Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Chimera of Contracyclical Policies - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 3.
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The Chimera of Contracyclical Policies
An essential element of the “unorthodox” doctrines, advanced both by all socialists and by all interventionists, is that the recurrence of depressions is a phenomenon inherent in the very operation of the market economy. But while the socialists contend that only the substitution of socialism for capitalism can eradicate the evil, the interventionists ascribe to the government the power to correct the operation of the market economy in such a way as to bring about what they call “economic stability.” These interventionists would be right if their antidepression plans were to aim at a radical abandonment of credit expansion policies. However, they reject this idea in advance. What they want is to expand credit more and more and to prevent depressions by the adoption of special “contracyclical” measures.
In the context of these plans the government appears as a deity that stands and works outside the orbit of human affairs, that is independent of the actions of its subjects, and has the power to interfere with these actions from without. It has at its disposal means and funds that are not provided by the people and can be freely used for whatever purposes the rulers are prepared to employ them for. What is needed to make the most beneficent use of this power is merely to follow the advice given by the experts.
The most advertised among these suggested remedies is contracyclical timing of public works and expenditure on public enterprises. The idea is not so new as its champions would have us believe. When depression came in the past, public opinion always asked the government to embark upon public works in order to create jobs and to stop the drop in prices. But the problem is how to finance these public works. If the government taxes the citizens or borrows from them, it does not add anything to what the Keynesians call the aggregate amount of spending. It restricts the private citizen’s power to consume or to invest to the same extent that it increases its own. If, however, the government resorts to the cherished inflationary methods of financing, it makes things worse, not better. It may thus delay for a short time the outbreak of the slump. But when the unavoidable payoff does come, the crisis is the heavier the longer the government has postponed it.
The interventionist experts are at a loss to grasp the real problems involved. As they see it, the main thing is “to plan public capital expenditure well in advance and to accumulate a shelf of fully worked out capital projects which can be put into operation at short notice.” This, they say, “is the right policy and one which we recommend all countries should adopt.”7 However, the problem is not to elaborate projects, but to provide the material means for their execution. The interventionists believe that this could be easily achieved by holding back government expenditure in the boom and increasing it when the depression comes.
Now, restriction of government expenditure may certainly be a good thing. But it does not provide the funds a government needs for a later expansion of its expenditure. An individual may conduct his affairs in this way. He may accumulate savings when his income is high and spend them later when his income drops. But it is different with a nation or all nations together. The treasury may hoard a considerable part of the lavish revenue from taxes which flows into the public exchequer as a result of the boom. As far and as long as it withholds these funds from circulation, its policy is really deflationary and contracyclical and may to this extent weaken the boom created by credit expansion. But when these funds are spent again, they alter the money relation and create a cash-induced tendency toward a drop in the monetary unit’s purchasing power. By no means can these funds provide the capital goods required for the execution of the shelved public works.
The fundamental error of these projects consists in the fact that they ignore the shortage of capital goods. In their eyes the depression is merely caused by a mysterious lack of the people’s propensity both to consume and to invest. While the only real problem is to produce more and to consume less in order to increase the stock of capital goods available, the interventionists want to increase both consumption and investment. They want the government to embark upon projects which are unprofitable precisely because the factors of production needed for their execution must be withdrawn from other lines of employment in which they would fulfill wants the satisfaction of which the consumers consider more urgent. They do not realize that such public works must considerably intensify the real evil, the shortage of capital goods.
One could, of course, think of another mode for the employment of the savings the government makes in the boom period. The treasury could invest its surplus in buying large stocks of all those materials which it will later, when the depression comes, need for the execution of the public works planned and of the consumers’ goods which those occupied in these public works will ask for. But if the authorities were to act in this way, they would considerably intensify the boom, accelerate the outbreak of the crisis, and make its consequences more serious.8
All this talk about contracyclical government activities aims at one goal only, namely, to divert the public’s attention from cognizance of the real cause of the cyclical fluctuations of business. All governments are firmly committed to the policy of low interest rates, credit expansion, and inflation. When the unavoidable aftermath of these short-term policies appears, they know only of one remedy—to go on in inflationary ventures.
