Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds

10/03/2014

This is the title of a book published by Charles Mackay in 1841 that I started reading over the weekend. I’ve only read about a quarter of the book and already it has been very interesting. The book shows how as a collective we humans are in fact quite stupid. We never learn from our mistakes. We continue to fall for the same tricks over and over again. What do I mean? Well I well let the words of the book tell it for me:

“Louis XIV. died in 1715, and the heir to the throne being an infant only seven years of age, the Duke of Orleans assumed the reins of government, as regent, during his minority. Law now found himself in a more favourable position. The tide in his affairs had come, which, taken at the flood, was to waft him on to fortune. The regent was his friend, already acquainted with his theory and pretensions, and inclined, moreover, to aid him in any efforts to restore the wounded credit of France, bowed down to the earth by the extravagance of the long reign of Louis XIX.”- Page 9

“When Law presented himself at court he was most cordially received. He offered two memorials to the regent, in which he set forth the evils that had befallen France, owing to an insufficient currency, at different times depreciated. He asserted that a metallic currency, unaided by a paper money, was wholly inadequate to the wants of a commercial country, and particularly cited the examples of Great Britain and Holland to shew the advantages of paper. He used many sound arguments on the subject of credit, and proposed as a means of restoring that of France, then at so low an ebb among the nations, that he should be allowed to set up a bank, which should have the management of the royal revenues, and issue notes both on that and on landed security. He further proposed that this bank should be administered in the king’s name, but subject to the control of commissioners to be named by the States-General.”- Page 11

This is the beginning of the tale of John Law and the Mississippi Bubble. The Mississippi bubble was the same as all the other artificial stock bubbles that came after it right up to the housing bubble that popped in 2008 and brought so much economic misery to the entire world. These two passages show how men get themselves into positions of power and then abuse their positions. It shows how paper currency always ends with bad news:

“Thus the system continued to flourish till the commencement of the year 1720. The warnings of the parliament, that too great a creation of paper money would, sooner or later, bring the country to bankruptcy, were disregarded.”- Page 20

Whilst this was going on in France a similar scenario was unfolding in Great Britain with the South-Sea Company. Just like today, and just like throughout the whole of history no doubt, the people ignored the warnings that were given to them:

“Exchange Alley was in a fever of excitement. The company’s stock, which had been at a hundred and thirty the previous day, gradually rose to three hundred, and continued to rise with the most astonishing rapidity during the whole time that the bill in its several stages was under discussion. Mr. Walpole was almost the only statesman in the House who spoke out boldly against it. He warned them, in eloquent and solemn language, of the evils that would ensue. It countenanced, he said, “the dangerous practice of stock-jobbing, and would divert the genius of the nation from trade and industry. It would hold out a dangerous lure to decoy the unwary to their ruin, by making them part with the earnings of their labour for a prospect of imaginary wealth. The great principle of the project was an evil of first-rate magnitude; it was to raise artificially the value of the stock, by exciting and keeping up a general infatuation, and by promising dividends out of funds which could never be adequate to the purpose.” In a prophetic spirit he added, that if the plan succeeded, the directors would become masters of the government, form a new and absolute aristocracy in the kingdom, and control the resolutions of the legislature. If it failed, which he was convinced it would, the result would bring general discontent and ruin upon the country. Such would be the delusion, that when the evil day came, as come it would, the people would start up, as from a dream, and ask themselves if these things could have been true. All his eloquence was in vain. He was looked upon as a false prophet, or compared to the hoarse raven, croaking omens of evil. His friends, however, compared him to Cassandra, predicting evils which would only be believed when they came home to men’s hearths, and stared them in the face at their own boards.”- Page 30

“Several peers spoke warmly against the scheme; but their warnings fell upon dull, cold ears. A speculating frenzy had seized them as well as the plebeians. Lord North and Grey said the bill was unjust in its nature, and might prove fatal in its consequences, being calculated to enrich the few and impoverish the many. The Duke of Wharton followed; but, as he only retailed at second-hand the arguments so eloquently stated by Walpole in the Lower House, he was not listened to with even the same attention that had been bestowed upon Lord North and Grey. Earl Cowper followed on the same side, and compared the bill to the famous horse of the siege of Troy. Like that, it was ushered in and received with great pomp and acclamations of joy, but bore within it treachery and destruction. The Earl of Sunderland endeavoured to answer all objections; and on the question being put, there appeared only seventeen peers against, and eighty-three in favour of the project. The very same day on which it passed the Lords, it received the royal assent, and became the law of the land.”- Page 31

“And thus, to use the words of the Parliamentary History, were seen, in the space of eight months, the rise, progress, and fall of that mighty fabric, which, being wound up by mysterious springs to a wonderful height, had fixed the eyes and expectations of all Europe, but whose foundation, being fraud, illusion, credulity, and infatuation, fell to the ground as soon as the artful management of its directors was discovered.”- Page 42

“During the progress of this famous bubble, England presented a singular spectacle. The public mind was in a state of unwholesome fermentation. Men were no longer satisfied with the slow but sure profits of cautious industry. The hope of boundless wealth for the morrow made them heedless and extravagant for to-day. A luxury, till then unheard-of, was introduced, bringing in its train a corresponding laxity of morals. The over-bearing insolence of ignorant men, who had arisen to sudden wealth by successful gambling, made men of true gentility of mind and manners blush that gold should have power to raise the unworthy in the scale of society.”- Page 42

That last line is so important I feel because it is where we are at today, we have ignorant men in positions of great power and influence. The money masters continue to drag the world down the sewer as we continue to play the game of life by the rules they created. The sad thing is that if history is our teacher, this book tells us that we are likely to continue to be led from one disaster to another. Always on the brink of ruin whilst a select minority profit from the pain of the masses.

This article is authored by Lee Cooper

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