My Run In with the Irrepressible and Dangerous Paul Krugman in London

I’ve been in Poland and England on a very successful speaking tour — all SRO crowds.  In Poland, thanks for Jan Fijor, many of my books have been translated….In London I spoke at the Adam Smith Institute on “Austrian economics for Investors” and the Institute for Economic Affairs on “Hayek vs. Keynes:  Who’s On Top?”  Needless to say, in today’s crisis mode, Keynes and Keynesian economics are clearly on top.

Speaking of which……

This evening after my wife and I went to “Top Hat,” a fantastic new musical based on Irving Berlin’s film of the same name, we ran into Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize economist and foremost advocate of “crude” Keynesian deficit spending, who is here in London on a book tour.  I asked him a series of questions: [Read more…]

Major Interview with Mark Skousen on His Life and Works in Economics, Finance and the Freedom Movement


Mark Skousen is an American economist, investment analyst, newsletter editor, college professor and author of more than 25 non-fiction books.

AR: Professor Skousen… Thank you for this opportunity to let us know a little more about yourself. Please, explain the context in which you grew up in Portland, Oregon.

Yes, I grew up in Portland, a great intellectual environment (Reed College, a hotbed of radical thinking, was nearby). It forced me to always be informed and ready to defend my beliefs in economics, politics and religion. My two older brothers, Royal and Joel, as well as my high school friends, constantly challenged me to debate and learn new things.

AR: I have read that your father was an FBI agent. Is this a key to understand why you have been interested in economics and politics since such a young age?

Primarily politics. Like my better-known uncle, W. Cleon Skousen, my father was an FBI agent and a lawyer involved in the anti-Communist movement and gave speeches through the Northwest on politics and the communist threat. We subscribed to publications such as “National Review” and “The Freeman” and attended events and anti-communist rallies.

AR: Was your father a libertarian? Did he introduce you to the Austrian tradition of ideas?

No, he was a strict social conservative, and most of his books in his library were written by William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Fred Schwartz, Phyllis Schlafly, J. Edgar Hoover, and the like. He did have a copy of Ludwig von Mises’s “Human Action” on his shelf, so I was familiar with his name, although Austrian economics did not really capture my imagination until I read Murray Rothbard’s “America’s Great Depression,” “Man, Economy and State,” and “What Has the Government Done to Our Money?”

Economics did not become a topic of focus until I took a class in the subject in my senior year in high school. It was taught so badly that I knew I could do better and suddenly I could think of little else. My interests have always been eclectic, and economics interested me intensely because it covers my other interests in mathematics, history, finance, politics and writing. My interest was so intense that I got a B. A., M. S., and Ph.D., all in economics.

AR: Some authors do not like to be called “Austrian”, “Monetarist”, “Keynesian” or “Marxist”. Are we right if we say that you are an Austrian Economist?

I used to be of the opinion that we should all be simply “good economists” as Milton Friedman and Lionel Robbins preached, and not compartmentalize ourselves into various schools. If economics is an objective science, we shouldn’t divide ourselves in various camps, or even “left“ or “right,” terms that create more heat than light. We should all be searching for the truth, no matter what the source. Nevertheless, over time I’ve come to appreciate the biases and advantages of each school. Monetarists focus on the importance of money and the competitive marketplace; Keynesians on consumption, government spending, and institutions; Marxists on labor and management relations; and Austrians on capital and the structure of production. One can learn a great deal by studying the focal points of various schools that otherwise would be missed. But of all the schools, I’ve always found Austrian school to be the most rewarding.

AR: You have been working in the Austrian tradition for a long time, writing books and articles, teaching and giving conferences everywhere. You have even organized FreedomFest. Why? What have you found in this tradition that was absent in other schools of thought?

My first introduction to economics in college was through the popular Keynesian textbook written by Paul Samuelson, and his defense of deficit spending, the welfare state, and his anti-saving mentality (“paradox of thrift”) was a turnoff, contradicting everything I had been taught as a social conservative Mormon, and so I was immediately looking for alternative models.

I was first attracted to writings of Milton Friedman, having been introduced to the Chicago school by Professor Larry Wimmer at Brigham Young University (my alma mater) in the 1960s. Wimmer got his Ph. D. under Friedman. I was especially interested in “Capitalism and Freedom.” While I found Friedman’s writings refreshing and convincing, he could not answer all my questions and doubts about Keynesian macroeconomics and the business cycle.

It was then that I discovered Murray Rothbard in the early 1970s, and was smitten by “America’s Great Depression” and his magnum opus, “Man, Economy and State.” I even read the latter on my honeymoon in 1973 (though I didn’t get far). Here were  all the answers about economic theory and policy. I was also quite taken with his booklet, “What Has the Government Done to Our Money?” It finally revealed the mystery of money. To this day, I consider Rothbard’s booklet as powerful a polemic as Marx’s and Engel’s “Communist Manifesto.”

The Austrians definitely have the upper hand when it comes to discussions of money and banking, the business cycle, the structure of production, and how the economy works. I found their macroeconomics far more sophisticated and satisfying than the standard Keynesian and Monetarist models.

However, I should add that since the Seventies, I have regained a great deal of respect for the Chicago tradition, especially their approach of looking at the data and testing various theories in micro and macro economics. Today I consider myself having one foot in the Austrian school and one foot in the Chicago school. But if I lean toward any one school, it is Austrian.

AR: You have received your Ph.D. in Economics and Monetary History from the George Washington University. How was that experience? What have you learned from mainstream economics?

It was a traditional mainstream Ph.D. program, although it did not emphasize advanced mathematics as much as other schools at the time. The professors focused more on theory, history and statistics than mathematical modeling, which I found attractive. I learned a great deal from John W. Kendrick, Arthur E. Burns, and Robert Grossfarb, among others.

They gave me plenty of leeway, and in fact, they let me chose as my dissertation “The Economics of a Pure Gold Standard,” which was heavily Rothbardian — and it sailed through with few changes. I believe I’m the only economist to write a “no compromise” Ph.D. dissertation on the 100% gold standard. At the end of my dissertation committee oral, I was asked, “You don’t really believe in a pure gold standard, do you?” Not surprisingly, Rothbard always loved my dissertation, which has been published and gone through four editions so far (published currently by the Foundation for Economic Education).

AR: And what was your contribution in that dissertation?

It was a history of economic thought about the pure gold standard, as well as a discussion of a silver standard, and its role in society. I tried to show there were strong economic arguments for gold, that monetary gold increased at a rate similar to the monetary rule and that a commodity-based system was not a burden. I was surprised to read that even Mises and Hayek rejected the economic arguments for gold, and only favored gold for political reasons. I also did a comparative study between the gold standard, a monetary rule, free banking, and the current model of central banking under fiat money, pointing out the pros and cons of each.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the search for a monetary nirvana, an ideal or perfect monetary system, remains elusive. Each monetary program has its pluses and minuses. Economists have solved so many problems, but the ideal monetary system has eluded us. On a purely theoretical level, the international gold standard is probably the best of the lot. On a practical level at this point, the best we can hope for is a monetary system that minimizes structural imbalances, and I think it must include gold in some way as a monitoring device and discipline.

AR: You have been connected with most of the great Austrian economists such as Friedrich Hayek or Murray Rothbard. Any experience you would like to share with us?

I knew both of them. I met Hayek two or three times, and was one of the last people to interview him. In 1985, Gary North and I spent three hours with Hayek at his summer home in the Austrian Alps and peppered him with questions about philosophy, history of the early Austrian school in Vienna, and economics. Much of the interview showed up in “Hayek on Hayek,” in the collected works of Hayek (without attribution, strangely enough). Hayek was in delicate health, but loved every minute of the interview.  Afterwards, his wife yelled at us for taking so much of his time. “He won’t be able to do any work for weeks! Get out!” she shouted as she shooed us out the door.

I spent more time with Rothbard in New York, and at conferences sponsored by the Mises Institute, back in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was one of those people who could talk for hours on any subject. It’s like you could never reach the depth of his knowledge.

Around 1980, I commissioned and paid him a handsome sum to write an alternative popular history to Robert Heilbroner’s “Worldly Philosophers.” Heilbroner had an unforgettable title, but his favorite economists were Marx, Keynes and Veblen. We deserved better, so I asked Murray to write the definitive history from an Austrian perspective. He was supposed to write around 12 chapters in 1-2 years, starting with Adam Smith. It turned out to be a much bigger project, a Schumpeterian tome, beginning with the Greeks. I kept encouraging him, but ultimately gave up. The running joke was “Are you to Marx yet?” Adam Smith was supposed to be the subject of chapter 1. Instead it was chapter 16. He finally got to Marx, but then suddenly died of a heart attack in 1995, and the publisher Edward Elgar published two volumes posthumously. Murray planned on writing two more volumes in his exhaustive history, but sadly never got to them.

A few years later, I decided to  write the one-volume Heilbroner alternative myself, calling it “The Making of Modern Economics” (ME Sharpe, 2001).

AR: “The Structure of Production” (New York University Press, 1990) was your first academic book, and sometimes is described as a classic of modern Austrian macroeconomics. What can the reader find in that book?

“Structure of Production” has been viewed an the underground bible of supply-side economics; a revival of Say’s law; a tool for financial analysis; and most importantly, as an Austrian advance over the standard Keynesian and monetarist Weltanschauung.

I firmly believe that during our short sojourn in life, we should concentrate on advancing and improving upon the works of others. Why spend time in an activity that others are already carrying on satisfactorily? I saw a need to improve upon Hayek’s masterful macroeconomic model found in “Prices and Production” (1931). The Austrians needed an up-to-date macro model that countered the Keynesian and Monetary models in vogue today. I thought that Hayek’s triangles were a good starting place, but they were entirely theoretical, which was one reason it didn’t catch on. In my work, “The Structure of Production” (NYU Press, 1990), I attempted to modernize Hayek’s triangles into a universal four-stage model of the economy (resources, production, distribution, and final output) that could be integrated into national income statistics and could be tested empirically.

In addition to the universal four-stage model of the economy, the book introduces a new aggregate statistic, Gross Domestic Expenditures (GDE), which attempts to measure total spending in the economy. I show that GDE can easily be integrated into textbook national income statistics such as GDP. See below for the diagram 4-stage model of the economy, and the relationship between GDE and GDP.

The current macro model is Keynesian in nature and starts with final output (GDP), which creates distortions about the economy, overemphasizing consumption at the expense of saving and investment. My “Austrian” model creates the proper balance between the “make” economy and the “use” economy. Using GDE, I discovered that consumer spending represents only about 30% of the US economy, not 70% as is commonly reported. For more detail, see my recent article:

I’ve incorporated the 4-stage model and GDE in my own textbook, “Economic Logic” (Capital Press, 2000, 2010), and hopefully it will be adopted eventually in all textbooks. But as Max Planck once said, “science progresses funeral by funeral.”

I also seek to advance the Austrian theory of the business cycle with my introduction of Aggregate Demand Vectors (ADV) and Aggregate Supply Vectors (ASV).

It took me nearly 10 years to write the book, and it’s only now getting some recognition. New York University Press recently released a paperback edition, with a new introduction (2007). I see it was recently translated into Polish.

AR: If I am not wrong, Rothbard had read that book. Did he give you any comments? What does he thinks about so many graphs?

Murray read the entire manuscript and offered numerous suggestions. I think he recognized the breakthrough nature of my work as an Austrian advance in macroeconomics. He has some doubts about my use of graphs, but ultimately endorsed the book, and it was carried for many years by the Mises Institute.

I firmly believe that if we don’t encourage graphics and statistical work in Austrian economics, we will never get accepted by the mainstream textbook community. I wrote my textbook “Economic Logic” in order to demonstrate how it could be done without sacrificing theoretical purity. I was amazed that it could be done. And yes, there are lots of graphs and statistics in my textbook.

I remember the story Larry Wimmer told me. In the 1960s he attended a FEE seminar in New York, and when he tried to draw a supply and demand curve on the blackboard, he was severely reprimanded by the hard-core Misesians. I hope we’ve gotten beyond that kind of Misesian Puritanism. (As far as I’m aware, Mises drew only one graph in all his books, one in “Socialism”).

AR: What do you think about Capital Based Macroeconomics developed in “Time and Money” by Roger W. Garrison?

Professor Garrison is a creative genius and his book offers a significant advancement in Austrian macroeconomics. He has lots of graphs! I especially like the way he integrates and contrasts the Austrian triangles with the Keynesian cross. Absolutely brilliant. I’ve used his book in my classes at Columbia University.

AR: Why do you think that most of the mainstream economists do not pay attention to the Austrian Theory of Capital and the Austrian Theory of Business Cycles?

They are still caught up in Keynes’s law (demand-side management) rather than Say’s law (supply-side management). Until the most recent financial crisis (2008), the mainstream macro models were deemed sufficient to explain the business cycle. For Keynesians, it was the deficiency in either aggregate demand (like the Great Depression) or aggregate supply (as in the case of the Stagflation of the 1970s); for the Monetarists, it was monetary disequilibrium (tight money in the Great Depression or easy money in the 1970s). Both the Keynesian and Monetary models downplayed the impact of asset bubbles because when these asset bubbles collapsed, they only had a micro effect on the economy. So for years, the Austrian model of structural imbalances was ignored.