Foreign Exchange Control and Bilateral Exchange Agreements
If a government fixes the parity of its domestic credit or fiat money against gold or foreign exchange at a higher point than the market—that is, if it fixes maximum prices for gold and foreign exchange below the potential market price—the effects appear which Gresham’s Law describes. A state of affairs results which—very inadequately—is called a scarcity of foreign exchange.
It is the characteristic mark of an economic good that the supply available is not so plentiful as to make any intended utilization of it possible. An object that is not in short supply is not an economic good; no prices are asked or paid for it. As money must necessarily be an economic good, the notion of a money that would not be scarce is absurd. What those governments who complain about a scarcity of foreign exchange have in mind is, however, something different. It is the unavoidable outcome of their policy of price fixing. It means that at the price arbitrarily fixed by the government demand exceeds supply. If the government, having by means of inflation reduced the purchasing power of the domestic monetary unit against gold, foreign exchange, and commodities and services, abstains from any attempt at controlling foreign exchange rates, there cannot be any question of a scarcity in the sense in which the government uses this term. He who is ready to pay the market price would be in a position to buy as much foreign exchange as he wants.
But the government is resolved not to tolerate any rise in foreign exchange rates (in terms of the inflated domestic currency). Relying upon its magistrates and constables, it prohibits any dealings in foreign exchange on terms different from the ordained maximum price.
As the government and its satellites see it, the rise in foreign exchange rates was caused by an unfavorable balance of payments and by the purchases of speculators. In order to remove the evil, the government resorts to measures restricting the demand for foreign exchange. Only those people should henceforth have the right to buy foreign exchange who need it for transactions of which the government approves. Commodities the importation of which is superfluous in the opinion of the government should no longer be imported. Payment of interest and principal on debts due to foreigners is prohibited. Citizens must no longer travel abroad. The government does not realize that such measures can never “improve” the balance of payments. If imports drop, exports drop concomitantly. The citizens who are prevented from buying foreign goods, from paying back foreign debts, and from traveling abroad will not keep the amount of domestic money thus left to them in their cash holdings. They will increase their buying either of consumers’ or of producers’ goods and thus bring about a further tendency for domestic prices to rise. But the more prices rise, the more will exports be checked.
Now the government goes a step further. It nationalizes foreign exchange transactions. Every citizen who acquires—through exporting, for example—an amount of foreign exchange, is bound to sell it at the official rate to the office of foreign exchange control. If this provision, which is tantamount to an export duty, were to be effectively enforced, export trade would shrink greatly or cease altogether. The government certainly does not like this result. But neither does it want to admit that its interference has utterly failed to achieve the ends sought and has produced a state of affairs which is, from the government’s own point of view, much worse even than the previous state of affairs. So the government resorts to a makeshift. It subsidizes the export trade to such an extent that the losses which its policy inflicts upon the exporters are compensated.
On the other hand, the government bureau of foreign exchange control, stubbornly clinging to the fiction that foreign exchange rates have not “really” risen and that the official rate is an effective rate, sells foreign exchange to importers at this official rate. If this policy were to be really followed, it would be equivalent to paying bonuses to the merchants concerned. They would reap windfall profits in selling the imported commodity on the domestic market. Thus the authority resorts to further makeshifts. It either raises import duties or levies special taxes on the importers or burdens their purchases of foreign exchange in some other way.
Then, of course, foreign exchange control works. But it works only because it virtually acknowledges the market rate of foreign exchange. The exporter gets for his proceeds in foreign exchange the official rate plus the subsidy, which together equal the market rate. The importer pays for foreign exchange the official rate plus a special premium, tax, or duty, which together equal the market rate. The only people who are too dull to grasp what is really going on and let themselves be fooled by the bureaucratic terminology, are the authors of books and articles on new methods of monetary management and on new monetary experience.
The monopolization of buying and selling of foreign exchange by the government vests the control of foreign trade in the authorities. It does not affect the determination of foreign exchange rates. It does not matter whether or not the government makes it illegal for the press to publish the real and effective rates of foreign exchange. As far as foreign trade is still carried on, only these real and effective rates are in force.
