Housing, a central priority for government policy for many decades, collapsed in 2008; even in 2011, millions of homes are underwater. This poses many economic and ethical issues.
This elegant and fact-filled book by Laissez Faire Club senior editor Doug French examines the background to the case of "strategic default," or walking away from your home, and considers its implications from a variety of different perspectives. The thesis here is that there is nothing ominous or evil about this practice. It is an extension of economic rationality.
The idea that "a man's house is his castle" is attributed to American Revolutionary James Otis from 1761, and his idea was that government should never be permitted to breach its walls. It is a good thought, in context, one that sums up a dogged attachment to the right of private property.
In the 20th century, however, government got behind the idea that every citizen should be provided a castle of his or her own. This is the essence of the good life, we were told, the very core of our material aspirations. The home is the most valuable possession we could ever have. It is the best investment, even better than gold. Government would make us all owners, one way or another, even if it meant violating rights to make it happen.
Beginning in 2007 and culminating in 2008, this dream was smashed, as home values all over the country plummeted, wiping out a primary means of savings. Some homes fell by as much as 75–80 percent, instilling shock and awe all across the country. The thing that was never supposed to happen had happened. This meant more than mere asset depreciation. An article of faith had fallen, and there were many spillover effects.
The home was the foundation of our financial strategy, our love of accumulating large things, the core of our strategic outlook for our lives. Once that goes, much more goes besides. The things in the home suddenly become devalued. We look around ourselves in astonishment at how much stuff we have, and we are weighed down by the very prospect of moving. We are longing for a different way, perhaps for the first time in a century.
The collapse of the housing market — which has occurred despite every effort by the government to prevent it — coincides with the highest rate of unemployment among young people that we've seen in many generations. Economic opportunity is dwindling, at least in traditional jobs. The advance of digital technology has made it possible to do nontraditional jobs while living anywhere, and perhaps changing one's location every year or two.
Millions have walked away from their mortgages. Those who have done so swear that they will never again be tricked by the great housing myth that this one asset is guaranteed to go up and up forever. The new source of value is not something attached to the biggest thing we own but rather in the most fundamental unit of all: ourselves, and what we can do. This represents a dramatic change not just for one generation but for an entire ethos that has defined what it means to be an American for about a century.
It begins with a single realization: I'm paying more for my house than my house is worth. What precisely is the downside of walking away, of going into a "strategic default"? I lose my house. Good. That's better than losing money on my house.
But what are the economic and ethical implications of this? Americans haven't faced this dilemma in at least a century. But now they are, by the millions. They are awakening to the reality that the house is no different from any other physical possession. It has no magical properties and it embodies no high ideals. It is just sticks and bricks.
But what about the idea that our home is our castle? Doug French's thesis is that the essence of freedom is to come to understand that the real castle is to be found within.
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Douglas E. French is senior editor of the Laissez Faire Club and former president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He received his master’s degree under the direction of Murray N. Rothbard at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, after many years in the business of banking. He is the author of Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of Money, the first major empirical study of the relationship between early bubbles and the money supply. He is founder and editor of LibertyWatch magazine.