Capitalists on the defensive

If you ask a staunch capitalist about the global economic meltdown and the state of the system that brought us to this point they say “that isn’t really capitalism.” This sounds a lot like the socialists they’ve always criticized who defend their ideology by saying that the Soviet Union and China aren’t REALLY communist.

In the afterword of the copy of Anthem I read years ago, Ayn Rand wrote that if collectivists were successful in the political agenda, we would end up with a world much like Rand described in Anthem and the well-meaning commies behind it all would stand up and say “But this isn’t what we MEANT.”

Today, it is the those free market ideologues who are left to say “this isn’t what we MEANT.”

The current global economic crisis should lay rest to the notion that markets or the invisible hand or whatever can produce the “least bad,” let alone “optimal,” economic results. None the less, there are still those who would try to blame government intervention, rather than market failure, for the situation. In January, Reason Magazine ran a few articles on the subject, notably:

Is deregulation to blame? by Katherine Mangu-Ward


Anatomy of a Breakdown by Michael Flynn

This is a great pair of articles – they provide a clear, easy to understand insight into what went wrong. But they fail to make the case the authors are trying to make: that not only is deregulation not to blame, but that government policy is to blame.

Weirdly, Katherine Mangu-Ward finds case by case that the arguments that deregulation are to blame are in fact correct (with the exception of blaming the Glass-Steagall Act), and then concludes the exact opposite. She admits the The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, a loosening of debt rules in 2004, and the lack of oversight of Fannie and Freddie caused the meltdown. Her essential argument, however, is that the debt rule change and the lack of oversight of Fannie and Freddie are not technically deregulation but misregulation. This semantic argument does nothing to support the idea that banks (and by extension “the market”) can self-regulate. In fact, Mangu-Ward’s examination of the facts should lead to the exact opposite conclusion: left to their own devices, banks make stupid, stupid mistakes like taking on too much debt and trading in crazy derivatives.

Michael Flynn meanwhile makes the case that the government’s home ownership evangelism is to blame for the crisis. He says that the poor banks were bullied by the government into making bad loans, but all that would have been fine if not for the ripple effects caused by Fannie and Freddie’s stupid moves. And the fact that Fannie and Freddie were allowed to go hog wild? That wasn’t “deregulation” since they were government agencies (semantics again). Which is all more or less correct, but doesn’t address a few small problems: none of this proves that there wasn’t a market failure.

No one had to take out subprime loans. They could have read the fine print and then walked away. Banks could have found other ways of dealing with subprimes loans, recognizing the problems with Fannie and Freddie. Nothing suggests to me that Fannie and Freddie would have acted differently had they been private banks (except that they would have been more regulated as private banks). In other words: the government may have started the problem in motion. They definitely failed to stop the problem when they could have, and they seem to have made it worse. But they never did did anything that the market could not have stopped had the industry been “self-regulating.”

The two Reason articles are good, but they miss a big piece of the puzzle: the preemptive squashing of derivatives regulation in the 90s. In this case it is again not “deregulation” that was the problem – it was the lack of existence of regulation in first place. We were warned by congress, in no uncertain terms, what would happen back in 1994 but concerns were shouted down by anti-regulation ideologues in government, the industry, and the press. We were warned again in 2003 by Warren Buffet and still took no action.

None of this bodes particularly well for the government’s ability to regulate markets. But the idea that the financial industry can regulate itself has proven completely wrong, and no amount of spin and semantic games can change that. Unregulated free market capitalism has failed as socialism (or as some call it, “state capitalism”) is looking stronger than ever.

Meanwhile, the idea that economic freedom brings with it individual freedom has also been discredited by the persistent human rights abuses in Singapore (one of the most “economically free” places in the world) compared to the more economically regulated nation of Norway. You can’t make a convincing argument that strong civil liberties make for a strong economy, nor that economic liberty will necessarily result in civil liberty.

The battle between market economics and total state control (as played out between the US and the USSR) was only the beginning of a much longer struggle between many different economic policies that are neither strictly capitalist nor strictly socialist.

Those who still believe, as I do, in the virtue of open societies can no longer rely on practical arguments against the sort of extreme market regulation and lack of civil liberties found in countries like China. China’s technocracy has been too successful and the US’s dependence on markets too disastrous. We now must ask harder questions such as “what specific regulations make sense?”

Further reading:

Economic freedom? It depends where you stand

Who’s Afraid of Friedrich Hayek?

