The One Minute Case Against Interventionism

Free markets created the modern world

A free, capitalist economy has never existed anywhere in the world. The closest the world came to a free market was during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and during the late 19th century in the United States. The Industrial Revolution was a period of unprecedented economic growth and unimaginable improvements in quality of life. In less than two hundred years, the life of most people in the Western world changed from a a short life filled with poverty, plague, and near-constant war to a modern life that even the kings of medieval Europe couldn’t have imagined.1 This miracle was made possible by the philosophical and political ideals formed during the Enlightenment, and the freedoms demanded and fought by the philosophers, statesmen, and entrepreneurs of Western civilization. Yet the Enlightenment also laid the sees for the collectivist and materialist ideology behind socialism, which struck the first major blow against capitalism with the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

Capitalism declined with the rise of collectivism in the 20th century

The assault on free markets was intensified by Herbert Hoover, who imposed unprecendented regulations of Wall Street to eliminate “vicious speculation”, regulated labor markets, and created government works programs.2 FDR inherited these programs and created numerous government agencies which made the financial industry is the single most regulated industry in the economy and turned an economic recession into the Great Depression.3 The Federal Reserve was supposed to stabilize the currency, The FDIC was supposed to prevent bank runs, the SEC was supposed to be stop shady investments, Fannie May and Freddie Mac were supposed to make homes affordable to everyone. Yet also these restrictions on capitalism had the opposite effect of their intended purpose: the dollar has lost 95% of it’s value, the SEC is the main cause of corruption in Wall Street4 5, and housing prices are unstable and highly inflated.

Interventionism is a vicious cycle of wealth destruction

Economic interventionism, also known as statism, exists in every mixed economy – a society in which the government interferes with market economy. In a interventionist economy, the state takes wealth away from from some enterprises and transfers it to other organizations or individuals. Whether it does so through taxation, corporate welfare and bailouts, monopoly privileges, wage and price controls, trade restrictions and tariffs, currency inflation, antitrust regulations, state-ownership of businesses, or “make work” programs, the effect is the same: to punish virtue and competence and reward vice and waste.

All the values created by a business are possible only because its customers value them sufficiently to pay for them. To the extent that any individuals voluntarily exchange value for value without harming anyone else, their actions benefit themselves and harm no one. However, in an interventionist state, the product of those individuals is seized and transferred to those who did not earn it. This is a vicious cycle, because it rewards those in the public and private sector who manipulate the state to seize unearned benefits and punishes the productive individuals who focus on creating values and create products and services that consumers want.

The more the looters seize, the fewer wealth is available to producers. The more productive businesses fail or move elsewhere, the heaver the burden is on those who remain. The more money is taken from the producers, the greater the incentive for the lazy to skim from their labor. When the burden of stealing sufficient wealth outright becomes too unpopular, politicians resort to stealing it by printing money, until the currency of the country becomes worthless, trade becomes impossible, and productive activity grounds to a halt. Inevitably, it is the executives of the productive businesses who politicians blame for the crisis their own policies created.

Entrepreneurs and CEO’s are the unrecognized heroes of the modern world

Capitalism cannot guarantee that all our needs will be provided for – no system can turn mere wishes into reality. But it does give entrepreneurs the incentive to compete to provide the best possible service they can. The brief flowering of freedom during the 19th century created the wealthy, industrial society in which we now live in – but it is being destroyed from within by the collectivist ideology of interventionism. When political connections rather than consumers decide who is allowed what values should be created, entrepreneurs have no incentive to improve their products or to try bold new techniques, and instead spend their resources trying to bribe politicians.  Politicians can force prices to be artificially low, but they cannot lower costs or substitute for the creative risk taking that drives the economy – they can only drive the remaining wealth creators out of existence.

References

  1. The Capitalist Manifesto, The Industrial Revolution Brings Advance by Andrew Bernstein, 2005
  2. Hoover’s Attack on Laissez-Faire by Murray Rothbard, 1963
  3. Robert Higgs: How FDR Made the Depression Worse
  4. Robert P. Murphy: The SEC Makes Wall Street More Fraudulent
  5. See the The One Minute Case against the SEC

Further Reading

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The One Minute Case against the SEC

Markets regulate themselves

Long before the existence of the Securities and Exchange Commission, medieval guilds and trading houses established common standards, accreditation agencies, and accounting rules that have evolved to the present day. The system of English common law has been evolving since the 12th century 1, and the accounting system used today was codified in 1495.2.

