First, it was the Keynes v. Hayek rap video, and then came the even more vulgar and tasteless Keynes v. Hayek sequel video reducing the two hyperintellectuals to prize fighters. (The accuracy of the representations signaled in its portrayal of Hayek as bald and Keynes with a full head of hair when in real life it was the other way around.) Then came a debate broadcast by the BBC at the London School of Economics, and then another sponsored by Reuters with a Nobel Prize winning economist on the program arguing for the Hayek side. Now comes a new book by Nicholas Wapshott Keynes Hayek, offering an extended account of the fraught relationship between two giants of twentieth century economics who eventually came to a sort of intellectual détente toward the end of Keynes’s life, a decade or more after a few years of really intense, even brutal, but very high level, polemical exchanges between them (and some of their surrogates) in the pages of England’s leading economics journals. Tyler Cowen has just reviewed Wapshott’s book in the National Review (see Marcus Nunes’s blog).
As I observed in September after watching the first Keynes-Hayek debate, we can still learn a lot by going back to Keynes’s and Hayek’s own writings, but all this Keynes versus Hayek hype creates the terribly misleading impression that the truth must lie with only one side or the other, that one side represents truth and enlightenment and the other represents falsehood and darkness, one side represents pure disinterested motives and the other is shilling for sinister forces lurking in the wings seeking to advance their own illegitimate interests, in short that one side can be trusted and the other cannot. All this attention on Keynes and Hayek, two charismatic personalities who have become figureheads or totems for ideological movements that they might not have endorsed at all — and certainly not endorsed unconditionally — encourages an increasingly polarized discussion in which people choose sides based on pre-existing ideological commitments rather than on a reasoned assessment of the arguments and the evidence.
In part, this framing of arguments in ideological terms simply reflects existing trends that have been encouraging an increasingly ideological approach to politics, law, and public policy. For an example of this approach, see Naomi Klein’s recent musings about global warming and the necessity for acknowledging that combating global warming requires the very social transformation that makes right-wingers oppose, on ideological principle, any measure to counter global warming. Those are just the terms of debate that Naomi Klein wants. Thus, both sides have come to see global warming not as a problem to be addressed or mitigated, but as a weapon to be used in the context of a comprehensive ideological struggle. Those who want to address the problem in a pragmatic, non-ideological, way are losing control of the conversation.
The amazing thing about the original Keynes-Hayek debate is not only that both misunderstood the sources of the Great Depression for which they were confidently offering policy advice, but that Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel had explained what was happening ten years before the downturn started in the summer of 1929. Both Hawtrey and Cassel understood that restoring the gold standard after the demonetization of gold that took place during World War I would have hugely deflationary implications if, when the gold standard was reinstated, the world’s monetary demand for gold would increase back to the pre-World War I level (as a result of restoring gold coinage and the replenishment of the gold reserves held in central bank coffers). That is why both Hawtrey and Cassel called for measures to limit the world’s monetary demand for gold (measures agreed upon in the international monetary conference in Genoa in 1922 of which Hawtrey was the guiding spirit). The measures agreed upon at the Genoa Conference prevented the monetary demand for gold from increasing faster than the stock of gold was increasing so that the world price level in terms of gold was roughly stable from about 1922 through 1928. But in 1928, French demand for gold started to increase rapidly just as the Federal Reserve began tightening monetary policy in a tragically misguided effort to squelch a supposed stock-price bubble on Wall Street, causing an inflow of gold into the US while the French embarked on a frenzied drive to add to their gold holdings, and other countries rejoining the gold standard were increasing their gold holdings as well, though with a less fanatical determination than the French. The Great Depression was therefore entirely the product of monetary causes, a world-wide increase in gold demand causing its value to increase, an increase manifesting itself, under the gold standard, in deflation.
Hayek, along with his mentor Ludwig von Mises, could also claim to have predicted the 1929 downturn, having criticized the Fed in 1927, when the US was in danger of falling into a recession, for reducing interest rates to 3.5%, by historical standards far from a dangerously expansionary rate, as Hawtrey demonstrated in his exhaustive book on the subject A Century of Bank Rate. But it has never been even remotely plausible that a 3.5% discount rate at the Fed for a little over a year was the trigger for the worst economic catastrophe since the Black Death of the 14th century. Nor could Keynes offer a persuasive explanation for why the world suddenly went into a catastrophic downward spiral in late 1929. References to animal spirits and the inherent instability of entrepreneurial expectations are all well and good, but they provide not so much an explanation of the downturn as a way of talking about it or describing it. Beyond that, the Hawtrey-Cassel account of the Great Depression also accounts for the relative severity of the Depression and for the sequence of recovery in different counties, there being an almost exact correlation between the severity of the Depression in a country and the existence and duration of the gold standard in the country. In no country did recovery start until after the gold standard was abandoned, and in no country was there a substantial lag between leaving the gold standard and the start of the recovery.
