In his gallant, but in my opinion futile, attempts to defend Milton Friedman against the scandalous charge that Friedman was, gasp, a Keynesian, if not in his policy prescriptions, at least in his theoretical orientation, Scott Sumner has several times referred to the contrast between the implication of the IS-LM model that expansionary monetary policy implies a reduced interest rate, and Friedman’s oft-repeated dictum that high interest rates are a sign of easy money, and low interest rates a sign of tight money. This was a very clever strategic and rhetorical move by Scott, because it did highlight a key difference between Keynesian and Monetarist ideas while distracting attention from the overlap between Friedman and Keynesians on the basic analytics of nominal-income determination.
Alghough I agree with Scott that Friedman’s dictum that high interest rates distinguishes him from Keynes and Keynesian economists, I think that Scott leaves out an important detail: Friedman’s dictum also distinguishes him from just about all pre-Keynesian monetary economists. Keynes did not invent the terms “dear money” and “cheap money.” Those terms were around for over a century before Keynes came on the scene, so Keynes and the Keynesians were merely reflecting the common understanding of all (or nearly all) economists that high interest rates were a sign of “dear” or “tight” money, and low interest rates a sign of “cheap” or “easy” money. For example, in his magisterial A Century of Bank Rate, Hawtrey actually provided numerical bounds on what constituted cheap or dear money in the period he examined, from 1844 to 1938. Cheap money corresponded to a bank rate less than 3.5% and dear money to a bank rate over 4.5%, 3.5 to 4.5% being the intermediate range.
Take the period just leading up to the Great Depression, when Britain returned to the gold standard in 1925. The Bank of England kept its bank rate over 5% almost continuously until well into 1930. Meanwhile the discount rate of the Federal Reserve System from 1925 to late 1928 was between 3.5 and 5%, the increase in the discount rate in 1928 to 5% representing a decisive shift toward tight money that helped drive the world economy into the Great Depression. We all know – and certainly no one better than Scott – that, in the late 1920s, the bank rate was an absolutely reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. So what are we to make of Friedman’s dictum?
I think that the key point is that traditional notions of central banking – the idea of “cheap” or “dear” money – were arrived at during the nineteenth century when almost all central banks were operating either in terms of a convertible (gold or silver or bimetallic) standard or with reference to such a standard, so that the effect of monetary policy on prices could be monitored by observing the discount of the currency relative to gold or silver. In other words, there was an international price level in terms of gold (or silver), and the price level of every country could be observed by looking at the relationship of its currency to gold (or silver). As long as convertibility was maintained between a currency and gold (or silver), the price level in terms of that currency was fixed.
If a central bank changed its bank rate, as long as convertibility was maintained (and obviously most changes in bank rate occurred with no change in convertibility), the effect of the change in bank rate was not reflected in the country’s price level (which was determined by convertibility). So what was the point of a change in bank rate under those circumstances? Simply for the central bank to increase or decrease its holding of reserves (usually gold or silver). By increasing bank rate, the central bank would accumulate additional reserves, and, by decreasing bank rate, it would reduce its reserves. A “dear money” policy was the means by which a central bank could add to its reserve and an “easy money” policy was the means by which it could disgorge reserves.
So the idea that a central bank operating under a convertible standard could control its price level was based on a misapprehension — a widely held misapprehension to be sure — but still a mistaken application of the naive quantity theory of money to a convertible monetary standard. Nevertheless, although the irrelevance of bank rate to the domestic price level was not always properly understood in the nineteenth century – economists associated with the Currency School were especially confused on this point — the practical association between interest rates and the stance of monetary policy was well understood, which is why all monetary theorists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries agreed that high interest rates were a sign of dear money and low interest rates a sign of cheap money. Keynes and the Keynesians were simply reflecting the conventional wisdom.
Now after World War II, when convertibility was no longer a real constraint on the price level (despite the sham convertibility of the Bretton Woods system), it was a true innovation of Friedman to point out that the old association between dear (cheap) money and high (low) interest rates was no longer a reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. However, as a knee-jerk follower of the Currency School – the 3% rule being Friedman’s attempt to adapt the Bank Charter Act of 1844 to a fiat currency, and with equally (and predictably) lousy results – Friedman never understood that under the gold standard, it is the price level which is fixed and the money supply that is endogenously determined, which is why much of the Monetary History, especially the part about the Great Depression (not, as Friedman called it, “Contraction,” erroneously implying that the change in the quantity of money was the cause, rather than the effect, of the deflation that characterized the Great Depression) is fundamentally misguided owing to its comprehensive misunderstanding of the monetary adjustment mechanism under a convertible standard.
PS This is written in haste, so there may be some errors insofar as I relying on my memory without checking my sources. I am sure that readers will correct my lapses of memory
PPS I also apologize for not responding to recent comments, I will try to rectify that transgression over the next few days.