Numerous non-governmental bodies have continued to develop accounting rules and set auditing standards for public organizations.3 It is the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, not the government, which sets ethical standards for the profession and U.S. auditing standards for audits of private companies; federal, state and local governments; and non-profit organizations.

Voluntary oversight organizations are embraced by their participants because they provide executives with a value – they allow them to discover waste and fraud and advertise honesty to partners and customers. Unlike government regulatory bodies, they are flexible, efficient, and competitive. When the compliance costs of accounting rules exceed their value, or when lax controls lead to unethical or risky behavior, the markets embrace new standards. The Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 did not begin the process of regulating markets, but nationalized much of the auditing market and turned it over to politicians and bureaucrats.

Regulations hinder competition and raise costs for investors

The SEC subsidizes politically connected corporations at the expense of smaller firms, hindering innovation and encouraging corruption. Established corporations lobby the government to create burdensome regulations that smaller investment funds and markets cannot afford, thus creating coercive monopolies that raise profits a few firms at the expense of investors.4 Government bodies like the SEC, the MSRB, the FTC, the USITC, the Fed, the Treasury, the IRS, the OTS, the MSRB, and the state attorney’s offices issue hundreds of thousands of laws, rules, opinions, bulletins, comment letters and threats and require numerous reports, statements, forms, notices, and approvals that investment firms and public companies must obey. 5 This creates an artificial scarcity of investment products that benefits large corporations and discourages savings and investment. Smaller companies cannot afford to raise money by issuing stock, and investors are forced to choose between public but expensive mutual funds and secretive and risky hedge funds with entry fees that only the rich can afford.

The SEC creates corruption

Rather than making Wall Street honest, regulatory agencies are the primary instruments of fraud and corruption on Wall Street. Politicians who control regulatory agencies have an incentive to use their power to extract benefits for themselves and their constituencies, rather than to keep markets honest and efficient. Power hungry politicians like Eliot Spitzer use the power of the SEC to go on crusades again innocent businessmen 6, and thus force regulatory bodies to hide the evidence of real corruption.7 By blocking outsiders from seeing its records, the agency is makes it harder for investors to discover real fraud.8

The case of Bernie Madoff is a typical case study in how the SEC encourages fraud. Investors figured out that Madoff couldn’t possibly make the profits he claimed, and have been writing the SEC since 1999, urging them to put a stop to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. However, Madoff used his close family ties to the SEC, and was instrumental in founding key regulatory bodies – and then nominated his family members to serve on their boards. When skeptical investors inquired about the irregularities in his fund, Madoff told them that the SEC had already investigated and cleared him over a period of three years.

While Madoff stole $50 billion dollars under their noses, the SEC’s budget surpassed $900 million dollars, and grew at record rates during the two Bush administrations. In response to this outrageous case of nepotism and corruption, the government will likely increase its budget and staff once again.9

The SEC makes markets more volatile and risky

By banning crucial market functions like short selling10 and “insider trading” 11 the SEC hinders the market’s ability to react to new information, and makes markets more unpredictable and expensive.

The SEC cannot even oversee itself

While the SEC is charged with enforcing regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley, it consistently fails to control and report on its own processes and receives failing grades from the government’s own auditing body.12 This is not surprising – like any socialist organization, it has no incentive to be efficient or responsible to stockholders.

The chief source of fraud and corruption in the United States is not Wall Street, but Washington D.C.

