I was thumbing through my copy of Hayek’s wonderful collection of essays, Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and perused his (heavily underlined) essay, “Full, Employment, Planning, and Inflation,” originally published in the Institute of Public Affairs Review, Melbourne, vol. IV, 1950. The essay is an argument against the adoption of Keynesian (including monetary) policies to maintain full employment, warning that increasing aggregate demand to achieve the maximum attainable level of employment would lead not only to chronic inflation, but also to a mismatch between the distribution of demand and the distribution of labor. The inevitable mismatch between the demand for and supply of labor would cause unemployment to rise despite inflation, inviting the imposition of direct controls and the piecemeal implementation of central planning.
I will make two observations in passing. First, it is obvious from the discussion that although Hayek believed that there was a connection between expansionary monetary policy aimed at maintaining full employment (actually he meant “over-full” employment), he viewed the connection as indirect, clearly not identifying the conduct of monetary policy with central planning as such. Second, Hayek, already in 1950, had anticipated the essence of the argument for a vertical long-run Phillips Curve.
The main point of this post, however, is to focus on a few other gems about monetary policy from Hayek’s essay. Here is one:
Full employment has come to mean that maximum of employment that can be brought about in the short run by monetary pressure. This may not be the original meaning of the theoretical concept, but it was inevitable that it should have come to mean this in practice. Once it was admitted that the momentary state of employment should form the main guide to monetary policy, it was inevitable that any degree of unemployment which might be removed by monetary pressure should be regarded as sufficient justification for applying such pressure. That in most situations employment can be temporarily increased by monetary expansion has long been known. If this possibility has not always been used, this was because it was thought that by such measures not only other dangers were created, but that long-term stability of employment itself might be endangered by them. What is new about present beliefs is that it is now widely held that so long as monetary expansion creates additional employment, it is innocuous or at least will cause more benefit than harm.
Hayek here seems to be intimating a fairly hard-line stance against the use of monetary policy to increase employment. But two paragraphs later he adds an important qualification.
That so long as a state of general unemployment prevails, in the sense that unused resources of all kinds exist, monetary expansion can only be beneficial [my emphasis], few people will deny. But such a state of general unemployment is something rather exceptional, and it is by no means evident that a policy which will be beneficial in such a state will also always and necessarily be so in the kind of intermediate position in which an economic system finds itself most of the time, when significant unemployment is confined to certain industries, occupations or localities.
So Hayek here acknowledges that monetary policy can be effective in times of widespread unemployment of all kinds throughout the economy, i.e., (to use a more conventional idiom than Hayek used) when aggregate demand is deficient. Some people may regard our current levels of unemployment as not “unexceptional,” but nearly three years of 9-10% unemployment will hardly qualify as an “intermediate position” in the minds of most people. Hayek continues:
Of a system in a state of general unemployment it is roughly true that employment will fluctuate in proportion with money income, and that if we succeed in increasing money income we shall also in the same proportion increase employment. But it is just not true that all unemployment is in this manner due to an insufficiency of aggregate demand and can be lastingly cured by increased demand. The causal connection between income and employment is not a simple one-way connection so that by raising income by a certain ratio we can always raise employment by the same ratio.
Sixty years ago Hayek was arguing against an extreme version of Keynesian doctrine that viewed increasing aggregate demand as a panacea for all economic ills. Hayek did not win the battle himself, but his position did eventually win out, if not completely at least in large measure. Today, however, an equally extreme version of Hayek’s position seems to have become ascendant. It denies that increasing aggregate demand can, under any circumstances, increase employment. I don’t know what Hayek would think about all this if he were alive today, but I suspect that he would be appalled.