The Ongoing Recovery from the Folly of Intellectuals

I’ve often referred to a theory of business cycles that was first described by the Austrian Joseph Schumpeter, but amplified by contemporary American Thomas Sowell. Both are brilliant economists who have described in mathematical detail how free markets produce the most wealth and well-being for society, including for those at the lower end of the financial spectrum.

It is their explanation for why things go wrong, however, that I find most illuminating. Both Schumpeter and Sowell write about “intellectuals” who have academic credentials of some sort but are lacking in knowledge that would make them particularly valuable to the market. Incapable of commanding significant wealth and status through voluntary market mechanisms, these intellectuals resent the wealth of more-successful people. As a result, they envy and resent the entire market system that has failed to reward them as they believe they deserve to be rewarded.

Others have also explored this theme. Another Austrian, Helmut Schoeck, wrote the book that is widely considered a masterpiece of sociology, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (Der Neid: Eine Theorie der Gesellschaft). You can go back even further, if you like, to the Tenth Commandment’s proscription on “coveting.”

Intellectuals who consider inequalities in wealth evidence of injustice often seek political remedies. These take the form of legislation and, more often, regulation. In the process, of course, they are able to portray themselves as heroic opponents of injustice. If they have sufficient support, they are also able to acquire significant power, wealth and status. We know from experience, however, that these intellectuals rarely consider their own wealth evidence of injustice.

In Europe, these intellectuals have been far more successful in the past than in America. For this reason, American intellectuals in academia, politics and media have for decades told us that the U.S. is woefully unsophisticated and behind the times. In fact, economists have shown consistently that quality of life is higher for Americans at all income levels than it is in most European nations. It is difficult, however, to compete with a movement that has had, until recently, a near monopoly on pulpits, podiums and programming.

That’s all changed. Not only has the United States seen Keynesian policies on steroids crash and burn, but the European model has been revealed as the house of cards that it is. For decades, governments have propped up living standards by borrowing to appease voters. In effect, nations have consumed at artificially high levels by sending their children the bill.

Naturally, governments run by these intellectuals have tried to raise taxes to support their habits. Many succeeded, but then discovered the reality of the Laffer curve. Taxes necessarily transfer resources from the private tax-generating sector to the public tax-consuming sector. At some point, taxes depress economic growth, which reduces government revenues. This point is usually much lower than the critics of capitalism assume. Moreover, their targeting of the wealthiest individuals is most damaging to the economy. The wealthiest are also those with the most money to invest in the innovations that create all net new jobs.

So we’re seeing tax recipients rioting in Greece and elsewhere. These riots will spread, but it will do no good. The money doesn’t exist to support the intellectuals’ schemes, no matter how bloody their tantrums. Times will get hard enough to create a generation that hates the intellectuals who promised that everybody would be able to retire young with no worries.

We are in the midst of a historic transition. The intellectuals got their way. Now the consequences of their ideologies are going to be painful enough to allow market reforms. That’s how self-equilibrating market mechanisms work.

This is all very good news for North Americans. Canada, by the way, is way ahead of America in learning the limitations of government. America, however, is learning quickly. Three years ago, the intellectuals were gloating that they could use the forthcoming economic downturn for their advantage. The public, they predicted, would blame free markets and give even more power to the planners.

That, as you know, has not happened. Despite the orchestrated efforts of the Occupy Wall Street crowd and other fans of socialism, the American public is far more wary of government than it is of business:

An overwhelming 64% of people surveyed said big government was the biggest threat to the country, compared with just 26% who said big business is their gravest concern and 8% who picked big labor.

Government debt schemes are failing. This is creating remarkable opportunities for investors. It amazes me, in fact, that more people don’t understand this.

On those rare occasions when I watch financial shows, I’m always surprised by the never-questioned assumption that up markets are good and down markets are bad. This is nonsense.

The name of the game for investors is “Buy low, sell high.” Given the inevitable fluctuations of the market, we know that markets have always gone through this sort of big cycle. They always will.

If this were not the case, “Buy low, sell high” would be nearly impossible. Sure, selling high is more fun, but you can’t do it if you haven’t bought low. This seems awfully obvious to me, but it’s clear that most people just don’t get it.

We are at an incredible historic juncture. The world is, once again, realizing it has been duped by fast-talking political scam artists. This is not a new story. In fact, we’ve actually gotten off pretty easy this time. By necessity, market-killing programs will be cut back, freeing investors and innovators to create wealth once again. This liberation of capital will come just as the greatest scientific revolution in history swings into high gear, delivering extended healthy life spans and new levels of wealth. I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but these are wonderful, extraordinary times.

Someday, some younger investor is going to say something to you like this: “You were so lucky to be investing back then, when prices were at rock bottom but the whole world was changing for the better. I’d be rich too if I were investing in those days.”

In fact, they will probably be wrong. Most people never see the big picture while it’s happening. This type of once-in-a-lifetime situation is always easy to see in hindsight. When you’re living through it, though, it takes real character and vision to grasp the opportunities.


Patrick Cox