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Keyword: ‘prophetic words from hayek grim threat’

Clear-sighted myopia: prominent libertarians quoting Ayn Rand miss that industry itself undermines Hayek's "market morals"

May 11th, 2011 No comments

Rob Bradley has up a post at the fossil-fuel cheering “free-market” Master Resource energy blog on April 25 that shows Ayn Rand’s familiarity with the mis-regulation of the energy industry. The post itself is fairly apt, except that while it paints the energy producers as victims of erratic government regulations it ignores those whose health and property were damaged by the energy industry and gives little play to the role of major firms in pushing for and benefitting from regulation.

But the chief point I wish to make is that Bradley’s post ends with a quote from Rand that is intended to criticize government but actually resonates because of the statism and poor decision-making of the major industry players themselves: (emphasis added)

There is no “natural” or geological crisis; there is an enormous political one. It is in the nature of a mixed economy that its policies are rationally inexplicable, that there are no identifiable causes, no accountable initiators, no ascertainable villains — and that you are losing your jobs, giving up your automobiles, catching pneumonia in unheated bedrooms, not because some giant evildoers are plotting your destruction, but because some seedy hack wanted an unearned salary, and some crummy professor wanted an undeserved prestige, and some measly shyster wanted a chance to fish in muddy laws, and none of them cared to or could watch the state of the country’s economy, and the sum of such termite aspirations has eaten through the pillars of the structure so that one kick from a sheik was sufficient to make it crumble.

Hundreds of thousands of people’s livelihoods and thousands of businesses have been disrupted along the Gulf Coast and nearby TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear power plants, and millions of power consumers in and around Tokyo have been and will be affected for several years, not because of “giant evildoers”, but because major energy firms –  protected by government from full liability and with weak shareholder classes – are themselves highly bureaucratized with no clear locus of responsibility, with executives who look out for their own  interests but have no personal responsibility or liability for the damages resulting from lightly considered but materialized risks.

As I noted in March, F.A. Hayek (in an essay that Jeffrey Tucker has since kindly tracked down and made available generally) noted that:

Where previously perhaps only the aristocracy and its servants were strangers to the rules of the market, the growth of large organisations in business, commerce, finance, and ultimately in government, increased the number of people who grew up without being taught the morals of the market which had been developed in the course of the preceding 2,000 years.  …

We are now in the extraordinary situation that, while we live in a world with a large and growing population which can be kept alive thanks only to the prevalence of the market system, the vast majority of people (I do not exaggerate) no longer believes in the market.

It is a crucial question for the future preservation of civilisation and one which must be faced before the arguments of socialism return us to a primitive morality. We must again suppress those innate feelings which have welled up in us once we ceased to learn the taut discipline of the market, before they destroy our capacity to feed the population through the co-ordinating system of the market.

People are losing faith in the market because large energy firms themselves are partially insulated from the market and as a consequence are not fully subject to its “taut discipline” – and, as a result, are making decisions that are highly damaging.

One can rightly protest that such firms are creatures of government and have been cosseted by government, so that government is responsible for skewed decision-making. But pointing this does not address the problem posed by institutionalized moral hazard.

Only reforms that restore responsibility and market discipline will do that. Such reforms should include not simply increasing competition and ending government ownership of resources and oversight of corporate risk-managment, but finding ways to ensure that there are real principals who are incentivized to hold corporate agents accountable. Otherwise, pervasive moral hazard and risk-shifting will persist.

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Are Hayek’s essential "market morals" breaking down? Hmm … Is peace breaking out, or are things getting ugly?

March 30th, 2011 No comments

[Apologies for the weird font sizes – guess I’m too old to figure out the html stuff that creeps in when I cut and paste!]

I wanted to post a few additional and somewhat scattered thoughts I have had relating to the 1986 essay of Hayek that I recently stumbled across, “The Moral Imperative of the Market”.

What morals do we end up with as “market morals” are eroded?  In larger communities, the morals of a cynical or self-deluded selfishness and self-justification, accompanied by growing tribalism, insularity, suspicion, hostility, avarice, prejudice, jingoism and intolerance.

As the market breaks down, so also do market dynamics of broad exchange and sophisticated institutions, and things become each man for himself, finding friend and families to hunker down with, a hardening towards and less concern for others – who indeed may be viewed as either a threat or as fair game.

