If we go through the chapters of this book seriatim, we find practically no form of government intervention deprecated in the first edition that is not still being pursued, usually with increased obstinacy. Governments everywhere are still trying to cure by public works the unemployment brought about by their own policies. They are imposing heavier and more expropriatory taxes than ever. They still recommend credit expansion. Most of them still make “full employment” their overriding goal. They continue to impose import quotas and protective tariffs. They try to increase exports by depreciating their currencies even further. Farmers are still “striking” for “parity prices.” Governments still provide special encouragements to unprofitable industries. They still make efforts to “stabilize” special commodity prices.
Governments, pushing up commodity prices by inflating their currencies, continue to blame the higher prices on private producers, sellers, and “profiteers.” They impose price ceilings on oil and natural gas, to discourage new exploration precisely when it is in most need of encouragement, or resort to general price and wage fixing or “monitoring.” They continue rent control in the face of the obvious devastation it has caused. They not only retain minimum wage laws but keep increasing their level, in face of the chronic unemployment they so clearly bring about. They continue to pass laws granting special privileges and immunities to labor unions; to oblige workers to become members; to tolerate mass picketing and other forms of coercion; and to compel employers to “bargain collectively in good faith” with such unions— i.e., to make at least some concessions to their demands. The intention of all these measures is to “help labor.” But the result is once more to create and prolong unemployment, and to lower total wage payments compared with what they might have been.
Most politicians continue to ignore the necessity of profits, to overestimate their average or total net amount, to denounce unusual profits anywhere, to tax them excessively, and sometimes even to deplore the very existence of profits.
The anticapitalistic mentality seems more deeply embedded than ever. Whenever there is any slowdown in business, the politicians now see the main cause as “insufficient consumer spending.” At the same time that they encourage more consumer spending they pile up further disincentives and penalties in the way of saving and investment. Their chief method of doing this today, as we have already seen, is to embark on or accelerate inflation. The result is that today, for the first time in history, no nation is on a metallic standard, and practically every nation is swindling its own people by printing a chronically depreciating paper currency.
To pile one more item on this heap, let us examine the recent tendency, not only in the United States but abroad, for almost every “social” program, once launched upon, to get completely out of hand. We have already glanced at the overall picture, but let us now look more closely at one outstanding example — Social Security in the United States.
The original federal Social Security Act was passed in 1935. The theory behind it was that the greater part of the relief problem was that people did not save in their working years, and so, when they were too old to work, they found themselves without resources. This problem could be solved, it was thought, if they were compelled to insure themselves, with employers also compelled to contribute half the necessary premiums, so that they would have a pension sufficient to retire on at age sixty-five or over. Social Security was to be entirely a self-financed insurance plan based on strict actuarial principles. A reserve fund was to be set up sufficient to meet future claims and payments as they fell due.
It never worked out that way. The reserve fund existed mainly on paper. The government spent the Social Security tax receipts, as they came in, either to meet its ordinary expenses or to pay out benefits. Since 1975, current benefit payments have exceeded the system’s tax receipts.
It also turned out that in practically every session Congress found ways to increase the benefits paid, broaden the coverage, and add new forms of “social insurance.” As one commentator pointed out in 1965, a few weeks after Medicare insurance was added: “Social Security sweeteners have been enacted in each of the past seven general election years.
As inflation developed and progressed, Social Security benefits were increased not only in proportion, but much more. The typical political ploy was to load up benefits in the present and push costs into the future. Yet that future always arrived; and each few years later Congress would again have to increase payroll taxes levied on both workers and employers.
Not only were the tax rates continuously increased, but there was a constant rise in the amount of salary taxed. In the original 1935 bill the salary taxed was only the first $3,000. The early tax rates were very low. But between 1965 and 1977, for example, the Social Security tax shot up from 4.4 percent on the first $6,600 of earned income (levied on employer and employee alike) to a combined 11.7 percent on the first $16,500 (Between 1960 and 1977, the total annual tax increased by 572 percent, or about 12 percent a year compounded. It is scheduled to go much higher.) At the beginning of 1977, unfunded liabilities of the Social Security system were officially estimated at $4.1 trillion.
No one can say today whether Social Security is really an insurance program or just a complicated and lopsided relief system. The bulk of the present benefit recipients are being assured that they “earned” and “paid for” their benefits. Yet no private insurance company could have afforded to pay existing benefit scales out of the “premiums” actually received. As of early 1978, when low-paid workers retire, their monthly benefits generally represent about 60 percent of what they earned on the job. Middle-income workers receive about 45 percent. For those with exceptionally high salaries, the ratio can fall to or 10 percent. If Social Security is thought of as a relief system, however, it is a very strange one, for those who have already been getting the highest salaries receive the highest dollar benefits.
Yet Social Security today is still sacrosanct. It is considered political suicide for any congressman to suggest cutting down or cutting back not only present but promised future benefits. The American Social Security system must stand today as a frightening symbol of the almost inevitable tendency of any national relief, redistribution, or “insurance scheme, once established, to run completely out of control.
In brief, the main problem we face today is not economic, but political. Sound economists are in substantial agreement concerning what ought to be done. Practically all government attempts to redistribute wealth and income tend to smother productive incentives and lead toward general impoverishment. It is the proper sphere of government to create and enforce a framework of law that prohibits force and fraud. But it must refrain from specific economic interventions. Government’s main economic function is to encourage and preserve a free market. When Alexander the Great visited the philosopher Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for him, Diogenes is said to have replied: ‘Yes, stand a little less between me and the sun.” It is what every citizen is entitled to ask of his government.
The outlook is dark, but it is not entirely without hope. Here and there one can detect a break in the clouds. More and more people are becoming aware that government has nothing to give them without first taking it away from somebody else—or from themselves. Increased handouts to selected groups mean merely increased taxes, or increased deficits and increased inflation. And inflation, in the end, misdirects and disorganizes production. Even a few politicians are beginning to recognize this, and some of them even to state it clearly.
In addition, there are marked signs of a shift in the intellectual winds of doctrine. Keynesians and New Dealers seem to be in a slow retreat. Conservatives, libertarians, and other defenders of free enterprise are becoming more outspoken and more articulate. And there are many more of them. Among the young, there is a rapid growth of a disciplined school of “Austrian” economists.
There is a real promise that public policy may be reversed before the damage from existing measures and trends has become irreparable.