September 12, 2008
The failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, setting in motion the biggest government bailout/takeover in U.S. history, brings a grim sense of fulfillment to competent economists. After all, what did people expect, that water would flow uphill forever?
This financial mega-mess is the same sort of event as the collapse of the USSR’s centrally planned economy, another economically unworkable Rube Goldberg apparatus that was kept going, more or less badly, for decades before it fell apart completely. Along the way, of course, famous (yet actually unsound) economists assured the world that everything was working out splendidly. As late as 1989, when the pillars were crumbling on all sides of the temple, Nobel Prize winner Paul A. Samuelson informed readers of his widely used textbook, “The Soviet economy is proof that…a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.”
In the future, we will see a similar breakdown of the U.S. government’s Social Security system, with its ill-fated pension system and its even more inauspicious Medicare system of financing health care for the elderly. These government schemes are fighting a losing battle against demographic realities, the laws of economics, and the rules of arithmetic. The question is not whether they will fail, but when—and then how the government that can no longer sustain them in their previous Ponzi-scheme form will alter them to salvage what little can be salvaged with minimal damage to the government itself.
Our political economy is rife with such catastrophes in waiting, yet the public always seems startled, and outraged, when the day of reckoning can no longer be deferred, and another apartment collapses in the state’s Hotel of Impossible Promises, loading onto the taxpayers more visibly the burden of sheltering the previous occupants.
Each of these time bombs has at least one element in common: it promises current benefits, often seemingly without cost; but if it must acknowledge a substantial cost, it places that burden somewhere in the distant future, where it will be borne by somebody else. From the standpoint of society in general, every such scheme is a species of eating the seed corn. It satisfies the public’s appetite to consume something for nothing right now, with no thought for the morrow. It represents the height of irresponsibility by permitting people to live higher today than they can truly afford, financing this profligacy by borrowing recklessly and by taxing politically weak and ill-organized people in order to shower benefits on politically strong and well-organized special interests.
Call it democracy in action or utterly corrupt governance; they are the same thing.
The architecture of the Hotel of Impossible Promises is not arcane. All competent economists understand these things. Ludwig von Mises explained as early as 1920 why a centrally planned economy could not work as a rational system of allocating resources. The reasons why Social Security, especially its Medicare component, and many other such government programs contain the seeds of their own destruction have been explained time and again. Are the politicians who construct these structures really such idiots that they cannot understand the logic of what they are doing?
Not at all. But they are not striving to create economically viable institutions that serve the general public interest; they are feathering their own electoral nests in the only way they can in the context of our political institutions. As H. L. Mencken explained back in 1940, the politicians “will all promise every man, woman and child in the country whatever he, she or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable,” because they understand that “votes are collared under democracy, not by talking sense but by talking nonsense.”
And are members of the public so dense that they will fall for such promises? Yes. Moreover, they are greedy, impatient, and immoral, because the present benefits they hope to gain via politics, however unsustainable in the long run, come entirely at the expense of the taxpayers from whom the government extorts its revenues.
“Politics, under democracy,” Mencken wrote more than 80 years ago, “resolves itself into impossible alternatives. Whatever the label on the parties, or the war cries issuing from the demagogues who lead them, the practical choice is between the plutocracy on the one side and a rabble of preposterous impossibilists on the other.” And in a declaration even apter now than it was at the time, he concluded that what democracy “needs beyond everything is a party of liberty.”
The trouble is, however, that now, even more than then, the American people have little interest in liberty. Instead, they want the impossible: home ownership for those who cannot afford homes, credit for those who are not creditworthy, old-age pensions for those who have not saved, health care for those who make no attempt to keep themselves healthy, and college educations for those who lack the wit to finish high school. Moreover, they want it now, and they want somebody else to pay for it.
If you think that Fannie and Freddie’s bust is a big deal, just wait until Medicare comes crashing down. Then, the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be truly unbearable. As that day rapidly approaches, however, you’ll notice that the politicians are doing utterly nothing to forestall it.