Monday, August 23, 2010

Say's Law of Markets: Prelude

It was February 22, 1797, "the Last Invasion of England." Panic spread throughout England when a small French force commanded by Colonel William Tate landed in Wales at Carregwastad Head near the village of Fishguard (Abergwaun). This was a diversionary maneuver in support of Theobald Wolfe Tone's abortive rising in Ireland.

Yes, 1066 is the date all school children learn as the date of the last successful invasion of England. This, of course, ignores the incursion by Henry Tudor in 1485 that culminated in the Battle of Market Bosworth and the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty. It also tends to downplay or ignore the fact that England was constantly threatened by enemies, both foreign and domestic, as it left the more integrated society of the Middle Ages behind and struggled between individualism and collectivism as the Nation-State system evolved.

The Rise of the Nation-State

Nor, despite popular myth, was England an isolated case. The basic conflict, however, was probably more sharply delineated in England than anywhere else. This was possibly because the struggle was confined in a much smaller area, with less interaction with other participants on the European stage, at least within England itself. This was not, however, the extreme isolation that many historians have posited; the British Isles were never completely outside the "family of Europe." The Channel only delayed participation of the "Three Kingdoms" in the Thirty Years War until after the official termination of hostilities with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

The Treaty of Westphalia only succeeded in shifting the titanic struggle for the future of civilization to the east and to the west of Central Europe. The moment open hostilities ceased in the German States, the "Deluge" began in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the east, and the Civil Wars and the Great Rebellion convulsed the British Isles to the west. Ultimately, the older, more integrated and increasingly personalist civilization of Medieval Europe went down before the elitist "new things" of the modern age: individualism and collectivism. The most significant "new thing" was the shift in the basis and understanding of right and wrong — the natural moral law — from the Intellect (Nature, discerned by reason), to the Will: opinion backed up with the coercive power of the State.

As both Mortimer Adler and Heinrich Rommen pointed out, changing the basis of the natural law from Intellect to Will laid the foundation of the modern totalitarian State lauded by John Maynard Keynes: might makes right. Not surprisingly, we find the philosophy of the absolutist Nation-State detailed in the work of Thomas Hobbes, notably Leviathan, written in support of the "divine right" monarchy of the Stuarts, particularly in Hobbes's assertion that the divine right sovereign is the ultimate owner of everything in the country.

With even less surprise we discover that the parliamentarians who temporarily overthrew the Stuart monarchy, replacing it with the Commonwealth, did not differ substantially in their basic philosophy of government — or in their approach to political economy. As Walter Bagehot was to analyze the situation in The English Constitution (1867), as England entered the modern age, power shifted not from an elite back to the people, but from a hereditary, aristocratic elite that controlled the land, to a commercial elite that controlled the new technologies. In a development that took centuries, ordinary people were, by and large, stripped of any significant ownership or control of the means of production, and increasingly forced to rely exclusively on wages for the whole of their income.

This was the culmination of a process that had begun under Henry VII Tudor. Under the Tudor dynasty, the common people rapidly lost what little political and economic power they had slowly gained over the centuries. It was with the rise of the "new men" and their commercial and financial power that small farmers were forced off the land to concentrate the resources of the country on wool production, "the Staple." This called forth the satiric observation by Thomas More in Utopia to the effect that in England, instead of the normal arrangement in which men ate sheep, the sheep were eating men.

The Glorious Revolution and the Bank of England

Even the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 was not a triumph of personalism over elitism, but a temporary victory of libertarianism over collectivism. For most people, the change meant little or nothing; it was simply a commercial instead of hereditary elite that seized power. Ownership of the means of production, whether land or technology — and thus power — remained concentrated.

True, given a choice between libertarianism and collectivism, the rational individual will tend to favor libertarianism. Libertarianism recognizes that human beings have rights by the mere fact that they are human, thus making them "natural persons." A libertarian would have little, if any objection to the natural law-based "Four Pillars of an Economically Just Society," although he or she might be confused by the correlative demand that the exercise of natural rights is necessarily constrained within a strict juridical order — no one may exercise his or her rights in any way that harms the right holder, other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole. The Four Pillars of an Economically Just Society thus can be taken as a brief statement of the essential elements that we must find in a well-run society:
• A limited economic role for the State,

• Free and open markets as the best means for determining just wages, just prices, and just profits,

• Recognition and protection of the rights of private property, especially in the means of production (and today, especially, in corporate equity), and — the "fatal omission" from all major schools of economics,

• Widespread direct ownership of the means of production.
This is not, of course, to say that libertarianism is an acceptable philosophy, only that it is less objectionable than collectivism. In general, the libertarian philosophy does not recognize barriers that exist to full participation in the common good, that is, to the full and carefully defined exercise of natural rights by every member of society. In other words, there is a deficient understanding in libertarianism of man as a political animal.

Thus, when the Bank of England was formed in 1694 as a means of accommodating commercial interests in the City of London by discounting and rediscounting bills of exchange, it was, in a sense, the high-water mark of individualism in Europe. It was the last significant move to assert the rights of private property — or any other natural right — as independent of the State, albeit in a truncated way, that is, without full recognition of man's political nature. The State might regulate, define, or otherwise standardize the medium of exchange, but it could in no wise be said to create it.