IOW, it’s the same load of aggressive, selfish and narrowly tribal stuff that once was ESSENTIAL to bands of humans when when we lived in a state of Nature and life was brutish and short, and that I’ve been giving other members of this and other communities grief over ever since I was marooned on these fertile but once hostile shores:

Cooperation comes naturally to man – among those we feel we can trust – but within limits, as so too does suspicion come naturally as to “others” who look like they might pose a threat. In building extended markets, we are always struggling with our predilection to form “Bands of Brothers”. In doing this work, we are always making use of our sophisticated yet at times quite reflexive native endowment.

As I noted a couple years back (you know, in ancient times when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize) in a comment to libertarian science correspondent Ron Bailey at Reason Online:

you forget what evolutionary psychology, Ostrom and Yandle have explained to us so well about how our innate moral sense drives and underpins mankind’s success as a species by enhancing our ability to cooperate and to overcome commons issues.

Our long history of developed rules and institutions (informal and formal now overlapping) are based on our moral sense and the effectiveness of these rules depends critically on our moral investment in accepting their legitimacy – witness our views on murder, theft, lying and “not playing by the rules” – and in voluntarily complying with them.

Our moral sense reinforces our judgments about when rules/institutions are not working and the need to develop new ones in response to changing circumstances and new problems.  When we see a problem that we think requires change, it is unavoidable that we respond to the status quo, the behavior of people within it and the need for change with a moral sense. 

This is simply a part of our evolutionary endowment.  (Of course, other parts of our endowment accentuate our suspicions of smooth talkers and help us catch free riders and looters and to guard against threats from outsiders.)

Let all of us here at LvMI (and any strangers!) please be aware of our predilections, while we continue with the hard work of building strong, vibrant and open free societies.

I know, comrades, that you’re all dying for links to some of my relevant posts, which I certainly won’t begrudge to you :

Snicker-snack! We hold these truths to be self-evident: That WE’re right, and THEY are stoopid, deluded, evil AND cunning, out to destroy all that is good and holy

Bill Gates, Roger Pielke, Avatar & the Climate (of distrust); or, Can we move from a tribal questioning of motives to win-win policies?

I Can’t Stand Cant, Or, LeBron James and our Collectivist Scorn of “Collectivists”

Nick Kristof on politics: why we conclude that I’m right, and you’re evil (with a handy-dandy listing of a number of earlier fun posts!)

And a clip of a comment I made to Stephan Kinsella a little while back:

Austrians seem to act as if the love of reason requires a surrender of it in favor of the comforting distraction of a self-satisfied echo chamber of a type that would warm the cockles of any like-minded religious “alarmist” cult.

Mind Games: Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal panders to “skeptics” by abjuring science and declaring himself an expert on “mass neurosis”

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Dr. George Reisman and the Curious Case of the Missing Crony Capitalists, or, Moral Blindness Helps Me to See Clearly

October 28th, 2011 No comments

I refer to Dr. Reisman‘s October 21 post at Mises Daily, “In Praise of the Capitalist 1 Percent “. (The good Dr. and I go back a few years, as some of my readers may recall.)

In face of growing economic dislocation and discontent, Dr. Reisman serves up his usual, disappointing fare of portraying powerful (and provident) ‘capitalists’ as the victim of goverment and of the yammering mob. We all just KNOW it’s those with much less wealth who are corrupting government, socializing losses via the banking system and trying to raise barriers of entry that divide markets and limit competition, right?

Sure, the rabble may not well understand how capitalism is SUPPOSED to work, but they’re damned right that it isn’t , in large measure as a result of deliberate gaming and cynical socialization of risk by our so-called ‘capitalists’.

Rather serving up useful insights – or even appropriate outrage – Dr. Reisman is serving up smoke screens to protect those who bear the greatest blame for destroying laissez faire capitalism and Hayek’s essential “market morals”:

Hayek on the grim threat posed by the erosion of “market morals”; Who, exactly, is leading us down the primrose Road to Serfdom?

Those whom Reisman is actually defending are not pure capitalists, acting under laissez faire competition, but largely rapacious and irresponsible CEOs of large, listed companies, who, freed from any control of their erstwhile shareholder ‘owners,’ use government to crush competition, etc.

In effect, Dr. Reisman is defending the very people MOST RESPONSIBLE for DESTROYING laissez faire capitalism. For shame, George!

I left the following comment (edited lightly):

In his capable defense of our non-existent system of laissez faire capitalism, the good Dr. Reisman is curiously blind to the ways in which the ‘capitalists’ he defends are themselves BOTH the primary drivers and beneficiaries of the destruction of capitalism that he rightly lauds.

