Ten Recurring Economic Fallacies, 1774-2004

Mises Daily Article dailyarticle at mises.org
Mon Jul 26 05:57:34 PDT 2004


Ten Recurring Economic Fallacies, 17742004

By H.A. Scott Trask

[Posted July 26, 2004]

As an American historian who knows something of economic law, having
learned from the Austrians, I became intrigued with how the United States
had remained prosperous, its economy still so dynamic and productive, given
the serious and recurring economic fallacies to which our top leaders
(political, corporate, academic) have subscribed and from which they cannot
seem to free themselvesand alas, keep passing down to the younger

Lets consider ten.

Myth #1: The Broken Window

One of the most persistent is that of the broken windowone breaks and this
is celebrated as a boon to the economy: the window manufacturer gets an
order; the hardware store sells a window; a carpenter is hired to install
it; money circulates; jobs are created; the GDP goes up. In truth, of
course, the economy is no better off at all.

True, there is a sudden burst of activity, and some persons have surely
gained, but only at the expense of the proprietor whose window was broken,
or his insurance company; and if the latter, the other policyholders who
will pay higher premiums to pay for paid-out claims, especially if many
have been broken.

The fallacy lies in a failure to grasp what has been foregone by repair and
reconstructionthe labor and capital expended, having been lost to new
production. This fallacy, seemingly so simple to explain and grasp,
although requiring an intellectual effort of some mental abstraction to
comprehend, seems to be ineradicable.

After the horrific destruction of the Twin Towers in September 2001, the
media quoted academic and corporate economists assuring us that the
governments response to the attacks would help bring an end to the
recession. What was never mentioned was that resources devoted to repair,
security, and war-fighting are resources that cannot be devoted to creating
consumer goods, building new infrastructure, or enhancing our civilization.
We are worse off because of 9-11.

Myth #2: The Beneficence of War

A second fallacy is the idea of war as an engine of prosperity. Students
are taught that World War II ended the Depression; many Americans seem to
believe that tax revenues spent on defense contractors (creating jobs) are
no loss to the productive economy; and our political leaders continue to
believe that expanded government spending is an effective way of bringing
an end to a recession and reviving the economy.

The truth is that war, and the preparation for it, is economically wasteful
and destructive. Apart from the spoils gained by winning (if it is won) war
and defense spending squander labor, resources, and wealth, leaving the
country poorer in the end than if these things had been devoted to peaceful

During war, the productive powers of a country are diverted to producing
weapons and ammunition, transporting armaments and supplies, and supporting
the armies in the field.

William Graham Sumner described how the Civil War, which he lived through,
had squandered capital and labor: "The mills, forges, and factories were
active in working for the government, while the men who ate the grain and
wore the clothing were active in destroying, and not in creating capital.
This, to be sure, was war. It is what war means, but it cannot bring

Nothing is more basic; yet it continues to elude the grasp of our teachers,
writers, professors, and politicians. The forty year Cold War drained this
country of much of its wealth, squandered capital, and wasted the labor of
millions, whose lifetime work, whether as a soldier, sailor, or defense
worker, was devoted to policing the empire, fighting its brush wars, and
making weapons, instead of building up our civilization with things of
utility, comfort, and beauty.

Some might respond that the Cold War was a necessity, but thats not the
questionalthough we now know that the CIA, in yet another massive
intelligence failure, grossly overestimated Soviet military capabilities as
well as the size of the Soviet economy, estimating it was twice as large
and productive as it really was. The point is the wastefulness of war, and
the preparation for it; and I see no evidence whatever that the American
people or their leaders understand that, or even care to think about it. An
awareness and comprehension of these economic realities might lead to more
searching scrutiny of the aims and methods that the Bush administration has
chosen for the War on Terror.

Only a few days after 9-11, Rumsfeld declared that the war shall last as
long as the Cold War (forty plus years), or longera claim the
administration has repeated every few months since thenwithout eliciting
the slightest notice or questioning from the media, the public, or the
opposing party. Would that be the case, if people understand how much a
second Cold War, this time with radical Islam, will cost us in lives,
treasure, and foregone comfort and leisure?