Then along came the real estate bubble and collapse in the most recent financial crisis, and for the first time, economists had to pay attention to the macro effects of an asset bubble (real estate and mortgage securitization) that collapsed and impacted the entire monetary system. So now the profession cannot ignore asset bubbles any longer, and the Austrian theory of the business cycle can no longer be ignored. The Austrian theory is the only macro model that focuses on the structural imbalances created by below-natural interest rates and easy money, so I expect more and more economists will pay attention to it.

AR: Am I wrong if I say that even today most of the Austrian Economists still do not understand the meaning and the complexity of the structure of production?

Austrian macroeconomics is a sophisticated theory that has challenged even the best economists. Most economists desire simple, predictable models, and that’s difficult to achieve in the Austrian model with various stages of production and consumption, the structure of interest rates, and changes in savings rates, monetary policy, and technological development. I discuss a variety of scenarios using the Austrian model in “The Structure of Production” (see chapters 7-9).

I must admit I was shocked and disappointed that an Austrian economist of such stature as Walter Block would question the value of Hayek’s triangles in a recent article. It’s bad enough that Friedman and the Chicago school consider Hayek’s capital theory “obtuse and confusing,” but for Austrian economists to question it is a sad commentary on the state of Austrian economics today. Hopefully, these criticisms won’t undermine the good work that Roger Garrison and others have done to advance Hayek’s macroeconomics.

AR: Your second academic book was “Economics on Trial” (Irwin McGraw Hill, 1991). What was your contribution there? What were the lies, myths and realities?

Here again I tried to do something new, i.e., review the top ten textbooks in economics at the time, including Samuelson’s “Economics,” and categorize their sins of omission and commission. I noted how they were all pretty much Keynesian in their approach, using Aggregate Supply and Demand, perfect competition, etc. They were largely anti-saving, pro-progressive taxation, and pro-government/welfare state in their macroeconomics.

I uncovered some pretty dumb statements by textbook writers, which got some publicity, such as:

“While savings may pave the road to riches for an individual, if the nation as a whole decides to save more, the result may be a recession and poverty for all.” — William Baumol and Alan Blinder (1988)

“It is difficult to conceive of government bankruptcy when government has the power to create new money by running the printing presses!” — Campbell McConnell and Stanley Brue (1990)

“The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” — Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus (1989)

The latter statement came out right before the Berlin Wall collapsed and was especially embarrassing to the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson.

But my book isn’t entirely about sins of commission. I urged the profession to focus more on savings and economic growth (using the Asian boom as a good example) rather than the business cycle and distribution of wealth and income, and that it should look to the “next economics,” one that focuses on capital and growth — i.e., the Austrian model of Mises, Hayek, and Schumpeter. I also championed the return of Say’s law, with its emphasis on saving, investment, productivity, entrepreneurship and other aspects of the supply side as the keys to economic growth and higher living standards.

I’ve received a number of letters from readers suggesting I update “Economics on Trial.” I do think the profession has made some improvements, especially by focusing on the classical model more than the Keynesian model in the most recent textbooks (Mankiw’s textbook leads the way in this respect), but it still needs to replace the defective AS-AD in macro and the perfect competition model in micro. I’ve replaced both with better Austrian-style models in “Economic Logic,” and I encourage economists of all stripes to look at my new approach in pedagogy.

AR: Some of your books deal with the History of Economic Thought. If you have to make a list of the five most important books that have influence your own thinking on the field, what would they be?

The reason I commissioned Murray Rothbard to write a contra-Heilbroner history was out of frustration with all previous histories of thought. They were all written by either Keynesians, Marxists or socialists. One exceptional work was “The Enterprising Americans,” by John Chamberlain, an economic journalist, but it was far from complete.

In writing my on one-volume history, I benefited significantly from several recent “tell all” biographies on John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, Thorstein Veblen, Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, among others.

I also like Albert Hirschman’s “The Passions and the Interests” and Mark Blaug’s “Not Only an Economist,” and his two volume work “Great Economists Before Keynes” and “Great Economists After Keynes.” Blaug is the foremost historian of economic thought, and he has recently said some positive things about the Austrians.

Of course, I found Rothbard’s two volume history of economics useful. Another helpful textbook is Ekelund’s and Hebert’s “History of Economic Theory and Method” (1990) — a graduate level text that is comprehensive, fair and balanced.

AR: Let me jump for a moment to your “The Making of Modern Economics” (M. E. Sharpe Publishers, 2001, 2009). Let´s start with your first chapter. Is it correct to conclude that “All started with Adam” Smith? What about Cantillon or Turgot?

Obviously, there were “pre-Adamites,” as I call them. But Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” was the first real “fat” book that attempted to bring together the full body of theory and history of economic life, far more than any theoretical treatises of Cantillon, Turgot, or even Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the Spanish scholastics. In many ways, Smith’s two-volume tome was the beginning of modern political economy. As George Stigler said, “You can find it all in Adam Smith.” Well, not quite, but it was the start of something big.

AR: By the way, what do you think of Rothbard´s criticism to Adam Smith?

When I first started writing “The Making of Modern Economics” in the late 1990s, I was still quite infatuated with everything Rothbardian, including his surprising critique of Adam Smith. According to Rothbard, Smith was a plagiarist who “originated nothing that was true, and whatever he originated was wrong.” That’s quite an indictment of the Scottish philosopher celebrated by almost all free-market economists, including Rothbard’s teacher Ludwig von Mises. Mises wrote a glowing introduction to “The Wealth of Nations” edition published by Regnery, calling it a “marvelous” and “great” book that brought together “the ideology of freedom, individualism, and prosperity, with admirable logical clarity and in an impeccable literary form.”

Who was right, Rothbard or Mises? There was only one way to find out. I decided to read the entire 1,000-page “Wealth of Nations,” page by page and cover to cover, and come to my own conclusion. Two months later, I put the book down and said to myself: “Murray Rothbard is wrong and Mises is right.” Adam Smith has written a grand defense of the invisible hand and economic liberalism.

My change of heart completely transformed my history. Suddenly, “The Making of Modern Economics” had a plot, an heroic figure, and a bold storyline. Adam Smith and his system of natural liberty became the focal point from which all economists could be judged, either adding to or distracting from his system of natural liberty. After coming under attrack by socialists, Marxists and Keynesians, the invisible-hand model of Adam Smith was often left for dead but revived from time to time and revised and improved upon by the French, Austrian, British, and Chicago schools, and ultimately triumphed with the collapse of the socialist central planning model in the early 1990s (although it is again being tested by the ongoing financial crisis).

Granted, Smith made numerous mistakes in his classic work, such as his crude labor theory of value, his attack on landlords, and his failure to recognize marginal subjective values, but French, British, Austrian and Chicago economists have done a great job improving upon the House that Adam Smith Built without destroying his fundamental system of natural liberty, and his policy prescriptions, which were largely libertarian (the classical model of limited government, free trade, balanced budgets, and sound money).

I noticed that Murray Rothbard largely ignored the strong libertarian language found in “The Wealth of Nations” and overemphasized marginal statements by Smith that were pro-government or anti-market. His attack on Smith reminds me of free-market critics who take the same parenthetical statements in Smith’s writings and make him into some kind
of social democrat. Both are wrong. Mises had the right attitude when it came to Adam Smith. Smith established the “keystone” of the market economy.

By the way, “The Making of Modern Economics” has been my most successful academic book, having been translated into five languages, including most recently a fine Spanish volume published by Union Editorial through the good support of Professor Jesus Huerta de Soto. It also won the Choice Book Award for Outstanding Academic Title in 2009. Choice is the official organ of the academic libraries in the United States. It has been adopted by dozens of history of thought classes around the United States and the world. Roger Garrison uses it at Auburn, and he tells me that the students love it. I do hope your readers will check it out either the English or Spanish edition.

AR: What do you mean saying that “Marx madness plunges economics into a New Dark Age”? Can we see in the future a revival of Socialism?

That’s my famous chapter 6 in “The Making of Modern Economics.” Marxism-Leninism has done so much harm in the world that I wanted my views unmistakably clear about Marxist doctrine and policies. This chapter has been translated into many languages and has converted many Marxists around the world into free-market advocates. The latest edition has a section of “liberation theology” that has been so popular in Latin America.

AR: In “The Big Three in Economics” (M. E. Sharpe, 2007) you talk about Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Was Keynes the saver of capitalism?

During the 1930s and the Great Depression, Marxism was all the rage on campuses, threatening to undermine democracies around the world. Students, academics and government officials were searching for a more moderate alternative, and rejecting laissez faire, they discovered in Keynes a “middle of the road” alternative in big government and the welfare state. If Keynes hadn’t come along, the West might have fallen into a Marxist state. Now our challenge is to dig out of the pit that Keynes has put us into.

In “The Big Three,” I came up with the idea of the totem pole of economics, ranking economists from top to bottom, rather than the pendulum approach, where economists are linked to the left, middle and right. As Ronald Reagan once said, “There’s no left or right, only up or down.” Of the big three, I rank Adam Smith on top, Keynes below him, and Marx is low man on the totem pole. I commissioned a Florida woodcarver to create the Totem Pole of Economics, which I display in my home.

AR: Are we living today a Return of the Master?

Sadly, yes. Whenever the world faces a financial crisis or downturn in the economy, the political leaders turn to the Keynesian policies of activist deficit spending, easy money, and the welfare state. As a result, we are facing an unprecedented sea of red ink in the fiscal budgets of the West. As Mises said years ago, “We have outlived the short-run and are suffering the long-run consequences of [Keynesian] policies.”

AR: Let´s talk about “Vienna and Chicago: Friends or Foes?” (Capital Press, 2005). What do you think are the four areas where both schools dissent?

You mean dissent from each other? My book looks primarily at their major differences in methodology, monetary policy, the business cycle, and antitrust.

But they also agree on many points. Both the Austrian and Chicago schools see no value in heavy deficit spending to stimulate a typical recovery. Milton Friedman demonstrated years ago (and most recently confirmed by Harvard’s Robert Barro) that the deficit spending multiplier is close to zero. The two schools also oppose any tax increases during a recession.

One area they likely disagree is in monetary policy during a recession: Chicago economists argue that the money multiplier is significantly positive and can generate a faster recovery than doing nothing. The Austrian school is opposed to any effort to reduce interest rates below the natural rate or to artificially pump up the economy through easy money during a downturn. That can only have negative consequences down the road.

AR: The first big question is why do you think that Chicago has an advantage on methodology versus the Austrians? What about the Austrian traditional criticisms?

Chapter 4 of “Vienna and Chicago” deals with the debates over methodenstreit. Like most economists and, I might add, more and more Austrians, I reject the Misesian a priori view that theories can’t be confirmed or tested looking at historical data. One must always be cautious, but I found that one can learn a great about the value of a theory by looking at the evidence, and often studying history can reveal new theories that were previously overlooked. Stagflation is a case point. It was discovered in Austrian business cycle theory only after it appeared historically.

I reject both the “theory only” approach of the hard-core Misesians and the “history only” approach of the hard-core institutionalists. We need both theory and history to find out the truth. I’m glad to see more empirical testing of theories in the Austrian academic journals. It’s the only way Austrian economics is going to get any attention by the profession.

AR: The second big question is why do you think that Chicago has an advantage on sound money versus the Austrians? Why would a central bank system with a monetary rule be better than a free banking system?

It’s a matter of practical policy. I’m willing to give free banking a try, because I have a great deal of faith in free markets, but I doubt if the public or the legislatures are willing to take such risks. Name me a country in the world who is willing to give up central banking and adopt a free-banking regime? Even Hong Kong has a central bank or monetary authority (the Hongkong Bank). A return to the classical gold standard is also unlikely at this stage. Gold is playing a more important role, but only as a reserve asset and monitoring device. I think it’s much more likely that a central bank will adopt a monetarist rule of increasing the money supply (M2) at a steady rate than adopting free banking (no reserve requirements, giving banks the right to print their own money, etc.).

AR: What were those friendly debates you had with Professor Friedman?

Over a twenty year period, up until the time of his death (2006), I engaged in quite a few friendly fights with Milton Friedman, primarily over paper money vs. the gold standard and Austrian theory of capital and the business cycle. I keep in my wallet Milton Friedman’s torn up $20 bill as proof of one such incident in New Orleans in the late 1990s. I also challenged Friedman at a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vancouver on his cure (“print more money”) for Japan’s economic ills. I tell these stories and more in an article I wrote on the subject for “Liberty” magazine in late 2007:

AR: In the annual meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society that took place in Guatemala in 2006 I remember you gave a lecture. At the end I was allow to ask a question, and that was, “Would you accept an end to the Fed?” I thought your answer would be, Yes, but it wasn´t. Can you explain why?