Markets and Anti-Markets in the World Economy


  1. Not that I disagree with the need for regulation, but I can’t really say that the Free Market isn’t self regulating…since I’ve never actually seen a free market.

  2. Fair enough – the case I’m making here is that the banking industry was “free enough” to make on its own the decisions that would have prevented the meltdown – they did not have to deal in complex derivatives, borrowers did not have to take out subprime loans instead of renting, banks did not have to take on insane amounts of debt, etc. etc.

  3. !!! That was a great read, man, thank you. Deep but crisp.

  4. I think the global money problems are evidence of capitalism working. When you take / offer money that you can’t pay / get back, and then you get in trouble, that’s capitalism working. Just like when one guy buys food because he has money and another guy starves because he has no money, that’s capitalism working. It’s not nice, preferable, necessary, etc., but it’s working.

  5. Good article, well researched.

    With regard to free markets– in order to operate effectively in the absence of strong control, markets require accurate and timely information that account for all significant factors, meaningful alternative options and the low barriers to entry necessary to create meaningful alternatives. Our market has none of those. It is predicated on lies spouted nonstop from the mainstream media that it wholly owns, run by an incestuous power elite bent on preventing proper competition, a power elite that controls every level of government. Our system is a form of fascism, with very little to do with free markets or democracy. That said, in the attempt to give lip service to the ideology used to sell this grand con to the people of the world, it generally operates in a way consistent with a democratic free market– one that is entirely directed by the needs of its ruling elite.

    Here’s the funny thing: this shit we are dealing with really is an example of free markets acting effectively. We built a house of straw, and it is therefore collapsing. That’s market forces acting appropriately. Why act so surprised? This is what you ask for when you leave everything to the market. It is simply a foreseeable market correction given speed by shifting public sentiment against profligate consumer spending. In broad economic terms, it’s just another speed bump that will ultimately result in a more effective market that has adjusted to reflect the currently emerging market forces. The free market is still an efficient and effective means of allocating resources (money) where it can be best utilized for broad medium-term economic gain. The problem is that the free market doesn’t give two shits about you. It doesn’t care if you starve, or if you freeze to death. The market doesn’t care if you are uprooted by war, and it always prefers fascism to anarchy. The market continues on through great disruptions without a thought about the human and ecological consequences. Things collapse, and are rebuilt.

    This simple correction is of the sort that will end governments around the world, kill millions by way of famine and disease, and displace millions more. The market doesn’t mind.

    The thing about capitalism is not that it’s terrible, but that it is inadequate in addressing issues of individual liberty and security, much less broad social issues like climate change. It is inherently efficient, but in that focus lacks the stability necessary for social order. In order for any society to achieve stability and security, core necessities for that order must be able to function independent of the market. Food, water, housing, energy, transportation and information must continue no matter what the rest of the world is doing, regardless of disasters natural, man-made, or economic.

  6. @Trevor – ok, let’s simplify the story, as you have done, to a micro economic scale.

    Let’s imagine a village with no source of protein other than a few ponds located in and around the village. There are concerns about overfishing, so the villagers all agree, good Austrian economists that they are, to privatize the fishing holes. The fishing holes are sold off to a few individuals who profit by charging, say, 1 fish for every 4 fish caught (but since there’s a few of them, the rates can vary as they compete). They set the limits on how many fish can be extracted because, after all, it’s in their best interest to keep the ponds producing fish.

    So many years go by and everything seems to be fine. But eventually some of the villagers start to notice that the pond owners have grown increasingly greedy and are allowing more and more fish to be extracted from the ponds. The villagers call a meeting and suggest that the owners be allowed to keep the ponds, but new limits be imposed. Even the richest man in the village points out the problem. But the rest of the village says “No, the fish mongers know how to regulate their business best.”

    So eventually all the ponds are completely depleted, and everyone in the village slowly dies of malnutrition.

    Is this “capitalism working”? If so, then I would hate to see what happens when capitalism fails.

  7. Klint, you anti-market/pro-gov argument isn’t really based in history. The entire crux of the banking crisis that the government (the “authority”) gave its stamp of approval of all the shady dealings in odd financial investments for a decade.
    Had they done nothing to regulate but merely offer unbiased scientific analysis of what was happening, none of this would have happened.

