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The Chimera of Contracyclical Policies

March 26, 2012

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[Human Action (1949)]

An essential element of the "unorthodox" doctrines, advanced both by all socialists and by all interventionists, is that the recurrence of depressions is a phenomenon inherent in the very operation, of the market economy. But while the socialists contend that only the substitution of socialism for capitalism can eradicate the evil, the interventionists ascribe to the government the power to correct the operation of the market economy in such a way as to bring about what they call "economic stability." These interventionists would be right if their antidepression plans were to aim at a radical abandonment of credit expansion policies. However, they reject this idea in advance. What they want is to expand credit more and more and to prevent depressions by the adoption of special "contracyclical" measures.

In the context of these plans the government appears as a deity that stands and works outside the orbit of human affairs, that is independent of the actions of its subjects, and has the power to interfere with these actions from without. It has at its disposal means and funds that are not provided by the people and can be freely used for whatever purposes the rulers are prepared to employ them for. What is needed to make the most beneficent use of this power is merely to follow the advice given by the experts.

The most advertised among these suggested remedies is contracyclical timing of public works and expenditure on public enterprises. The idea is not so new as its champions would have us believe. When depression came, in the past, public opinion always asked the government to embark upon public works in order to create jobs and to stop the drop in prices. But the problem is how to finance these public works. If the government taxes the citizens or borrows from them, it does not add anything to what the Keynesians call the aggregate amount of spending. It restricts the private citizen's power to consume or to invest to the same extent that it increases its own. If, however, the government resorts to the cherished inflationary methods of financing, it makes things worse, not better. It may thus delay for a short time the outbreak of the slump. But when the unavoidable payoff does come, the crisis is the heavier the longer the government has postponed it.

The interventionist experts are at a loss to grasp the real problems involved. As they see it, the main thing is "to plan public capital expenditure well in advance and to accumulate a shelf of fully worked out capital projects which can be put into operation at short notice." This, they say, "is the right policy and one which we recommend all countries should adopt."[1] However, the problem is not to elaborate projects, but to provide the material means for their execution. The interventionists believe that this could be easily achieved by holding back government expenditure in the boom and increasing it when the depression comes.

Now, restriction of government expenditure may certainly be a good thing. But it does not provide the funds a government needs for a later expansion of its expenditure. An individual may conduct his affairs in this way. He may accumulate savings when his income is high and spend them later when his income drops. But it is different with a nation or all nations together. The treasury may hoard a considerable part of the lavish revenue from taxes which flows into the public exchequer as a result of the boom. As far and as long as it withholds these funds from circulation, its policy is really deflationary and contracyclical and may to this extent weaken the boom created by credit expansion. But when these funds are spent again, they alter the money relation and create a cash-induced tendency toward a drop in the monetary unit's purchasing power. By no means can these funds provide the capital goods required for the execution of the shelved public works.

The fundamental error of the interventionists consists in the fact that they ignore the shortage of capital goods. In their eyes the depression is merely caused by a mysterious lack of the people's propensity both to consume and to invest. While the only real problem is to produce more and to consume less in order to increase the stock of capital goods available, the interventionists want to increase both consumption and investment. They want the government to embark upon projects which are unprofitable precisely because the factors of production needed for their execution must be withdrawn from other lines of employment in which they would fulfill wants the satisfaction of which the consumers consider more urgent. They do not realize that such public works must considerably intensify the real evil, the shortage of capital goods.

One could, of course, think of another mode for the employment of the savings the government makes in the boom period. The treasury could invest its surplus in buying large stocks of all those materials which it will later, when the depression comes, need for the execution of the public works planned and of the consumers' goods which those occupied in these public works will ask for. But if the authorities were to act in this way, they would considerably intensify the boom, accelerate the outbreak of the crisis, and make its consequences more serious.[2]

All this talk about contracyclical government activities aims at one goal only, namely, to divert the public's attention from cognizance of the real cause of the cyclical fluctuations of business. All governments are firmly committed to the policy of low interest rates, credit expansion, and inflation. When the unavoidable aftermath of these short-term policies appears, they know only of one remedy — to go on in inflationary ventures.

Notes

[1] Cf. League of Nations, Economic Stability in the Post-War World, Report of the Delegation on Economic Depressions, Pt. II (Geneva, 1945), p. 173.

[2] In dealing with the contracyclical policies the interventionists always refer to the alleged success of these policies in Sweden. It is true that public capital expenditure in Sweden was actually doubled between 1932 and 1939. But this was not the cause, but an effect, of Sweden's prosperity in the 1930s. This prosperity was entirely due to the rearmament of Germany. This Nazi policy increased the German demand for Swedish products on the one hand and restricted, on the other hand, German competition on the world market for those products which Sweden could supply. Thus Swedish exports increased from 1932 to 1938 (in thousands of tons) : iron ore from 2,219 to 12485; pig iron from 31,047 to 92,980; ferro-alloys from 15,453 to 28,605; other kinds of iron and steel from 134,237 to 256,146; machinery from 46,230 to 70,605. The number of unemployed applying for relief was 114,000 in 1932 and 165,000 in 1933. It dropped, as soon as German rearmament came into full swing, to 115,000 in 1934, to 62,000 in 1935, and was 16,000 in 1938. The author of this "miracle" was not Keynes, but Hitler.

 


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