by Richard Ebeling
Since the economic downturn of 2008, the critics of capitalism have redoubled their efforts to persuade the American people and many others around the world that the system of individual freedom and free enterprise has failed.
These critics have insisted that it is unbridled capitalism, set loose on the world, which is the source of all of our personal and society misfortunes. We hear and read this not only in the popular news media and out of the mouths of the political pundits. We see it also in the election of a radical socialist to the leadership of the British Labor party, and a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” riding high in the public opinion polls for the Democratic Party’s nomination to the U.S. presidency.
The first observation to make is that many if not most of the social and economic misfortunes that are most frequently talked about are not the product of a “failed” free enterprise. The reason for this is that a consistently practiced free enterprise system no longer exists in the United States.
The Heavy Hand of Regulation
What we live under is a heavily regulated, managed and controlled interventionist-welfare state. The over 80,000 pages of the Federal Register, the volume that specifies and enumerates all the Federal regulations that are imposed on and to which all American businesses are expected to comply, is just one manifestation of the extent to which government has weaved a spider’s web of commands over the business community.
The Small Business Administration has estimated that compliance costs imposed on American enterprise by this mountain of regulations maybe upwards of $2 trillion a year.
At the same time, the tangled web of corrupt government-private sector relationships is also reflected in the size and cost of special interest lobbying activities connected with the Federal government.
According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Government, in 2014 there were almost 12,000 registered lobbyists working in Washington, D.C. Their job is to influence the writing of legislation that serve special interest groups attempting to obtain sectorial tax breaks, anti-competitive regulations or market restrictions, redistributions of wealth, or taxpayer funded subsidies and protections from the realities of free market competition and trade, or to advance various ideologically motived “causes.”
Spending Big Money to Plunder Others
The Center for Responsive Government, which tracks who lobbies and for what purposes and causes through the targeting of specific holders of or contenders for Federal elected office, including the Presidency and both Houses of the U.S. Congress, estimated that in 2014 lobbyists spent nearly $3.25 billion in the pursuit of privileges for some at the expense of others in society.
Just alone in 2013-2014, over $500 million dollars was spent on lobbying activity by the financial, insurance, and real estate sectors. Ideological and single-issue groups spent more than $352 million. Lawyers and lobbyists spent $151.5 million; health industry companies spent $142 million; and labor unions “invested” $140.6 million on lobbying.
Communications and electronic companies spent $116 million; energy and natural resource sector, $115 million; agribusiness, $77 million; construction companies, $67.7 million; transportation firms, $61 million, and defense companies, $25.4 million.
Based on the Senate Office of Public Records, the Center for Responsive Government calculates that lobbyists spent close to $41 billion on lobbying activities over the last 15 years, since the beginning of the twenty-first century.
These billions of special interest-serving dollars have influenced and affected the spending of trillions of dollars of Federal government expenditures over the same decade and a half. The lobbyists work with and use those who hold high political office so the special interest and ideological groups who employ them can plunder many others in American society; they can be viewed as among the most successful enterprisers in the country.
The Best Politicians Money Can Buy
But the symbiotic relationship between politicians and special interest groups of all types does not begin or end with the formal lobbying for legislative, regulatory and fiscal privileges and favors in the halls of Congress and the White House in Washington, D.C.
It goes on all year round all over the country in the form of campaign and electioneering contributions to get those elected or reelected who can be depended upon to direct the powers of government in ways that interest groups and ideological activists desire and from which they hope to benefit.
Again according to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2013-2014, individuals and PACS donated over $1.6 billion to 1,671candidates of both major political parties running for office in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Democratic Party candidates received $736 million, while Republican Party candidates received $901.5 million.
While it may seem unseemly to suggest such a thing, these amounts for legislative lobbying and campaign funding, of course, do not include more millions of dollars that grease the palms of those in political power or who want to be in those lofty positions that represent funding that are outside the official channels in the form of “gifts,” travel junkets, off-the-books expense accounts, and out-and-out bribes of one type or another.
The real world of corrupted and corrupting crony capitalism includes more than lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions to have ringside seats in the halls of political plunderland.
The media has been in a frenzy with the revelations that the Volkswagen automobile company manipulated information about emission standards on its diesel vehicles to deceive environmental regulators in both the United States and Europe. This is being portrayed by many in the media as another example and “proof” of the consequences of unbridled capitalism, when left outside of sufficiently tight and demanding government regulation and intense oversight.
Government Partnerships and the Volkswagen Scandal
However, a closer look shows that this is, instead, another example of the result arising from government, business and labor union “partnerships.” In Germany, labor union representatives sit on the executive boards of large companies and corporations that work closely with various levels of the German government to attain political and “social” goals and objectives very different and separate from what a truly free market company does in pursuing peaceful and honest profits in the service of consumer demand on open, competitive markets.
On September 25, 2015, The New York Times quoted a former Volkswagen executive who said:
“There’s no other company where the owners and the unions are working so closely together as Volkswagen. [Volkswagen] guarantees jobs for over half the supervisory board. What management, the government and the unions all want is full employment, and the more jobs, the better. Volkswagen is seen as having a national mission to provide employment to the German people. That’s behind the push to be No. 1 in the world. They’ll look the other way about anything.”
In such a politicized market economy, working for and serving “national” and “social” interests become the guiding principle of business decision-making. Not only does it lead to wasteful and inefficient economic business operations having less or sometimes nothing to do with cost-effective management and allocation of labor and resources to make better, newer and less expensive products, it also corrupts the individuals participating in these activities.