In Reisman Land, it’s always the powerful and corrupt ‘capitalists’ who are the victims of the relatively powerless hoi polloi.

Even Dr. Reisman’s throwaway references to ill-gotten gains shift focus and responsibility from powerful men ACTING to use government to the black box of government, which acts mysteriously and punishes as much as rewards firms: “government is permitted to depart from a policy of strict laissez-faire and thereby arbitrarily reward or punish firms”.

None is so blind as he who will NOT see. Dr. Reisman appears to be lacking a theory of Human Action, or rather, a theory in which men with money, in order to mitigate the rigors of laissez faire competition or to get easy money from selling goods and services to government, sometimes ACTIVELY coordinate their action with men more directly controlling the levers of government.

Instead, Dr. Reisman only sees the small man – laborers, officer workers, professionals and consumers – avariciously acting to use government to tie down and confiscate the wealth of the rich, noble, and heroic yet powerless capitalist.

Does the good Dr. not see that his capitalists, far from free and responsible men, act through GOVERNMENT-CREATED and licensed “limited liability” entities that are selected precisely because they shield the owners from personal responsibility for the harms their firms cause to others and the public and large? And that the intimate government role, the resulting harms and the lack of personal accountability are the very reasons why the victims then band together to petition government to “do something!”, rather than simply chasing the owners and their servants with pitchforks?

I agree with Dr. Reisman that ongoing events are a morality play writ large. But unfortunately Dr. Reisman (like many people now fed up with rampant crony capitalism who now blame ‘capitalism’ and the 1%) describes it to us in black and white.

Perhaps his mother took his Kodachrome away, but can’t we at least expect some shades of gray?

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Beyond ‘Nuclear Crony Capitalism’: Does state-created corporations mean we are stuck with a wonderfully confused ‘capitalist’ mess of socialized risk?

March 31st, 2011 No comments

Last night I was Sleepless in Tokyo because Matt Ridley and one of his commenters rewarded, with nice words and questions, a comment I left there on his “Nuclear Crony Capitalism” post.

So naturally I wrote more.

Here’s the relevant comment thread, plus my excited scribblings at the bottom (now up; thanks, Matt!). Skip to the bottom if you’re in a rush:

Posted by, TokyoTom (not verified)

Matt, great post — but I think you’ve only barely scratched the surface on the ‘crony capitalism’ institutionalization of risk.

I’ve spent a bit of time delving into this at my blog that Ludwig von Mises Inst kindly hosts:

– Sorry, but I can’t resist asking: Feel Sorry for Tokyo Electric Power Co?,, a tribute to Lew Rockwell’s ‘Feel Sorry for BP?’)

– Institutionalized moral hazard: Fun with Nuclear Power in Japan, or, prepare for a glowing twilight, with scattered fallout in the morning:

– My posts exploring the ramifications of the state grant of ‘limited liability’ corporation status:

 – The case of BP:

 – Not surprisingly, similar issues arise with respect to the rest of the Govt-licensed energy sector and climate:

 Thus small things contribute to the Road to Serfdom: and

I hope you’ll take your concern for nuclear crony capitalism even further.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:39am


Posted by, Matt Ridley


very interesting. Thanks. will follow up.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 04:54am


Posted by, Robin Guenier (not verified)


This is an intriguing post …. If one agrees (and I do) that the moral hazard enjoyed by financial institutions is deplorable, then logically it’s impossible not to take the same view of crony capitalism and nuclear power. And, as j ferguson and Tom have pointed out, it doesn’t end there. For example, I’ve been involved with the UK defence industry and recently with the appalling NHS computer system – in both cases, I’ve seen huge overruns and vast sums wasted. Classic examples, I suggest, of “government and capitalists colluding against the market”: neither the government nor its suppliers are penalised; all the pain is passed onto the public. And, if that is unacceptable – and surely it is – it’s hard to dispute Tom’s conclusion that the state grant of limited liability may be the problem: “one of the key roots of snowballing corporate statism”.

And yet … and yet: the industrial revolution and the huge benefits it has provided to society were built on the foundation of limited liability. Moreover, many major projects that would not have been implemented without an alliance between capitalists and government have turned out to be widely beneficial despite seemingly inevitable delays and cost overruns.

Is there a distinction to be drawn and, if so, where?