I’d like to see the Fed replaced by either a computer (Friedman’s monetarist rule) or an international gold standard, or a competitive free-banking system, but it’s not likely to happen in our lifetimes. The humorist Will Rogers once said, “There have been three great inventions since the beginning of time: the fire, the wheel, and central banking.” Every developed nation has a central bank, and every developing country is adding one. Public choice economics suggests that having a monetary authority is simply too seductive and powerful to give up. Even Friedman’s simple proposal of replacing the Fed with a computer that automatically increases the money supply equal to real GDP hasn’t been adopted, because the governments want to be able to intervene at times during a crisis and inject liquidity at a faster pace than real GDP. They don’t have the faith that you and I have that capitalism will right itself and overcome these unpredictable crises. They want to maintain the power to manipulate interest rates and the supply of money and credit. They are too power hungry to give it up. They aren’t willing to accept the discipline of an international gold standard. Nor are they willing to try free banking. It’s too risky for them. So we talk all we want about what ideally we’d like to see, but it’s not likely to happen any time soon.

AR: I always remember Joseph Schumpeter starting his “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” (1942, p. 61) with a profound insight: “What counts in any attempt at social prognosis is not the Yes or No that sums up the facts and arguments which lead up to it but those facts and arguments themselves. They contain all that is scientific in the final result.” Are we wrong if we conclude that Chicago´s arguments are not scientific?

The Chicago school has definitely adopted a more pragmatic approach to economics, i.e., what works or what is predictable, as described in Friedman’s famous and controversial article on methodology. I think we need to use more logic and empirical studies to test our theories and knowledge. We can learn from both. For example, for years technical chartists used “guaranteed” formulas for making money in the stock market, but I was always skeptical of their logic. Eventually, they collapsed.

An old Wall Street saying applies to these fights between the Austrian and Chicago schools on theory and history: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king.”

AR: What about Robert Lucas, Thomas Sargent, Robert Barro and “Rational Expectations?” Why did you ignore this New Classical Economists in your history of economic thought book?

I don’t think I did ignore them. I cover them in several chapters of my book, although not in any detail. See chapters 13, 15 and 17, inter alis.

AR: In your “EconoPower” (Wiley & Sons, 2008), you explained “How a New Generation of Economists Is Transforming the World”. Can you make a summarize of your arguments for the reader?

My main argument is that economics has moved from the “dismal science” to the “imperial” science, with economists making inroads into finance (modern portfolio theory, defined contributions plans), business (economic value added, auctions), law (capital punishment), politics (public choice and forecasting elections), history (cliometrics), environmentalism, religion, and even sports. It’s a fascinating broadening of the discipline in the past generation. I’m glad to be a part of it.

AR: There are two other academic books that I would like to talk about here. The first one is “Economic Logic” (Capital Press, 2000, 2010), which includes chapters on macroeconomics and government policy. Is this a new treatise on economics? Is this book better than Mises´s “Human Action,” Rothbard´s “Man, Economy and State” or Reisman´s “Capitalism?”

“Economic Logic” is not a treatise, but a modern-day textbook. I don’t think I can improve upon Mises’s or Rothbard’s magnum opuses, although Reisman’s captivating “Capitalism” is flawed in its defense of the Ricardian cost-of-production theory of value.

I wanted to create an Austrian-style “no compromise” textbook that could be integrated into mainstream economics and be adopted by the profession generally. So it is divided into micro and macro chapters, similar to other textbooks, but there are important additions — in micro, I start with the profit-and-loss income statement and Menger’s theory of the good, which business students can relate to and an important “missing link” in microeconomics. But my textbook is not so radical that it ignores standard microeconomics. By chapter six, I introduce supply and demand, cost analysis, the factors of production (land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship), and the financial markets.

My macro chapters start with the Austrian 4-stage model of the economy, integrating GDE with GDP and other national aggregate statistics. In my money and banking chapter, I introduce the history of money and the international gold standard before I discuss monetary policy. I also include the pros and cons of Keynesian economics, so students become familiar with this defective macro model, AS-AD, etc.

“Economic Logic” also has a test bank, and we are working on a student manual, so it has everything a professor would want to teaching sound economics at a college level. It has been adopted by a half dozen institutions, including the business school at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, the free-market university in Guatemala.

AR: The second is “The Power of Economic Thinking” (Foundation for Economic Education, 2002). How has economics invaded and transformed politics, finance, history, law, religion and other social sciences?

This book is an earlier version of “EconoPower,” discussed above, a compilation of columns I wrote for “The Freeman” during the 1990s.

AR: What about your “Investing in One Lesson” (Regnery Publishing, 2007). Is that book as clear as Hazlitt lessons were on economics?

I have always been envious of Henry Hazlitt’s classic title, “Economics in One Lesson,” and wanted to create a similar title in finance if I could come up with the “one lesson.” I finally did in 2007 — the one lesson being “Wall Street exaggerates everything: The business of investing is not the same as investing in a business.” I explain why stocks are inherently more volatile than the underlining businesses they represent, and then in the rest of the book, I offer ways to minimize the risks of stock-market investment while increasing the chances of making money.

One reason Wall Street is not the same as Main Street is based on the Austrian concept of stages of production — the stock market is a capital good further removed from final consumption. I’ve written extensively on Austrian theory of finance in “The Structure of Production,” “Economics on Trial,” “Economic Logic,” and an essay for “The Elgar Companion to Austrian Economics,” edited by Peter Boettke.

AR: Can you say a word on Ayn Rand and the fifty years of “Atlas Shrugged?”

I’m both an admirer and critic of Ayn Rand and her philosophy. She articulated better than any other novelist the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset. “Atlas Shrugged” describes in wretched detail how collective “we” thinking and middle-of-the-road interventionism leads a nation down a road to serfdom. No one has written more persuasively about property rights, honest money (a gold-backed dollar), and the right of an individual to safeguard his wealth and property from the agents of coercion (“taxation is theft”).

Yet her dogmatic defense of greed and selfishness hurts her cause and has created an apologetic brand of capitalism that is still viewed negatively by the general public. John Mackey, the brilliant CEO of Whole Foods Markets, offers an improved brand of “conscious” capitalism that hopefully will convert business leaders and the general public to a more positive view of free enterprise.

I’ve written an extensive review of “Atlas Shrugged” for the “Christian Science Monitor”:

AR: What about Peter Drucker? Is he an Austrian?

Like Joseph Schumpeter, Peter Drucker grew up in Austria along with Mises and Hayek, but is considered an enfant terrible of the Austrian school. He became the world’s most celebrated management guru, and his management style was definitely Austrian, with his emphasis on economy, thrift, creative destruction, and entrepreneurship. He was critical of Keynesian economics, but was not a true believer like Mises. He thought that laissez faire capitalism was defective. But rather than endorse big government, he endorsed big business as the ideal social institution.

AR: You have been the President of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) between 2001 and 2002. How was that experience?

It was a great experience that ended too quickly. My goal was to bring back the glory days of FEE and make it a household name like Cato or Heritage. I planned a series of events, including FEE’s first national convention in Las Vegas, which attracted over 850 attendees, and a promotional campaign to increase ten fold the circulation of “The Freeman.” I also engineered the acquisition of Laissez Faire Books. Lastly, I invited America’s mayor Rudy Giuliani to speak at our annual Liberty Ball and leased the large Hilton Hotel ballroom in New York that holds more than 2000 people.

But my plans were cut short when Rudy Giuliani proved to be a controversial choice, and I wasn’t especially adept at fundraising in my first year. I guess the board wanted someone who didn’t rock the boat and spent more time quietly raising money than creating new programs and expanding old ones. Alas, I lasted only a year as president. I’ve had a successful career in marketing, but I don’t think I was cut out to be a fundraiser, and I don’t envy those who have to do it every day.

Still, it was a thrilling time, and I continue to be a supporter of FEE and other free-market think tanks, and invite them to participate in my annual show, FreedomFest, in Vegas. (FreedomFest is a for-profit event — we don’t fundraise.)

AR: If we take your more than 25 books and all your papers, and ask which is your most important contribution to economics and finance. What would you say?

I can boil down my primary goals to three, all admittedly ambitious:

First, replace Keynes’s macro model with the universal four-stage model of the economy. This my work, “The Structure of Production;” It has application to the financial markets.

Second, write an alternative one-volume history of thought to Robert Heilbroner’s “Worldly Philosophers.” This is my book “The Making of Modern Economics,” which has now gone through two editions.

And third, develop a “no compromise” college-level textbook in economics that rivals Paul Samuelson’s “Economics.” “Economic Logic” seeks to integrate Austrian economics into the mainstream textbooks.

Professor Ken Schoolland has written a paper detailing my attempt to achieve this triathlon, published by the Cobden Centre in the UK:

Of the three, #2 has been the most successful so far.

AR: Please, tell us the story behind “The Mark Skousen School of Business,” in the Grantham University.

I was surprised as much as anyone when I was told in 2005 that Grantham University, an online university with headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, was naming their business school after me. Usually you have to be a billionaire or dead to have a school named after you. They want to create a free-market brand of business, finance and management based on my free-market views, since I’ve had experience in all three fields. I have just completed a personal finance course, “Dollars and Sense,” for all the students (15,000 and growing, mainly in the US military), and will be using my “Economic Logic” textbook as the main book for their business students. I’m working closely with them to develop a new business school program for Grantham, and they have high hopes of expanding aggressively around the world.

AR: We can´t finish this interview without comments on FreedomFest.

Thanks for asking. FreedomFest has been a surprising success, rivaling my success as an investment newsletter writer (“Forecasts & Strategies,” which I’ve been writing since 1980).

For years, I thought that the freedom movement, broadly defined, needs to gather together once a year to learn, network, socialize and celebrate liberty, or what’s left of it. But we’ve always been too individualistic, too much like a herd of cats, and we need to come together more to show and feel a unity of support. So when I was president of FEE, we had our first national convention, and it was a big success with 850 attendees.

When I left FEE, I continued the idea by producing FreedomFest, “the world’s largest gathering of free minds.” We meet every July, a week after the 4th, in Las Vegas, the world’s most laissez faire city. It’s a “hot” conference, and we continue to set records every year. This year we had nearly 2400 attendees, with over 200 speakers and exhibitors. All the major think tanks and freedom organizations — Cato, Reason, Heritage, FEE, Goldwater, Adam Smith, PRI, Heartland, ISI, Eagle, etc. — come from around the world, and it’s quite an affair. Steve Forbes and John Mackey (CEO, Whole Foods Market) attend all three days every year and are now our official ambassadors.

I encourage everyone from around the world to join us:

AR: Can you conclude with some reflections or suggestions to the young students that are reading this interview?

Let me say something controversial. If you want to change the world and the economics profession, learn from the great Austrians at Hillsdale, GMU, Grove City, etc., as an undergraduate, and then apply to the top ivy-league graduate schools (Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, etc.). With your Ph.D. in hand, apply to teach at these top ivy league schools, and if you get a position, start teaching Austrian economics to the next generation of students. Don’t write academic articles for Austrian journals. Write for the top economic journals — AER, JEP, etc. That way the best and the brightest will finally know about Mises and Hayek.

One of my regrets is that I got my Ph.D. at George Washington University, a second-tier graduate program. As a result, I found it difficult to teach at the top schools. I taught two years at Columbia, but that was it.

When I wrote “The Making of Modern Economics,” I decided to have it published by a non-market publisher, M. E. Sharpe. It proved to be a good move, because it has exposed a large group of social democrats to Austrian and Chicago economics.

Back when I got started as a student in the 1960s, there were virtually no free-market textbooks, few free-market economics departments, and only a handful of treatises and publications you could read that introduced your to market principles — Friedman, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Hazlitt, and the like. Now there are hundreds of professors, books, think tanks, organizations and conferences to teach free-market principles and the heroes behind the marketplace. I encourage you at attend these seminars and become involved with the various think tanks and websites.

Be sure to check out several resources and think tanks in free-market economics. Every institution has its biases and its favorite writers, and sometimes even suppresses scholars they don’t like. It’s unfortunate but a fact of life in the freedom movement.

I invite you to visit my website at and check out my articles and books that may advance your knowledge of free-market economics and finance. I’m also starting an Austrian-oriented business undergraduate and MBA program online at Grantham University, if you are so inclined to pursue a business degree.

AR: Professor Skousen, thank you so much for your time and effort!

Un placer! It was a honor, and I wish you the best of luck in your work and your interviews. And remember, A. E. I. O. U.

A Great Opportunity For Austrian Economists at the AEA Meetings

On January 7-8, I attended the American Economic Association (AEA) meetings in Denver, Colorado.  Usually around 10,000 economists attend this annual conference.

I substituted for Tyler Cowen, who was supposed to be one of the panelists for a session entitled, “What’s Wrong (and Right) with Economics?  Implications of the Financial Crisis.” Cowen’s assigned topic was “Lessons for Libertarians.” (Tyler had a conflict and couldn’t make it.)

The other panelists were James Galbraith (son of John Kenneth Galbraith), Brad DeLong (Berkeley), and Scott Somner (Bentley University).