In order to conceal better the true state of affairs, governments are intent upon eliminating all reference to the real foreign exchange rate. Foreign trade, they think, should no longer be transacted by the intermediary of money. It should be barter. They enter into barter and clearing agreements with foreign governments. Each of the two contracting countries should sell to the other country a quantity of goods and services and receive in exchange a quantity of other goods and services. In the text of these treaties any reference to the real market rates of foreign exchange is carefully avoided. However, both parties calculate their sales and their purchases in terms of the world market prices expressed in gold. These clearing and barter agreements substitute bilateral trade between two countries for the triangular or multilateral trade of the liberal age. But they in no way affect the fact that a country’s national currency has lost a part of its purchasing power against gold, foreign exchange, and commodities.
As a policy of foreign trade nationalization, foreign exchange control is a step on the way toward a substitution of socialism for the market economy. From any other point of view it is abortive. It can certainly neither in the short run nor in the long run affect the determination of the rate of foreign exchange.
Confiscation and Redistribution
The Philosophy of Confiscation
Interventionism is guided by the idea that interfering with property rights does not affect the size of production. The most naïve manifestation of this fallacy is presented by confiscatory interventionism. The yield of production activities is considered a given magnitude independent of the merely accidental arrangements of society’s social order. The task of the government is seen as the “fair” distribution of this national income among the various members of society.
The interventionists and the socialists contend that all commodities are turned out by a social process of production. When this process comes to an end and its fruits ripen, a second social process, that of distribution of the yield, follows and allots a share to each. The characteristic feature of the capitalist order is that the shares allotted are unequal. Some people—the entrepreneurs, the capitalists, and the landowners—appropriate to themselves more than they should. Accordingly, the portions of other people are curtailed. Government should by rights expropriate the surplus of the privileged and distribute it among the underprivileged.
Now in the market economy this alleged dualism of two independent processes, that of production and that of distribution, does not exist. There is only one process going on. Goods are not first produced and then distributed. There is no such thingas an appropriation ofportions out ofastock ofownerless goods. The products come into existence as somebody’s property. If one wants to distribute them, one must first confiscate them. It is certainly very easy for the governmental apparatus of compulsion and coercion to embark upon confiscation and expropriation. But this does not prove that a durable system of economic affairs can be built upon such confiscation and expropriation.
When the Vikings turned their backs upon a community of autarkic peasants whom they had plundered, the surviving victims began to work, to till the soil, and to build again. When the pirates returned after some years, they again found things to seize. But capitalism cannot stand such reiterated predatory raids. Its capital accumulation and investments are founded upon the expectation that no such expropriation will occur. If this expectation is absent, people will prefer to consume their capital instead of safeguarding it for the expropriators. This is the inherent error of all plans that aim at combining private ownership and reiterated expropriation.
The social reformers of older days aimed at the establishment of a community of autarkic farmers only. The shares of land allotted to each member were to be equal. In the imagination of these utopians there is no room for division of labor and specialization in processing trades. It is a serious mistake to call such a social order agrarian socialism. It is merely a juxtaposition of economically self-sufficient households.
In the market economy the soil is a means of production like any other material factor of production. Plans aiming at a more or less equal distribution of the soil among the farming population are, under the conditions of the market economy, merely plans for granting privileges to a group of less efficient producers at the expense of the immense majority of consumers. The operation of the market tends to eliminate all those farmers whose cost of production is higher than the marginal costs needed for the production of that amount of farm products the consumers are ready to buy. It determines the size of the farms as well as the methods of production applied. If the government interferes in order to make a different arrangement of the conditions of farming prevail, it raises the average price of farm products. If under competitive conditions m farmers, each of them operating a 1,000-acre farm, produce all those farm products the consumers are ready to acquire, and the government interferes in order to substitute 5 m farmers, each of them operating a 200-acre farm, for m, the previous numbers of farmers, the consumers foot the bill.
It is vain to justify such land reforms by referring to natural law and other metaphysical ideas. The simple truth is that they enhance the price of agricultural products and that they also impair nonagricultural production. As more manpower is needed to turn out a unit of farm produce, more people are employed in farming and less are left for the processing industries. The total amount of commodities available for consumption drops and a certain group of people is favored at the expense of the majority.