Breaking one or more regulatory standards imposed by government on these enterprises is merely one way of “doing business” to advance other political goals such as “jobs” and “full employment” that are expected as part of the “partnerships” with local and national-level politicians and labor union leaders.
The only thing expected from the business enterprises in these intricate political webs is: Don’t get caught. If you do, then your political partners become like Captain Renault, the prefect of police in the 1942 movie “Casablanca.” When Renault orders the closing of Rick’s Café, the owner asks him on what grounds. Renault declares that he is “shocked, shocked” to discover that there is gambling going on in the café. At which point the roulette coupé appears with a stack of franc banknotes in his hand and says to Renault, “Your winnings, Sir.”
Volkswagen got caught, and will pay handsomely in financial and other penalties that will, no doubt, be imposed by the U.S. and European governments. And all the time, Volkswagen’s political partners, especially in Germany, who fostered and worked with the company to play its part in the “game” of government interventionism that has nothing to do with market-oriented enterprise, will sanctimoniously condemn the greedy and “selfish” conduct of profit-hungry businessmen.
What all these examples and facts about lobbying activities, campaign funding and government-business partnerships highlight is the pervasive extent to which “capitalism” as it now exists in the United States or Europe – or in fact all other parts of the world – has nothing to do with free market, laissez-faire capitalism.
Corrupting Hand of the Interventionist State
The Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, described this twisted, corrupted, and politicized capitalism over 80 years ago, in 1932, in an essay on “The Myth of the Failure of Capitalism,” published shortly before the coming of Hitler and the Nazi movement to power:
“In the interventionist state it is no longer of crucial importance for the success of an enterprise that the business should be managed in a way that it satisfies the demands of consumers in the best and least costly manner.
“It is far more important that one has ‘good relationships’ with the political authorities so that the interventions work to the advantage and not the disadvantage of the enterprise. A few marks’ more tariff protection for the products of the enterprise and a few marks’ less tariff for the raw materials used in the manufacturing process can be of far more benefit to the enterprise than the greatest care in managing the business.
“No matter how well an enterprise may be managed, it will fail if it does not know how to protect its interests in the drawing up of the custom rates, in the negotiations before the arbitration boards, and with the cartel authorities. To have ‘connections’ becomes more important that to produce well and cheaply.
“So the leadership positions within the enterprises are no longer achieved by men who understand how to organize companies and to direct production in the way the market situation demands, but by men who are well thought of ‘above’ and ‘below,’ men who understand how to get along well with the press and all the political parties, especially with the radicals, so that they and their company give no offense. It is that class of general directors that negotiate far more often with state functionaries and party leaders than with those from whom they buy or to whom they sell.
“Since it is a question of obtaining political favors for these enterprises, their directors must repay the politicians with favors. In recent years, there have been relatively few large enterprises that have not had to spend very considerable sums for various undertakings in spite of it being clear from the start that they would yield no profit. But in spite of the expected loss it had to be done for political reasons. Let us not even mention contributions for purposes unrelated to business – for campaign funds, public welfare organizations, and the like.
“Forces are becoming more and more generally accepted that aim at making the direction of large banks, industrial concerns, and stock corporations independent of the shareholders . . . The directors of large enterprises nowadays no longer think they need to give consideration to the interests of the shareholders, since they feel themselves thoroughly supported by the state and that they have interventionist public opinion behind them.
“In those countries in which statism has most fully gained control . . . they manage the affairs of their corporations with about as little concern for the firm’s profitability as do the directors of public enterprises. The result is ruin.
“The theory that has been cobbled together says that these enterprises are too big to allow them to be managed simply in terms of their profitability. This is an extraordinarily convenient idea, considering that renouncing profitability in the management of the company leads to the enterprise’s insolvency. It is fortunate for those involved that the same theory then demands state intervention and support for those enterprises that are viewed as being too big to be allowed to go under . . .
“The crisis from which the world is suffering today is the crisis of interventionism and of national and municipal socialism; in short, it is the crisis of anti-capitalist policies.”
How different is today, in its essential qualities, from Mises’ description of the interventionist state and government-business “partnerships” during those years between the two World Wars?
Real Free Markets Mean Privileges for None
If what we have today is what is widely referred to as “crony capitalism,” then how might we define and explain what a truly free market capitalism would be like? Let me suggest that the following seven points capture the essence of a real free economy:
- All means of production (land, resources, capital) are privately owned;
- The use of the means of production is under the control of private owners who may be individuals or corporate entities;
- Consumer demands determine how the means of production will be used;
- Competitive forces of supply and demand determine the prices of consumer goods and the various factors of production including wages of workers;
- The success or failure of individual and corporate enterprises is determined by the profits and losses these enterprises earn in free competition with their rivals in the market place;
- The free market is not confined to domestic transactions, and includes freedom of international trade;
- Government is limited in its activities to the enforcement and protection of life, liberty, and honestly acquired property against, violence and fraud.
In a real free market, there is no place for politicians to offer privileges and favors, because there are none to sell. There is no motive or gain for special interest groups to spend huge sums of money in campaign contributions or lobbying expenses, because political benefits for some at others’ expense cannot be bought.
Wasteful and corrupting “partnerships” between government and business enterprises cannot occur because political authority is restrained from any task other than the securing of each individual’s right to his life, liberty, and peacefully acquired property.
As Ludwig von Mises said, the political and economic crises through which the world suffers is not the crisis or failure of the free market. No, it is the crisis and failure of the interventionist-welfare state, and its anti-free market capitalist ideology.