It was a packed audience, with maybe 300 economists and journalists in the room.

I focused on the need to replace the current macro model to incorporate Austrian economics. I said that libertarian economists consider the Keynesian and monetary models defective — Keynesian models being anti-saving and pro-deficit, and monetarists believing that the economy is “depression proof” as long as the money supply goes up (I noted that M2 rose 10% in 2008 but we still came close to a financial collapse).

I made two major points:

1.  “There’s no free lunch in fiscal or monetary policy — deficit spending and inflation have unintended consequences.”

2.  “Bad government drives out good business.”  The feds encouraged irresponsible banking practice (bad real estate lending policies) that led to the financial crisis and real estate bust in 2008.

Finally, I encouraged students, economists and textbook writers to study the Austrian school of Mises & Hayek, the Austrian theory of the business cycle, etc.

I also stressed that we could learn a great deal by studying the policies of foreign countries, such as Canada and Australia, which didn’t suffer from a financial collapse like we did.  The host, John Quiggin, an economist from Australia, appreciated this, and he spoke about the better-run Australian banking system.

I noticed that Cato and the Liberty Fund were exhibitors at the AEA meeting, and they said they got a lot of good response.  Also, at the end of my talk, I mentioned my book “The Making of Modern Economics,” and after the session a bunch of people went to the ME Sharpe Publishers booth and the book sold out quickly.

This enthusiasm for libertarian economics suggests to me that the Austrians are missing a great opportunity to introduce Austrian economics to faculty, students and journalists from around the world hungry for an alternative to establishment economics and textbooks. Marxists are always at the AEA meetings in large numbers and URPE (the Marxist organization) hosts a lot of sessions.  But virtually no Austrian economists were there giving a paper, or attending. Pity.

The next morning was a session on “Popular Economics” with Robert Shiller (Yale professor and author of “Irrational Exuberance”), Robert H. Frank (NYTimes columnist), Steve Levitt (Chicago economist and author of “Freakonomics”), and Diane Coyle (UK economist).  During the Q&A, I asked whether the panel and the econ profession were willing to take some responsibility for the irresponsible debt crises facing the US and other countries (because for decades they’ve been teaching students the Keynesian theory that deficits don’t matter or are beneficial)….and none would!

In fact, Steve Levitt said, “Economists have little or no influence on public policy.” That was pretty astonishing considering the influence the Chicago school has had on public policy.  I felt like yelling out, “What about the Chicago boys in Chile?”  I wrote an entire book, “EconoPower” about the positive influence economists have had on public policy (auctions, retirement, investments, etc.).

In liberty, AEIOU,
Mark Skousen

Dr Mark Skousen’s Five Questions for President Obama

Dr. Mark Skousen’s Five Questions for President Obama and How Free-Market Thinking Can Build a Better Future

The Daily Bell is pleased to publish an exclusive interview with the distinguished free-market scholar and economist Dr. Mark Skousen

Introduction: Dr. Skousen taught economics at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business in 2004. In 2001- 02, he was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in New York. Since 1980, Dr. Skousen has been editor in chief of Forecasts & Strategies, a popular award-winning investment newsletter published by Eagle Publishing in Washington, D.C.

Mark Skousen: He is also editor of his own website,, and editor of three trading services, Skousen Hedge Fund Trader, Skousen High Income Alert and Skousen Turnaround Trader. He earned his Ph.D. in economics and monetary history from George Washington University in 1977. Since then he has written over 20 books, including Economics on Trial (McGraw Hill, 1991), Puzzles and Paradoxes in Economics (Edward Elgar Publishers, 1997), and The Making of Modern Economics (M. E. Sharpe, 2001). Dr. Skousen is the creator and producer of Freedom Fest, an annual gathering of the freedom movement from around the world, held every July in Las Vegas ( Mark Skousen was interviewed on Board the Ship Veendam, in Port Montt, Chile. This is his second interview with the Bell. The first can be seen here.

Daily Bell: Thanks for joining us again.

Mark Skousen: Happy to be here.

Daily Bell: You wanted to interview President Obama. Here’s you chance, before we move into more general questions.

Mark Skousen: I came up with five questions. They are what I call hardball questions. If he does not answer, I will answer for him.

Daily Bell: Sounds like you may have to.

Mark Skousen: Mr. President, do you support the repeal of the invasive requirement that all business report a 1099 of all sales of goods, services or assets of $600 or more during the calendar year?

President Obama does not answer …

Mark Skousen: All right, then. You say all the time that you are pro business, pro-small business, but how could you possibly support this part. It was added on at the last minute to what is now called the ObamaCare bill. It’s another example of pushing through legislation that nobody has read. It’s going to have a terribly retardant effect on the economy.

Daily Bell: Maybe you will have more luck with number two.

Mark Skousen: Another government agency that has run amuck is the TSA. Do you support their decision to install full body scanners and full pat downs for travelers that refuse to subject themselves to nude photographs of their body?

President Obama does not answer …

Mark Skousen: Has America come to the point where the US government is officially sanctioning sexual harassment? That question has been asked in a softball way….”well what do you think President Obama, what do you think of these scanners?” You defended it by saying that this was the only way they could capture somebody like the Christmas day bomber who had a bomb in his underpants and so now we have to subject ourselves to this kind of indignity. At what point is this going to end.

Another point is the aggressive nature of the TSA. There must be something like Murphy’s Law when it comes to government agencies that inevitably they go over board and no longer fulfill their basic function. I really feel that this is a travesty of the worst kind. I am really glad to see there is a group that’s forming a kind of Tea Party protest for this decision. It is on the web called,, and I recommend that everybody go to that,

This is an egregious example of government run amuck and it reminds me of in the 80s when the Federal transportation agency, in order to encourage seat belt wearing, actually required a new device to be attached to the ignition of all new cars. You had to have your seat belt on before the car would start. Americans were so incensed by this, there were protests and they stopped buying cars and they started finding ways around the device and eventually the government backed off.

I am very hopeful that this will be the case but as Doug Casey says, American’s today are spineless, they are whipped dogs as he says and there are only a small minority of libertarians protesting this. I think it’s a sad. Apparently 80% of Americans supported full body scanners, it’s just a total invasion of privacy. Of course, I have been at the forefront of this battle all my life having written a book called; The Complete Guide to Financial Privacy in the early 80s.

It was a bestseller and sold over half a million copies, kind of an underground best seller. It wouldn’t make sense that it would make the New York Times list considering the topic is privacy but I feel this is very sad. We never lose our freedoms all at once, we lose them gradually. It’s like the frog in the warm water – we turn the heat up and eventually he croaks.

Daily Bell: Onto number three.

Mark Skousen: Given that you are deeply concerned about the high level of unemployment, would you favor elimination or at least reduction of the minimum wage law in order to boost employment among black male and teenagers in general?

President Obama does not answer …

Mark Skousen: Many economists believe there is a strong correlation between the rise in the federal minimum wage and teenage and minority unemployment rate in the United States. Are you aware that when the new minimum wage was imposed in the summer of 2009 during the first year of your administration, there was a significant increase of joblessness among teenage male blacks. Do you think there is any correlation? Can you deny it?

Daily Bell: The silence is deafening.

Mark Skousen: Was it really necessary to take 2,000 government employees on your recent trip to India and around the world costing tax payers millions of dollars? Is this appropriate at a time when there are record deficits and Americans suffering financial stress? Isn’t this an example of the Imperial Presidency?

President Obama does not answer …

Mark Skousen: This is how you get an image problem. You begin to be perceived as an imperial president, like one of these famous dictators, a Caesar type of person. What we need right now – in terms of attitude anyway – is a Jimmy Carter type. Carter may have been a failed president, but he understood something about humility. That seems totally lacking in your administration. It’s like the First Lady going on that expensive trip to Spain, going to all these ritzy places. It would be nice to see a president who maintained a low profile. It’s just a question of sending the wrong message at a time when Americans in general are struggling.

Daily Bell: Your points seem to be falling on the proverbial deaf ears.

Mark Skousen: We’ll give him another chance. Is it really necessary Mr. President to run a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit and threaten the bankruptcy of the United States and our AAA rating? Can’t you admit all this “stimulating” is ending up in bankruptcy rather than a healthy economy?

President Obama does not answer …

Mark Skousen: Since you went to the Chicago law school, certainly you were exposed to the great Chicago School of Economics and the free market economic perspectives of Milton Friedman, George Stigler and so forth. Are you aware Mr. President, that Friedman’s study of the Keynesian spending multiplier, in other words, the positive impact of federal deficit spending, is bound to have a multiplier of zero, in other words, no positive impact what so ever? The trillion or so you have spent on “stimulus” has been wasted. There are no shovel-ready projects, and if there were, they wouldn’t add net jobs.

Daily Bell: He’s ignoring you. Good to remind him about the Friedman study, though.

Mark Skousen: Last one. If Europe recovers with their low deficits and an expansionary monetary policy, will this not disprove the Keynesian model?

President Obama does not answer …

Mark Skousen: Europe is cutting back on government spending while engaged in monetary expansion. Here we will have a perfect natural test to see if the Friedman results will be reconfirmed. Of course, libertarians do not believe in managing the economy through central banking, but we are stuck with the system we have. Within the parameters of this system, monetary expansion is likely to be more effective than government spending, which just aggravates the problem. Don’t you understand that now after two years of failed economic policies?

Daily Bell: You were obviously over-optimistic in expecting responses.

Mark Skousen: (laughing). Somehow even if he were here, I don’t think we would have gotten any straight answers. But those are the questions he should be asked, among many others. Maybe one day at a town meeting, someone will get to ask them.

Daily Bell: OK, we’ve had our President Obama interview. Let’s turn the tables and ask you a few general questions. Quite a lot has happened since our last interview with you over a year ago. One of the most puzzling occurrences is the return in the US of discredited Keynesian economic policy – and with a vengeance. How did that happen?

Mark Skousen: Somehow President Obama chose the same policies that didn’t work in the 1930s and didn’t work in the 1970s. The United States has decided to spend its way out of recession and has adopted this typical Keynesian policy of running huge deficits. Europe is rejecting this sort of policy outright. Germany, and even the UK in its post-Brown recovery, are rejecting this notion and cutting back. My best example is Canada. In 1995, Canada had a fiscal crisis, runaway government spending of 53% of the economy and the Canadian dollar was collapsing. The Liberal Party of Canada, which got them into trouble in the first place, said enough is enough. There was a general consensus that Canada was moving in the wrong direction.

They fired a bunch of federal workers, and in two years eliminated the deficit, so the Canadian debt started declining. Then, even better, they had 11 straight years of surpluses. They also started cutting taxes; and they’ve had some pretty good success with their economy, even during a tough time worldwide. They still have some problems with their medical, single payer system but, overall, a supply side approach has proven successful in Canada. I would like to think that there are countries that are rejecting the standard Keynesian model. It’s hasn’t happened in the US, but I am hopeful that we will learn examples abroad.

Daily Bell: Let’s move to central banking and fiat money. Do you think we will ever return to a gold standard?

Mark Skousen: I have written a book called The Economics of a Pure Gold Standard. It was actually my dissertation of my PhD at George Washington University in 1977 and I was heavily under the influence of Murray Rothbard who favored a return to the gold standard.

Since then, I have argued that once you have gone off the gold standard it is very difficult to go back on it because it would cause a major redistribution of wealth to the gold holders who tend to be speculators and wealthier individuals. So there would be this redistribution problem that could be pretty serious, especially if gold has to go to $20,000 an ounce in order to really cover that.

I have often said the only way to return to a gold standard is with a major financial crisis, so you we are basically forced to do it. We may be headed in that direction but I think if we automatically did it that would create problems in itself. I like the idea of using gold as a tool. Supply-siders like using gold as an indicator of inflation; if we can control inflation and stabilize our inflation, the price of gold will come back down and that will be the best indicator that we can use. It is interesting that central bankers are net buyers of gold now rather than net sellers like they were. They are holding on because they know it’s the only asset that has any real value.

Daily Bell: What about the EU? Is it going to survive?

Mark Skousen: Robert Mundell, the free market economist, the father of the Euro, has made the case for its survival. I know there are a lot of skeptics out there but who wants to go back to all these individual currencies. It was madness and extremely inefficient when you moved from one country to another, losing money on every currency exchange. The euro has two great benefits: It encourages the free movement of goods and services and it increases competition. You can price everything in the euro and you can see what’s expensive and what’s not; that makes competition much more effective. You also have labour mobility you did not have before; you don’t require work permits, so you can work anywhere inside the EU.

England now has much better restaurants, as the French and Germans have moved there and brought palatable cuisine. You can move investments around as well. So I like the one currency, a United States of Europe concept if you like and from an economic point of view I think it is very good. It also, eventually, acts as a brake on these profligate governments. Yes, there are some problems with it right now but it’s basically sending a very strong message, you’ve got to get your act together because you are going to pay a heavy price. You can’t simply default; you are part of the European system so you can’t engage in these irresponsible spending, tax policies.

Daily Bell: Do you foresee a 3rd party in the United States ever?