Notes

  1. Medieval English common law: foundations for 21st century legal systems
  2. Wikipedia: The history of accountancy
  3. Self-Regulation in Today’s Securities Markets: Outdated System or Work in Progress?
    CFA Institute Centre Publications (September 2007)
  4. See How the SEC Subsidizes Stocks by Jeff Scott and SEC: Protecting Investors Or Uncompetitive Companies?
  5. (There are so many regulations that the department charged with publishing them can only report that “The Office of the Federal Register Library now contains more than 550 cubic feet .. which has the force and effect of law.” – History of the Federal Register
  6. The Cost of the “Ethical” Assault on Honest Businessmen by Alex Epstein and Yaron Brook (Silicon Valley Biz Ink, July 8, 2003)
  7. Deafened by the S.E.C.’s Silence, He Sued
  8. The S.E.C. Prevents Investors From Discovering Accounting Fraud
  9. The SEC Makes Wall Street More Fraudulent by Robert Murphy
  10. See the One Minute Case for Stock Shorting
  11. See Inside Insider Trading and Should Insider Trading Be Legal? by Yaron Brook
  12. GAO Finds Material Weakness in SEC’s Controls

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The One Minute Case Against Cheating

Recent studies have shown that in the U.S., 56% of middle school students and 70% of high school students have cheated.[1] Why is cheating on the rise?  The best place to start analyzing this question is to look at the issue from the perspective of the individual student.  What reasons does he consider for and against cheating?

For most people, the decision to cheat or not is guided primarily by emotion.  Does the feeling of guilt exceed the feeling of satisfaction he will receive from getting an A?  But emotions are ultimately based on one’s values and ideas.  The predominant idea behind cheating is that morality is a conflict of self-interest versus self-sacrifice.  Cheating is the “selfish” thing to do, and confers an advantage in class and in life.  The “right” thing to, whether justified by promises of divine reward, utilitarian considerations, or a vague appeal to social harmony, requires an immediate personal sacrifice.  In such a conflict, the “moral” choice is understandably difficult for students to justify.  Without rational ideas to justify honesty and integrity, hard-working and “practical” students believe that morality only holds them back from success in life, and that they can “play by the rules” once they are out of school, and give lip-service to morality when it comes to more abstract and non-practical matters.

This is a grievous error is created by bad philosophy.  The lesson that students need to learn is that the choice between the practical and the moral is a false dichotomy.  Morality is the means to a successful life, not an impediment.  Teaching the practical, selfish value of honesty is the best way to discourage cheating.

The primary purpose of an education is to provide the practical knowledge and thinking skills that allow success in life and career. Cheating erodes both those goals. In a career, success of failure has material consequences on one’s work and the people it affects.  A grade on a biology exam is just a number, but a doctor who takes shortcuts with patients, or a construction engineer who takes shortcuts with buildings endangers both his career and other people’s lives.  The ultimate goal of education is not a piece of paper, but practical skills and knowledge, and cheating deprives oneself of that knowledge.  Whatever immediate benefit cheating provides is outweighed by the long-term harm.  Educators need to stress the practical value of their lessons, and the harm students do to themselves when they forfeit their education.

Even though it is an attempt to deceive others, cheating is a form of self-deception as well.  Cheating to get ahead will cause oneself to lose a grasp of what his skills actually are.  Someone who cheats on a quiz will find out that he is unprepared for the final.  Students who cheat in an entry-level class will find themselves helpless in higher-level classes. The more a student cheats, the more ignorant he becomes of his actual knowledge.  The more he gets ahead by his falsehoods, the harder he has to work to keep up his un-earned position.  Even if his dishonestly-obtained diploma gets his dream job, he will still be unqualified for it, and forced to continue his deception at work.  He will attempt to hide his inadequacy from co-workers and bosses just as he hid it from classmates and professors.  Cheating is an addictive habit that will surely destroy a career even if it does not (publicly) destroy an education.

Honest peers compete on the basis of their skill and hard work.  Their mutual excellence inspires and motivates each other to success.  Classmates and coworkers who cheat on the other hand, compete by the standard of who is the better liar.  They lose focus of the purpose of their education or career, and try to outdo the audacity of each other’s frauds.  Their peers do not inspire and motivate them, but present the constant threat of having their lies unmasked.  As they lose sight of their real goals, they will find themselves slipping behind.

The solution to the rise of cheating is not to attempt to instill a vague sense of moral guilt, but to explain and demonstrate that cheating is counter-productive and self-destructive.  Honesty does not require guilt or the threat of worldly or divine punishment.  Instead, ambition, integrity, and pride should guide one to success.

Sources

  1. Wilfried Decoo, Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 23.

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The One Minute Case for Stock Shorting

What is stock shorting?

