Monday, June 16, 2008

Social Democratic Liberalism Came to Serve Corruption

Americans' acceptance of the Keynesian ideology, often called social democracy or post-war liberalism, had its roots in Hamiltonian Federalism. Hamilton, a follower of Hume's economic ideas, had advocated federal expansion of credit and concentration of its availability to business interests. This was to be accomplished by federal assumption of the Revolutionary War debt and establishment of a central bank. Hume had argued that if credit is made available to merchants, then the merchants' smart investment decisions would allocate resources into their most productive uses. Thus, the public might become richer by the artifical creation of money, in Hume's view. Hume assumed that it is a good bet for the public to bear investment risk. But there is certainly risk. Hume believed that the risk would pay off, but this is an apriori argument, not an empirical fact. Moreover, this argument rested on particular facts that were true in the 18th century and ceased to be true by the late nineteenth, in particular merchants' personal assumption of risk.

Hume wrote at a time when corporations did not exist. Corporations did not take their present form until the late nineteenth century, as late as the 1890s. At the time that Hume wrote, merchants who assumed risk did so on their own account, and if they lost money they personally suffered. Thus, there was considerable motivation for rational, profit-maximizing behavior. When central banking was abolished, business needed alternative means to aggregate capital. Corporate organization did so, and it did so by shifting risk away from entrepreneurs and merchants onto investors. This is a more rational method for allocating risk than is central banking because it can reflect personal preferences for risk. Moreover, it permits reflection of a wide range of public preferences. Some people have considerable utility for money in the present because they prefer to consume. Consumers might prefer not to take risks with money but rather to spend it. In contrast, other people have greater utility for money in the future. Such investors can choose to invest more heavily in corporate ventures than a central bank's broad allocation of public resources to specific interests would permit.

Corporate organization might be viewed as an alternative form of capital aggregation to central banking. It is superior because the allocation of risk is explicit. Those who wish to take risks invest in the corporation, while those who do not wish to take risks do not invest. This contrasts with monetary creation by the central bank, which forces all citizens to participate in risky business decisions whether they choose to or not.

But the compounding of the corporate form with central banking might exaggerate risk taking and confound the Humean-Hamiltonian model. Merchants who are not personally at risk may not behave rationally. The result is a potential for corrpution. A corporate president who is granted dollops of credit artificially created by a central bank might be motivated to present false earnings reports, pay himself an exaggerated salary and then resign from the firm before it goes bankrupt, much as the officers of Enron and Bear Stearns did. There is no guarantee of rational behavior by corporate organizations staffed by self interested bureaurcrats. Thus, the subsequent adoption of Hamiltonian Federalism under the Keynesian moniker has gradually led to a crap shoot economy unbridled by rationality and propelled by self-seeking, incompetence and greed.

By 1830 it was evident to most workers that the Central Banking system was not beneficial to them. The Humean and Hamiltonian theory of credit had failed. In particular, banking monopolies led to depreciating currency which in turn led to resentment of the central bank, which President Andrew Jackson abolished in 1832 and 1833. Between 1833 and 1913 there was no central bank, and this was the period of greatest economic creativity in American history. It was also a period of slow business profit, which resulted in repeated complaints about "depressions". Every decade saw increasing real wages and every decade saw a "depression". By the end of the 19th century the average American was much better off, the American economy was the center of world innovation, immigrants flocked here by the millions, but business interests incessantly complained about "depression". Moreover, governmental subsidies to railroads engendered corruption and overexpansion. Post-Civil War monetary inflation facilitated speculation and created income inequality. This occurred at the same time that Jackson's spoils system led to political corruption in the cities.

Many observers felt that rationalization of the state through civil service would improve the economy. The traditional American belief that morality led to economic success was being tested by corruption associated with the railroads and political clubs in the cities. In 1883 Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which created a rudimentary civil service for the federal government. In turn, advocates of moral and limited government, to include the Mugwumps, argued for increased use of civil service, honesty in government, and the gold standard and reduced tariffs. The election of 1884, in which the Mugwumps bolted the Republican Party to support Grover Cleveland, led to Cleveland's election. At the same time, the corporate form of organization facilitated the expansion of industry.