Mark Skousen: A third party has never been effective in the United States. I think it is much smarter to work within the Democratic or the Republican Party to make change. All the laws favor the two party systems in the United States. They make it much more difficult for third parties to get on the ballot and really have any influence. Traditionally, third-parties have only been beneficial as a protest and forcing the major parties to make changes. If you go back to the Civil War era, the South was all Democratic because they hated the Republicans so much. Later on, that totally reversed itself; the electorate is fungible. Times change and so do opinions. I think Libertarians should infiltrate both political parties, not just the Republicans or the Tea Party.

Daily Bell: Do you think the US’s police and military will ever be turned against the people? In the current environment that is being suggested as a possibility.

Mark Skousen: It’s already happening. You have the FBI, a federal police force, virtually everywhere. It is just a monstrous agency and I speak for having been the son of an FBI Agent and the nephew of an FBI Agent; both my father and uncle were top FBI people. My father shot one of the top-ten most wanted men back in 1950. But that was back when the FBI had extremely limited roles to play. The FBI is involved with bank fraud and with almost everything else. You name it; it’s classic mission creep. It amazes me. It’s not just kidnapping and stuff like that.

And of course there is the army and now the army can come in whenever there is a natural disaster. The National Guard is called in as well. There’s so much power available, and the powers-that-be are increasingly showing a willingness to use it. It’s definitely something to be concerned about. Just take a look at the vast power the TSA has over travel. It’s beyond belief! The other thing I fear is the movement away from the fourth amendment of unreasonable searches. They have these roadblocks that they keep justifying. Every car that goes by, they can stop at these random checkpoints. They can literally just pull you over for no good reason. National ID cards are constantly being pushed as well. There are many examples of “real time” threats to the freedoms of American citizens these days.

Daily Bell: What about the US and China? Military issues in the future?

Mark Skousen: The Chinese are currently building up a huge military complex; I think they have 3 million troops or something. It’s a huge number; we’ll never know the exact number. But, certainly, they are increasing their technology capability and they are going to flex their muscles, much more so than North Korea or Iran. I think China is the elephant in the room as far as the military is concerned. They haven’t really gone after Taiwan, yet. It’s all saber rattling but that doesn’t mean it can’t turn into something more.

Have you ever seen the picture of how much water is surrounding the China sea and how much they consider is theirs? It’s not 200 miles – it just keeps going and going. I think there is some imperialism there. I think, in fact, it’s a very dangerous situation. The industrial sector has grown and it’s allowing them to spend more and more on their military objectives. There’s the potential for real conflict there.

Daily Bell: Strange times. What advice would you offer for the people to protect themselves financially?

Mark Skousen: I do think we should play the trends and when the market recovers we should take full advantage of that, I certainly have. In my newsletter I have taken advantage of the good times, the recovery that you see from time to time. A lot of the doomsday, gold bugs completely missed their recovery in the stock market. I like to play that because a lot of investors feel more comfortable with stocks I don’t recommend investing too much in commodities, which is a non-traditional investment area.

So my subscribers tend to be more traditional investors. What I try to do is introduce to them investing in commodities, gold and silver and so on, but only a 10% position, it’s an insurance policy against bad times, so that includes gold and silver. So I am always educating people that way. I encourage them to buy gold and silver coins and to aware of the bad news that can come down the road. But the majority of my investments are in foreign markets or in US markets and in dividend paying stocks and income producing investments and so forth.

We have had a very good track record the last few years with beating the market and doing well for them. But the tide can change and right now we are seeing a lot of problems developing. It’s funny how everybody feared that September and October which are traditionally tough months in the market and those did really well and now we are heading into December and now seeing all kinds of problems surface – the Irish debt situation, China raising interest rates, the North Koreans fighting the South Koreans; there’s a lot of geo-political events which are keeping the markets from going higher, despite the Federal Reserve’s efforts to inject all this liquidity.

So, I have always believed in that old biblical refrain: know the signs of the times. I’ve tried to follow that advice in my newsletter called “Forecasts and Strategies.” My philosophy basically is that problems come and go, but I have always been more of an optimist rather than not. There is an old saying on Wall Street: “bears make headlines and bulls make money.” The majority of time Americans are problem solvers; the sun eventually comes out again. Traditional bond and stock markets perform better. It would be sad commentary if we didn’t have that kind of situation. It would be like being a millionaire on a sinking ship. Who wants to be a millionaire on the Titanic? So, I am optimistic that we will get new leadership, reasonable policies and sound economics. It has happened in the past, as I mentioned. Canada is the most recent example and I would hope that it can happen again.

Daily Bell: That sounds like your book Econopower, do you want to talk about it?

Mark Skousen: Yes, the Korean edition. They paid me $100,000 in advance for Econopower. That book was about solving problems. Whatever problems are out there, economists can add to the solution. The South Koreans are very strong on economics and how to use them to their advantage. I have a chapter in the back that Robert Shiller of Yale University really liked and it’s called “Is US Economy Depression Proof?” I wrote this right before the financial crisis of 2008, in which I argued that it’s not depression proof and that we are vulnerable. We have a monetary system that is broken and it’s not really a good one and it needs to be fixed. Sure enough we had a financial crisis and the whole system came close to collapsing. The only thing that kept it from total collapse was massive government intervention again. The establishment had always argued that we were depression proof; that the system was the best of all worlds. Doesn’t seem to be the case, obviously.

Daily Bell: What else have you written lately?

Mark Skousen: I’ve written a textbook called Economic Logic. It’s always my hope that the US will get leaders with an understanding of real economics. President Obama needs a course on free market economics. Economic Logic takes a logical approach; it mixes business with economics. It starts with an income statement, a profit and loss statement, and then develops into supply and demand analysis.

I use the best of Austrian and Chicago economics and now it’s being used in a number of colleges and universities around the country. It’s encouraging. You will not change the politicians until you educate the people who elect them. It’s kind of my anti-Samuelson textbook. Samuelson was this Keynesian economist at MIT, who at the end of WWII wrote his economic text book that introduced Keynesian economics and this anti-savings mentality – this pro big government, welfare state, pro-progressive taxation kind of zeitgeist from which we still suffer. So we need a new textbook for the 21st century to reverse that trend and get us back to sound economics. The reality is free-market economics is not taught to children or even to older students. We need to start somewhere.

Daily Bell: What is out there for students who want to get a general idea about economics besides college text books?

Mark Skousen: There is a website run by Steve Marriotti called Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). They teach entrepreneurship and how to create your own businesses and business models. They have a text book that’s geared toward minorities. It’s a great program. I am hoping this can be another area where we can spread the word to students.

Daily Bell: Closing words?

Mark Skousen: Do not despair. Do not think that our current mess is irreversible, that our economy is headed for total destruction, which is a constant message from gold bugs and doomsayers. I am trying to counter that view and I am trying to do something through education. As you know, we have created FreedomFest and it’s not my conference alone, though I created it. It’s the “movement’s” conference. You bring together all the best and the brightest in Las Vegas, the world’s greatest libertarian city. We have this great celebration and learn from each other; we celebrate liberty; we warn each other about the dangers to liberty and we do business and make deals and walk away and say WOW, we can make a difference. So, come on down! It’s an open forum. We like new people and new speakers. We have Steve Forbes (Forbes Magazine) and John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods) who both work tirelessly to spread the word. It’s a great opportunity to meet and greet and there are others out there who feel the same. So, go to and learn more. Hope to see you there.

Daily Bell: On that note, now would be an appropriate time to announce our first conference, scheduled for the last weekend in April in the Appenzell region of Switzerland. The conference is the being hosted by The Foundation for the Advancement of Free-Market Thinking and has several Platinum level sponsors, of which Appenzeller Business Press AG (publisher of the Daily Bell) is one. It will be a great European-based opportunity to provide similar opportunities for like-minded folks to gather with a view to seeking private solutions to the more egregious public problems facing us all. To date, several top thinkers have committed to speaking and we would like to include you in that group. Can we count on your support with our conference efforts and would you travel to Switzerland to share your views at the event?

Mark Skousen: I would be pleased to support your efforts and you can pencil me in to speak at your conference. Thank you for considering me.

Daily Bell: Thank you Mark, it has been a pleasure as always and we look forward to seeing you in April.

Mark Skousen: Thanks, same here.

Consumer Spending Doesn’t Drive the Economy, Investment Does

The Freeman
Foundation for Economic Education
May 17, 2010

“Consumer spending makes up more than 70 percent of the economy, and it usually drives growth during economic recoveries.” –“Consumers Give Boost to Economy,”  New York Times, May 1

Every quarter, when the government releases its latest GDP figures, we hear the familiar refrain:

“What the consumer does is vital for economic growth.”

“If the consumer starts saving and stops spending, we’re in big trouble.”

“Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the economy.”

The latter “fact” is repeated regularly in the news reports from the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.

The truth is that consumer spending does not account for 70 percent of economic activity and is not the mainstay of the U. S. economy.   Investment is!   Business spending on capital goods, new technology, entrepreneurship, and productivity are more significant than consumer spending in sustaining the  economy and a higher standard of living.  In the business cycle, production and investment lead the economy into and out of a recession; retail demand is the most stable component of economic activity.

Granted, personal consumption expenditures represent 70 percent of gross domestic product, but journalists should know from Econ 101 that GDP only measures the value of final output.  It deliberately leaves out a big chunk of the economy — intermediate production or goods-in-process at the commodity, manufacturing, and wholesale stages — to avoid double counting.  I calculated total spending (sales or receipts) in the economy at all stages to be more than double GDP (using gross business receipts compiled annually by the IRS).  By this measure — which I have dubbed gross domestic expenditures, or GDE — consumption represents only about 30 percent of the economy, while business investment (including intermediate output) represents over 50 percent.

Thus the truth is just the opposite:  Consumer spending is the effect, not the cause, of a productive healthy economy.

The Importance of Say’s Law

This truth prevails in the marketplace:  It’s supply — not demand — that drives the economy.  Savings, productivity, and technological advances are the keys to economic growth.  This principle was discovered and developed by the brilliant French economist Jean-Baptiste Say in the early nineteenth century and is known as Say’s law.  In fact, he invented the word “entrepreneur” to describe the primary catalyst of economic performance.

Is retail sales a leading economic indicator?  Each month the Conference Board releases its Leading Economic Indicators for the United States and nine other countries.  The ten U.S. leading indicators are:

  • manufacturers’ new orders
  • building permits
  • unemployment claims
  • average weekly manufacturing hours
  • real money supply
  • stock prices
  • the yield curve
  • new orders for nondefense capital goods
  • vender performance
  • index of consumer expectations

As you can see, almost all of the indicators are linked to the early stages of production and business activity.

Misleading Consumer Confidence Index

What about the Consumer Confidence Index that the media highlights every month?  It turns out that the title is misleading.  The questions asked consumers are more about business conditions than spending attitudes.  Here are the questions consumers are asked to determine their “expectations”:

  1. Are current business conditions good, bad, or normal?
  2. Do you expect business conditions to be good, bad, or normal over the next six months?
  3. Are jobs currently plentiful, not so plentiful, or hard to get?
  4. Do you expect jobs to be more plentiful, not so plentiful, or hard to get over the next six months?
  5. Do you plan to buy a new/used automobile/home/major appliance [note: these are all durable consumer goods, not unlike durable capital goods] within the next six months?
  6. Are you planning a U.S. or foreign vacation within the next six months?

In other words, the much-touted “consumer” confidence index is more a forecast by consumers for business, employment, and durable goods than “retail sales” and consumer spending.  It does not ask any questions about food, clothing, entertainment, and other short-term buying, because these expenditures seldom change from month to month.

The reality is that business and investment spending are the true leading indicators of the economy and the stock market.  If you want to know where the stock market is headed, forget about consumer spending and retail sales figures.  Look to manufacturing, capital expenditures, corporate profits, and productivity gains.

Beware of Keynes’s Law

The reason we hear so much about the consumer is because the media and political pundits still live under the spell of Keynesian economics, which teaches that demand creates supply.  Keynes’s law is just the opposite of Say’s law (supply creates demand).  According to Keynesians, consumer spending drives the economy and saving is bad when the economy is in a short-term contraction.

In reality, increased savings can actually stimulate the economy, even if consumer spending is anemic.  A recent study by the St. Louis Fed concluded that in the short run, “a higher saving rate in the current quarter is associated with faster (not slower) economic growth in the current and next few quarters” (Daniel L. Thornton, “Personal Saving and Economic Growth,” Economic Synopses, St. Louis Fed, December 17, 2009).

How is this possible?  When people save more, interest rates fall and business can afford to replace their old equipment with new tools, spend more on research and development, or develop new production processes.  So while consumer spending may stay low, business spending can pick up the slack.  Remember, in a dynamic economy the decision by businesses to spend more investment funds and hire more workers is a function of both current consumer demand and future consumer demand.  And don’t forget, during a recession corporate profits often recover first, without an increase in customer demand, because companies can boost profits by cutting costs and downsizing.