Today the main instrument of confiscatory interventionism is taxation. It does not matter whether the objective of estate and income taxation is the allegedly social motive of equalizing wealth and income or whether the primary motive is that of revenue. What alone counts is the resulting effect.
The average man looks at the problems involved with unveiled envy. Why should anybody be richer than he himself is? The lofty moralist conceals his resentment in philosophical disquisitions. He argues that a man who owns ten millions cannot be made happier by an increment of ninety millions more. Inversely, a man who owns a hundred millions does not feel any impairment of happiness if his wealth is reduced to a bare ten millions only. The same reasoning holds good for excessive incomes.
To judge in this way means to judge from an individualistic point of view. The yardstick applied is the supposed sentiments of individuals. Yet the problems involved are social problems; they must be appraised with regard to their social consequences. What matters is neither the happiness of any Croesus nor his personal merits or demerits; it is society and the productivity of human effort.
A law that prohibits any individual from accumulating more than ten millions or from making more than one million a year restricts the activities of precisely those entrepreneurs who are most successful in filling the wants of consumers. If such a law had been enacted in the United States fifty years ago, many who are multimillionaires today would live in more modest circumstances. But all those new branches of industry which supply the masses with articles unheard of before would operate, if at all, on a much smaller scale, and their products would be beyond the reach of the common man. It is manifestly contrary to the interest of the consumers to prevent the most efficient entrepreneurs from expanding the sphere of their activities up to the limit to which the public approves of their conduct of business by buying their products. Here again the issue is who should be supreme, the consumers or the government? In the unhampered market the behavior of consumers, their buying or abstention from buying, ultimately determines each individual’s income and wealth. Should one vest in the government the power to overrule the consumers’ choices?
The incorrigible statolatrist objects. In his opinion what motivates the activities of the great entrepreneur is not the lust for wealth, but the lust for power. Such a “royal merchant” would not restrict his activities if he had to deliver all the surplus earned to the tax collector. His lust for power cannot be weakened by any considerations of mere moneymaking. Let us, for the sake of argument, accept this psychology. But on what else is the power of a businessman founded than on his wealth? How would Rockefeller and Ford have been in a position to acquire “power” if they had been prevented from acquiring wealth? After all, those statolatrists are on comparatively better grounds who want to prohibit the accumulation of wealth precisely because it gives a man economic power.1
Taxes are necessary. But the system of discriminatory taxation universally accepted under the misleading name of progressive taxation of income and inheritance is not a mode of taxation. It is rather a mode of disguised expropriation of the successful capitalists and entrepreneurs. Whatever the governments’ satellites may advance in its favor, it is incompatible with the preservation of the market economy. It can at best be considered a means of bringing about socialism. Looking backward on the evolution of income tax rates from the beginning of the Federal income tax in 1913 until the present day, one can hardly believe that the tax will not soon absorb 100 per cent of all the surplus above the average height of the common man’s wages.
Economics is not concerned with the spurious metaphysical doctrines advanced in favor of tax progression, but with its repercussions on the operation of the market economy. The interventionist authors and politicians look at the problems involved from the angle of their arbitrary notions of what is “socially desirable.” As they see it, “the purpose of taxation is never to raise money,” since the government “can raise all the money it needs by printing it.” The true purpose of taxation is “to leave less in the hands of the taxpayer.”2
Economists approach the issue from a different angle. They ask first: what are the effects of confiscatory taxation on capital accumulation? The greater part of that portion of the higher incomes which is taxed away would have been used for the accumulation of additional capital. If the treasury employs the proceeds for current expenditure, the result is a drop in the amount of capital accumulation. The same is valid, even to a greater extent, for death taxes. They force the heirs to sell a considerable part of the testator’s estate. This capital is, of course, not destroyed; it merely changes ownership. But the savings of the purchasers, which are spent for the acquisition of the capital sold by the heirs, would have constituted a net increment in capital available. Thus the accumulation of new capital is slowed down. The realization of technological improvement is impaired; the quota of capital invested per worker employed is reduced; a check is placed upon the rise in the marginal productivity of labor and upon the concomitant rise in real wage rates. It is obvious that the popular belief that this mode of confiscatory taxation harms only the immediate victims, the rich, is false.