The problem was that, in order to secure the necessary royal charter, the Bank of England had to agree to loan the State virtually the whole of its capitalization in the form of gold coin and bullion. The capitalization of the Bank was thereby transformed from precious metal, into pieces of paper that the State certified as being as good as gold — but without actually having the gold to back up the government debt paper now held by the Bank.

This move did not change the original purpose of the Bank. It did, however, minimize the commercial aspect of the Bank of England by handing over to it management of the currency. This gave the impression that the money supply did not consist of anything that could be used in settlement of a debt — and thus anything on which a bill of exchange could be drawn, i.e., the present value of existing and future marketable goods and services — but of coin, banknotes and (later) demand deposits. In other words, the understanding of "money" changed from being a symbol of what was owned, a means of conveying a private property right in existing or future marketable goods or services, to itself being a marketable good or service — a commodity.

This was a serious and, ultimately, fatal inroad on private property, and a consequent victory for collectivism. Money is not simply a State-certified token or purchase order. Rather, money is a means of conveying a claim on existing or future marketable goods and services in which the issuer of the money has a private property right. When the issuer of a currency does not have a private property right in what backs the currency, private property has been violated to that extent: theft. By backing the currency by its own "faith and credit" — which translates into the ability to collect taxes in the future out of wealth belonging to its citizens — the State erodes the institution of private property throughout society.

The Last, Great Hope of Mankind

In light of the great victory that collectivism had achieved over both libertarianism and personalism by redefining money, the success of the American Revolution takes on an even greater significance. Superficially a triumph of individualism, the American Revolution was, in reality, a rebirth of an ideal that — while it had never reached full realization — was more consistent with human nature than mere individualism.

As originally conceived America was as close as the human race has ever come to a realization of humanity's political nature, that is, a creature with individual rights within a social context. Had it not been for human chattel slavery, the new government of the United States, still the only government in the world that specifically acknowledges sovereignty of the individual, would have (in human terms) been as close to the ideal of an economically and politically just society as could be achieved. This was chronicled in such diverse works as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and William Cobbett's The Emigrant's Guide. The link between Catholic social teaching as formulated in the social doctrine of Pope Pius XI and de Tocqueville's observations of 1830s America has yet to be properly explored.

In America, the above-noted "Four Pillars of an Economically Just Society, the essential elements of an economically just society were all present for what may have been the first time in history. While obvious from a natural law point of view, these Pillars have often been derailed or sidelined by circumstances. More often, however, the Four Pillars are marginalized or ignored due to a lack of sophistication about the institutions of money and credit. This is crucial, because money and credit in whatever form they manifest themselves in society are the chief means by which people acquire and maintain ownership of the means of production.

Admittedly, lack of widespread understanding about money and credit was not a problem that was solved in America so much as sidestepped. The chief means of production up until the latter half of the 19th century was the same in America as it had been throughout the world for millennia: land. In America it was much easier to acquire a piece of land than anywhere else in the world. This accelerated with the passage of Abraham Lincoln's 1862 Homestead Act, laying the foundation for the immense commercial and industrial expansion that the United States experienced during the latter half of the 19th century.

The Great Shift

With the closing of the land frontier to all intents and purposes in the 1890s, even the United States became susceptible to the swings in the business cycle caused by misuse of money and credit and the lack of widespread ownership of the means of production. The predominant means of production was shifting rapidly from land and labor, to capital — but the ownership of the new industrial technologies was highly concentrated. Concentration of ownership became greater and greater in the twentieth century, until the Great Depression put an end to widespread small ownership. The middle class changed from being small land owners and proprietors of small shops and manufactories, often almost completely family run, to wage earners, dependent on the wage and welfare system to make ends meet.

This changed the whole character of American society. Before the Great Depression, people who subsisted on wages alone were, by and large, viewed as "the working poor." Whatever degree of affluence the middle class enjoyed came largely out of small ownership. With the shift that occurred with the Great Depression and the tendency under Keynesian economics for the financial system as well as the State to favor highly concentrated ownership of large industries and combinations (reaching its height in the "conglomerate fever" of the 1970s), wages and employer paid fixed benefits and pensions became the road to presumed financial security for most people.

Ownership of the means of production, previously virtually the sole road to comfort, even affluence, became an alien concept for most people. People began looking more and more to the State to make up for the failure of the free market to provide adequately for people's material needs. Under the pressure of the Keynesian economic hegemony and its utter reliance on existing accumulations of savings as the only source of financing for new capital formation, non-productive consumer credit and government debt assumed larger and rapidly expanding roles as the driving force behind economic growth, or even to sustain current levels. The bubble may finally have burst with the current "Great Recession."

