Religion & Liberty Online

The Real Threat to Economic Freedom

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A new book argues that some Big Players are working behind the scenes to make it increasingly impossible for us to own anything. Are things really that bad? And if so, do the offered solutions make sense?

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The tyrannical collusion between global and corporate elites and the U.S. government leaves us teetering on the edge of losing everything and owning nothing, according to Carol Roth in her new book, You Will Own Nothing: Your War with a New Financial World Order and How to Fight Back. The New York Times bestselling author warns of a conspiracy to strip us of our property rights in a variety of ways, including coercive ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) policies, social credit scores, the devaluation of the dollar, central bank digital currency, technocracy, failing institutions in higher education, and the erosion of home ownership and even parental rights. She often has her finger on real problems but then catapults to the worst-case scenarios, which sometimes sound like paranoid conspiracy claptrap.

For Roth, the COVID pandemic is the straw that broke the camel’s back. She argues that this resulted in the most significant wealth transfer of all time, whereby elites radically rewrote the rules and benefited themselves at the expense of others. I’m not sure it was the biggest wealth transfer ever, but it certainly created winners and losers and exacerbated a century of government growth.

The author’s real thesis is that we are at war: “World War ‘F’—a financial world where you are ‘F’d.” OK, it’s not a traditional boots-on-the-ground war, but just as devastating, because this is a war for control of economic resources. And it’s a war she believes elites and governments are winning by way of three forces: government, “bad actors and power-grabbers” (including the World Economic Forum and “big business”), and perhaps her biggest enemy, “Big Tech.” It was Klaus Schwab, leader and mastermind of the World Economic Forum, i.e., elitist power mongers on steroids, who declared, “You will own nothing, and you will be happy!” Our overlords know what is best and will instruct the peasants on what to do and how to feel about it.

Roth views this as a late-stage attempt to cling to an American empire collapsing under its own weight (too much power and debt), and it’s all self-inflicted. She’s not entirely wrong, and Roth boils this down to our loss of private property rights. She’s correct that wealth comes from ownership and that ownership is under attack. But the book has a hyperbolic tone that would have us believe we’re days away from totalitarianism. She calls bureaucrats central planners, but gives the “elites” too much credit for their ability to design some new world order and know the future. It reads like the elites know more than we do; she even claims that “ownership is a subject people tend to greatly misunderstand.” Maybe.

My take: the real enemy is cronyism, which is less about the elites knowing more than we do than it is about some having the resources to gain ever greater political privilege. This privilege inoculates them from the forces of profit and loss. Cronyism evolves behind closed doors, and the precedent set in the last century is worrying.

Roth sees this happening through a variety of players. The government and its bureaucrats, bad actors, big business (which she views with contempt), and a host of “useful idiots.” The process starts with “believers” who see a problem that must be solved. Sometimes these are legitimate; also sometimes, she suggests, the “problems” are contrived by those who stand to gain. The solutions to these problems then create a host of unintended consequences. Next, there are “racketeers” who financially benefit from the “problem” as it has been defined. Lastly, there are those “useful idiots,” who lend support to the cause.

Climate change provides a helpful example. What exactly is the severity of the change is an honest question. It gets hijacked, however, by racketeers who gain financially from the problem and its definition. They then collude with the state to “solve” the problem. The useful idiots serve as activists who don’t understand the bigger picture. She calls it the “Hollywoodification” of a crisis.

This process also increases coziness between the elites who have elected themselves as “problem-solvers” and the government, which is always happy to fatten itself. Chapter by chapter, she leads us through issues that have spiraled out of control, which she argues erase private ownership.

And yet, things are not always as imminently dire as Roth thinks. For example, what China is doing with social credit scores is a gross human rights violation and an affront to human dignity. It’s typical for authoritarian China, though, which does not view its citizens as having intrinsic rights but rather as a population that exists to serve the state. The U.S. government does not use social credit scores. It’s possible we could get there, but that doesn’t mean we will and still have the rule of law. Will your posts on Facebook today be used to deny you voting rights tomorrow? Doubtful. Yet Roth worries about the road to such a state of affairs. If we can fire and socially shame people for not getting vaccinated, what’s next? She sees a very slippery slope to authoritarianism.

Roth also overstates the problem of “Big Tech,” her preferred boogeyman. This stems from her dislike of big business, which she lists as one of the three forces eroding private ownership. A firm grasp of economic theory would help ameliorate her concerns. Firm size is determined by the economies of scale in the production, which vary across products and industries. It’s a technical point and helps us understand that big isn’t necessarily bad. The real problem with big business is that it often benefits from big government. Roth is not an economist, though she’s well read, and cites the likes of Frédéric Bastiat, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell. Unfortunately, she doesn’t bring what’s she’s learned from these thinkers to bear in her arguments. We shouldn’t favor small businesses more than big businesses—we should, instead, favor consumers. To that end we should argue for economic freedom and limited government, which are the solutions to each problem Roth addresses.