Stock shorting is a method of profiting from a decline in a stock’s price. It is the opposite of investing long, where the investor profits from a rise in the stock’s price. “Going long” or hoping for a gain in the stock’s price is the more familiar method of investing. However, “going short” and profiting from a decline in a stock’s price is an equally valid method of investing.

How does stock shorting work?

Shorting a stock is a little more complicated than going long where a stock is simply bought and then sold later for either a gain or loss. Shorting stock first involves borrowing it from an existing owner. The short seller pays a fee to the owner to borrow his shares. Upon borrowing it, the stock is immediately sold and the proceeds are kept in the short seller’s brokerage account. When the short seller wants to close out his position (or the shares’ owner wants them back), he buys equivalent stock in the marketplace and returns the shares he borrowed back to the owner.

If the stock has fallen in value, he makes a profit that is the difference between the price at which he borrowed the stock and the price at which he bought it back. Conversely, if the stock has risen in value, he suffers a loss since he has to buy back the stock at a higher price than he borrowed it for.

Short sellers fulfill a crucial and productive role in financial markets:

Short sellers bring to light valuable information about poorly run companies.

Short sellers have a strong incentive to uncover poorly run companies. If a short seller successfully discovers ahead of others that a company is destroying value through incompetence, bad luck or even criminal activity, he profits by shorting the stock and publicizing the information. Short sellers are similar to good investigative journalists. They make more money if they can “scoop” others with information that will drive the stock down.

It is this aspect of short selling that many company managers, regulators and others find discomforting. Yet these same managers and regulators have no problem when an investor uncovers a successful company. Why should they be opposed to someone who does the opposite, and uncovers the overvalued, incompetent, lazy or even fraudulently managed companies?

Short sellers help capital go to the best companies.

By taking financial capital away from poorly run companies, short sellers free up money that can go to the best-run companies. Short sellers are the other half of the value-creating process of financial markets whereby capital is continually re-directed to those who can put it to the most valuable use.  The existence of short sellers means that capital will more quickly flee the poorly run companies and thereby become available that much faster for the better-run companies. The profit that a short seller makes is his reward for aggressively uncovering the poorly run companies.

Short selling is challenging.

Short selling is not for everyone for the simple reason that stocks generally tend to go up. During the 20th century, stocks gained 9% a year on average, although there was significant yearly variation. Stocks do not decline in value across the board for long periods of time. Because of this, short sellers must time their moves well, and attempt to short at the top of a stock’s move and then close out the position when it has hit bottom. If the short seller mis-times his moves, he will lose money. Such precision in timing is less important for long investors because stocks generally go up.

It is a misconception that short sellers can unfairly cause stock prices to go down.

This is the most common misconception about short sellers. However, short selling is only likely to be successful if companies truly have problems. If a seller shorts a strong or improving company, he will lose money. It is a misconception to think that short sellers (or long investors) can cause stock prices to deviate for meaningful time periods from their true values.

The only power a short or long investor has comes from being right. When he is right, he is rewarded for helping to bring true information to the marketplace. When he is wrong, his wealth is dissipated and his ability to invest further is diminished. If he is wrong often enough, all of his wealth will be dissipated and his ability to influence stocks will be nullified.

Conclusion: Short selling is moral and should be permitted.

Short selling creates value by making the capital markets work more efficiently. Short sellers help bring negative information about companies to the market. By doing so, short sellers provide liquidity to the market and help capital to flow away from the worst companies and toward the best companies. Without short sellers, markets would be less liquid and more violatile. Long investors would have more difficulty selling their positions, and the lack of liquidity would make it more difficult for companies to raise funds in public offerings.

To restrict short selling not only harms the efficiency of the markets, but it violates the right of stock owners to freely dispose of their shares as they see fit. Because their shares belong to them, it is their property, they have the right to do what they want with them, including loan out their shares to short sellers. Conversely, short sellers have the right to borrow those shares.

A proper understanding of short selling demonstrates the valuable and productive role it plays in the financial markets.

Further reading

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The One Minute Case For Strict Civil Liability of the Justice System

What is the problem?