Myth #3: The Best Way to Finance a War is by Borrowing

Beginning with the War of Independence and continuing through the War on
Terror, Americans have chosen to pay for their wars by borrowing money and
inflating the currency. Adam Smith believed that the war should be financed
by a levy on capital. This way the people of the country understand how
much the war is costing them, and then can better judge whether it is
really necessary. While he conceded that borrowing might be necessary in
the early part of a war, before the revenue from war taxes began to flow
into the treasury, he insisted that borrowing be kept to a minimum as a
temporary expedient only.

Borrowing increases the costs of war in the form of interest. Inflating the
currency, which often accompanies massive borrowing, as it did during the
War of Independence, the War Between the States, and the War in Vietnam
(just to name three), is the worst method of war finance, for it drives up
prices, increases costs, enlarges debt, spawns malinvestments and
speculation, and worsens the redistributive effects of war spending.

In 1861, the Lincoln administration decided that the people of the north
would not stand for much taxation, and that it would increase the already
considerable opposition to the southern war. According to Sumner, the
financial question of the day was "whether we should carry on the war on
specie currency, low prices, and small imports, or on paper issues, high
prices, and heavy imports?"  The latter course was chosen, and the
consequences were a national debt that soared from $65 million in 1860 to
$27 thousand million ($2.7 billion) in 1865, and a massive redistribution
of wealth to federal bondholders.

In 1865, the financial question recurred. It was: "Shall we withdraw the
paper, recover our specie [gold and silver coin], reduce prices, lessen
imports, reduce debt, and live economically until we have made up the waste
and loss of war, or shall we keep the paper as money, export all our specie
which had hitherto been held in anticipation of resumption, buy foreign
goods with it, and go on as if nothing had happened?"  

The easy route was taken again (specie payments were not resumed until
1879, fourteen years later, and almost twenty years after the 1861
suspension) and the consequences were an inflation-driven stock market and
railroad boom that culminated in the panic of 1873, the failure of the
House of Cook, and the Great Railway Strike of 1877, the first outbreak of
large-scale industrial violence in American history.

Myth #4: Deficit Spending Benefits the Economy and Government Debt  

Three years ago, when then treasury secretary Paul ONeill objected to the
Bush administrations policy of guns, butter, and tax cuts he was told by
the vice president, Dick Cheney, that, "deficits dont matter." 

Of course, they dont matterto him, but they matter to the country. John
Maynard Keynes's prescription for curing a recession included tax cuts and
increased government spending. "We are all Keynesians now" should be the
new motto inscribed on the front of the Treasury building in Washington.

However, Keynes taught that once the recession was over government spending
should be reduced, taxes increased, and the deficit eliminated. Current
American policy is to continue deficit spending after the recession is
over, and to borrow in peace as well as war. One longstanding criticism of
such policies is that government borrowing "crowds out" private investment,
thus raising interest rates.

In an era when credit creation is so easy, and interest rates remain low
despite massive deficits reaching $500 billion per annum, economists no
longer take this objection seriously. Another criticism is that an
accumulating debt saddles future generations with a heavy burden, which is
both unfair and detrimental to future growth. Once again, economists and
politicians regard this objection as groundless. They reason that future
generations derive benefits from deficit expendituresgreater security,
more infrastructure, improved health and welfareand that since the
principal need never be paid, it is not much of a burden anyway.

They are wrong. By avoiding having to increase taxes, borrowing hides the
price to be paid for increased government spending (the destructive
diversion of capital and labor from private pursuits to government
projects), and defuses potential public opposition to new or expanded
government initiatives, here and abroad. It is thus both unrepublican and

Second, depending on how long the redemption of the principal is deferred,
accumulating interest payments can double, triple, quadruple, . . . the
cost of the initial expenditure (This country has never yet discharged its
Civil War debt!) Third, interest payments represent a perpetual income
transfer from the working public to the bondholdersa kind of regressive
tax that makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. Finally, the debt
introduces new and wholly artificial forms of uncertainty into financial
markets, with everyone left to guess whether the debt will be paid through
taxes, inflation, or default.

