The essay that follows was originally the third in a seven part series beginning with “The Economic Age” and ending with “The Free Trade Cult”. The introductory essay to that series was the last essay I re-posted here in my “Tory Classics” series. I wrote that essay as an introduction to the economics series because I wanted to start by placing economics in perspective by arguing that economics is not the most important thing in the world. The following essay is a more typical introduction to the topic of economics and deals with such basics as production, distribution, and consumption.
Towards the end of this essay I argue that production is more important than distribution or consumption because without production there would be nothing to distribute or consume. This is the most important point in the essay. Many are the free market economists who seem to understand everything else about economics except this point.
By Gerry T. Neal
June 4, 2009
Every country’s economy has three basic parts: production, distribution, and consumption. Production refers to the creation of material wealth and consists of agriculture and manufacturing. Consumption is the use of the material wealth created in production. Distribution is how material wealth gets from the producer to the consumer.
Material wealth is not the same thing as money. Material wealth includes land and buildings, food and clothing, and other goods that people need or want. Money is just one good out of many and its primary function is to simplify the exchange of other kinds of goods.
Goods which are used to produce other goods are called “capital goods” or just “capital”.
Some people believe that the best and fairest economy is one in which capital goods are owned collectively by the public with distribution being in the hands of the state. These people are called socialists. Others believe that capital goods do not have to be publicly owned but that the system – production, distribution, and consumption – entirely or in part, should be under strict government regulation.
These people have been proven wrong time and again. So much so that they should be embarrassed to express their views in public.
What happens when production is controlled by the state? We need look no further than the late USSR and Red China during the days of Mao to find our answer to that. The state proved incompetent in the production of even the simplest of goods and massive poverty, starvation, and misery was the result.
Without state control of production, there can only ever be partial state control of distribution and consumption. This control takes the form of the state confiscating wealth from the private sector through taxation and handing it over to other people.
Some people believe this is the compassionate thing to do. They are mistaken. Only people can be compassionate, not governments. If you are genuinely compassionate you will express that by helping the poor out of your own wealth. To support with your words and votes, a policy in which the state helps the poor from money it takes from people other than yourself, is not a genuine form of compassion. It is, in fact, a way of avoiding being compassionate, by placing the responsibility for helping the poor onto the shoulders of the state and the taxpaying public instead of bearing it yourself.
The government social programs that make up what is called “the welfare state” were sold to voters as initiatives that would eliminate poverty and bring about a general prosperity. Have they done so? Far from it. Instead they created a permanent and growing, privileged, underclass. They created tensions that threaten to rip the social fabric into pieces by fostering a sense of frustrated entitlement in the poor and a sense of resentment in the middle class which is forced to bear most of the tax burden for the upkeep of the poor.
The idea that the production, distribution, and consumption of material wealth should be planned and controlled by the state is simply wrong. It has never worked in the past, it is not working in the present, why would we be so foolish as to think maybe it will work in the future.
No, the production, distribution, and consumption of material wealth are best left in the hands of private property owners, who buy and sell the goods they produce and the services they offer, in a free market.
A market is a situation (not necessarily a place) in which someone trades something they own for something someone else owns. A “free” market is a market where buyer and seller are allowed to come to their own terms as to the exchange. Let us say a dairy farmer goes to the market to sell his milk and his neighbor who keeps chickens goes to the market to sell his eggs. The dairy farmer needs eggs and the chicken keeper needs milk. The dairy farmer is willing to trade a liter of milk for a dozen eggs and the chicken keeper is willing to make this exchange and so they do so. The price they have decided upon is fair and just. What the dairy farmer is willing to accept in exchange for his milk is based on his own calculations of his own needs, and what the chicken keeper is willing to accept in exchange for his eggs is based on his own calculations of his own needs. No set of government experts anywhere would be better qualified to judge these matters than the farmers involved.
If government experts are not competent to come up with a better price for a single exchange than the participants, they are much less competent to set prices for everybody in the country. Their attempts to do so only cause harm.
When the government says “You cannot buy labour for less than so-many dollars an hour” this is not benefiting workers. No one’s work becomes more valuable because the minimum wage rises. All this does is eliminate jobs that are not worth paying someone minimum wage for. The jobs thus eliminated, are generally the jobs that would otherwise be taken by people entering the workforce, trying to get the experience that better paying jobs require. Everyone who ever got frustrated because all available jobs required experience which could not be obtained without getting a job can thank the government – and the bleeding hearts and the unions which demanded minimum wage laws from the government – for it.
Most market transactions do not consist of the direct barter of goods like eggs and milk. The eggs and milk are both sold for money instead. Money is the medium of exchange in an economy and as such it is the single most valuable commodity. Historically, precious metals like gold and silver have made the best moneys. We no longer use them for money today because governments prefer a paper (or electronic) currency that they can control. By controlling the money supply, they are able to devalue it through inflation (increasing the money supply). This allows the government to confiscate the country’s wealth without raising taxes because they get to spend the new money at the old value of money, before the increase in the money supply causes money’s value to drop relative to other goods in the market.
This discourages saving because if your money is going to be worth less in the future than it is today it makes more sense to spend it now than to save it. Saving is important, however, if a person or a country wishes to become wealthy – or even financially independent. Inflation is the path to national poverty.
We don’t notice inflation as much if consumer prices are not rising. If the production of consumer goods has increased the inflation will keep the prices of those goods from dropping rather than causing it to rise. Thus governments have encouraged manufacturing companies to step up production by outsourcing to countries where it can be done cheaper, causing consumer prices to remain relatively stable while they drain the country’s wealth through inflation.
But what happens when a country increases consumption and allows others to do its production?
Production is more important than distribution and consumption (and agricultural production, which produces necessities is more important than manufacturing which produces luxury items). Production creates wealth which is distributed through the market. Without production there would be nothing to distribute. Consumption uses wealth up. Consumption without production leads to poverty.
Those who think that outsourcing their country’s productive capacity will lead to prosperity because it brings consumer prices down would do well to consider that.
A sound national economy requires production on the part of private property owners, who sell their goods in a free market, and a stable money supply that keeps its value thus encouraging people to save.
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