The growing use of non-lethal weapons such as tasers by the police has to calls to ban or restrict their use. The real issue being debated is the extent to which police officers should risk their safety to detain suspects. Should they only use force when someone’s life is in danger, or to avoid the risk of injury when attempting to tackle a suspect, or to avoid a sprain from having to run after someone? It is likely that further debate will result in a consensus enforced by the legislative and judicial branches of government. But what criteria should be used to determine the level of risk that police officers may be exposed to before using force?

Under the current system, police officers are only held responsible for injuring others only if found guilty of a miscarriage of justice, that is, willful malice or negligent behavior in the performance of their job. This provides an incentive for the judicial branch to minimize liability by maximizing the leeway officers have in deciding whether to use force. Furthermore, establishing standards for proper police procedure is a highly-non objective process, based on factors such as the public’s fear of police brutality, their desire for safety, the cost of lawsuits from police actions, and the political gain politicians find from pushing more or less draconian policies. One means of improving on this process is to establish a strict liability criteria for police actions.

What is strict liability?

Under a strict liability standard, it is not necessary to find a party guilty of malice or negligence, only of fault. Perpetrators of damages arising from inherently dangerous activities are responsible for damages regardless of whether they acted improperly. For instance, drivers at fault for damaging another car or injuring a driver are held financially responsible regardless of whether they acted maliciously or negligently. Under strict liability, a police agency would be held responsible for personal injury and property damage if an officer injures an innocent suspect, or unnecessarily injures a criminal — even if the officer acted properly in the performance of his duty. For example, an officer who fires at a guilty suspect who poses a real threat would not be liable, but an officer who fires at a suspect who does not pose a threat will be held liable for damages whether the officer is guilty of a miscarriage of duty or simply made an error in judgment. Furthermore, such a system would repay defendants who are exonerated at trial for their time and suffering.

Strict liability shifts incentives to the party best qualified to control costs

One objection to the strict liability standard is that it would greatly increase the financial risk faced by police departments and courts. However, by placing the burden of minimizing costs on the judicial agency, a strong incentive is created to minimize mistakes – and therefore costs. It is likely that police departments would attempt to insure themselves against risk, and the insurance agents would in turn establish guidelines that seek to minimize their risk. Such guidelines may ban tasers because of their health dangers – or they may require them in most situations where deadly weapons were formerly employed. Police agencies may prefer to hire men because they would find it easier to tackle suspects (and thus avoid a major incentive for taser use) or women because they are better at resolving conflicts peacefully. Because they would bear the cost of mistakes, police agencies would be motivated to experiment on the most effective way to perform their jobs, while the public they protect would be financially shielded from their mistakes by a strict liability standard.

Strict liability discourages prosecution of victimless crimes

Another objection to strict liability under the current legal framework is that it would make police agencies averse to enforcing laws that are prone to mistakes or unsuccessful prosecutions – namely, those known as “victimless crimes.” Adultery, gambling, homosexuality, and the trade of illicit substances and goods are areas where the lack of a victim makes errors in suspect identification and successful prosecutions especially likely. This is especially true of laws pushed by vocal voters on unwilling recipients – for example, communities that favor drug or alcohol prohibition on communities that tolerate drug and alcohol users. Yet this only illustrates the insulation of government policies (and by extension taxpayers) from the cost of economically expensive (and thus socially destructive) laws. If enforcement agencies are required to pay for their mistakes, they will favor laws that can be objectively enforced, and violations of which result in victims pushing for enforcement.

Further reading

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The One Minute Case for the Austrian Business Cycle Theory

The Austrian Business Cycle Theory was developed by the economist Ludwig von Mises to explain the phenomenon of business cycles. It provides crucial insight for understanding the cause of cyclical boom/bust cycles and their connection the government’s manipulation of the economy. To understand the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, an analogy is helpful:

Imagine an economy with just one actor: Robinson Crusoe on an island. Crusoe loves fish, so he spends half of each day fishing so he can enjoy fish in the evenings. Additionally, Crusoe spends Friday mornings maintaining his fishing dinghy and nets. In order to have fish on Friday, he must fish for an extra hour every other day of the week. In economic terms, Crusoe has a savings rate of one hour per day. His savings rate is also his investment rate, or the percentage of present income he sets aside to maintain or increase future consumption.1

Crusoe doesn’t have a fridge, so he preserves his catch by throwing it in a small, dark pond. He can’t see how many fish are in the pond, so he keeps a stack of small rocks near it. Every time he adds a fish, he adds a rock, and every time he eats one, he removes one. The rocks are his money supply.