So not only did Hawtrey and Cassel predict the Great Depression, specifying in advance the conditions that would, and did, bring it about, they identified the unerring prescription – something provided by no other explanation — for a country to start recovering from the Great Depression. Hayek, on the other hand, along with von Mises, not only advocated precisely the wrong policy, namely, tightening money, in effect increasing the monetary demand for gold, he accepted, if not welcomed, deflation as the necessary price for maintaining the gold standard. (This by the way is what explains the puzzle (raised by Larry White in his paper “Did Hayek and Robbins Deepen the Great Depression?”) of Hayek’s failure to follow his own criterion for a neutral monetary policy, stated explicitly in chapter 4 of Prices and Production: stabilization of nominal expenditure (NGDP). However, a policy of stabilizing nominal expenditure was inconsistent with staying on the gold standard when the value of gold was rising by 5 to 10% a year. Faced with a conflict between maintaining the gold standard and following his own criterion for neutral money, Hayek, along with his friend and colleague Lionel Robbins in his patently Austrian book The Great Depression, both opted for maintaining the gold standard.)
Not only did Hayek make the wrong call about the gold standard, he actually defended the insane French policy of gold accumulation in his lament for the gold standard after Britain wisely disregarded his advice and left the gold standard in 1931. In his paper “The Fate of the Gold Standard” (originally Das Schicksal der Goldwahrung) reprinted in The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek: Good Money, Part 1, Hayek mourned the impending demise of the gold standard after Britain tardily did the right thing. The tone of Hayek’s lament is struck in his opening paragraph (p. 153).
There has been much talk about the breakdown of the gold standard, particularly in Britain where, to the astonishment of every foreign observer, the abandonment of the gold standard was very widely welcomed as a release from an irksome constraint. However, it can scarcely be doubted that the renewed monetary problems of almost the whole world have nothing to do with the tendencies inherent in the gold standard, but on the contrary stem from the persistent and continuous attempts from many sides over a number of years to prevent the gold standard from functioning whenever it began to reveal tendencies which were not desired by the country in question. Hence it was by no means the economically strong countries such as America and France whose measures rendered the gold standard inoperative, as is frequently assumed, but the countries in a relatively weak position, at the head of which was Britain, who eventually paid for their transgression of the “rules of the game” by the breakdown of their gold standard.
So what do we learn from this depressing tale? Hawtrey and Cassel did everything right. They identified the danger to the world economy a decade in advance. They specified exactly the correct policy for avoiding the danger. Their policy was a huge success for about nine years until the Americans and the French between them drove the world economy into the Great Depression, just as Hawtrey and Cassel warned would happen if the monetary demand for gold was not held in check. Within a year and a half, both Hawtrey and Cassel concluded that recovery was no longer possible under the gold standard. And as countries, one by one, abandoned the gold standard, they began to recover just as Hawtrey and Cassel predicted. So one would have thought that Hawtrey and Cassel would have been acclaimed and celebrated far and wide as the most insightful, the most farsighted, the wisest, economists in the world. Yep, that’s what one would have thought. Did it happen? Not a chance. Instead, it was Keynes who was credited with figuring out how to end the Great Depression, even though there was almost nothing in the General Theory about the gold standard and a 30% deflation as the cause of the Great Depression, despite his having vilified Churchill in 1925 for rejoining the gold standard at the prewar parity when that decision was expected to cause a mere 10% deflation.
But amazingly enough, even when economists began looking for alternative ways to Keynesianism of thinking about macroeconomics, Austrian economics still being considered too toxic to handle, almost no one bothered to go back to revisit what Hawtrey and Cassel had said about the Great Depression. So Milton Friedman was considered to have been daring and original for suggesting a monetary explanation for the Great Depression and finding historical and statistical support for that explanation. Yet, on the key elements of the historical explanation, Hawtrey and Cassel either anticipated Friedman, or on the numerous issues on which Friedman did not follow Hawtrey and Cassel — in particular the international gold market as the transmitter of deflation and depression across all countries on the gold standard, the key role of the Bank of France (which Friedman denied in the Monetary History and for years afterwards only to concede the point in the mid to late 1990s), the absence of an explanation for the 1929 downturn, the misplaced emphasis on the contraction of the US money stock and the role of U.S. bank failures as a critical factor in explaining the severity of the Great Depression — Hawtrey and Cassel got it right and Friedman got it wrong.
So what matters in the success in the marketplace of ideas seems to be not just the quality or the truth of a theory, but also (or instead) the publicity machine that can be deployed in support of a theory to generate interest in it and to attract followers who can expect to advance their own careers in the process of developing, testing, or otherwise propagating, the theory. Keynes, Friedman, and eventually Hayek, all had powerful ideologically driven publicity machines working on their behalf. And guess what? It’s the theories that attract the support of a hard core of ideologically motivated followers that tend to outperform those without a cadre of ideological followers.
That’s why it was very interesting, important, and encouraging that Tyler Cowen, in his discussion of the Keynes-Hayek story, felt the need to mention how Scott Sumner has shifted the debate over the past two years away from the tired old Keynes vs. Hayek routine. Of course Tyler, about as well read an economist as there is, slipped up when he said that Scott is reviving the Friedman Monetarist tradition. No, Scott is reviving the Hawtrey-Cassel pre-Monetarist tradition, of which Friedman’s is a decidedly inferior, and obsolete, version. It just goes to show that one person sometimes really can make a difference, even without an ideologically driven publicity machine working on his behalf. Just imagine what Hawtrey and Cassel could have accomplished if they had been bloggers.