In a post a few months ago, I referred to W. H. Hutt as an “unjustly underrated” and “all but forgotten economist” and “as an admirable human being,” who wrote an important book in 1939, The Theory of Idle Resources, seeking to counter Keynes’s theory of involuntary unemployment. In responding to a comment on a more recent post, I pointed out that Armen Alchian relied on one of Hutt’s explanations for unemployment to provide a microeconomic basis for Keynes’s rather convoluted definition of involuntary unemployment, so that Hutt unintentionally provided support for the very Keynesian theory that he was tried to disprove. In this post, I want to explore Hutt’s very important and valuable book ARehabilitation of Say’s Law, even though, following Alchian, I would interpret what Hutt wrote in a way that is at least potentially supportive of Keynes, while also showing that Hutt’s understanding of Say’s Law allows us to view Says Law and the Keynesian multiplier as two (almost?) identical ways of describing the same phenomenon.
But before I discuss Hutt’s understanding of Say’s Law, a few words about why I think Hutt was an admirable human being are in order. Born in 1899 into a working class English family (his father was a printer), Hutt attended the London School of Economics in the early 1920s, coming under the influence of Edwin Cannan, whose writings Hutt often referred to. After gaining his bachelor’s degree, Hutt, though working full-time, continued taking courses at LSE, even publishing several articles before taking a position at the University of Capetown in 1930, despite having no advanced degree in economics. Hutt remained in South Africa until the late 1960s or early 1970s, becoming an outspoken critic of legal discrimination against non-whites and later of the apartheid regime instituted in 1948. In his book, The Economics of the Colour Bar, Hutt traced the racial policies of the South African regime not just to white racism, but to the interest of white labor unions in excluding competition by non-whites. Hutt’s hostility to labor unions for their exclusionary and protectionist policies was evident in much of his work, beginning at least with his Theory of Collective Bargaining, his Strike-Threat System, and his many critiques of Keynesian economics. However, he was opposed not to labor unions as such, just to the legal recognition of the right of some workers to coerce others into a collusive agreement to withhold their services unless their joint demand for a stipulated money wage was acceded to by employers, a right that in most other contexts would be both legally and morally unacceptable. Whether or not Hutt took his moral opposition to collective bargaining to extremes, he certainly was not motivated by any venal motives. Certainly his public opposition to apartheid, inviting retribution by the South African regime, was totally disinterested, and his opposition to collective bargaining was no less sincere, even If less widely admired, than his opposition to apartheid, and no more motivated by any expectation of personal gain.
In the General Theory, launching an attack on what he carelessly called “classical economics,” Keynes devoted special attention to the doctrine he described as Say’s Law, a doctrine that had been extensively and inconclusively debated in the nineteenth century after Say formulated what he had called the Law of the Markets in his Treatise on Political Economy in 1803. The exact meaning of the Law of the Markets was never entirely clear, so that, in arguing about Say’s Law, one can never be quite sure that one knows what one is talking about. At any rate, Keynes paraphrased Say’s Law in the following way: supply creates its own demand. In other words, “if you make it, they will buy it, or at least buy something else, because the capacity to demand is derived from the capacity to supply.”
Here is Keynes at p. 18 of the General Theory:
From the time of Say and Ricardo the classical economists have taught that supply creates its own demand; — meaning by this in some significant, but not clearly defined, sense that the whole of the costs of production must necessarily be spent in the aggregate, directly or indirectly, on purchasing the product.
In J. S. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy the doctrine is expressly set forth:
What constitutes the means of payment for commodities. Each person’s means of paying for the productions of other people consist of those which he himself possesses. All sellers are inevitably, and by the meaning of the word, buyers. Could we suddenly double the productive powers of the country, we should double the supply of commodities in every market; but we should, by the same stroke, double the purchasing power. Everybody would bring a double demand as well as supply; everybody would be able to buy twice as much, because every one would have twice as much to offer in exchange.