    But who gets paid for truth? Nobody – the markets are inherently based on delayed information trickling down the wealth pyramid. That’s why business wants to lie. Government does too because with our daily news cycle the ups and downs of Wall Street are treated like the daily barometer of national health. So Wall Street/Big Business, the government, and the media that is dependent on both all conspired to ignore numerous, voluminous warnings by government agencies (GAO) and citizens that our economy was being converted to a cardhouse – debt was seen as both profitable, inexhaustable, and a way to keep the plebs in their state.

    Just remember this –

    & Klint – your analogy sucks

    Let’s say their are two villages like the one you describe.

    In village A, the ponds are regulated by a 1 council instead of 4 parties. So if we assume your council is no more or less greedy than any individual and since it owns all the fish, why shouldn’t it just demand that it must be given a 1/3rd of everybody’s stuff unless they are obeyed – otherwise everybody will be starved. That’s a rational action for the powerful council to take.

    Conversely, in Village B where the 4 ponds are owned by 4 parties, if even one of the parties is not so stupid as to absolutely deplete its pond, couldn’t it restock the others to its benefit? Isn’t that the rational choice in their circumstance?

    In Village A, if the ponds start running out of fish, the single fishowner can charge as much as it pleases while in Village B, if one pond starts to run low on fish it can’t just charge twice as much because the good fish-shepard down the road can charge less because he has done a better job dealing with the free market realities of supply and demand.

  8. @Uriah and V – I will write more, though most of this is addressed in the “further reading” section, particularly in the problem of anti-markets as described by Manuel De Landa, based on the research of historian Fernand Braudel. Capitalists (those who own and control capital) have ALWAYS sought to aggregate power and fix the market in their favor. The banking system controlled by a few large players and a corrupt government under their control is the natural consequence of this system.

    @V The village analogy is obviously flawed. The problem of course is that we were dealing w/ Village B and not a single fish owner was smart enough to not run out of fish (or maybe there was one, but he decided to stop sharing his fish with anyone else, preferring to let everyone but him starve). China was Village A. Their system sucks too, but their people aren’t starving (though in real life they’re in a bind too, because my village was supposed to represent the whole world, not just the US).

    Capitalism depends on people making rational decisions. That would be fine if individual’s bad decisions only affected them individually. What happens when bad decisions in aggregate adversely impact many people? Regulation. I propose Village C: one in which there remain 4 owners but there is a council that sets limits on the maximum number of fish extracted from the ponds.

  9. I don’t buy the fish analogy. Take village b, so you’ve got four people all selling fish from their pond. The reality is that one guy sells his fish unsustainably for less than his competitors, which means the only way his competitors can stay alive is by selling fish unsustainably. The price of fish drops, only the filets of the fish are eaten because they’re so cheap you don’t need to make soup out of the leftovers, and then everyone starves because you don’t have any damn fish left.

    In village a, the council doesn’t artificially raise the price of fish because they have to live in the same little village and interact with all those other people. At the scale of a nation with a unified and controllable news media that might not necessarily be true, but in a village, social pressure is HUGE, and when you fail to bow to it, banishment and even physical security might become an issue at any time if you get out of line. There are checks and balances there.

  10. Fundamentally, people who are pro-market are like evolutionists. People who want pro-government control of markets are like creationists.

    A market works by millions of factors feeding back and off one another – what survives and thrives is what survives and thrives by its inherent fitness to that environment of desire and resources.

    Conversely, a socialist model assumes that instead of millions of independent self-regulating factors, one controlling voice can simply declare the reality it wants and that’ll somehow happen (never has, never will).

    Klint – I can’t believe you are bringing up China as an example of positive government control. Go eat some mercury milk and slave away in hard labor so the national GNP increases if you’re such a fan.

    Furthermore, if individual’s rational decisions hurt somebody – so fucking what. Everybody’s decisions hurt somebody. Everybody’s. Life feeds on life – that’s a billion year old lesson. Those decisions were only made because of the government gave Wall Street a thumbsup – after all it made a worthless, importing economy seem to be increasing. Shellgames.

    You really don’t get that government regulation is why the banking crisis occurred. The government purposely set low interest rates for a decade so people would buy homes, which inflated home prices for a decade in an unprecedented way, while lots of banks and realtors made a shitload of money (which they are getting to keep by and large) and then when that finally ran into reality, the government has decided to bail out the banks bad loans with everybody’s money (it’s about 4000 per man woman and child paid off to the banks so their inflated balance sheets don’t deflate).

