ensuring the next Springstein is lambasting the Federal Reserve and not capitalism itself begins now.

1.All quotes from Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3d ed. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), pp. 141–42.

The Trumpet: The Hidden Lesson of the First Thanksgiving

The Hidden Lesson of the First Thanksgiving at The Trumpet talks about some lesser known Pilgrim history and how a failing commune turned itself around.

This month is the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in New England. The story of how the pilgrims fled religious persecution in England, established the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, and celebrated the first Thanksgiving is repeated annually in America. This story tells how 102 pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in the middle of winter. It tells how 45 of those pilgrims starved to death before spring. Then it tells how the pilgrims befriended the Native Americans Samoset and Squanto, learned to grow corn, and gave thanks to God for their blessings during a Thanksgiving feast that autumn.

If you have heard that story, you have not heard the whole truth.

The pilgrims gave thanks to God in a three-day Thanksgiving feast in 1621, but their harvest was not bountiful. They only grew a fraction of the food they needed to survive the coming winter, so the Wampanoag tribe provided much of the food they ate during the first Thanksgiving. Many pilgrims starved the following winter.

In his History of Plymouth Plantation, the governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, wrote that many pilgrims became so desperate the following winter that they sold their clothes and bed coverings for food. Others became servants of the Wampanoag tribe, cutting their wood and fetching them water in return for a cap full of corn. Still, others stole from their fellow pilgrims and from the Wampanoag.

The pilgrims had to learn a lesson about the Bible before God blessed them with abundance.

Something most people do not know about the pilgrims is that they were communalists. The communalist movement was a form of socialism that taught that communities should pool their resources and share their production. Those more capable were to do what they could, and those less capable were to take what they needed. As the atheist Karl Marx later phrased this way of thinking, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

It did not take Governor Bradford long to realize that something was seriously wrong. In his History of Plymouth Plantation, he wrote that the young men resented having to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Meanwhile, the old men resented having to accept equal rations as those who had not served the community as long. And the women resented having to cook and clean for men who were not their husbands. The end result of all this resentment was that many refused to work and the food supply dwindled because “much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable.”

After three years of scarcity, Governor Bradford rectified the situation by abolishing communalism. After discussing the matter with the leaders of the community, Bradford assigned every family a parcel of land and arranged for all the young boys to be assigned as members of some particular family. He then told each household that they could keep whatever they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit.

The change was startling!

Governor Bradford noted that “the women now went willingly into the fields, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, which before would allege weakness, and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.” The pilgrims produced so much food during the summer of 1623, that there actually was great abundance during the Thanksgiving feast they celebrated that autumn. The next year, the pilgrims actually had a surplus of food they could sell to surrounding settlements.

Governor Bradford repented of his role in establishing Plymouth as a commune.

He wrote in his History of Plymouth Plantation, “The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients, applauded by some of later times—that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”

In other words, Bradford and the other pilgrim leaders had to repent of espousing the socialist ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato above the laws of God. Plato rejected the concept of family and private property in his book Republic, but God considers the family unit to be the basic building block of the economy.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8).

The pilgrims had to learn the hard way that a godly economy is built on a foundation of strong families that produce enough to take care of themselves and give to others. After they learned this important lesson, they were undoubtedly more thankful during the third Thanksgiving than they were during the first Thanksgiving. This is because they learned to be thankful for more than the food the Native Americans gave them; they learned to be thankful for the law of God that taught them how to build a prosperous society.

The British historian Paul Johnson wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph titled “No Law Without Order, No Freedom Without Law” in 1999. In it, he wrote: “[B]oth in Virginia and in New England to the north, the colonists were determined, God-fearing men often in search of a religious toleration denied them at home, who brought their families and were anxious to farm and establish permanent settlements. They put political and religious freedom before riches …. Thus took shape the economic dynamo that eventually became the United States—an experiment designed to establish the rule of God on Earth ….”

But these colonists had to learn that establishing the rule of God on Earth means keeping the Ten Commandments—the basis of all righteous law. This is the true lesson of the first Thanksgiving; a lesson lost on most Americans today, who give little thought to why they have been blessed with such abundance. At a time when the rule of law in America is under constant attack, Americans need to relearn this hidden lesson of the first Thanksgiving.

Reading Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation is a great way to learn about the pilgrims’ experience. And reading Character in Crisis, by Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry, puts the Founding Fathers’ quest to establish the rule of God on Earth in prophetic perspective.