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Hayek on Good and Bad Unemployment Policies

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Tags Labor and WagesInterventionism

In 1944 Professor Hayek emphasised that sustainable employment depends on an appropriate distribution of labour among the different lines of production. This distribution must change as circumstances change. Sustain able employment thus depends on appropriate changes in relative real wage-rates. If established producers—both unions and capitalists—prevent such relative changes from becoming effective, there follows an unnecessary rise in unemployment. Sustainable employment now depends on successfully tackling these established labour and capital monopolies. - Sudha R. Shenoy

One of the obstacles to a successful employment policy is, paradoxically enough, that it is so comparatively easy quickly to reduce unemployment, or even almost to extinguish it, for the time being. There is always ready at hand a way of rapidly bringing large numbers of people back to the kind of employment they are used to, at no greater immediate cost than the printing and spending of a few extra millions. In countries with a disturbed monetary history this has long been known, but it has not made the remedy much more popular. In England the recent discovery of this drug has produced a somewhat intoxicating effect; and the present tendency to place exclusive reliance on its use is not without danger.

Though monetary expansion can afford quick relief, it can produce a lasting cure only to a limited extent. Few people will deny that monetary policy can successfully counteract the deflationary spiral into which every minor decline of activity tends to degenerate. This does not mean, however, that it is desirable that we should normally strain the instrument of monetary expansion to create the maximum amount of employment which it can produce in the short run. The trouble with such a policy is that it would be almost certain to aggravate the more fundamental or structural causes of unemployment and leave us in the end in a position worse than that from which we started.


The main cause of this kind of unemployment is undoubtedly the disproportion between the distribution of labour among the different industries and the rates at which the output of these industries could be continuously absorbed. At the end of this war we shall, of course, be faced with a particularly diffi cult problem of this character. In the past the best known disproportion of this kind and, because of its connection with periodical slumps the most important, was the chronic over-development of all the industries making equipment for use in further production.

It is more than likely that these industries, because of the intermittent way in which they operated, have always had a larger labour force than they could continuously employ. And while it is not diffi cult to create by means of monetary expansion in those industries another burst of feverish activity which will create temporarily conditions of ‘full employment’, and even draw still more people into those industries, we are thereby making more diffi cult the task of maintaining even employment. A monetary policy aiming at a stable long-run position would indeed deliberately have to stop expansion before ‘full employment’ in those industries had been reached, in order to avoid a new maldirection of resources.

Though this is the most important single instance of structural maladjustments responsible for unemployment, the recurrent depression constitutes only part of our problem. The hard core of persistent unemployment is an even greater menace and is due largely to maldistributions of a different kind which monetary policy can do even less to cure. We must here face the fact that the problem of unemployment is in the last resort a wage problem—a fact which used to be well understood but which a conspiracy of silence has recently relegated into oblivion.

Wages and Mobility

Demand shifts constantly to new articles and industries, and the more rapidly we advance the more frequent such changes become. Though the increased speed of change will necessarily swell the numbers temporarily out of work while looking for a new job, it need not cause an increase of lasting unemployment, or a reduction in the demand for labour as a whole. If movement into the advancing industries were free, they should readily absorb those laid off elsewhere. The new development which more and more prevents this, and which has become the most serious cause of protracted unemployment, is the tendency of those established in the progres sing industries to exclude newcomers. If the increase in demand in those industries leads, not to an increase of employment and output, but merely to an increase of the wages and profits of those already established, there will indeed be no new demand for labour to offset the decrease. If every gain of an industry is treated as the preserve of a closed group, to be taken out almost entirely in higher wages and profi ts, every shift of demand must add to the lasting unemployment.

The very special and almost unique experience of this country in the years after the pound was artificially raised to its former gold value has produced a fallacious preoccupation with the general wage level. Where such an artificial increase of the national wage level is the cause of unemployment, monetary manipulation is indeed the simplest way to cure it. Such a situation, however, is altogether exceptional and not likely to occur, except in consequence of currency fluctuations.

In normal times employment depends much more on the relation between wages in the different industries—or, rather, on the degree of mobility which the wage structure allows. There is little that monetary policy can positively achieve in this connection. Indeed, if Lord Keynes is right in emphasising that workers attach more importance to the nominal figure of their money wages than to real wages, any attempt to meet the problems of wage rigidity by monetary expansion can only increase the immobility which is the real trouble: if money wages are maintained in declining industries the workers will become even more hesitant to leave them in order to break the protective walls sheltering the privileged groups in the advancing industries.

The struggle against unemployment is in the last resort the same as the struggle against monopoly. Need it be added that on this fundamental issue we are not moving in the right direction? Or that it would be a poor service to the community to pretend that there is an easy way out which makes it unnecessary to face the basic difficulties?

Dangers Ahead

It is easy to see how much more serious our problems must become if the present fashion should prevail and if it should become the accepted doctrine that it is the task of monetary policy to make good any harm done by monopolistic wage policies. Even apart from the effect on those responsible for wage policy, who are thus excused the responsibility for the effect of their action on employment, the one-sided emphasis on monetary policy may not only deprive our efforts of full results, but also produce effects as unlooked for as they are undesirable.

While it is true that an intelligent monetary policy is a sine qua non of the prevention of large-scale unemployment, it is equally certain that it is not enough. Short of universal compulsion we shall never lastingly conquer unemployment until we succeed in breaking the rigidities of our economic system which we have allowed the monopolies of capitalists and labour to create. To forget this and to trust solely to monetary policy is the more dangerous as it may succeed long enough to make it impossible to try anything else: the more we are induced to delay the more difficult adjustments, because for the time being we seem to be able to keep things going, the greater the sector of our economic system will grow which can be kept going only by the artificial stimulus of credit expansion and ever-increasing Government investment.

It is a path which would force us into progressively increasing Government control of all economic life, and eventually into the totalitarian state.

Excerpt from A Tiger by the Tail 

F. A. Hayek (1899–1992) is undoubtedly the most eminent of the modern Austrian economists, and a founding board member of the Mises Institute. Student of Friedrich von Wieser, protégé and colleague of Ludwig von Mises, and foremost representative of an outstanding generation of Austrian School theorists, Hayek was more successful than anyone else in spreading Austrian ideas throughout the English-speaking world. He shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics with ideological rival Gunnar Myrdal "for their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena."  Among mainstream economists, he is mainly known for his popular The Road to Serfdom  (1944).

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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