There’s been a lot of discussion about Say’s Law in the blogosphere lately, some of it finding its way into the comments section of my recent post “What Does Keynesisan Mean,” in which I made passing reference to Keynes’s misdirected tirade against Say’s Law in the General Theory. Keynes wasn’t the first economist to make a fuss over Say’s Law. It was a big deal in the nineteenth century when Say advanced what was then called the Law of the Markets, pointing out that the object of all production is, in the end, consumption, so that all productive activity ultimately constitutes a demand for other products. There were extended debates about whether Say’s Law was really true, with Say, Ricardo, James and John Stuart Mill all weighing on in favor of the Law, and Malthus and the French economist J. C. L. de Sismondi arguing against it. A bit later, Karl Marx also wrote at length about Say’s Law, heaping his ample supply of scorn upon Say and his Law. Thomas Sowell’s first book, I believe drawn from the doctoral dissertation he wrote under George Stigler, was about the classical debates about Say’s Law.
The literature about Say’s Law is too vast to summarize in a blog post. Here’s my own selective take on it.
Say was trying to refute a certain kind of explanation of economic crises, and what we now would call cyclical or involuntary unemployment, an explanation attributing such unemployment to excess production for which income earners don’t have enough purchasing power in their pockets to buy. Say responded that the reason why income earners had supplied the services necessary to produce the available output was to earn enough income to purchase the output. This is the basic insight behind the famous paraphrase (I don’t know if it was Keynes’s paraphrase or someone else’s) of Say’s Law — supply creates its own demand. If it were instead stated as products or services are supplied only because the suppliers want to buy other products or services, I think that it would be more in sync than the standard formulation with Say’s intent. Another way to think about Say’s Law is as a kind of conservation law.
There were two famous objections made to Say’s Law: first, current supply might be offered in order to save for future consumption, and, second, current supply might be offered in order to add to holdings of cash. In either case, there could be current supply that is not matched by current demand for output, so that total current demand would be insufficient to generate full employment. Both these objections are associated with Keynes, but he wasn’t the first to make either of them. The savings argument goes back to the nineteenth century, and the typical response was that if there was insufficient current demand, because the desire to save had increased, the public deciding to reduce current expenditures on consumption, the shortfall in consumption demand would lead to an increase in investment demand driven by falling interest rates and rising asset prices. In the General Theory, Keynes proposed an argument about liquidity preference and a potential liquidity trap, suggesting a reason why the necessary adjustment in the rate of interest would not necessarily occur.
Keynes’s argument about a liquidity trap was and remains controversial, but the argument that the existence of money implies that Say’s Law can be violated was widely accepted. Indeed, in his early works on business-cycle theory, F. A. Hayek made the point, seemingly without embarrassment or feeling any need to justify it at length, that the existence of money implied a disconnect between overall supply and overall demand, describing money as a kind of loose joint in the economic system. This argument, apparently viewed as so trivial or commonplace by Hayek that he didn’t bother proving it or citing authority for it, was eventually formalized by the famous market-socialist economist (who, for a number of years was a tenured professor at that famous bastion of left-wing economics the University of Chicago) Oskar Lange who introduced a distinction between Walras’s Law and Say’s Law (“Say’s Law: A Restatement and Criticism”).
Walras’s Law says that the sum of all excess demands and excess supplies, evaluated at any given price vector, must identically equal zero. The existence of a budget constraint makes this true for each individual, and so, by the laws of arithmetic, it must be true for the entire economy. Essentially, this was a formalization of the logic of Say’s Law. However, Lange showed that Walras’s Law reduces to Say’s Law only in an economy without money. In an economy with money, Walras’s Law means that there could be an aggregate excess supply of all goods at some price vector, and the excess supply of goods would be matched by an equal excess demand for money. Aggregate demand would be deficient, and the result would be involuntary unemployment. Thus, according to Lange’s analysis, Say’s Law holds, as a matter of necessity, only in a barter economy. But in an economy with money, an excess supply of all real commodities was a logical possibility, which means that there could be a role for some type – the choice is yours — of stabilization policy to ensure that aggregate demand is sufficient to generate full employment. One of my regular commenters, Tom Brown, asked me recently whether I agreed with Nick Rowe’s statement: “the goal of good monetary policy is to try to make Say’s Law true.” I said that I wasn’t sure what the statement meant, thereby avoiding the need to go into a lengthy explanation about why I am not quite satisfied with that way of describing the goal of monetary policy.