Suppose that Crusoe shares the island with some mischievous monkeys, who see Crusoe adding rocks to his pile. They decide to imitate him, so every time Crusoe ads a rock, they sneak in and add one as well. The monkeys are inflating the money supply by injecting currency into Crusoe’s investment fund.2

One day, Crusoe suddenly notices that his “savings rate” of fish is double the usual. He decides to compensate by eating some of the fish he catches during the “savings hour.” This is the consumption-side of the boom phase of the business cycle. Crusoe also decides to take some extra time each day to start building himself a new hut. This is the investment-side of the boom phase of the business cycle.

Crusoe now believes that the cost of saving fish is half the usual, while in fact his savings rate is too low for the investments he is planning.

Before long, Friday comes around. When it comes time to eat his midday meal, Crusoe suddenly realizes that he’s out of fish – despite having a surplus of rocks. He’s exhausted his investment capital because the additional currency snuck into his money supply did not represent a real increase in his productivity or savings rate. He doesn’t have the capital (fish) to maintain his previous consumption rate, much less increase it. He is forced to cut his investment rate (he must spend some of his Friday fishing) just to have some fish for Friday’s dinner. He must also abandon his incomplete hut because he does not have the time to finish it. The abandoned hut is an extravagant expenditure that represents a loss of capital.3 This is the bust phase of the business cycle.

To review, here’s the overall impact of the monkey’s trickery: Sunday-Friday, Crusoe catches the same number of fish, but consumes more, and therefore saves less. That’s the boom period. Friday, Crusoe consumes less fish, and spends less time for maintaining his nets (capital). Some of his investment/consumption time must now be spent in production. That’s the bust period. If Crusoe’s initial savings rate allows him to just break even each week 4, his nets will gradually get worse and worse and he will eventually go hungry.5

Notes

  1. Crusoe prefers to enjoy his fish sooner rather than later, but he is willing to put aside some of his catch to get more fish later. The discount he gives to eating a fish Friday is his time preference, or his originary interest rate. (To that, he adds the risk that the fish will spoil by Friday to get the market or “real” interest rate.)
  2. As long as the monkeys keep contributing one stone for every fish, Crusoe can account for their trickery. But if the monkeys are unpredictable, it will be impossible for Crusoe to set the proper savings rate.In the real world, the originary interest rate reflects the average time preference of all savers. If someone starts monkeying around with the interest rates, it becomes impossible for investors (or the monkeys at the Fed) to know what the real rate of savings is even if they know that the rate is being manipulated.
  3. That abandoned hut represents investments which exceed the ability of the actual savings rate to complete. The resources it takes to build compete with worthwhile investments (such as repairing the fishing nets) by raising the prices for all capital. Ridiculous business models and sky-high salaries during the dot-com boom, as well as over-extended sub-prime mortgages likewise compete with legitimate business models, salaries, and mortgages. Manipulating the money supply makes it difficult to distinguish bad investments from good ones, so no one can escape the inevitable crunch.
  4. That is, zero net profit, an equilibrium rate of savings, or “the evenly rotating economy” in Mises’ terminology.
  5. Suppose Crusoe decides to ignore his hunger and work on his nets all Friday. In other words, he trades current production (and therefore consumption) for higher future consumption (that is, economic growth). If he does so voluntarily, there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s nothing inherently more desirable or efficient in spending some of one’s time starving just to increase future production (that is, in valuing economic growth over present consumption.) Note that the longer Crusoe delays the shift back to production, the more severe the miss-allocation of resources (and his hunger) becomes. The monkey’s trickery does not actually make Crusoe to become a better saver – he is more likely to start saving less because of uncertainty over the future.

Further reading

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The One Minute Case For Advertising

Why defend advertising?