The English Situation

Today's "Great Recession," however, was still more than two centuries in the future in 1797. The Industrial Revolution had not yet made it to America in any significant degree, but it was starting to have its effect in England. Napoleon Bonaparte might sneer at England as "a nation of shopkeepers," but even he could not deny that the commercial and industrial might of the British Empire presented the only real threat to his plan of conquest. Even the retreat from Moscow in 1812 would have been a setback, albeit major, from which "the Man of Destiny" would quickly have recovered had not the English been there to back up the Allies. Even so, the speed with which Napoleon was able to assemble yet another Grand Army after his escape from Elba demonstrates the level of financial and commercial resources necessary to stop him — which only the English at that time had.

That is not to say that the British did not cripple their own war effort almost fatally from the beginning by mismanagement of the money and credit system, and by working (almost as if by plan) to keep most people out of ownership. There was no land frontier in the British Isles to provide opportunities for ownership of productive assets, and the financial system virtually guaranteed that ownership of both the land and the new industrial capital would be highly concentrated. All it needed was a trigger for the financial and political powers-that-be to seize control of the money power in England, already highly concentrated as a result of the virtual hijacking of the Bank of England a century previously.

That trigger was provided by "the Last Invasion of England," which we noted at the beginning of this posting. There wasn't all that much to it. On February 22, 1797 a force of between 1,200 and 1,400 French soldiers were landed from a flotilla of four small ships at Carregwastad Head near the village of Fishguard in Wales. The first landing spot selected was "near Bristol," where the French Commander, the elderly Irish-American Colonel William Tate, was to land his force, composed mostly of sweepings from various French jails, many of which were probably still uncertain as to which end of a musket to point at an enemy.

The plan was to take and burn Bristol, then cross into Wales and march against Chester and Liverpool. How this was supposed to be accomplished by a force of at most 1,400 ill-equipped and poorly trained recruits wasn't exactly clear. Weather conditions were unfavorable for a landing near Bristol, so Colonel Tate decided to go straight to Wales, setting course for Cardigan Bay. When the French warships arrived at Fishguard Bay, a signal gun from the local fort fired to warn the townspeople was mistaken for possible resistance, so Tate, elderly but not stupid, circled around to Carregwastad Head as the landing point, rather than let his ragtag troops be caught with their feet wet and slaughtered while attempting to land.

The troops and supplies were unloaded and on Thursday morning, February 23rd, the French ships sailed away to report a successful landing — their departure possibly hastened by the distant sighting of a large number of women in traditional Welsh garb come out to see the strange sight, mistaken in the light of dawn for red-coated British soldiers. The British captured two of the French vessels, a frigate and a corvette (a vessel smaller than a frigate), and the other two French warships returned home.

The French soldiers almost immediately set about looting and were unfortunate enough to be successful, the local folk having "liberated" a large quantity of wine and food from a Portuguese merchantman that had run aground recently. There were a few shots fired, but apparently most of the French were too drunk to fight effectively (or at all), and surrendered on Saturday (some sources say Friday) to the local militia led by Lord Cawdor.

The somewhat farcical nature of the "invasion" is illustrated by the epic of "Jemima Fawr," or "Jemima the Great," revered in somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion as a great heroine in local legend. Jemima Nicholas, a 47-year old housewife and wife of the town cobbler, single-handedly captured a dozen of the invaders sober enough to walk under their own power. Although armed only with a pitchfork, Jemima the Great brought them into town, locked them up, and went out looking for more victims.

The Run on the Bank

While mildly amusing to read about, and evidently not taken too seriously by the local Welsh men and women, the effect was otherwise throughout England to the east. People rushed to convert their Bank of England banknotes into gold and withdraw all of their savings (in gold, of course) just in case the diversionary raid in Wales turned out to be the opening shots in a full-fledged invasion.

Gold reserves dropped so low that Sir William Pitt's government permitted (or ordered, depending on your source) the Bank of England temporarily to suspend convertibility of its banknotes into gold. This temporary measure lasted for more than two decades. Convertibility of the paper pound into gold was not restored until 1821.

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2 comments:

Susanne said...

I have been following your blog for some time - probably more than a year - and am awed by your command of the history and logic that supports true social and econ justice

At the same time I become discouraged at the amount and degree of misunderstanding and misinformation that prevents many people of good WILL from realizing that they/we must use our INTELLECT
[brain/mind? ability to think/ reason / understand and live in conformity to
natural and natural MORAL law if we are ever to move beyond the false dilemmas/dichotomies between individualism/collectivism - free market fundamentalism and state controlled [currently really finance sector controlled ??] coercion?enslavement

I have ordered your new book and look forward to seeing if it helps me to better grasp the ?keys? to your almost overwhelmingly comprehensive presentation on the blog

Thank you for your most generous sharing of the fruits of your intellectual and moral labors in the service of justice - as understood in natural law tradition

Susanne Evart

Michael D. Greaney said...

We're going to Chicago in a couple of weeks to see if we can start bringing natural law people of all faiths together to start the process of restoring some sanity to the social order. Can it be done? If we believe CESJ co-founder, the late Father William Ferree in his pamphlet, "Introduction to Social Justice" (available as a free download from the CESJ website), absolutely. In social justice terms, nothing is impossible.

If not in Chicago ... well, we still have Buffalo and Beijing coming up. Frankly, if we can't get with the program soon, I believe we're looking at a serious crackup, both economically and politically, from which it will be a lot harder to recover.