Simplicity – Grant Williams on Gold

For anyone who is interested to understand what money is and what’s happening to it, I strongly recommend you listen to these two presentations. [youtube height=”400″ width=”620″][/youtube] [space height=”20″] [youtube height=”400″ width=”620″][/youtube]

Prices & Production and Other Works

My Foreword to Prices & Production and Other Works, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 2008. An old Polish soldier who had settled in London after World War II exposed me to the teachings of Hayek when I was sixteen years old. He had fought the Nazi machine as a member of the Royal Air Force. An equally nasty totalitarian force subsequently occupied his country: the Stalinist Communists. After the war, he settled in my neighborhood, and I got talking to him. He was adamant that I read Hayek as Hayek could show me all that was wrong with totalitarianism. The book offered was The Road to Serfdom. I did. I dedicate this reproduction to all those people who have suffered untold hardship under various totalitarian regimes. Setting my sights on the London School of Economics, where Hayek had taught for twenty-plus years in the 1930s through the 1950s, as a place to study, to my great pleasure, we could study, as part of our political theory course, The Constitution of Liberty. Although Hayek had taught at the LSE in the economics department, none of his economic works were taught. Indeed, I was totally ignorant, up until my mid-twenties (i.e., post-university) of his economic works, which needless to say were the works cited in the awarding of his Nobel Prize. Further, it was Hayek who led me to the works of Ludwig von Mises, about whom I am certain that I would have otherwise known nothing. Just as my Polish friend sparked my social and political interest in Hayek, I hope this volume can do the same for others concerning his economic work. This volume intends to revitalize Hayek’s contribution to the study of economic fluctuations (more commonly now called business cycles) and monetary theory. Hayek demonstrated an entrepreneurial and empirical attitude toward his work. Just as his social, political, and legal work is rich with warning about too much well-meaning government interference, so too are his neglected economic works. After his time at the Institute for Business Cycle Research in Vienna, he funded his own trip to the United States to interview economists and develop his work. Hayek understood the importance of statistical verification but was also committed to getting the theory right rather than counting on empirics to generate their whole result. His legacy should be to complement theoretical quibbles with hard facts, and these essays contain rich avenues to pursue. One particular area I would like to draw the reader to is his works contained here on the business cycle, which was the work that grew from Mises’s initial work on the matter in 1912, which has become known as the Austrian theory of the business cycle. Most contemporary economists have dismissed this work as not being in accordance with the observable facts and thus not worthy of being taught; hence, perhaps why I never saw sight nor sound of his teachings as an undergraduate. In brief Hayek contends that an artificial manipulation by government of the interest rate creates a subsidy of credit that causes entrepreneurs to bring forth projects that were hitherto marginal. In reality, the consumers do not want the goods of these projects, so there is a misallocation (malinvestment) of resources. A careful reading of these early Hayek essays preempts the modern debate over rational expectations and shows that the cluster of errors can be avoided by his steadfast commitment to methodological individualism. Entrepreneurs are neither lemmings nor computers because they are heterogeneous. If we extend the assumption of heterogeneity from capital to entrepreneurs, the question is, which type of entrepreneur is creating the cyclical activity of interest? Standard economic theory suggests that it is the marginal entrepreneur who moves the market, and Hayek points us in a direction that very few scholars have acted upon. I would find great value in subjecting this point to empirical evidence, to see who these marginal entrepreneurs are (the ones who are exposed when their credit subsidy is removed in a monetary contraction), and the conditions of their entry and exit. Perhaps moral hazard is not the greatest problem created by subsidized credit, and the effects of adverse selection create even larger inefficiencies. Hayek stressed the role of relative price movements and focused attention on the interest rate. But he also provided a rich and accomplished critique of the use of abstract, aggregate variables. This presents a temptation for theorists to overemphasize interest rate changes, despite the fact that they only affect the risk of highly leveraged firms. In many cases the volume of credit, raw money creation by the Central Bank, seems a more realistic variable than the rate of interest. Hayek’s faculty position at the LSE (1931–1950) not only raised the profile of the Austrian School, but also elevated capital theory to one of the key economic issues, by highlighting (and translating) the key Swedish and Austrian insights for the English-speaking orthodoxy. During this period the LSE was the frontier of the continental tradition, and Hayek, Keynes, Robinson, Sraffa, Shackle, Robbins, et al. were at the peak of their discipline. This volume reminds us of a time when Austrian theory sat at the top of the table of debate, and offers us the way to return there. Hayek was writing in a tradition where economists were conscious of the practical relevance of their work. To be sure, Hayek utilized grand thought experiments and abstraction, but his theoretical work always sought to understand the real world. Since then a divergence has occurred between self-referential academics and a generation of business consultants who lack the rigor of price theory. I am sure that a reassessment of the likes of Hayek is of fundamental importance to any young economist seeking to bridge these two spheres and return to a science of commerce. In fact, the critical problem of how individuals coordinate is the thread that runs throughout Hayek’s work, and the monetary aspect returns with his late attention to the nationalization of money. In these works we see Hayek as a price theorist, and as a facilitator of economic inquiry. As an entrepreneur I recognize deep insights throughout Hayek’s work, but also several points that have to be expanded and verified. This volume should not be seen as an example of preservation, but an engine of discovery.