Myth # 5: Government Policies to Promote Exports are a Good Idea

The fallacy that government is a better judge of the most profitable modes
of directing labor and capital than individuals is well illustrated by
exporting policies. In the twentieth century, the federal government has
sought to promote exports in various ways. The first was by forcing open
foreign markets through a combination of diplomatic and military pressure,
all the while keeping our own markets wholly or partially closed. The
famous "open door" policy, formulated by Secretary of State John Hay in
1899 was never meant to be reciprocal (after all, he served in the McKinley
administration, the most archly protectionist in American history), and it
often required a gun boat and a contingent of hard charging marines to kick
open the door.

A second method was export subsidies, which are still with us. The
Export-Import Bank was established by Roosevelt in 1934 to provide cash
grants, government-guaranteed loans, and cheap credit to exporters and
their overseas customers. It remains todayuntouched by "alleged" free
market Republican administrations and congresses.

A third method was dollar devaluation, to cheapen the selling price of
American goods abroad. In 1933, Roosevelt took the country off the gold
standard and revalued it at $34.06, which represented a significant
devaluation. The object was to allow for more domestic inflation and to
boost exports, particularly agricultural ones, which failed; now Bush is
trying it.

A fourth method, tried by the Reagan administration, was driving down farm
prices to boost exports, thereby shrinking the trade deficit. The plan was
that America would undersell its competitors, capture markets, and rake in
foreign exchange. (When others do this it is denounced as unfair, as
predatory trade.) What happened? Well, it turned out that the agricultural
export market was rather elastic. Countries like Brazil and Argentina,
depending on farm exports as one of their few sources of foreign exchange,
which they desperately needed to service their debt loads, simply cut their
prices to match the Americans. Plan fails.

But it got worse: American farmers had to sell larger quantities (at the
lower prices) just to break even. Nevertheless, although the total volume
of American agricultural exports increased, their real value (in constant
dollars) fellmore work, lower profits. Furthermore, farmers had to import
more oil and other producer goods to expand their production, which
worsened the trade deficit. Then, there were the unforeseen and deleterious
side-effects. Expanded cultivation and livestock-raising stressed out and
degraded the quality of the soils, polluted watersheds, and lowered the
nutritional value of the expanded crop of vegetables, grains, and animal

Finally, the policy of lower price/higher volume drove many small farmers,
here and abroad, off the land, into the cities, and across the border, our
border. Here is an economic policy that not only failed in its purpose but
worsened the very problem it was intended to alleviate, and caused a
nutritional, ecological, and demographic catastrophe.

Myth #6: Commercial Warfare Works

Sumner pointed out that the Americans declared their political
independence, they had not entirely freed themselves from the fallacies of
mercantilism. Mercantilists believed that government should both regulate
and promote certain kinds of economic activity, the economy being neither
self-regulating, nor capable of reaching maximum efficiency if left alone.
Thus, in their struggle for independence, the Americans turned to two
dubious policies: commercial warfare; and inflationary war finance.

I wont rehash the history of the depreciating Continentalwhich led to the
confiscation of property without adequate compensation, defrauded
creditors, impoverished soldiers and sailors, price controls, a larger war
debtbut I will point out what Sumner so amply demonstrated in his
financial history of the Revolutionary War: the commercial war harmed the
Americans far more than the British.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, commercial war took the form of
boycotts and embargoes. The idea was that by closing our markets to British
goods, or by denying them our exports, agriculture and raw materials, we
could coerce them, peacefully, into changing their policies. This policy
worked only one time, helping to persuade the British to repeal the Stamp
Act of 1765; but each time thereafter it was tried it only antagonized them
and led to some form of retaliation. In 177475, on the eve of war, the
Americans stood in desperate need of supplies to prepare for war, and the
English offered the best goods at the best prices.