There are at least two problems with Lange’s formulation of Say’s Law. The first was pointed out by Clower and Leijonhufvud in their wonderful paper (“Say’s Principle: What It Means and Doesn’t Mean” reprinted here and here) on what they called Say’s Principle in which they accepted Lange’s definition of Say’s Law, while introducing the alternative concept of Say’s Principle as the supply-side analogue of the Keynesian multiplier. The key point was to note that Lange’s analysis was based on the absence of trading at disequilibrium prices. If there is no trading at disequilibrium prices, because the Walrasian auctioneer or clearinghouse only processes information in a trial-and-error exercise aimed at discovering the equilibrium price vector, no trades being executed until the equilibrium price vector has been discovered (a discovery which, even if an equilibrium price vector exists, may not be made under any price-adjustment rule adopted by the auctioneer, rational expectations being required to “guarantee” that an equilibrium price vector is actually arrived at, sans auctioneer), then, indeed, Say’s Law need not obtain in notional disequilibrium states (corresponding to trial price vectors announced by the Walrasian auctioneer or clearinghouse). The insight of Clower and Leijonhufvud was that in a real-time economy in which trading is routinely executed at disequilibrium prices, transactors may be unable to execute the trades that they planned to execute at the prevailing prices. But when planned trades cannot be executed, trading and output contract, because the volume of trade is constrained by the lesser of the amount supplied and the amount demanded.
This is where Say’s Principle kicks in; If transactors do not succeed in supplying as much as they planned to supply at prevailing prices, then, depending on the condition of their balances sheets, and the condition of credit markets, transactors may have to curtail their demands in subsequent periods; a failure to supply as much as had been planned last period will tend reduce demand in this period. If the “distance” from equilibrium is large enough, the demand failure may even be amplified in subsequent periods, rather than damped. Thus, Clower and Leijonhufvud showed that the Keynesian multiplier was, at a deep level, really just another way of expressing the insight embodied in Say’s Law (or Say’s Principle, if you insist on distinguishing what Say meant from Lange’s reformulation of it in terms of Walrasian equilibrium).
I should add that, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, W. H. Hutt, in a remarkable little book, clarified and elaborated on the Clower-Leijonhufvud analysis, explaining how Say’s Principle was really implicit in many earlier treatments of business-cycle phenomena. The only reservation I have about Hutt’s book is that he used it to wage an unnecessary polemical battle against Keynes.
At about the same time that Clower and Leijonhufvud were expounding their enlarged view of the meaning and significance of Say’s Law, Earl Thompson showed that under “classical” conditions, i.e., a competitive supply of privately produced bank money (notes and deposits) convertible into gold, Say’s Law in Lange’s narrow sense, could also be derived in a straightforward fashion. The demonstration followed from the insight that when bank money is competitively issued, it is accomplished by an exchange of assets and liabilities between the bank and the bank’s customer. In contrast to the naïve assumption of Lange (adopted as well by his student Don Patinkin in a number of important articles and a classic treatise) that there is just one market in the monetary sector, there are really two markets in the monetary sector: a market for money supplied by banks and a market for money-backing assets. Thus, any excess demand for money would be offset not, as in the Lange schema, by an excess supply of goods, but by an excess supply of money-backing services. In other words, the public can increase their holdings of cash by giving their IOUs to banks in exchange for the IOUs of the banks, the difference being that the IOUs of the banks are money and the IOUs of customers are not money, but do provide backing for the money created by banks. The market is equilibrated by adjustments in the quantity of bank money and the interest paid on bank money, with no spillover on the real sector. With no spillover from the monetary sector onto the real sector, Say’s Law holds by necessity, just as it would in a barter economy.
A full exposition can be found in Thompson’s original article. I summarized and restated its analysis of Say’s Law in my
1978 1985 article on classical monetary theory and in my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform. Regrettably, I did not incorporate the analysis of Clower and Leijonhufvud and Hutt into my discussion of Say’s Law either in my article or in my book. But in a world of temporary equilibrium, in which future prices are not correctly foreseen by all transactors, there are no strict intertemporal budget constraints that force excess demands and excess supplies to add up to zero. In short, in such a world, things can get really messy, which is where the Clower-Leijonhufvud-Hutt analysis can be really helpful in sorting things out.