Then, again at p. 26, Keynes restates Say’s Law in his own terminology:
In the previous chapter we have given a definition of full employment in terms of the behavior of labour. An alternative, though equivalent, criterion is that at which we have now arrived, namely, a situation in which aggregate employment is inelastic in response to an increase in effective demand for its output. Thus Say’s Law, that the aggregate demand price of output as a whole is equal ot its aggregate supply price for all volumes of output [“could we suddenly double the productive powers of the country . . . we should . . . double the purchasing power”], is equivalent the proposition that there is no obstacle to full employment. If, however, this is not the true law relating the aggregate demand and supply functions, there is a vitally important chapter of economic theory which remains to be written and without which all discussions concerning the volume of aggregate employment are futile.
Keynes restated the same point in terms of his doctrine that macroeconomic equilibrium, the condition for which being that savings equal investment, could occur at a level of output and income corresponding to less than full employment. How could this happen? Keynes believed that if the amount that households desired to save at the full employment level of income were greater than the amount that businesses would invest at that income level, expenditure and income would decline until desired (and actual) savings equaled investment. If Say’s Law held, then whatever households chose not to spend would get transformed into investment by business, but Keynes denied that there was any mechanism by which this transformation would occur. Keynes proposed his theory of liquidity preference to explain why savings by households would not necessarily find their way into increased investment by businesses, liquidity preference preventing the rate of interest from adjusting to induce as much investment as required to generate the full-employment level of output and income.
Now the challenge for Keynes was to explain why, if there is less than full employment, wages would not fall to induce businesses to hire the unemployed workers. From Keynes’s point of view it wasn’t enough to assert that wages are sticky, because a classical believer in Say’s Law could have given that answer just as well. If you prevent prices from adjusting, the result will be a disequilibrium. From Keynes’s standpoint, positing price or wage inflexibility was not an acceptable explanation for unemployment. So Keynes had to argue that, even if wages were perfectly flexible, falling wages would not induce an increase in employment. That was the point of Keynes’s definition of involuntary unemployment as a situation in which an increased price level, but not a fall in money wages, would increase employment. It was in chapter 19 of the General Theory that Keynes provided his explanation for why falling money wages would not induce an increase in output and employment.
Hutt’s insight was to interpret Say’s Law differently from the way in which most previous writers, including Keynes, had interpreted it, by focusing on “supply failures” rather than “demand failures” as the cause of total output and income falling short of the full-employment level. Every failure of supply, in other words every failure to achieve market equilibrium, means that the total effective supply in that market is less than it would have been had the market cleared. So a failure of supply (a failure to reach the maximum output of a particular product or service, given the outputs of all other products and services) implies a restriction of demand, because all the factors engaged in producing the product whose effective supply is less than its market-clearing level are generating less demand for other products than if they were producing the market-clearing level of output for that product. Similarly, if workers don’t accept employment at market-clearing wages, their failure to supply involves a failure to demand other products. Thus, failures to supply can be cumulative, because any failure of supply induces corresponding failures of demand, which, unless there are further pricing adjustments to clear other affected markets, trigger further failures of demand. And clearly the price adjustments required to clear any given market will be greater when other markets are not clearing than when those other markets are clearing.
So, with this interpretation, Hutt was able to deploy Say’s Law in a way that sheds important light on the cumulative processes of contraction and expansion characterizing business-cycle downturns and recoveries. In his modesty, Hutt disclaimed originality in using Say’s Law as a key to understanding those cumulative processes, citing various isolated statements by older economists (in particular a remark of the Cambridge economist Frederick Lavington in his 1921 book The Trade Cycle: “The inactivity of all is the cause of the inactivity of each”) that vaguely suggest, but don’t spell out, the process that Hutt describes in meticulous detail. If Hutt’s analysis was anticipated in any important way, it was by Clower and Leijonhufvud in their paper “Say’s Principle, What it Means and Doesn’t Mean,” (reprinted here and here), which introduced a somewhat artificial distinction between Say’s Law, as Keynes conceived of it, and Say’s Principle, which is closer to how Hutt thought about it. But to Clower and Leijonhufvud, Say’s Principle was an essential part of the explanation of the Keynesian multiplier. The connection between them is simple, effective supply is identical to effective demand because every purchase is also a sale. A cumulative process can be viewed as either a supply-side process (Say’s Law) or a demand-side process (the Keynesian multiplier), but they are really just two sides of the same coin.