By refusing to trade, hoping to coerce the British into abandoning their
own Coercive Acts, the Americans began the war suffering from a supply
shortage, which only grew worse; after a few years of war, they found
themselves under the necessity of trading with the enemy, which was carried
on through the Netherlands and the West Indian islands of Antigua and St.
Eustatius. President Jeffersons embargo of 180709 was a complete fiasco.
Not only did it fail to accomplish its purpose of forcing the British and
French to respect our neutral commerce; it devastated the New England
economy, which was dependent on commerce and ship-building, hurt southern
planters (who could no longer export), reduced federal tariff revenue, and
drove the New England states to the brink of secession.

Myth #7: The Late Nineteenth Century was an Era of Laissez-Faire Capitalism

Certainly, the late nineteenth century was not an era of laissez-faire,
despite the stubborn and persistent myth to the contrary. True, there were
few government regulations on business, but high tariffs, railroad
subsidies, and the national banking system prove that the government was no
neutral bystander. Sumner more accurately termed it the era of plutocracy,
in which politically organized wealth used the power of the state for
selfish advantage.

He also warned, "Nowhere in the world is the danger of plutocracy as
formidable as it is here."  For these indiscretions, the manufacturing and
bond-holding hierarchy tried to get him kicked out of Yale, where they
thought he was poisoning the minds of their sons with free trade heresies.
Only during two periods since 1776 has the government mostly left the
economy alone: during the early years of the federal republic; and in the
two decades previous to the Civil War. The political economist Condy Raguet
called the first period of economic freedom, from 1783 to 1807, "the golden
age" of the republic: Trade was free, taxes were low, money was sound, and
Americans enjoyed more economic freedom than any other people in the world.
Sumner thought the years from 1846 to 1860the era of the independent
treasury, falling tariffs, and gold moneywas the true "golden age." 

(Historians consider the presidents during this last periodFillmore,
Pierce, and Buchananas among the worst we have ever had. Yet, from
18481860, the country was at peace, the economy prosperous, taxes low,
money hard, and the national debt was shrinking. This tells us how
historians define political greatness.

Myth #8: Business Corporations Favor a Policy of Laissez-Faire

Never in the history of our country have corporations, Wall Street
financiers, bond holders, and other large capitalists, as a class or
interest, favored a policy of economic liberty and nonintervention by
government. They have always favored some form of mercantilism. It is
surely significant that the second Republican Party, founded in Michigan in
1854, was funded and led by men who wished to overthrow the libertarian
desideratum of the 1840s and 50s. Of course there have been exceptions.

The merchants and ship-owners of maritime New England put up a good fight
for free trade and sound money in the early years of the republic, and the
New York City bankers in the nineteenth century were conservative Democrats
who supported free trade, low taxes, sound money, and the gold standard.
But these were exceptions. Consider the testimony of William Simon, who was
Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon:

I watched with incredulity as businessmen ran to the government in every
crisis, whining for handouts or protection from the very competition that
has made this system so productive. I saw Texas ranchers, hit by drought,
demanding government-guaranteed loans; giant milk cooperatives lobbying for
higher price supports; major airlines fighting deregulation to preserve
their monopoly status; giant companies like Lockheed seeking federal
assistance to rescue them from sheer inefficiency; bankers, like David
Rockefeller, demanding government bailouts to protect them from their
ill-conceived investments; network executives, like William Paley of CBS,
fighting to preserve regulatory restrictions and to block the emergence of
competitive cable and pay TV.

And always, such gentlemen proclaimed their devotion to free enterprise and
their opposition to arbitrary intervention into our economic life by the
state. Except, of course, for their own case, which was always unique and
which was justified by their immense concern for the public interest.

During the nineteenth century, those who clamored loudest and most
effectively for government intervention in the economy were businessmen; of
course farmers sometimes did so as well. Businessmen sought promotional
policies in the form of protective tariffs, a national bank, and public
funding of "internal improvements," such as turnpikes, bridges, and canals.
By the 1820s, proponents of this program called it "the American System,"
with Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky its most prominent champion. Raguet
more accurately referred to it as the "British System." Clay ran for
president on this platform three times, and lost three times (1824, 1832,
and 1844). His protigi, Abraham Lincoln, learned from this experience, and
so when he ran for president in 1860, hoping to implement the same program,
he rarely mentioned it; instead, he promised to save the western
territories from the blight of slavery and to overthrow the "slave
power"political camouflage that worked brilliantly.