    Banks already had a government sweetheartdeal that they could lend 10 times what they held, so if 10% of a banks loan are bad – then a bank is kaput axiomatically. But why worry about that when the government assures you that everybody would be paid back if shit goes wrong. That’s government regulation.

    How the hell do you think government is the good guy in this story?

    Read Mancur Olson’s Power and Prosperity.

  11. @V “I can’t believe you are bringing up China as an example of positive government control.”

    “How the hell do you think government is the good guy in this story?”

    You obviously either haven’t read or haven’t understood anything I’ve written above.

  12. @V But to directly answer some of your questions/statements:

    “Fundamentally, people who are pro-market are like evolutionists. People who want pro-government control of markets are like creationists.”

    Wrong. People who believe in markets are the religious types. “Trust the market” = “Trust in god.”

    re: the rest of your case of socialism vs. markets: the natural result of markets is the form of socialism we have here in the US. Meanwhile, unregulated Western banks slit their own throats and now we’re dependent on the US government (which is supported itself by the Chinese government).

    The government are very clearly *some* of the bad guys here – they had the chance to regulate derivatives trading and didn’t. Instead, they made other rules LESS strict. And to top it all off, instead of taking over the banks and

    But the other bad guys are the banks – the people who completely fucked up, and who ultimately are the ones who were the key influencers in the governments key economic decisions.

    “You really don’t get that government regulation is why the banking crisis occurred.”

    No, you really don’t get that banks got everything they wanted. They are to blame for their failure – not the government. Had they not been trading in bunk security derivatives, they could have avoided total meltdown when a few people didn’t pay their mortgages.

    “But why worry about that when the government assures you that everybody would be paid back if shit goes wrong. That’s government regulation.”

    Lehman-Brothers didn’t get a bail out. And getting swallowed up by other banks is not something most banks want either. No bank was assured a bail-out, and the government should not have bailed any bank out. But if the government had done its job we wouldn’t even be in this mess to begin with.

    Of course, that’s the rub – getting the government to do its job is easier said than done. I have no answers here.

    “Conversely, a socialist model assumes that instead of millions of independent self-regulating factors, one controlling voice can simply declare the reality it wants and that’ll somehow happen (never has, never will).”

    This is the same false dichotomy market-god worshippers have been peddling for decades. There are more choices than total-command economy and total free market. Neither one works.

  13. Here’s an intriguing challenge to the view that the financial meltdown reflects a systemic “free market failure”, from the Institute for Economic Affairs (UK) blog —

    >> Hayek Vindicated

    >> Some people have suggested that the current crisis suggests that ‘free’ markets are dead. Given the high degree of regulatory scrutiny in the financial sector that is not a point of view I hold. However, the neo-classical case for the market economy has certainly become strained, though the Austrian or Hayekian case has been strengthened. Much of the new breed of regulation that appears to have failed has relied on institutions using highly quantitative models and lots of market information. Uniform accountancy standards have been implemented by law in much of the world, based on market values. Data-driven risk models based on patterns repeating themselves in financial markets in predictable ways were encouraged by regulation. These models were adopted widely throughout the world. So, what happens when they fail? The whole financial world – encouraged by regulation to take the same approach to risk management and capital setting – goes pop at the same time.

    >> Markets, in fact, are a discovery process. It cannot be assumed that market prices are a perfect reflection of economic value at any particular time. Market participants continually discover new information, make errors and respond to errors. It is important that financial institutions are allowed to do things differently so that some (who use better and more efficient methods) succeed and others fail (indeed, it is important that institutions are allowed to fail). When we use data to take financial decisions, decide how much capital to keep and so on, we should be aware that the data we use contains some information but that relationships that hold one day will not hold precisely the next day. We should stand back and think conceptually about the risks that financial institutions are taking.

    >> The crash gives many more indications that Hayek was right. Hayek argues that unregulated markets develop institutions that ensure that trust and reputation become valuable commodities. But who cares about trust and reputation when we believe that everything will be looked after by the regulators or by deposit insurance? As far as a company is concerned, compliance with regulation has become more important than trust. The market has been allowed to generate crude economic efficiency, but trust has been crowded out by regulation.

