Josh Hendrickson discusses Milton Friedman’s famous k-percent rule on his blog, using Friedman’s rule as a vehicle for an enlightening discussion of the time-inconsistency problem so brilliantly described by Fynn Kydland and Edward Prescott in a classic paper published 36 years ago. Josh recognizes that Friedman’s rule is imperfect. At any given time, the k-percent rule is likely to involve either an excess demand for cash or an excess supply of cash, so that the economy would constantly be adjusting to a policy induced macroeconomic disturbance. Obviously a less restrictive rule would allow the monetary authorities to achieve a better outcome. But Josh has an answer to that objection.
The k-percent rule has often been derided as a sub-optimal policy. Suppose, for example, that there was an increase in money demand. Without a corresponding increase in the money supply, there would be excess money demand that even Friedman believed would cause a reduction in both nominal income and real economic activity. So why would Friedman advocate such a policy?
The reason Friedman advocated the k-percent rule was not because he believed that it was the optimal policy in the modern sense of phrase, but rather that it limited the damage done by activist monetary policy. In Friedman’s view, shaped by his empirical work on monetary history, central banks tended to be a greater source of business cycle fluctuations than they were a source of stability. Thus, the k-percent rule would eliminate recessions caused by bad monetary policy.
That’s a fair statement of why Friedman advocated the k-percent rule. One of Friedman’s favorite epigrams was that one shouldn’t allow the best to be the enemy of the good, meaning that the pursuit of perfection is usually not worth it. Perfection is costly, and usually merely good is good enough. That’s generally good advice. Friedman thought that allowing the money supply to expand at a moderate rate (say 3%) would avoid severe deflationary pressure and avoid significant inflation, allowing the economy to muddle through without serious problems.
But behind that common-sense argument, there were deeper, more ideological, reasons for the k-percent rule. The k-percent rule was also part of Friedman’s attempt to provide a libertarian/conservative alternative to the gold standard, which Friedman believed was both politically impractical and economically undesirable. However, the gold standard for over a century had been viewed by supporters of free-market liberalism as a necessary check on government power and as a bulwark of liberty. Friedman, desiring to offer a modern version of the case for classical liberalism (which has somehow been renamed neo-liberalism), felt that the k-percent rule, importantly combined with a regime of flexible exchange rates, could serve as an ideological substitute for the gold standard.
To provide a rationale for why the k-percent rule was preferable to simply trying to stabilize the price level, Friedman had to draw on a distinction between the aims of monetary policy and the instruments of monetary policy. Friedman argued that a rule specifying that the monetary authority should stabilize the price level was too flexible, granting the monetary authority too much discretion in its decision making.
The price level is not a variable over which the monetary authority has any direct control. It is a target not an instrument. Specifying a price-level target allows the monetary authority discretion in its choice of instruments to achieve the target. Friedman actually made a similar argument about the gold standard in a paper called “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” The price of gold is a target, not an instrument. The monetary authority can achieve its target price of gold with more than one policy. Unless you define the rule in terms of the instruments of the central bank, you have not taken away the discretionary power of the monetary authority. In his anti-discretionary zeal, Friedman believed that he had discovered an argument that trumped advocates of the gold standard .
Of course there was a huge problem with this argument, though Friedman was rarely called on it. The money supply, under any definition that Friedman ever entertained, is no more an instrument of the monetary authority than the price level. Most of the money instruments included in any of the various definitions of money Friedman entertained for purposes of his k-percent rule are privately issued. So Friedman’s claim that his rule would eliminate the discretion of the monetary authority in its use of instrument was clearly false. Now, one might claim that when Friedman originally advanced the rule in his Program for Monetary Stability, the rule was formulated the context of a proposal for 100-percent reserves. However, the proposal for 100-percent reserves would inevitably have to identify those deposits subject to the 100-percent requirement and those exempt from the requirement. Once it is possible to convert the covered deposits into higher yielding uncovered deposits, monetary policy would not be effective if it controlled only the growth of deposits subject to a 100-percent reserve requirement.
In his chapter on monetary policy in The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek effectively punctured Friedman’s argument that a monetary authority could operate effectively without some discretion in its use of instruments to execute a policy aimed at some agreed upon policy goal. It is a category error to equate the discretion of the monetary authority in the choice of its policy instruments with the discretion of the government in applying coercive sanctions against the persons and property of private individuals. It is true that Hayek later modified his views about central banks, but that change in his views was at least in part attributable to a misunderstanding. Hayek erroneoulsy believed that his discovery that competition in the supply of money is possible without driving the value of money down to zero meant that competitive banks would compete to create an alternative monetary standard that would be superior to the existing standard legally established by the monetary authority. His conclusion did not follow from his premise.
In a previous post, I discussed how Hayek also memorably demolished Friedman’s argument that, although the k-percent rule might not be the theoretically best rule, it would at least be a good rule that would avoid the worst consequences of misguided monetary policies producing either deflation or inflation. John Taylor, accepting the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute, totally embarrassed himself by flagarantly misunderstanding what Hayek was talking about. Here are the two relevant passages from Hayek. The first from his pamphlet, Full Employment at any Price?
I wish I could share the confidence of my friend Milton Friedman who thinks that one could deprive the monetary authorities, in order to prevent the abuse of their powers for political purposes, of all discretionary powers by prescribing the amount of money they may and should add to circulation in any one year. It seems to me that he regards this as practicable because he has become used for statistical purposes to draw a sharp distinction between what is to be regarded as money and what is not. This distinction does not exist in the real world. I believe that, to ensure the convertibility of all kinds of near-money into real money, which is necessary if we are to avoid severe liquidity crises or panics, the monetary authorities must be given some discretion. But I agree with Friedman that we will have to try and get back to a more or less automatic system for regulating the quantity of money in ordinary times. The necessity of “suspending” Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Act of 1844 three times within 25 years after it was passed ought to have taught us this once and for all.
Hayek in the Denationalization of Money, Hayek was more direct:
As regards Professor Friedman’s proposal of a legal limit on the rate at which a monopolistic issuer of money was to be allowed to increase the quantity in circulation, I can only say that I would not like to see what would happen if it ever became known that the amount of cash in circulation was approaching the upper limit and that therefore a need for increased liquidity could not be met.
And in a footnote, Hayek added.
To such a situation the classic account of Walter Bagehot . . . would apply: “In a sensitive state of the English money market the near approach to the legal limit of reserve would be a sure incentive to panic; if one-third were fixed by law, the moment the banks were close to one-third, alarm would begin and would run like magic.
So Friedman’s k-percent rule was dumb, really dumb. It was dumb, because it induced expectations that made it unsustainable. As Hayek observed, not only was the theory clear, but it was confirmed by the historical evidence from the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, it had to be reconfirmed one more time in 1982 before the Fed abandoned its own misguided attempt to implement a modified version of the Friedman rule.