In the long run new business strategies and spending patterns increase productivity and lower prices to consumers, which in turns means the consumers’ purchasing power increases.  As the St. Louis Fed concludes, “A higher saving rate does mean less consumption [in the short run], but it could also result in more capital investment and, ultimately, a higher rate of economic growth….  [T]he growth rate of real GDP has been higher on average when the personal saving rate is rising than when it is falling.”

Granted, the ultimate function of business activity and entrepreneurship is to fulfill the needs of consumers, and the most successful firms are those that satisfy their customers.  But more important, who discovers the new, improved products that consumers desire?  Who is the catalyst that determines the quantity, quality, and variety of goods and services?  Did the consumer come up with the idea of personal computers, SUVs, fax machines, cell phones, the Internet, and the iPhone?  No, these technological breakthroughs came from the genius of creative entrepreneurs and the savers/capitalists who funded their inventions.

Brother, Can You Spare a Decade?

Perspective – Liberty Magazine – May 2009

Brother, Can You Spare a Decade?
by Mark Skousen

Few things other than a New Deal can be more painful than an economic depression. But few eras were more vital and enjoyable than the private side of the last one.

One of the rare books in my financial library is “I Like the Depression,” by Henry Ansley, the “Jackass of the Plains.” This amusing little volume was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1932, and the price was a buck fifty.

Ansley, a newspaperman from Amarillo, Texas, described a prosperity in the 1920s that wasn’t that great. He burned candles at both ends, became a financial hotshot, and ultimately overextended himself. Then the depression hit: “Good-by twin beds, frozen salads, indigestion, credit and swelled head. Hail to the old-fashioned nightgown, buttermilk, sow bosom [a kind of food], comfort and cash.” He lost his job but found happiness by rediscovering leisure, friends, and neighborliness. Hard times taught him the value of a dollar and not to take things for granted: “My dog is my pal again; my wife my lover and my Dad my advisor.”

Ansley’s book was never a bestseller, but it started me thinking. Can the worst of times also be the best of times? The history books are replete with the evils of the 1930s — soup lines, bank closings, Hoovervilles, dustbowls, bear markets, demoralizing despair. It’s all been retold countless times, in such books as Milton Meltzer’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and most recently Amity Shlaes’s “The Forgotten Man.” The Great Depression brought us Nazi Germany, the New Deal, Keynesianism, and, some say, World War II.

Not surprisingly, everyone from Wall Street to the halls of Congress is worried that the current recession will turn into the dreaded D, and has seized on desperate rescue measures. But was the Great Depression all bad? Did anything good come out of the 1930s? I started doing some research and was amazed to find a bright side to the gloomy ’30s — a lower cost of living, great new inventions and other technological advances, new forms of entertainment, more sports and reading, and a return to sober social behavior.

Start with leisure. Henry Ansley describes the free time he had during the depression. Indeed, millions of Americans had a lot more leisure time. Before the depression, almost everyone worked a six-day week. In the 1930s, the five-day work week became commonplace. “Spread the work!” was the rally cry. By 1937, wage earners in 57% of all manufacturing companies enjoyed a five-day week. Saturday was now a free day, and the Saturday rush hour was replaced by the Friday rush hour.

As a result, there was a tremendous increase in sports and leisure-oriented jobs. People began getting out into the sun and open air and taking a greater interest in golf, tennis, skiing, roller skating, and bicycling. Softball became a national pastime; by 1939, there were nearly half a million teams and 5 million players of all ages throughout the country. Expensive private club golf courses withered, but inexpensive public courses grew. Miniature golf was all the rage in the early ’30s. Bobby Jones became the first and only person to win the Grand Slam of golf in 1930. And black athletes became national idols for the first time, Joe Louis in boxing and Jesse Owens in track and field.

Americans traveled more. House trailers became a very big business. Camping, canoeing, and other inexpensive outdoor activities increased in popularity. People took their cameras with them, and photography became a craze of remarkable dimensions. Americans took tons of pictures with their small German cameras. Life and Look — big, glossy picture magazines — became popular.

Dancing, all the rage in the ’20s, continued to rage in the ’30s. Americans would dance their way out of the depression! Young people everywhere danced the swing, the jitterbug, and the boogie woogie to the music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Louie Armstrong.

Indoors, parlor games such as bridge and the ingenious “Monopoly” were popular. People read more, and circulation at local public libraries increased. Kids loved comic books, especially “Superman,” the world’s first comic book superhero. Books “condensed” by Reader’s Digest saved time and money. There was an intense interest in epic novels — Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” A.J. Cronin’s “The Citadel,” Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” — as well as such how-to books as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” (1937, with 17 printings right away).

In the same year, Lin Yutang, the Chinese-American Taoist, published “The Importance of Living,” which was to become especially popular among libertarians. It encouraged Americans to stop worrying and start “letting go.” One chapter was entitled “The Art of Loafing.” “I am quite sure,” Lin wrote, “that amidst the hustle and bustle of American life, there is a great deal of wistfulness, of the divine desire to lie on a plot of grass under tall beautiful trees of an idle afternoon and just do nothing.” Whether fortunately or unfortunately, in their own opinion, millions of Americans got to live Lin’s upbeat message of idleness.

New Entertainments

Idleness — and its companion, entertainment. People wanted to forget their troubles, and radio and motion pictures provided an escape. Radio really came of age during this period, with up to 80 million listeners on some evenings. There was a lot more to radio than FDR’s fireside chats. It was the way to hear worldwide news bulletins, good music, and such half-hour comedies as “Amos ’n’ Andy,” the first syndicated program, and “The Jack Benny Show.” In the late 1930s, NBC was carrying broadcasts of symphony orchestras, especially its own orchestra, conducted by the immortal Arturo Toscanini, to 10 million listeners every week. And who can forget the night of Sunday, October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles broadcast his version of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds”?

Hollywood blossomed during the ’30s. In one decade, the motion picture industry went from silent films to talkies in Technicolor. Films brought the American public together as never before. Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, and Clark Gable were welcome alternatives to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and other demagogues of the era. Many considered Shirley Temple a gift from God during the gloomy de-pression. The motion picture event of 1938 was the first full-length animated cartoon, Walt Disney’s “Snow White.” The same year saw one of the first films in Technicolor, the blockbuster “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring Errol Flynn. A burst of classic award-winning films came out the next year, including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and the greatest of all epic films, “Gone With the Wind.”

The ’30s was the era of the first great horror films, “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “King Kong.” For a dime, Americans could go to the Saturday matinee and see double features of cowboys, adventurers, and gangsters. The silver screen brought us science fiction, serial thrillers and the Singing Cowboy (Gene Autry). The theater was filled with humor — Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges. Americans would laugh their way out of the depres-sion! There were reasons why Chicago economist Robert Lucas, Jr., called the 1930s “one long vacation.”

New Technology

Alvin Hansen and other Keynesian economists developed their “stagnation thesis” in the late 1930s, arguing that the United States was indefinitely stuck in an economic rut. They claimed that there was no new technology, no new frontier to drive the American economy. They ignored the tremendous economic progress that took place throughout the depression — the invention of plastics, artificial fibers, plywood, the 2-cycle diesel engine, and lighter, tougher steels.

Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll invented the electron microscope in 1932. Howard Armstrong created FM radio in 1933. Wallace Carothers manufactured nylon, and Robert A. Watson-Watt discovered radar in 1935. Hans Pabst von Ohain developed the jet engine in 1937 and the first jet airplane in 1939. Chester Carlson originated xerography in 1938. Igor Sikorsky made the first practical helicopter in 1939. Several people, including Philo T. Farnsworth and Isaac Shoenberg, developed television in the 1930s. CBS and NBC began broadcasting TV during this decade.

Manufacturers weren’t idle in getting new technology to market. New household products included electric mixers, pop-up toasters, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and irons. For the first time, consumers enjoyed sliced bread and packaged frozen foods. Union Pacific came out with fancy new streamlined, air-conditioned trains. Mass-market automobiles could now accelerate to 60 mph, carrying passengers along new highways with underpasses and cloverleafs. The dirigible, a new form of air transportation, appeared in 1936 (but disappeared with the fiery destruction of the Hindenberg a year later). The Douglas DC3 came out in 1936, traveling at 200 mph, compared to the 1932 passenger airplane speed of 110 mph. Coast-to-coast travel in overnight air sleepers was now possible. New ocean liners, such as the Queen Mary, appeared in a crowded New York harbor. Everyone came to witness the building of the 102-story Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center (the only skyscraper group to rise in the 1930s). And who could not marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge, opened to traffic on May 28, 1937?

Social historian Frederick Lewis Allen, author of “Only Yesterday” (1931), a bestselling history of the 1920s, summed it up best when he wrote in a sequel, “Since Yesterday” (1940), “the American imagination was beginning to break loose again.” At the end of the decade, the New York World’s Fair had as its theme “The World of Tomorrow.”

Society and Economics

The depression brought about a change in American social trends. People attended church more. Many retreated from the sexual revolution of the roaring ’20s. The mood was more somber and prudent, even after Prohibition was repealed in December 1933. (By the end of the decade, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded.) There was greater approval of marriage and family life. The divorce rate dropped sharply, by 23% from 1929 to 1932, though so did the marriage rate and the birth rate — possibly because marriage and children cost money.

Not all economic news was bad. The most favorable statistic was the decline in the cost of living. During the period 1929–32, retail prices dropped by an average 24%, wholesale prices by 31%, farm prices by 51%, and raw commodity prices by 42%. Of course, wages, salaries, dividends, and other forms of income declined as well, but for those who kept their jobs and held onto their assets, the loss of nominal income was offset by sharply lower prices for all consumer products. “Everything was all right in those years,” said a woman quoted in Amity Shlaes’ book, “but only if you had a job.”

Unemployment reached 25% and higher in some regions at the depths of the depression, causing enormous hardship for millions of Americans. But see it in another light: three out of every four people were employed in the worst parts of the depression. Total employment rose after 1932, reaching 90% by the end of the decade. In a sense, the Democrats were right: happy days were here again!

Businesses adjusted to the new deflation by downsizing, cutting costs, and implementing labor-saving devices. Even the farming industry mechanized. By 1936, despite persistent unemployment, real national output had nearly recovered to pre-depression levels. Auto sales exceeded all previous years except 1928–29. The steel industry was operating at close to capacity. Even the building industry was climbing briskly. Miami was having its best season since the collapse of the Florida land boom. The race tracks were crowded, lavish debutante parties flourished in the big cities, and the night clubs were full.

For bulls and bears alike, the 1930s was the most fantastic period in stock market history. Stock prices collapsed between 1929 and 1932, losing an average 88%, but industrial, rail, and utility stocks all shot up from their lows in the summer of 1932, anticipating the end of hard times. Few bull markets have ever equaled the rocket performance of the summer of 1932, when the rails tripled within eight weeks and the utility averages doubled. Wall Street went on a rampage for the next four years. The Dow rose 67% in 1933, 4% in 1934, 38% in 1935, and 25% in 1936. After a sharp 32% correction in 1937, the market re-sumed its upward trend until war broke out in Europe in September, 1939. There were also plenty of speculative opportunities on the long side of gold and other natural resource stocks during the ’30s. In sum, the bulls, not just the bears, had plenty of chances to make money in the 1930s.

There’s an old saying, “It is the irritation in the oyster that forms the pearl.” The Great Depression was an irritation that most people didn’t expect. A few people couldn’t take the hard times and jumped out of windows, but most responded to the challenge. Adversity often demonstrates the virtue and creativity of humankind. Bad news often creates good news and opportunities to learn and advance. The 1930s were no exception.

Mark Skousen is the author of Economic Logic, now available in its second edition.

The Necessary Evil

Suggestion – Liberty Magazine
The Necessary Evil
by Mark Skousen

Today libertarians spend most of their time lamenting the consequences of big government. And rightly so. Today government is less a defender of freedom and more a Hobbesian leviathan that undermines prosperity. When we do talk about limited government, it is often seen solely as “a necessary evil.”1 Too much government and the economy chokes. Too little, and it cannot function. Is there a Golden Mean?

George Washington best summarized the libertarian view: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”2 So it is with some trepidation that I suggest that societies or countries may not have enough good or legitimate government. In the never-ending battle against big government, it might be well to consider what constitutes “good government” to see how far we have strayed from the proper role of the state.

Each year the Fraser Institute publishes their Economic Freedom of the World Index (see, which measures five major areas of government activity in more than 100 countries: size of government, legal structure, sound money, trade, and regulation. The most surprising thing about the study, according to its author James Gwartney, a professor of economics at Florida State University, is the importance of legal structure as the key to maximum performance for an economy. “It turns out,” he told me in a recent interview, “that the legal system — the rule of law, security of property rights, an independent judiciary, and an impartial court system — is the most important function of government, and the central element of both economic freedom and a civil society, and is far more statistically significant than the other variables.”