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 07:32am


Posted by, Matt Ridley


Yes. I agree with both points you make and see what you mean about limited liability’s role and the importance of govt-driven infrastructure. Compulsory purchase for railways and canals springs to mind: easier in Birtain than in France.

Not quite on the same lines, but sometimes I get criticised for being too hard on government and I reply that if Carnegie and Rockefeller and Maxwell were bad, then they weren’t half as bad as Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot.

I hope to get time to dig further into this issue.


Wednesday 30th March 2011 – 10:59am

My follow-up thoughts (readers may be disappointed that I haven’t loaded this down to cross-references to relevant posts from this blog):

Robin, your statement that “the industrial revolution and the huge benefits it has provided to society were built on the foundation of limited liablity” is a statement of fact – not one necessarily of causation – but so has been our financial house of cards: banks are corporations, shareholders have limited liability (and megabanks are public cos in which shareholders are even further removed from oversight), and depositors are insured by Uncle Same. As a result, depositors don’t bother to check out what a crapload of risk that traders and execs are piling on in order to get bonuses, and Uncle Sam and his legions of wizards set up regulations that the smart boys at Goldman and lawyers figure out how to finesse to load up ever more risk at the lowest possible capital – BANG! And all thanks to the wonders of institutionalized misincentives!

Sure, we got wonderful things from complex organizations, all of which remain in check somewhat by competitions. But there’s been a lot of abuse, alot of risk-shifting, alot of Superfund sites, alot of barriers to entry raised by the very regulations whose purported intent is to rein in the bad behavior, massive statism, and a ball and chain of costly and intrusive IP legislation and enforcement.

I’ve given a very short summary of the dynamics at this post but it’s a fairly obvious and understandable game of whack-a-mole, where government and the big boys – with their unlimited lives, purposes, facelessness, deep pockets and revolving doors – always seems to benefit while ordinary citizens and smaller firms and potential rivals get whacked.

It is very clear that limited liability of shareholders is a gift from government at the expense of un-consenting creditors (‘victims’ IOW), and thus is a subsidy from the public as a whole to the wealthier classes who owned corporations and still by and large are the shareholder class.

Corporations used to be very rare – the grants have a very dubious history, typically one of false justifications of offering a ‘public good’ in exchange for monopoly rights. The owners of very limited life, limited purpose firms somehow always managed to get the special deal extended. So we got bigger firms and more corruption, and labor unions and then regulations and workers and citizens finally started to get fed up.

The widespread statism and government-provided social welfarism – now falling into cynical kleptocracy and fuelling a breakdown in initiative, integrity and other virtues Hayek saw are necessary for market-based wealth generation to works to work – we now see are part of the price we’ve paid. The other part of course is damage to peoples’ lives, property, communities and to whatever public or community property that corporations can get their hands on and strip, without have an owner’s incentive to balance possible revenues over the long run.

Is this kit and caboodle a necessary part of “capitalism”? I don’t think so. Wall street banks and investment firms were private partnership for most of their lives, Amex was a listed corporation who owners had UNLIMITED liability, and Lloyds of London itself was not a firm but a private MARKET of names who all had unlimited liability. Many firms used to have only partially paid-in shares, so that managers had a call in case more capital was needed for new projects or to pay off debt.

Just because we’ve democratized corporate formation by opening the floodgates of socializing risk to anyone doesn’t mean ways can’t be found to put an end to institutionalized moral hazard. Eliminating unlimited liability would shift risk and responsibility for oversight back to a conveniently truant shareholder class from government and the public at large. It would of course mean that people not in a position to evaluate risks would be less likely to invest, making firms work harder to earn trust and get capital. Credit evaluation, rating agencies and insurers would all compete to step into the breach and to lower and spread risk.

Better-managed firms are more profitable than the big Frankensteins we have lumbering around these days; while reform would not happen overnight, it is not only desirable but possible. Firms whose shareholders bear the risk that they may be held liable for damages can be expected to be more cautious and thus could be exempted from the regulations that have been found needed for the Frankensteins. Thus both risks and barriers to entry could be lowered, and consumers and could determine what works best. Other initial steps could be to encourage firms whose shareholders have only fractionally paid-in shares. In the US, at least, corporations are creatures on state law, so just one state is needed to start such an experiment (which would be possible and protectable under the Constitution).

Well I’ve run on quite a bit in my excitement. My sincere apologies! Let me toddle off for a wee bit of sleep.



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