    (Source: posting by Philip Booth )

  14. I think our global economic collapse was created by something that we have seen many times throughout history. Speculation. In the past we had the Dutch Tulip mania, and most recently the bubble. I remember when there was speculation with baseball cards and they started to fetch ridiculous prices. When that crashed, nobody was hurt outside of anyone who wasted his or her money on these trading cards. The big problem started when speculators started to speculate with houses…something almost everybody has. It was speculating with people’s most valuable possession. This bursting bubble hurts everybody. Human nature wants a free lunch, and overly inflated house prices were a free lunch. That party over, and I think it’s a good thing. Frugality is a virtue.

  15. Klintron: I may not understand your fish village analogy, so I’m going to hold back on commenting.

    I can say I don’t agree with your claim “Capitalism depends on people making rational decisions.” It depends on private ownership and voluntary exchange and I’m not sure anything else. I could be mistaken.

  16. Trevor: In my experience people who favor “the market” or capitalism over regulation or socialism argue that it is either more fair or more practical or both. I think recent events have proven the market to be neither more fair nor more practical.

    1. The fish analogy was meant to represent the FIRE sector’s collapse. They collapsed due to their own ineptitude – I have yet to find a necessary or sufficient government intervention leading to the collapse. They were warned that there was a problem by congress, Warren Buffet, and various others. Regulation of the derivatives market was rejected out of hand on ideological grounds: according to capitalist theory, things should have played out the way V described (a few owners would have made rational decisions and profited from everyone else’s folly). This did not happen and the entire economy was brought to the brink of collapse.

    And that’s the kicker – if it had been the beanie baby market, it wouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, everyone depends on the FIRE sector to keep capital flowing. Its collapse brings the whole economy down.

    So did capitalism “work”? The individuals who caused the problem profited the whole time (even before receiving the bailout money) and people who had no say in what went on in the FIRE sector suffer the results of their folly. Even this could be considered capitalism “working” if A) this was the best (least bad) possible outcome and B) if a correction occurred leading to a more optimal outcome in the future. According to capitalist theory, markets produce better results than regulators. This is false – India’s regulators provided better results than the west’s market. So A) is not true – regulated markets avoided the fate of the unregulated market. We’ll never know if B) is correct since the financial sector is now on life support via the state. However, the extent to which everything in our economy is dependent on the FIRE sector, the process of completely rebuilding it from scratch would like have been painful for everyone. Which might be “capitalism working” but if capitalism works by rewarding the incompetent at the expense of literally everyone else, until it fails spectacularly and has to be rebuilt from the ground up then what differentiates it from socialism?

    2. I think you are correct that for capitalism to exist and persist it does not require people to be rational. But for capitalism to produce desirable results, it must reward rational actors and punish irrational actors. This has not been happening. Bankers enjoyed huge bonuses while their businesses – and the rest of the economy – collapsed around them (again, this is BEFORE the bailout – which of course is socialism).

    What are the results we should look for if capitalism has succeeded? Rewards for those who have earned it? Punishment for those who are inept or irrational? A wealthier society over all? An economy that hasn’t collapse? I’m not seeing any evidence of these things in the US. Meanwhile, certain socialist economies (regulated, but not entirely centrally planned) have sustained their economies and become wealthier and more powerful.

  17. As far as I can tell the major companies & players (Goldman Sachs receiving sacks of gold, J.P. Morgan buying WAMU for a song, executives racking up giant bonuses over a decade) all acted in their rational self-interest and are doing quite well and will continue to do so – they’ve been effectively told they may never fail – they’ll probably learn the lesson that in future situations they should rationally maximize risk/profit.

    The people who aren’t acting rationally are the American people and the government that supposedly represents them – because if they were they’d stop handing swindlers all the money they demand [it’s just like blackmail you see – they keep asking for more and more and more].

    They’ve been bilking us for almost 100 years.

    Read Congressman McFadden’s speech in 1932 (murdered 12 year Chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee)

  18. @V – you continue to confuse now (post-bailout) with then (pre-meltdown). Back when they were all setting themselves up to hemorrhage billions of dollars.

    The best you can argue is that they knew that most of them would get bailed out, and that skewed the market so they didn’t have to try to not fail. But that’s a dubious argument – no bank wants to be in the position that WAMU was in.

    Here’s the real problem: a) they (all the various interests running the banking system) setup a system wherein the individuals they employed gambled with other people money and were handsomely rewarded for it regardless of the outcome. The investment bankers buying and selling derivatives never really faced serious consequence – and they probably never expected for the banking system to come crashing down around them like that (despite warnings). b) everyone depended on their ponzi scheme, thanks to decades of them accumulating power.

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