Gwartney pointed to a number of countries that lack a decent legal system, and as a result suffer from corruption,insecure property rights, poorly enforced contracts, and inconsistent regulatory environments, particularly in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. “The enormous benefits of the market network — gains from trade, specialization, expansion of the market, and mass production techniques — cannot be achieved without a sound legal system.” 3

The Proper Role of the State

Milton Friedman identifies the legitimate roles of the state: “The scope of government must be limited. Its major function must be to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow- citizens: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets. Beyond this major function, government may enable us at times to accomplish jointly what we would find it more difficult or expensive to accomplish severally.” 4

Adam Smith suggests that this “system of natural liberty” will lead to a free and prosperous society. As Smith declares, “Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest level of barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”5

The division between the positive and negative role of government can be represented visually. In the diagram on the next page, we have on the vertical axis “socio-economic well-being”: some general measure of the quality of life in a free and civil society. For empirical studies, economists might want to use changes in real per capita income, but this may be too confining. On the horizontal axis we have “government activity.” At point O, we have zero government, and as we move along the horizontal axis, the size and scope of government activity increase. The ultimate extreme is the totalitarian regime, which institutes “total government,” though I would hesitate to label this “100% government,” since no government can control all activity.

Too Little vs. Too Much Government

My thesis is that as a society moves from zero government to point P, economic well-being increases to peak performance. Then, as it adopts a larger and less necessary government, its growth diminishes, and can even turn negative if government becomes too burdensome and controlling. Looking at the left side of the mountain, point O (zero government) to P (optimal government) constitutes “too little” government. For example, a nation may spend too few of its resources on personal protection, property control, and government administration. Here we see how increasing the size and scope of government activity initially leads to increased well-being, as measured by individual freedom and prosperity. Point P represents the right amount of government and the optimal amount of expenditure necessary to fulfill its legitimate functions.

This is the ideal of the minimalist state. Any point to the right of P represents too much government, when the central authority becomes a burden rather than a blessing. I’ve drawn it as a gradual downward slope, so that the more bad government a country adopts, the greater the decline in performance, even to the point X where government is so large and so intrusive that it results in the destruction of economic and social well-being, which is probably worse than the costs of anarchy.

Quantifying the Right Amount of Government

Can we quantify P, the optimal size of government? Several economists have attempted to determine the ideal level of government spending as a percentage of GDP. In the1940s, Australian economist Colin Clark said that the maximum size of government should not exceed 25% of GDP. Anything higher would hurt economic growth.6 Professor Gerald W. Scully, of the University of Texas at Dallas suggests that the tax rate ought not to exceed 23%.7 World Bank economists Vito Tanzi and Ludger Schuknecht analyzed 17 countries during the period 1870 to 1990 and concluded that public spending in newly industrialized countries should not exceed 20% and in industrialized countries not more than 30%.8 Is optimal government (point P) the same for every country?

This would make an interesting study, but I suspect that differences in culture and socio-economic circumstances suggest that some nations require more government than others. As Benjamin Franklin states, “A virtuous and laborious [industrious] people may be cheaply governed.”9 And a lazy, dishonest people must be expensively governed.


Optimistically, I would think that if all nations were featured together on the diagram above, the various points P would constitute a fairly narrow mountain range. Almost every country in the world today is to the right of Point P, and could grow faster and enjoy a higher quality of life by reducing the size and scope of government. Countries from China to Ireland to Chile have demonstrated how dramatically the economy can improve by cutting back the state. I’m sure even Hong Kong, #1 in the Fraser Institute’s study in terms of performance and freedom, could benefit from some improvements by scaling back some types of government services.

According to the latest surveys of economic freedom by the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation, countries on average are becoming more free, and not surprisingly, the world’s economic growth rate is rising.10 After noting that government represents 40–50% of GDP in most developed nations, Tanzi and Schuknecht conclude, “we have argued that most of the important social and economic gains can be achieved with a drastically lower level of public spending than what prevails today.”11

Two Case Studies in Little or No Government

Are there any examples of countries to the left of point P, that have too little government? The United States suffered from too little government under the Articles of Confederation, which was the basic law of the land from its adoption in 1781 until 1789, when they were replaced by the Constitution. The Articles limited the federal government to conducting foreign affairs, making treaties, declaring war, maintaining an army and navy, coining money, and establishing post offices. But it could not collect taxes, it had no control over foreign or interstate commerce, it could not force states to comply with its laws, and it was unable to payoff the massive debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. States were already putting up trade barriers, striking a serious blow to free trade, and the economy struggled. After the Constitution became law, the United States flourished because of improved government finances, protection of legal rights, and free trade among the 13 states.

A modern-day example of too little government is Somalia, located east of Ethiopia and Kenya, where life has been difficult and often dangerous without any central authority since 1991. For example, drivers pass seven checkpoints, each run by a different militia, on their way to the capital. At each of these “border crossings” all vehicles must pay an “entry fee” ranging from $3 to $300, depending on the value of goods being transported. Competing warlords vie for control of the countryside, which has frequently collapsed into civil war. Only an estimated 15% of children go to school, compared to 75% in neighboring states. However, a recent report by the World Bank indicates that an innovative private sector is flourishing in Somalia. This vindicates the Coase theorem, named for economist Ronald Coase, which argues that in the absence of government authority, the private sector will step in to provide alternative services, depending on the transaction costs.12 The central market in Bakara is thriving: all kinds of consumer goods, from bananas to AK-47s, are readily sold; mobile phones proliferate and internet cafes prosper. But with no public spending, the roads and utilities are deteriorating. Private companies have yet to appear to build roads — the transaction costs are apparently too prohibitive. Public water is limited to urban areas, and is not considered safe, but a private system extends to all parts of the country as entrepreneurs have built cement catchments, drilled private boreholes, or shipped water from public systems in the city.

There are now 15 airline companies providing service to six international destinations, and airplane safety can be checked at foreign airports. After the public court system collapsed, disputes have been settled at the clan level by traditional systems run by elders, with the clan collecting damages. But there is still no contract law, company law, or commercial law in Somalia. Sharp inflation in 1994–96 and 2000–01 destroyed confidence in the three local currencies, and the U.S. dollar is now commonly used. Because of a lack of reliable data, neither the Fraser Institute nor the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom indexes rank Somalia. The World Bank concludes, “The achievements of the Somali private sector form a surprisingly long list. Where the private sector has failed — the list is long here too — there is a clear role for government intervention. But most such interventions appear to be failing. Government schools are of lower quality than private schools. Subsidized power isbeing supplied not to the rural areas that need it but to urban areas, hurting a well-functioning private industry. Road tolls are not spent on roads. Judges seem more interested in grabbing power than in developing laws and courts. Conclusion: A more productive role for government would be to build on the strengths of the private sector.”13

In short, most countries could use less government, but a few countries could use more of the right kind of authority. There is an optimal size and structure of government, and when it is reached, the result is, in the words of Adam Smith, “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”14

The World Map of Economic Freedom

Personal Snapshots
Forecasts & Strategies
June 2002

“Economic repression breeds intolerance, fanaticism and terrorism.”

— Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Heritage Foundation

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this unusual map of the world. “The World Map of Economic Freedom” was published by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. This incredible map—reproduced in full in the May issue of Ideas on Liberty—predicted in living color a war between America and the Middle East, and reveals in unmistakable clarity why Islamic extremists attacked New York and Washington.

Since September 11, we’ve heard all kinds of reasons why the terrorists struck America—in retaliation for the United States’ supporting Israel, for America’s meddling in the Middle East, Arab’s envy of America’s superpower status and their hatred of America’s lifestyle. This map gives the real reason.

World Economic Freedom Map from the Fraser Institute

World Economic Freedom Map from the Fraser Institute

In this “world map of economic freedom,” each nation is ranked according to its degree of economic freedom, based on 10 factors, such as level of taxation, trade restrictions, labor regulations, inflation, property rights and government intervention in the economy. Countries in blue, like the United States and Britain, are ranked “free.” Countries in green, like Canada and France, are considered “mostly free.” Nations in yellow, like Russia and Brazil, are labeled “mostly unfree.” Finally, nations in red are ranked “repressed.”

This world map is an eye-opener. It shows that few nations are truly free. Countries colored in blue include the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Clearly, freedom is a delicate and rare flower. Canada and Europe are “mostly free.” Third World nations are “mostly unfree.” Countries painted yellow include Russia, China, India, Brazil and most of Africa. In fact, of the 155 nations surveyed, over half (81) received a negative grade (yellow or red).

The Biggest Shock: Where Is the Red?

But the most shocking fact is that almost all of the red nations are located in the Middle East. It is clearly the area of the world with the highest concentration of “repressed” freedom. This area of the world has been crippled from constant war, corruption, inflation, black markets, protectionism and government intervention on a grand scale. Most of the Arab world continues to suffer from economic dislocation, political turmoil and military conflict. It is not surprising that for most Arabs the standard of living is low, despite an abundance of oil.

The Most Important Lesson in the War on Terrorism

What is the most important lesson we can learn from this map? Simply this: Economic repression leads to intolerance, fanaticism and terrorism. It is not surprising that the Middle East is a major source of radicalism and chaos. A closed society breeds intolerance and fanaticism. Interestingly, most of the Middle East is also famous for its lack of political democracy and religious tolerance. Most are ruled by dictators or kings. Religious proselyting is prohibited in Arab nations and even in Israel.

But there is another important lesson to learn from this map. Liberalized trade and open markets break down cultural and social monotheism, and destroy fanaticism and intolerance. Business encourages people to become educated, industrious and self-disciplined. Commerce encourages trade, travel and exchange between nations and cultures.

What then is the real solution to the War on Terrorism? Sending troops and fighting war in faraway lands may offer a short-term solution to terrorism, but the only real permanent peace can be achieved through expanding trade and business, and establishing a legal system conducing to a civil society and prosperous economy. In short, a good dose of open markets and competition in all walks of life could go a long way toward bringing peace, prosperity and goodwill in this dangerous part of the world. Until that happens, however, many will shout “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:11)

Our Goal at FEE: Color the World Blue!

This world map also gives us the opportunity to explain our mission here at FEE in simple terms that everyone can see: Freedom in our time for all peoples. Our goal is to color the world blue. I do think that we are making progress. If you saw this world map of economic freedom in 1985, when the Soviet Union and China were closed communist nations, over half the world’s population would have been colored “red.” With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the downfall of Soviet communism, many nations have moved from “red” to “yellow” and from “yellow” to “green.” Will they eventually move to “blue”? Through our books, monthly magazines and seminars, FEE will do everything in its power to achieve this lofty goal.

Action to Take: To receive a copy of “The Map That Predicted the Terrorist Attacks,” subscribe now to Ideas on Liberty, only $39 for 12 issues. We’ll send you, free, the map and a four-page commentary. Make your payment to Foundation for Economic Education, 30 South Broadway, Irvington, New York 10533. Or or call 800/960-4FEE, ext. 209, for credit-card orders.

FEE Fest 2002: Special Report

“I’ve attended many conferences, but yours is the best of the best. Thank you!”

—Attendee, FEE National Convention

Last month, FEE held its first ever FEE National Convention, and it was a huge success. With only four months of planning, we were able to register nearly 900 attendees. Nathaniel Branden, a keynote speaker at the Saturday night banquet, described the atmosphere well when he said, “I feel an electricity here that I haven’t sensed at libertarian meetings for a long time.” Actor Ben Stein wrote a poem just for FEE (to be published in the June issue of Ideas on Liberty), and C-SPAN Book TV videotaped six book authors (check the schedule on or

The FEE Fest was packed with workshops, panels and debates on philosophy, history, economics, finance, education, art and public policy.

Audiotapes/Videos Now Available

If you missed the FEE Fest, I have good news. Audio and videotapes are available for almost all the sessions at the FEE National Convention. Audiotapes cost only $5 per session, ($275 for all) and videotapes are available for only $15 ($110 for all). Go to for the complete list of tape recordings available and how to order or call Harold Skousen, 800/254-2057.


1883 is a very important year in economics. Name one economist who died in 1883, and two economists who were born in that same year. They say that it took two economists to make up for the mischief of the one who died. Who are these three economists? (Hint: You can find the answer in my book, The Making of Modern Economics, available from FEE, 800-960-4FEE, ext. 209).

The first 10 winners with the correct answer will receive a copy of my book, Economic Logic. Drawing will be on July 31, 2002. Send answer to Quarterly Puzzler, c/o Phillips Investment Resources, LLC, 7811 Montrose Rd., Potomac, Maryland 20854, or e-mail your answer to

The Right to Be Left Alone

From The President’s Desk
Published in Ideas on Liberty – May 2002

The Right to Be Left Alone

by Mark Skousen

“The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone.”


According to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, one of the “repeated injuries and usurpations” committed against the American people by the King of England was the erecting of “a multitude of New Offices, and . . . swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

Today, following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the American people face another troublesome threat—swarms of security agents harassing us at airports, borders, buildings, and highways. Like many of you who travel frequently, my wife, Jo Ann, and I have been subjected to these often overzealous security guards who ask inane questions; force us to remove our shoes, jackets, and belt buckles; and meticulously go through our carry-on bags. I’ve had my fingernail clippers confiscated twice. Jo Ann was frisked three times in one day. Others have fared far worse. My friend and IOL fellow columnist Walter Williams was almost arrested in Jacksonville, Florida, after he refused to be patted down. A congressman was required to disrobe. After these security encounters, I always feel my privacy, indeed my dignity, has been violated.

