David Laidler on Hawtrey and the Treasury View

My recent post on Hawtrey and the Treasury View occasioned an exchange of emails with David Laidler about Hawtrey, the Treasury View. and the gold standard. As usual, David made some important points that I thought would be worth sharing. I will try to come back to some of his points in future posts, but for now I will just refer to his comments about Hawtrey and the Treasury View.

David drew my attention to his own discussion of Hawtrey and the Treasury View in his excellent book Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution (especially pp. 112-28). Here are some excerpts.

It is well known that Hawtrey was a firm advocate of using the central bank’s discount rate – bank rate, as it is called in British terminology – as the principal instrument of monetary policy, and this might at first sight seem to place him in the tradition of Walter Bagehot. However, Hawtrey’s conception of the appropriate target for policy was very different from Bagehot’s, and he was well aware of the this difference. Bagehot had regarded the maintenance of gold convertibility as the sine qua non of monetary policy, and as Hawtrey told reader of his Art of Central Banking, “a central bank working the gold standard must rectify an outflow of gold by a restriction of credit and an inflow of gold by a relaxation of credit. Under Hawtrey’s preferred scheme, on the other hand,

substantially the plan embodied in the currency resolution adopted at the Genoa Conference of 1922, . . . the contral banks of the world [would[ regulated credit with a view to preventing undue fluctuations in the purchasing power of gold.

More generally he saw the task of central banking as being to mitigate that inherent instability of credit which was the driving force of economic fluctuations, by ensuring, as far as possible, that cumulative expansions and contractions of bank deposits were eliminated, or, failing that, when faced by depression, to bring about whatever degree of monetary expansion might be required to restore economic activity to a satisfactory level. (pp. 122-23)

Laidler links Hawtrey’s position about the efficacy of central bank policy in moderating economic fluctuations to Hawtrey’s 1925 paper on public-works spending and employment, the classic statement of the Treasury View.

Unlike the majority of his English . . . contemporaries, Hawtrey thus had few doubts about the ultimate powers of conventional monetary policy to stimulate the economy, even in the most depressed circumstances. In parallel with that belief . . . he was skeptical about the powers of government-expenditure programs to have any aggregate effects on income and employment, except to the extent that they were financed by money creation. Hawtrey was, in fact, the originator of the particular version of “the Treasury view” of those matters that Hicks . . . characterized in terms of a vertical-LM-curve version of the IS-LM framework.

Hawtrey had presented at least the bare bones of that doctrine in Good and Bad Trade (1913), but his definitive exposition is to be found in his 1925 Economica paper. . . . [T]hat exposition was cast in terms of a system in which, given the levels of money wages and prices, the levels of output and employment were determined by the aggregate rate of low of expenditure on public works can be shown to imply an increase in the overall level of effective demand, the consequences must be an equal reduction in the expenditure of some other sector. . . .

That argument by Hawtrey deserves more respect than it is usually given. His conclusions do indeed follow from the money-growth-driven income-expenditure system with which he analysed the cycle. They follow from an IS-LM model when the economy is operating where the interest sensitivity of the demand for money in negligible, so that what Hicks would later call “the classical theory” is relevant. If, with the benefit of hindsight, Hawtrey might be convicted of over-generalizing from a special case, his analysis nevertheless made a significant contribution in demonstrating the dangers inherent in Pigou’s practice of going “behind the distorting veil of money” in order to deal with such matters. Hawtrey’s view, that the influence of public-works expenditures on the economy’s overall rate of flow of money expenditures was crucial to their effects on employment was surely valid. (pp.125-26)

Laidler then observes that no one else writing at the time had identified the interest-sensitivity of the demand for money as the relevant factor in judging whether public-works expenditure could increase employment.

It is true that the idea of a systematic interest sensitivity of the demand for money had been worked out by Lavington in the early 1920s, but it is also true that none of Hawtrey’s critics . . . saw its critical relevance to this matter during that decade and into the next. Indeed, Hawtrey himself came as close as any of them did before 1936 to developing a more general, not to say correct, argument about thte influence of the monetary system on the efficacy of public-works expenditure. . . . And he argued that once an expansion got under way, increased velocity would indeed accompany it. However, and crucially, he also insisted that “if no expansion of credit at all is allowed, the conditions which produce increased rapidity of circulation cannot begin to develop.”

Hindsight, illuminated by an IS-LM diagram with an upward-sloping LM curve, shows that the last step of his argument was erroneous, but Hawtrey was not alone in holding such a position. The fact is that in the 1920s and early 1930s, many advocates of public-works expenditures were careful to note that their success would be contingent upon their being accommodated by appropriate monetary measures. For example, when Richard Kahn addressed that issue in his classic article on the employment multiplier, he argued as follows:

It is, however, important to realize that the intelligent co-operation of the banking system is being taken for granted. . . . If the increased circulation of notes and the increased demand for working capital that may result from increased employment are made the occasion for a restriction of credit, then any attempt to increase employment . . . may be rendered nugatory. (pp. 126-27)

Thus, Laidler shows that Hawtrey’s position on the conditions in which public-works spending could increase employment was practically indistinguishable from Richard Kahn’s position on the same question in 1931. And I would emphasize once again that, inasmuch as Hawtrey’s 1925 position was taken when the Bank of England policy was setting its lending rate at the historically high level of 5% to encourage an inflow of gold and allow England to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity, Hawtrey was correct, notwithstanding any tendency of public-works spending to increase velocity, to dismiss public-works spending as a remedy for unemployment as long as bank rate was not reduced.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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