So if you have followed me this far, you may be asking yourself, did Hutt really rehabilitate Say’s Law, as he claimed to have done? And if so, did he refute Keynes, as he also claimed to have done? My answer to the first question is a qualified yes. And my answer to the second question is a qualified no. I will not try to justify my qualification to my answer to the first question, except to note that the qualification depends on the assumptions made about how money is supplied in the relevant model of the economy. In a model in which money is endogenously supplied by private banks, Say’s Law holds; in a model in which the supply of money is fixed exogenously, Say’s Law does not hold. For more on this, see my paper, “A Reinterpretation of Classical Monetary Theory,” or my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform (pp. 62-66).
But if Hutt was right about Say’s Law, how can Keynes be right that cutting money wages is not a good way (but in Hutt’s view the best way) to cure a depression that is itself caused by the mispricing of assets and factors of production? The answer is that, for all the care Hutt exercised in working out his analysis, he was careless in making explicit his assumptions about the expectations of workers about future wages (i.e., the wages at which they would be able to gain employment). The key point is that if workers expect to be able to find employment at higher wages than they will in fact be offered, the aggregate supply curve of labor will intersect the aggregate demand curve for labor at a wage rate that is higher, and a quantity that is lower, than would be the case in an equilibrium in which workers’ expectations about future wages were correct. From the point of view of Hutt, there is a supply failure because the aggregate supply of labor is less than the hypothetical equilibrium supply under correct wage expectations. But there is no restriction on market pricing, just incorrect expectations of future wages. Expectations need not be rigid, but in a cumulative process, wage expectations may not adjust as fast as wages are falling. Though Keynes, himself, did not discuss the possibility explicitly, it is also possible that there could be multiple equilibria corresponding to different sets of expectations (e.g., optimistic or pessimistic). If the economy settles into a pessimistic equilibrium, unemployment could stabilize at levels that are permanently higher than those that would have prevailed under an optimistic set of expectations. Perhaps we are now stuck in (or approaching) such a pessimistic equilibrium.
Be that as it may, Hutt simply assumes that allowing all prices to be determined freely in unfettered markets must result in the quick restoration of a full-employment equilibrium. This is a reasonable position to take, but there is no way of proving it logically. Proofs that free-market adjustment leads to an equilibrium are based on some sort of tatonnement or recontracting process in which trading does not occur at disequilibrium prices. In the real world, there is no restriction on trading at disequilibrium process, so there is no logical argument that shows that the Say’s Law dynamic described by Hutt cannot go on indefinitely without reaching equilibrium. F. A. Hayek, himself, explained this point in his classic 1937 paper “Economics and Knowledge.”
In the light of our analysis of the meaning of a state of equilibrium it should be easy to say what is the real content of the assertion that a tendency toward equilibrium exists. It can hardly mean anything but that, under certain conditions, the knowledge and intentions of the different members of society are supposed to come more and more into agreement or, to put the same thing in less general and less exact but more concrete terms, that the expectations of the people and particularly of the entrepreneurs will become more and more correct. In this form the assertion of the existence of a tendency toward equilibrium is clearly an empirical proposition, that is, an assertion about what happens in the real world which ought, at least in principle, to be capable of verification. And it gives our somewhat abstract statement a rather plausible common-sense meaning. The only trouble is that we are still pretty much in the dark about (a) the conditionsunder which this tendency is supposed to exist and (b) the nature of the process by which individual knowledge is changed.
In the usual presentations of equilibrium analysis it is generally made to appear as if these questions of how the equilibrium comes about were solved. But, if we look closer, it soon becomes evident that these apparent demonstrations amount to no more than the apparent proof of what is already assumed . The device generally adopted for this purpose is the assumption of a perfect market where every event becomes known instantaneously to every member. It is necessary to remember here that the perfect market which is required to satisfy the assumptions of equilibrium analysis must not be confined to the particular markets of all the individual commodities; the whole economic system must be assumed to be one perfect market in which everybody knows everything. The assumption of a perfect market, then, means nothing less than that all the members of the community even if they are not supposed to be strictly omniscient, are at least supposed to know automatically all that is relevant for their decisions. It seems that that skeleton in our cupboard, the “economic man,” whom we have exorcised with prayer and fasting, has returned through the back door in the form of a quasi-omniscient individual.