President George W. Bush has urged citizens to return to normal life, but business and domestic affairs are never the same when a war is on, and this war on terrorism is no exception.1 Bush’s proposed federal budget jumped 9 percent from last year, pushing the United States into a deficit again. Private enterprise has been forced to spend billions on security measures, a real burden on a recessionary economy. (Imagine, intelligent employees spending the rest of their lives trying to catch some nut out there, representing 1/1000 of 1 percent of travelers.) Airport security has now become federalized. And we have become, in the words of Sheldon Richman, “tethered citizens.”

In revolutionary times, colonists were so incensed by the invasions of privacy and other personal abuses by British officers that Congress’s first act was to pass a Bill of Rights, including Amendment III, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law,” and Amendment IV, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Fourth Amendment forms the basis of a “right to privacy,” the right to be left alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis put it. The enjoyment of financial and personal privacy is fundamental to a free and civil society. True liberty is to be able to walk down the street, cash a check, buy goods, talk on the telephone, or take a trip without being hassled, hounded, followed, or interrogated by government agents. People should be able to get away from the madding crowds without being followed or asked stupid questions. When I travel abroad, there is no better feeling than walking through the green customs door marked “Nothing to Declare.” When I return home and close the door, there is a feeling of security, knowing that the police aren’t going to break it down in the middle of the night for a “warrantless” search. It happened in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but surely not in America!

Privacy Eroding

Yet the right to privacy so cherished by Americans of generations past is gradually eroding. New airport-security laws require all travelers to carry a “government-issued” ID, usually a driver’s license or passport. Thus we have come dangerously close to creating a national identity card for all Americans. The war on drugs has made it virtually impossible to deal legally in large amounts of cash, the most anonymous form of doing business. Some banks are requiring thumbprints for identification. Mandatory drug-testing of students and employees is becoming commonplace without any reference to the constitutional principle of “probable cause.” Since September 11, police routinely check automobiles and trucks coming into New York City without a warrant. Tampa and other big cities are videotaping citizens in “crime-prone” areas around the clock. California and other states are capturing all drivers on film and issuing tickets for alleged speeders.

I wrote the first book on financial privacy in the early 1980s.2 It was a huge underground hit, selling over 400,000 copies. Clearly, vulnerable Americans felt the need for protection against potential lawsuits, government surveillance, prying relatives, aggressive salesmen, and professional thieves. From time to time, I am asked to do an updated edition, but I have refused. Why? Because the law has changed and become so complex that it takes a full-time professional to stay up on all the dos and don’ts. However, I can recommend an excellent newsletter that focuses on privacy issues: The Financial Privacy Report, published and written by Michael Ketcher (to subscribe, call 1-866-429-6681; P.O. Box 1277, Burnsville, MN 55337).

Despite the recent intrusions into individual personal affairs, you can still maintain a certain degree of privacy. You can take a car, bus, or train, and go to most destinations without being noticed or tracked. In small transactions, you can still pay with cash instead of using credit cards or checks. You can buy a large number of gold and silver coins with cash and avoid reporting requirements. You can refuse to give your Social Security number to schools, hospitals, dentist and doctor offices, insurance companies, and most private organizations (but not banks, brokers, or the IRS). You can open a foreign bank account with less than $10,000 and not have to report it. You can use a post office box to keep direct mail promoters from contacting you. You can demand a search warrant before allowing the police to come into your house or business, or to search your automobile.

In short, by maintaining a low profile, you can usually avoid the scrutiny of overzealous bureaucrats, nosy neighbors, or jealous relatives.

1. Historian Robert Higgs makes this very clear in his excellent article, “How War Makes Government Bigger,” Ideas on Liberty, December 2001.
2. Mark Skousen, The Complete Guide to Financial Privacy (Alexandria House Books, 1979; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).

The Troubled Economics of Ayn Rand

Published in January, 2001, issue of Liberty Magazine:

by Mark Skousen

“No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers…”

–Howard Roark, The Fountainhead (1994:710)

Ayn Rand, author of the celebrated Capitalism: The Unknown Idea, is honored almost universally as the fountainhead of market capitalism, an impassioned proponent of reason, individualism, and rational self-interest.

There is much to praise in Ayn Rand’s novels and writings, especially her uncompromising defense of freedom and her unrelenting denunciations of collectivism. No one has written more persuasively about property rights, the right of an individual to safeguard his wealth and property from the agents of coercion. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have probably done more than any other works of fiction to vindicate and honor the glories of “making money.”

Yet in reading her novels and writings, I was surprised to learn that her work often portrays a strange, distorted view of the money-making process. In a perverse way, her model of business may even give aid to the cause of the enemies of liberty–by giving capitalism a bad name.

Consumer Sovereign in The Fountainhead

Take, for example, Howard Roark’s philosophy toward his architectural work in The Fountainhead. In the beginning, Roark indicates that he chose architecture as a profession because he loves his work. He seeks to set the highest standards of excellence. He tries to be creative. All of these traits are to be admired.

But then Roark denies a basic tenet of sound economics–the principle of consumer sovereignty. When the dean of the architectural school tells Roark, “Your only purpose is to serve him [the client],” Roark objects. “I don’t intend to build in order to serve or help anyone. I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.” (1994:14) This bizarre, almost anti-social, attitude sounds like a perverse rending of Say’s Law, “supply creates its own demand,” or the statement made in the film Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” But supply only creates demand if the supply can be sold to customers; and people come to a new baseball field only if they want to play or watch. Supply must satisfy demand, or it becomes a wasted resource.

Now I have no problem with an architect who tries to set new standards of design, just as I would applaud entrepreneurs who seek to invent a new product or design a new process. Such actions are often highly risky and financially dangerous, and are often met with derision at first. Ayn Rand rightly points out that they are a major cause of economic progress. History is full of examples of “men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision.” (Rand 1994:710)

But the goal of all rational entrepreneurship must be to satisfy the needs of consumers, not to ignore them! Discovering and fulfilling the needs of customers is the essence of market capitalism. Imagine how far a TV manufacturer would get if he decides to build TVs that only tune into his five favorite channels, the consumer be damned. It wouldn’t be long before he would be on the road to bankruptcy.

Rand Denies the Essence of Business Enterprise

In short, Howard Roark’s conviction is irrational and contradicts a basic premise of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. For Roark, A is not A. He wants A to be B–his B, not his customer’s A. Thus, Ayn Rand’s ideal man misconceives the very nature and logic of capitalism–to fulfill the needs of customers and thereby advance the general welfare. As Ludwig von Mises writes in his book, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, “The profit system makes those men prosper who have succeeded in filling the wants of the people in the best possible and cheapest way. Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers.” (1972:2) Apparently Howard Roark doesn’t believe in consumer sovereignty. As he states in his final court defense, “An architect needs clients, but he dos not subordinate his work to their wishes.” (1994:714) Really?

Talk to any architects about The Fountainhead. Yes, they will tell you that there are a few self-centered, highly-egotistical, elitist Howard-Roark types in architecture who can get away with making monuments to their egos at their client’s expense. Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect Rand deeply admired, may be one of them. But the book’s thesis is entirely unrealistic in the everyday world of commercial building. Occasionally a client values more the notoriety of living in a home built by a signature designer than getting what he really wants, but not many. Almost all of Rand’s scenarios are extreme and idealistic, a strategy that works to sell novels, but does violence to all sense of reality. Normally architects work closely with the client and make numerous changes in order to fit the client’s needs.

Compromise is a necessary element to a successful completion of a project. And this consumer-oriented approach is true in all areas of capitalistic production. An architect or producer of any product who acts like Roark in The Fountainhead is likely to be out of work. Roark’s fate is even worse–he is guilty of his crime, blowing up a much-needed housing project rather than permit the slightest alteration in his designs. The jury may have exonerated him, but the market punishes his kind of behavior.

Ironically, Ayn Rand herself compromised in the making of the movie “The Fountainhead.” She insisted that only Frank Lloyd Wright would design the models for the film, but her demand was later rejected due to Wright’s outrageous fee. In the end, the models were done by a studio set designer. Rand called them “horrible” and “embarrassingly bad.” But the film was made and released. (Branden 1986:209) Oh, the agonies of dealing with other people!

The fact that Howard Roark represents the ideal man in Ayn Rand’s novel and the fact that she denigrates other characters in The Fountainhead who “compromise” with client’s demands suggest that Ayn Rand is philosophically in denial when it comes to comprehending the nature of business. She denies the very raison d’etre of capitalism–consumer sovereignty.

Assault on the Common Man

In this sense, Ayn Rand is not much different from other artists and intellectuals. Artists often bash the capitalist system. They hate the idea of subjecting their talents to crass commercialism and the crude tastes of the common man. Yet Ludwig von Mises chastised this snobbish attitude in The Anti-Capitalist Mentality: “The judgment about the merits of a work of art is entirely subjective. Some people praise what others disdain. There is no yardstick to measure the aesthetic worth of a poem or of a building.” (1972:75) Mises adds that only through economic progress — the creation of surplus wealth — has the level of taste and art been raised to meet the criteria of the more sophisticated artist. “When modern industry began to provide the masses with the paraphernalia of a better life, their main concern was to produce as cheaply as possible without any regard to aesthetic values. Later, when the progress of capitalism had raised the masses’ standard of living, they turned step by step to the fabrication of things which do not lack refinement and beauty.” (1972:80)

The Flaw in Atlas Shrugged

This brings us to the fatal flaw in Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s basic plot violates the whole rationale of business’s existence–constantly working within the system to find ways to make money. There will never be a Galt’s Gulch, where the world’s greatest entrepreneurs isolated themselves from the rest of the world. There will never be enough principled business leaders to fight the system. The business world does not typically attract ideologues and true believers; it attracts people primarily interested in money making by whatever means. They wouldn’t give John Galt the time of day. As Mises states, “There is little social intercourse between the successful businessmen and the nation’s eminent authors, artists and scientists…Most of the ‘socialites’ are not interested in books and ideas.” (Mises 1972:19) Ayn Rand admired Mises, but apparently she didn’t learn much from his writings. Pity.

Altruism Vs. Selfishness

Howard Roark’s diatribe against consumer sovereignty is undoubtedly a way to introduce Rand’s philosophy of selfishness. There are two extremes here: The philosophy of those who serve and satisfy themselves only, and the philosophy of those who believe that they should strive at all times to serve and sacrifice for others. Rand labels the latter “altruism.” In The Virtue of Selfishness, she opines, “Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil.” (Rand 1999:80) Obviously, Rand protests against altruism and espouses the opposite extreme. As Francisco d’Anconias tells Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged: “Don’t consider our interests or our desires. You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” (Rand 1992:802) No sacrifice, no altruism, just pure egotistical selfishness.

The Adam Smith Solution

The founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, takes a different approach by trying to incorporate both concepts in his “system of natural liberty.” Smith and Rand are in agreement about the universal benefits of a free capitalistic society. But Smith rejects Rand’s vision of selfish independence. He teaches that there are two driving forces behind man’s actions–in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he identifies the first as “sympathy” or “benevolence” toward others in society, while in his Wealth of Nations, he focuses on the second, “self interest,” the right to pursue one’s own business. Smith believes that as the market economy develops and individuals move away from their community, “self interest” becomes a more dominant force than “sympathy.” But both are essential to achieve “universal opulence.” (Smith 1965:11)

Adam Smith is famous for making a statement that sounds Randian in tone: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” (Smith 1965:14) But this statement is often taken out of context. Smith’s self-interest never reaches the Randian selfishness that ignores the interest of others. On the contrary, in Smith’s mind, an individual’s goals cannot be fully achieved in business unless he appeals to the self-interest of others. Smith says so in the very next sentence: “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” (Ibid.) Moreover, he writes earlier on the same page, “He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour….Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the mean of every such offer.” (Ibid.) Smith’s theme echoes his Christian heritage, particularly the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (See Matthew 7:12)

Perhaps a true capitalist spirit can best be summed up in the Christian commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39) Adam Smith and Ludwig von Mises would undoubtedly agree with this creed, but apparently Howard Roark and John Galt — and their creator — would agree with only half. And that’s a great tragedy for the greatest novelist of the 20th century.


* Branden, Barbara. 1986. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Doubleday.
* Mises, Ludwig von. 1972 [1956]. The Anti-Capitalist Mentality. Libertarian Press.
* Rand, Ayn. 1992 [1957]. Atlas Shrugged. Dutton Books.
* Rand, Ayn. 1994 [1943]. The Fountainhead. Penguin Books.
* Rand, Ayn. 1999. The Ayn Rand Reader, ed. by Gary Hull and Leonard Peikoff. Penguin Books.
* Smith, Adam. 1965 [1776]. The Wealth of Nations. Modern Library.