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May 2002, Volume 20, Number 5

WHAT TELLS THE TRUTH?

Llewellyn H. RockwellJr.

WE ARE INUNDATED BY THE FORCES of malevolence and deceit: terrorists, lying CEOs, stock hustlers, power-mad politicians, conniving regula­tors, conspiring pressure groups, and paid-off pundits. They seem to be everywhere. Revelations about Enron and its political connections remind us that even the business world is horribly tainted by graft, special favors, blackmail, quid pro quos, duplicity, and dissembling. The government is the worst offender, of course, but apart from God Himself, whom or what can you trust?

There is a force in this world you can trust. It brought down the high-flying Enron and punctured all its pretensions, along with tens of thou­sands of other formerly infallible companies in the last two years. It has humbled those who believe they own the future. And just as easily it daily raises up the lowly from the depths to great heights. It thumbs its nose at legislatures and stomps all over the greatest central plan ever concocted.

It tolerates no lies, and, given time, always makes sure the truth will win out. It accepts no bribes, it’s implacable in its inherence to princi­ple, and it is utterly incorruptible. No power on earth is its master. It can’t be flattered or shouted down. It stands up to every government, even the most powerful ever known to man. It cares nothing for the news cycle or the polls.

It is omnipresent. Yet it is a gentle and compassionate servant to those who go about their ways peacefully, working unceasingly with and for humanity. It is at work protecting the world from charlatans, day in and day out, never sleeping, never resting. And as often as people have tried to abolish it or wish it away, it has struck back with a vengeance to remind us that it is integral to the very fabric of the world in which we live.

I speak, of course, of economic law. This is not a law someone passes or someone enforces. It pre­dates every state and legislature and executive fiat. It is built into the very structure of reality. It takes patience to understand, for its tenets are not catchy or flamboyant but instead quite dry. But it’s futile to try to avoid it, though man never stops trying.

What is economic law and why study it? Ludwig von Mises puts it this way: “Economics shows that there prevails in the succession and interdependence of the market phe­nomena an inescapable regularity that man must take into full account if he wants to attain ends aimed at. Even the most mighty government, operating with the utmost severity, cannot succeed in endeavors that are contrary to what has been called ‘economic law.”

Economic law has many compo­nent parts that tell us about the inescapable structure of reality. For example, there is the law of demand:  all else equal, the lower the price of a good (or service), the greater the quantity of it that will be demanded by purchasers. There is the law of supply: all else equal, the higher the price of a good or service, the larger the quantity of that good or service that will be offered for sale.

There are myriad prior laws (like the law of diminishing utility) and derivative laws, like the law of money’s value: whenever the quan­tity of money is increased while the demand for money to be held as cash reserves is unchanged, the pur­chasing power of money will fall.

How are these laws enforced? They aren’t. They simply exist, and yet their power is ominous, and not only over economics but over all human affairs. These laws explain, for example, why it is that politi­cians have very little control over how resources are allocated in soci­ety. Sure, politicians can play with prices and wages, they can shuffle wealth around with spending and regulating, but economic law has its revenge by yielding dis-coordina­tions like surpluses and shortages and inefficiencies of every sort.

Thousands of big shots can pay $20,000 apiece to gather in New York and call themselves the World Eco­nomic Forum, but they are power­less to dictate the course of the inescapable regularity of market phenomena. Ultimately these people are in the position of observers of the vast and constantly changing global nexus of production and exchange going about its merry way. Whether they are businessmen, bureaucrats, politicians, or pundits, they can’t finally manage the world economy.

Economic law explains why prosperity and civilization can’t be created out of nothing. It dictates that there must be certain prerequi­sites to production, namely saving. Credit expansion by a central bank is no substitute. When you see massive economic growth being fueled by loose credit, you know that it cannot last. This law applies on the micro scale, as happened to many dot-corns, and on the macro scale, as happened in the case of the 1990s boom.

These periodic downturns keep the economy honest. That’s economic law at work. If the recovery is based on a solid foundation, economic law will reward us with sustainable prosperity. If it is not, we will be punished with yet another down­turn or sluggish growth.

Does it matter? Look at Argentina. A few years back, it seemed to be a thriving country. Income was up and the political sys­tem was stable. Then the politicians and their allied interests decided to take on economic law. They tied the peso to the dollar while making the value of the peso decline by printing them. They increased spending with no means of paying the bill. Eco­nomic law struck back, whacking the peso’s value and humbling the entire political elite. The country flew into chaos.

It’s the same way with other attempts to circumvent economic law. Consider protectionism. Right now US Steel is waging a massive lobbying campaign to keep out com­petitive imports. If it succeeds, con­sumers will be ripped off, but it will do nothing to make US Steel a more efficient producer. It only postpones the day when the company has to face reality and someday it certainly will. That’s because economic law is vastly more powerful than the tariff collector or the political will to save an indus­try that is being out-competed.

People complain that economic theory is abstract and inaccessible. Maybe so. But it does no good to deny its preeminence as a tool for explain­ing human affairs. Learn about it or ignore it, it is still there, working its magic in the world. President Bush, for example, seems to believe that there is no price to pay for establish­ing a world military empire. But eco­nomic law dictates that all resources employed toward a particular end must come from somewhere.

Spending must be paid for some­how, and the government only has three tools: taxes, inflation, and debt. All three come out of the hide of the public. He says that he will spare no expense in giving us security, but it is the citizenry and not Bush that must foot the bill.

Another economic law is the law of exchange: it states that whenever one person voluntarily agrees to give up something he owns (whether goods, labor, or money) in exchange for something that somebody else owns, both parties end up benefiting. That is a short description of the core activity that generates pros­perity and causes civilization to come into being and flourish.

It is this economic law of exchange—not bombs, government spending, regulations, loose credit from the Fed, or stock-market scams—that is the source of wealth, health, and security in our world. Politi­cians care nothing about it because voluntarism is not what they are about. But economic law always has its revenge. It brought down the Soviet Union, and it will do the same to any state or institution that believes itself exempt. • FM

LLEWELLYN H. ROCKWELL, JRis president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and editor of LewRockwell.com (rockwell@mises.org).


 

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