The American System was an egregious form of redistributive
special-interest politics. It enriched Louisiana sugar planters, Kentucky
hemp growers, New York sheep herders, Pennsylvania iron mongers, New
England textile magnates, canal companies, and railroad corporationsall at
the expense of planters, farmers, mechanics, and consumers. The antebellum
protectionist movement reached its apogee with the tariff of 1828, doubling
tax rates on dutiable imports to an average of 44 percent in 1829 and 48
percent the next year.

At the time, Raguet calculated that the average American worked one month a
year just to pay the tariff. To his readers, who paid no direct federal
taxes at all, nor any excise taxes, this figure was shocking. In 1830,
tax-freedom day was the first of February; today it is in June, rendering
our tax burden five times greater.

Another income transfer was affected by the vicious banking system of the
time, under which incorporated bankers, without capital, charged interest
for lending out pieces of paper and deposit credit, which cost them nothing
except the cost of printing. Some libertarians have contended that this was
the era of free banking. It was nothing of the sort. Bankers were protected
under the shield of limited liability and, during financial panics and bank
runs, by special laws authorizing the suspension of specie paymentswhen
they refused their contractual obligation to pay specie for their notes.

And their paper was accepted by the federal and state governments; whether
one was buying land, paying import duties, purchasing a bond, or buying
bank stock, for the government, bank paper was as good as gold. These
plutocratic measures thus effected a redistribution of wealth, long before
the emergence of socialism. Sumner said that the plutocrats of his own
postbellum era (manufacturers, railroad barons, national bankers, and
federal bond holders) were "simply trying to do what the generals, nobles,
and priests have done in the pastget the power of the State into their
hands, so as to bend the rights of others to their own advantage." The
plutocrats of today are still at it, even more successfully, with almost no

Myth #9: Hamilton Was Great

 Another myth is that the financial genius and economic statesmanship of
Alexander Hamilton saved the credit of the infant United States and
established the sound financial and economic foundation essential for
future growth and prosperity. Ron Chernows hagiographic biography of
Hamilton is now moving up the best seller charts, cluttering the display
tables of Borders and Barnes & Noble, and taking up time on C-Spans
Booknotes; but its greatest contribution will be to perpetuate the Hamilton
myth for another generation.

Sumners concise and devastating biography of that vainglorious puffin jay,
written over a hundred years ago, remains the best. He closely studied
Hamiltons letters and writings, including the big threehis Report on the
Public Credit (1790), Report on a National Bank (1790), and Report on
Manufactures (1791)and came to three conclusions: first, the New Yorker
had never read Smiths Wealth of Nations (1776), the most important
economic treatise written in the Anglo-American world in that period;
second, he was a mercantilist, who would have been quite at home serving in
the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole or Lord North; and third, Hamilton
believed many things that are not truethat federal bonds were a form of
capital; that a national debt was a national blessing; that the existence
of banks increased the capital of the country; that foreign trade drained a
country of its wealth, unless it resulted in a trade surplus; and that
higher taxes were a spur to industry and necessary because Americans were
lazy and enjoyed too much leisure.

The idea here was that if you taxed Americans more, they would have to work
harder to maintain their standard of living, thus increasing the gross
product of the country and providing the government with more revenue to
spend on grand projects and military adventures. Hamilton was once stoned
by a crowd of angry New York mechanics. Is it any wonder why? 

Myth #10: Agrarianism or Industrialism: We Must Choose

Historians teach that Americans in the 1790s and 1800s had two economic
choicesHamilton and the Federalists who believed in sound money, banking,
manufacturing, and economic progress, and the Jeffersonians who believed in
inflation, agrarianism, and stasis. This is a gross simplification. Not all
Federalists were Hamiltonian; many despised him. Hamilton dogmatically
believed that the United States should become a manufacturing nation like
England and that it was the duty of the federal government to bring this
about by promotional policies. Jefferson, on the other hand, oscillated
between liberalism and agrarianism. At his best, he was liberal, but for a
long time he dogmatically believed that the United States should remain an
agricultural nation, and that it was the duty of the federal government to
keep it in such a state by delaying the onset of large-scale manufacturing.