During this period Bismarck in Germany was experimenting with social democracy. Bismarck implemented national health insurance, social security and other social programs. The German historical school of economics argued against the laissez faire economics of Charles Sumner and Adam Smith. Smith, like Hume, argued that there are general laws of economic development. In contrast, the German historical school argued that economic laws are specific to time and place and that generalization is impossible. Moreover, the German historical school assumed that it is possible to rationally guide an economy. This contrasts with Hume's belief that merchants are better equipped to assess investment opportunities than anyone else. It also contrasts with the Whiggish and Jeffersonian belief in countryside entrepreneurs as better equipped to assess investment opportunity than either central planners or elite merchants.

In the late nineteenth century young American academics such as Henry Carter Adams, Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons sought education in the German universities. This was linked to the late nineteenth century Mugwumps' interest in establishing professions. The Mugwumps not only believed in fighting corruption and establishing sound money, but they also had specific professional interests in mind. They wanted to establish standards in academia, law, medicine and other professions. These professional interests became the common thread of modern liberalism. If there is one constant theme from the Mugwumps to todays American Association of University Professors, it is the importance of a college education, professionalism and regulations to establish them. The Mugwumps did not believe in social democracy, but they did believe in rationalization. The German universities were the best in the world, and they thought that if Americans were trained in German universities that they could bring the best methods to bear on American problems. But in social science the German universities were not really so methodologically advanced. The German historical school's emphasis on state-based solutions was a form of romanticism. The Americans who studied in Germany brought some reform ideas to bear on American problems, but combined these with faith in the power the state to solve social problems.

At first the Mugwumps resented the ideas of Richard T. Ely and Henry Carter Adams. As Nancy Cohen points out, Ely, who founded the American Economics Association, was denied tenure and forced to conform to the Mugwumps' expectations. Henry Carter Adams left academia altogether. However, the long term effect was to stimulate support for Progressivism. Ely's student John R. Commons was a central figure in the reform-oriented Wisconsin school, for instance. Progressivism had a number of roots, to include Social Gospel Christianity and Populism, but it was also heavily influenced by Commons's academic theories. Progressivism should not be confused with socialism or social democracy. At times it had elements of these but it included reform ideas of varying kinds.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson had established the Federal Reserve Bank in order to rationalize the credit markets. Wilson was a supporter of the gold standard and had voted for the Gold Democrats in 1896. He did not anticipate a return to Hamiltonian Federalism. Rather, he saw the Fed as a way to rationalize and professionalize financial management. However, by reestablishing a central bank, he reopened the door to Hamiltonian Federalism. Immediately after the Fed was founded, there was a serious inflation which in turn led to a depression. By 1920 the public had grown weary of the disruptions in economic life and elected Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. By 1920, after two decades of Progressivism, there was little memory of the laissez faire ideas of the late nineteenth century. Thus Harding and Coolidge, who succeeded Harding when he died three years into his term, nor Congress, were motivated to repeal the Progressive legislation of Roosevelt and Wilson. Part of the reason was that the more extreme socializing ideas that the Republicans under Roosevelt advocated had not come to pass. Instead, the more conservative approach of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson had led to limited judicial enforcement of the Sherman Anti-trust Act, the Hepburn Act which established railroad rates, and the Federal Trade Commission Act. But these laws had limited effects. On the other hand, they turned out to be a stepping stone to a greater degree of governmental intervention in the economy within 12 years.

The compounding effect of the central bank and the corporate form of organization in generating economic inefficiency and corruption did not begin to be felt for a number of decades. This was accomplished by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930s. First, FDR abolished the gold standard in 1932. Second, he used the pretext of social democracy to strengthen the federal government, which in turn led to increased availability of credit. This was done through the expansion of the military along with the expansion of the welfare state. Government contracts became available as did increased credit. The stock market began to increase from 1937 onward, and after World War II it began an ascent from which it has never returned. In contrast, the financial markets did not increase from the 1880s until the 1930s. In effect, Roosevelt implemented the Hamiltonian system in full force, but he did so with a cloak. The cloak was that of social democracy. American politics became a debate between two statist visions, both derivative of Progressivism and Federalism. The Republican vision was one of state intervention on behalf of business and opposition to social democracy. The Democratic vision was one of state intervention to regulate business in the name of social democracy but to subsidize business through credit expansion just as Hamilton had suggested in the 1780s. Thus, modern American politics deteriorated into a debate between two Hamiltonian visions, both of which aimed to subsidize inefficient corporations at the expense of a bewildered public.

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