While the abundance of advertising is usually viewed as a sign of the vitality of capitalism, it is nevertheless under a near-universal assault by intellectuals. Because advertising “blatantly and unapologetically appeals to the self-interest of consumers for the blatant and selfish gain of capitalists”1, attacks on advertising are an assault on capitalism and ethical egoism. Arguments against advertising usually take two forms: the argument is that advertising is economically inefficient and the argument that advertising is somehow coercive. 2

The myth of “perfect competition”

Most economic arguments against advertising derive from the theory of “perfect competition, ” which is an ideal state against which markets are to be judged. This state is characterized by homogeneous products, relatively small sellers without monopoly power, prices which approach the cost of goods, consumers who have perfect information about all products and prices, and no entry costs to markets.

Advertising violates all these conditions, mainstream economists argue. Advertising seeks to establish product loyalty, and therefore to make certain brands more valuable than others. This creates barriers to entry by giving companies monopoly privileges, and allows them to price goods above cost. Furthermore, advertising is an imperfect and biased way of communicating product information to consumers. Finally, advertising retards progress by making it more expensive for new producers to enter the market.

In the real world, markets work quite differently: the essential characteristic of capitalism is the entrepreneurs who invest capital in new services, products, technologies, and businesses models. When their predictions are right, they gain a temporary advantage over their competition and turn a profit; when they are wrong, they take a loss. Success in business requires continual insight into which investments will prove profitable.

Rather than being a barrier to entry, advertising makes competition possible. New businesses and products stimulate demand by announcing their benefits to consumers. Expanding demand makes goods cheaper by creating economies of scale. While advertising is often attacked for creating demand for shoddy goods, it is not sufficient to advertise to gain consumer loyalty – only positive customer experience and continued positive goodwill can do that. Advertising is what allows new market entrants to capitalize on consumer dissatisfaction and dislodge established firms, as Japanese auto makers did when they demonstrated the superior value and quality of their cars over American ones.

The perfect competition model assumes that competing companies automatically lower prices to match their competitors. In reality, no business wants to lower prices unless consumers expect them – and it is advertising which performs that role by educating consumers about the competition. Advertising itself is a check on high marketing budgets: as consumers become better educated, competitive pressure creates price wars which force businesses to minimize expenses. 3

Yet another criticism is that advertising is a biased method of consumer education. Yet the continued importance of advertising as an influence on buyers proves that the creator of a good is the party most qualified to communicate the value proposition it offers, whether directly or through an intermediary. While word-of-mouth reports and independent product testing organizations are essential sources of consumer education, competitive pressure through advertising provides the claims whose veracity they evaluate.

Advertising is non-coercive

Opponents of “consumerism” often claim that advertising creates its own demand. But a commercial cannot simply implant a desire in the viewer. Rather, advertising tells consumers how their existing values can be satisfied in a particular concrete form. Some advertisements seek to meet well-defined values: toothpaste for clean teeth. Others educate consumers about products which fill a specific need: sports drinks for athletes, or diet colas for the health-conscious. Some advertising functions much like art, and present a concretization of highly abstract or subconscious values. For example, a sports car commercial may appeals to consumers who seek independence and efficiency, while a luxury sedan commercial might appeal to those who value comfort and elegance. Attacking advertising solely for appealing to emotions is as silly as criticizing a painting or a movie for appealing to the viewers’ emotion rather than presenting a dry, factual account.

Ultimately, advertising is a public appeal to the mutual self-interest of the seller and buyer. Movements to silence or limit advertising seek to regulate the freedom of the individual to voluntarily interact with others, and therefore are an assault on both freedom of speech and the right of association.

References:

  1. Google Books: Jerry Kirkpatrick: In Defense of Advertising: Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism, and Laissez-Faire Capitalism.
  2. The Five (Wrongheaded) Complaints against Advertising by Jerry Kirkpatrick
  3. Persistently high advertising budgets are indications of high barriers to entry, usually due to government interference. For example, in the case of drug companies, the FDA forces drug makers to spend up to a billion dollars to deliver a single drug to market. This limits the drug market to all but the largest companies and most profitable medicines. Prescription drugs have large advertising budgets because the legal barriers to entry make it prohibitively expensive to compete on price or quality, or to appeal to smaller markets such as rare diseases.

Further reading:

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