Hence, to expand trade, it should fight protectionist powers and hostile
trading blocs, acquire more agricultural land through purchase or war, and,
after obtaining the requisite amendment, fund the construction of internal
improvements to foster the movement of agricultural produce to the seaports.

Thus, Jefferson authored the Louisiana Purchase, the Tripolitan War, the
Embargo; and his chosen successor, James Madison, the War of 1812, all
designed to fulfill this agrarian vision. As president, Madison became
ever-more Hamiltonian, supporting the re-establishment of the Bank of the
United States, the raising of tariffs, conscription, and the appointment of
nationalists to the Supreme Court. He appointed Joseph Story, which is like
Ike appointing Earl Warren, or Bush appointing Souter. Meanwhile, in
retirement, Jefferson advocated manufacturing to achieve national economic

Why not Freedom?

Besides industrialism and agrarianism, there was a third positioncall it
liberalism, or laissez-fairewhich maintained that the government should
promote neither manufacturing nor agriculture, but leave both alone, to
prosper or not, expand or recede, according to the unerring guides of
profitability, utility, individual choice, and economic law. Inspired by
the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but even more those of the
French radical school of Turgot, Say, and de Tracy, whose mottos laissez
nous faire (leave the people alone) and ne trop gouverneur (do not govern
too much) captured the essence of good government.

Outstanding representatives of this liberal philosophy were the young
Daniel Webster, who made his reputation for oratory with fiery speeches on
behalf of free trade, hard money, and state rights as a New Hampshire
congressman, and the great John Randolph of Virginia, who broke with
Jefferson over the embargo and opposed the War of 1812, losing his seat as
a consequence, and Condy Raguet, the influential political economist, who
was the first American to develop a monetary theory of the business cycle,
which he did in response to the panic of 1819. Laissez-faire was the cause
of those who opposed plutocracy and supported the people. It represented
both the moral high ground and sound economic reasoning.


When he was writing his masterful History of American Currency, Sumner
grappled with the question of how North America had withstood levels of
inflation and indebtedness that would have ruined any European country. His
answer: "The future which we discount so freely honors our drafts on it.
Six months [of] restraint avails to set us right, and our credit creations,
as anticipations of future product of labor, become solidified."  

In other words, the country was so productive that the losses engendered by
these excesses were quickly made up. He went on: "We often boast of the
resources of our country, but we did not make the country. What ground is
there for boasting here? 

The question for us is: What have we made of it? No one can justly
appreciate the natural resources of this country until, by studying the
deleterious effects of bad currency and bad taxation, he has formed some
conception of how much, since the first settlers came here, has been wasted
and lost." 

The unseen again. Let us begin with geography and resources, to which
Sumner alludes. The lower 48 states are entirely in the temperate zone.
Apart from the desert states of the southwest, all receive ample rainfall.
Most of the land is fertile, and it is abundant. The country teems with
natural resources.

Then there are the people. Until very recently, the United States enjoyed a
low density of population, which meant high wages and low land prices. And
for centuries, the population has been one of the hardest working in the
world, creating an infrastructure to build on. Then there is the culture.
Largely because of the influence of Christianity, the debilitating sin of
envy has no social standing here, unlike the Third World where it is
perhaps the chief impediment to wealth-creation and development.

Also, for the same reason, there is little bribery, which also impedes
growth. Finally, there is the tradition of law, respect for private
property, tradition of profit, and contractual freedom. These
institutionsand not the fallacious ideas, corrupt institutions,   and bad
policies named aboveform the core of American prosperity.


Historian Scott Trask is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.
<mailto:hstrask at highstream.net>hstrask at highstream.net. See his
archive. Discuss this article on the <http://www.mises.org/blog>blog.
(Note: This speech was delivered before the July meeting of the St. Louis
Discussion Club, 14 July 2004.)

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