Big Tech includes social media, and the author worries about the free flow of information, digital censorship, and outright manipulation. Just a few examples: We know that the New York Post’s exposé of the Hunter Biden’s laptop business was suppressed. Whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s use of Big Tech for the unlawful surveillance of Americans. The FBI “encouraged” Twitter to mute information about the origins of COVID. Fair enough. But the solution lies in ensuring that new competition can emerge and that Big Tech can’t use its Big privilege to stop the competition. That should be the frontier of our fight.

Roth is right to worry about government debt as a threat to private ownership. U.S. spending and debt have skyrocketed, and monetary policy is off the rails. A stable currency is an essential element of a free and prosperous society. Inflation is theft. Continually debasing the currency is fueled by the lust for government growth and power. It erodes investment and entrepreneurship and, ultimately, private ownership. Needless to say, all this disproportionately harms the poor.

Roth ties the dollar’s decline to its transition from a commodity-backed currency to a fiat currency in 1971, effectively ending the Bretton Woods system. This allows the Federal Reserve to engage in what she calls manipulative monetary policy fueled by crises ranging from the Great Recession to the COVID pandemic. The debasement of the dollar affects not only international trade and the willingness of people to hold the dollar but also the stability of our livelihoods. She argues that this creates a space for central bank digital currencies, which will further centralize the financial system. The good news, however, is that the U.S. has yet to commit to a central bank digital currency, and even when it does, we always have the right of first refusal.

The author also worries that home ownership is increasingly out of reach for Americans owing to burdensome regulations, which account for a quarter of the overall home price. This is fueled by “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) meddling, which restricts where and what types of homes will be built. Growing state and local property taxes add to the problem and force people to find new places to live. Roth seems to value owning a home over renting one. Owning a home allows people to build wealth, but in some cases, renting is preferred—for example, in New York City. We don’t need to promote owning over renting, but we do need more economic freedom to make both more accessible.

Like home ownership, we’ve sold a four-year college degree as essential to achieving the American Dream. This is a myth worth busting. Roth argues that not all education is equally valuable, that not everyone requires a four-year degree, and that the financing of these degrees amounts to racketeering. As a college professor, I couldn’t agree more. The escalating cost of college is leading young people to acquire substantial debt loads, which take decades to repay. College costs are skyrocketing due to administrative bloat and government subsidy. The author argues that burdensome college debt further erodes your future ownership capability. This represents a wealth transfer to higher education and the federal government, which owns almost all student loan debt to begin with.

Now, what does the author suggest that we do about all this? Take back our wealth, which includes making sound personal financial decisions. Grow our income. Reduce our personal debt. Max out our 401(k)s, diversify our portfolios, and hedge our investments. Honestly, any financial planner would advise the same.

Roth also asks that we fight bad ideas. Agreed. At the end of the day, much of the battle will be for a return to classical liberalism and freedom. The author wants us to fight ESG and investment manipulation, which further privileges the elites, through grassroots efforts. She suggests we consider a lawsuit if a company’s directors act against their fiduciary obligations. This is easier said than done, however. We should protect our kids from indoctrination in public schools by getting involved in local school boards, and help them make good decisions about college. Also agreed.

The missed opportunity in You Will Own Nothing was to frame property rights and ownership in the context of economic freedom. Roth understands the general concept of what it means to have economic freedom—an opportunity society where people are free to buy and sell as they see fit and pursue entrepreneurship, and where the government is limited to protecting private property rights and the rule of law. Yet she never refers to the empirical measures of “economic freedom”—the extent of regulatory burden, the rule of law, sound money, the freedom to trade, the size of government, etc.—the purpose of which are to quantify our prosperity. Had she framed what she sees as the rapid loss of owning a house, a car, or a business within that empirical context, the book’s often apocalyptic tone would have moderated by providing the reader an understanding of how we could fix these problems.

At some points, the hyperbolic dystopia she envisions is just that—an overwrought, albeit awful, yet still imaginary Nowhere. She worries, for instance, about digital ownership and subscriptions because companies could potentially revoke our ownership or alter content. Sure, but that runs counter to their financial interests in the long run. Digital music is better for many because we no longer require storage for dozens of CDs. We pay only for the songs we like, meaning we own more of what we want and less of what we don’t. The good news is that they still sell records if you’re a collector and prefer to listen to music that way. Roth also seems upset that a car company would sell a subscription package for heated seats. But this seems brilliant if you live in a state outside of Alaska. Paying for heated seats only in winter months better accommodates the needs of consumers. In short, ownership doesn’t always have to be physical; in fact, it will be increasingly digital, and that’s often good, because it expands our choices. The challenge for all of us is to remember that the real enemy of economic freedom and ownership is not format or reach per se, but corporatism, which always occurs at the individual’s expense.

Anne Bradley

Anne Bradley, Ph.D., is an Acton affiliate scholar, the vice president of Academic Affairs at The Fund for American Studies, and professor of economics at The Institute of World Politics.