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Taking on Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the great philosopher of the authoritarian state, in a famous metaphor portrayed the government as a dominating giant or Leviathan, animated by absolute sovereignty, and passing out rewards and punishments as it saw fit. It alone could control the unruly passions of the people and create stability and safety.

Today’s “administrative state”—or government bureaucracy, acting simultaneously as sovereign legislator, executive, and judge—brings Hobbes’ image of the giant vividly to mind.Nowhere is his metaphor more apt than in the government’s attempts at “systemic financial stability.” Hobbes’ 21st century acolytes include former Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and former Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), whose Dodd-Frank Act sought to prevent financial crises, as Hobbes sought to prevent civil wars, by enlarging the giant. Now, as then, how to control the unruly passions, lust for power, and misguided enthusiasms of the state itself is left unanswered.

However, Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, is now taking on Leviathan in the financial system with the proposed Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs (CHOICE) Act. If it seems unlikely that he could fell the giant altogether, perhaps he could limit and better control and confine it, at least with respect to banking and the people’s money. If he succeeded, the federal government would place more emphasis on competitive markets and less on the diktats of the central bank and regulatory bureaucrats whom Dodd-Frank made sovereign.

Writing his book Leviathan in 1651, in the wake of the English Civil War and the beheading of King Charles I, Hobbes had this to say: “By art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of much greater stature and strength.”

He went on:

sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves.

Moreover,

Salus Populi (the people’s safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death.

Writing four decades before the founding of the Bank of England, Hobbes can be forgiven for not mentioning the central bank, which has since become a key element of sovereignty. We need to extend his metaphor to include it. We could say that the central bank is a kind of artificial heart pumping the circulating blood of credit and money, making sure to lend the government as much as it wants. It often pumps this blood of credit to an excessive extent, causing financial markets to inflate, be overly sanguine, then bust, constrict their flows and suffer the heart attacks of financial panics.

Three centuries or so after Hobbes, Leviathan developed a new capability: that of constructing vast shell games guaranteeing huge quantities of other people’s debt and taking vast financial risks, while pretending that it wasn’t doing this, and keeping this debt off the books. I refer to the  invention of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and to related schemes such as government-sponsored insurance companies, like the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. All serve as Leviathan’s artificial stomach and gluttonous appetite for risk, causing in time obesity, flatulence, indigestion, and finally the heartburn of publicly admitted insolvency.

Although financial panics temporarily render Leviathan stunned and confused, in short order it resumes its energetic activity and ambitious pursuit of greater power. Writing legislation in 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009, Senator Dodd and Representative Frank ordered Leviathan to make deep expansions into the financial sector. The people’s financial safety and concord became defined as a new supreme demand for “compliance” with the orders of government bureaucrats, who were assumed to know the right answers.

The Dodd-Frank Act was passed in 2010 on party line votes at a time of insuperable Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Shortly after voting it in, the Democrats suffered stinging losses in that year’s congressional elections. No subsequent Congress would ever have dreamed of passing anything remotely resembling Dodd-Frank, but financial Leviathan had already been put on steroids and unleashed.

Now comes Chairman Hensarling to try to bring financial Leviathan back under control. The CHOICE Act would reform Leviathan’s activity in a wide swath of financial areas. It would:

  • Remove onerous Dodd-Frank burdens on banks that maintain a high tangible capital ratio (defined as 10 percent of total assets), thus creating a simple rule instead of the notoriously complex ones now in force.
  • Force the Financial Stability Oversight Council into greater transparency by cutting back the power of this committee of regulators to make opaque decisions in secret.
  • Correct the egregiously undemocratic governance of another bureaucratic invention, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, by giving it a bipartisan board and subjecting it to the congressional oversight and appropriations process that every federal agency should have.
  • Require greater accountability and transparency from Leviathan’s heart, the Federal Reserve.
  • Require cost-benefit analysis for new regulations and a subsequent measurement of whether they achieved their goals—imagine that!
  • Repeal the “Chevron Doctrine” that leads judges to defer to federal agencies. This is essential, as bureaucrats make ever-bolder excursions beyond their legal authority.
  • Take numerous steps to relieve Leviathan’s heavy hand on small businesses and small banks.

The CHOICE Act will likely be taken up by the House Financial Services Committee this fall—and be ready for further consideration if, as is forecast by most people, Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming election. The debates about the bill will be contentious and sharply partisan, with vehement opposition from those who love Leviathan. How far the reform bill can go depends on how other parts of the election turn out.

Will financial Leviathan grow ever fatter, more arrogant, and more intrusive? Or can it be put on a long-term diet by constraining its arrogance, correcting its pretensions, imbuing its artificial soul with behavior befitting a republic, and put in the service of a limited government of checks and balances?

The CHOICE Act is a good start at this daunting and essential project.

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