If capitalists are faced with the likelihood that the income tax or the estate tax will rise to 100 per cent, they will prefer to consume their capital funds rather than to preserve them for the tax collector.
Confiscatory taxation results in checking economic progress and improvement not only by its effect upon capital accumulation. It brings about a general trend toward stagnation and the preservation of business practices which could not last under the competitive conditions of the unhampered market economy.
It is an inherent feature of capitalism that it is no respecter of vested interests and forces every capitalist and entrepreneur to adjust his conduct of business anew each day to the changing structure of the market. Capitalists and entrepreneurs are never free to relax. As long as they remain in business they are never granted the privilege of quietly enjoying the fruits of their ancestors’ and their own achievements and of lapsing into a routine. If they forget that their task is to serve the consumers to the best of their abilities, they will very soon forfeit their eminent position and will be thrown back into the ranks of the common man. Their leadership and their funds are continually challenged by newcomers.
Every ingenious man is free to start new business projects. He may be poor, his funds may be modest and most of them may be borrowed. But if he fills the wants of consumers in the best and cheapest way, he will succeed by means of “excessive” profits. He ploughs back the greater part of his profits into his business, thus making it grow rapidly. It is the activity of such enterprising parvenus that provides the market economy with its dynamism. These nouveaux riches are the harbingers of economic improvement. Their threatening competition forces the old firms and big corporations either to adjust their conduct to the best possible service of the public or to go out of business.
But today taxes often absorb the greater part of the newcomer’s “excessive” profits. He cannot accumulate capital; he cannot expand his own business; he will never become big business and a match for the vested interests. The old firms do not need to fear his competition; they are sheltered by the tax collector. They may with impunity indulge in routine, they may defy the wishes of the public and become conservative. It is true, the income tax prevents them, too, from accumulating new capital. But what is more important for them is that it prevents the dangerous newcomer from accumulating any capital. They are virtually privileged by the tax system. In this sense progressive taxation checks economic progress and makes for rigidity. While under unhampered capitalism the ownership of capital is a liability forcing the owner to serve the consumers, modern methods of taxation transform it into a privilege.
The interventionists complain that big business is getting rigid and bureaucratic and that it is no longer possible for competent newcomers to challenge the vested interests of the old rich families. However, as far as their complaints are justified, they complain about things which are merely the result of their own policies.
Profits are the driving force of the market economy. The greater the profits, the better the needs of the consumers are supplied. For profits can only be reaped by removing discrepancies between the demands of the consumers and the previous state of production activities. He who serves the public best, makes the highest profits. In fighting profits governments deliberately sabotage the operation of the market economy.
[7. ]Cf. League of Nations, Economic Stability in the Post-War World, Report of the Delegation on Economic Depressions, Pt. II (Geneva, 1945), p. 173.
[8. ]In dealing with the contracyclical policies the interventionists always refer to the alleged success of these policies in Sweden. It is true that public capital expenditure in Sweden was actually doubled between 1932 and 1939. But this was not the cause, but an effect, of Sweden’s prosperity in the ’thirties. This prosperity was entirely due to the rearmament of Germany. This Nazi policy increased the German demand for Swedish products on the one hand and restricted, on the other hand, German competition on the world market for those products which Sweden could supply. Thus Swedish exports increased from 1932 to 1938 (in thousands of tons): iron ore from 2,219 to 12,485; pig iron from 31,047 to 92,980; ferro-alloys from 15,453 to 28,605; other kinds of iron and steel from 134,237 to 256,146; machinery from 46,230 to 70,605. The number of unemployed applying for relief was 114,000 in 1932 and 165,000 in 1933. It dropped, as soon as German rearmament came into full swing, to 115,000 in 1934, to 62,000 in 1935, and was 16,000 in 1938. The author of this “miracle” was not Keynes, but Hitler.
[1. ]There is no need to emphasize again that the use of the terminology of political rule is entirely inadequate in the treatment of economic problems. See above, pp. 272–73.
[2. ]Cf. A. B. Lerner, The Economics of Control, Principles of Welfare Economics (New York, 1944), pp. 307–8.