What The Classical Economists Knew And The Moderns Have Forgotten – Part 5

Today, as the last article in this series, we present the words of Say himself, taken from his masterpiece A Treatise on Political Economy. Does the first paragraph not sadly resonate today?


ATreatiseOnPoliticalEconomy[1]It is common to hear adventurers in the different channels of industry assert, that their difficulty lies not in the production, but in the disposal of commodities; that products would always be abundant, if there were but a ready demand, or market for them. When the demand for their commodities is slow, difficult, and productive of little advantage, they pronounce money to be scarce; the grand object of their desire is, a consumption brisk enough to quicken sales and keep up prices. But ask them what peculiar causes and circumstances facilitate the demand for their products, and you will soon perceive that most of them have extremely vague notions of these matters; that their observation of facts is imperfect, and their explanation still more so; that they treat doubtful points as matter of certainty, often pray for what is directly opposite to their interests, and importunately solicit from authority a protection of the most mischievous tendency. To enable us to form clear and correct practical notions in regard to markets for the products of industry, we must carefully analyse the best established and most certain facts, and apply to them the inferences we have already deduced from a similar way of proceeding; and thus perhaps we may arrive at new and important truths, that may serve to enlighten the views of the agents of industry, and to give confidence to the measures of governments anxious to afford them encouragement. A man who applies his labour to the investing of objects with value by the creation of utility of some sort, can not expect such a value to be appreciated and paid for, unless where other men have the means of purchasing it. Now, of what do these means consist? Of other values of other products, likewise the fruits of industry, capital, and land. Which leads us to a conclusion that may at first sight appear paradoxical, namely, that it is production which opens a demand for products. Should a tradesman say, “I do not want other products for my woollens, I want money,” there could be little difficulty in convincing him that his customers could not pay him in money, without having first procured it by the sale of some other commodities of their own. “Yonder farmer,” he may be told, “will buy your woollens, if his crops be good, and will buy more or less according to their abundance or scantiness; he can buy none at all, if his crops fail altogether. Neither can you buy his wool nor his corn yourself, unless you contrive to get woollens or some other article to buy withal. You say, you only want money; I say, you want other commodities, and not money. For what, in point of fact, do you want the money? Is it not for the purchase of raw materials or stock for your trade, or victuals for your support? [1] Wherefore, it is products that you want, and not money. The silver coin you will have received on the sale of your own products, and given in the purchase of those of other people, will the next moment execute the same office between other contracting parties, and so from one to another to infinity; just as a public vehicle successively transports objects one after another. If you can not find a ready sale for your commodity, will you say, it is merely for want of a vehicle to transport it? For, after all, money is but the agent of the transfer of values. Its whole utility has consisted in conveying to your hands the value of the commodities, which your customer has sold, for the purpose of buying again from you; and the very next purchase you make, it will again convey to a third person the value of the products you may have sold to others. So that you will have bought, and every body must buy, the objects of want or desire, each with the value of his respective products transformed into money for the moment only. Otherwise, how could it be possible that there should now be bought and sold in France five or six times as many commodities, as in the miserable reign of Charles VI.? Is it not obvious, that five or six times as many commodities must have been produced, and that they must have served to purchase one or the other?” Thus, to say that sales are dull, owing to the scarcity of money, is to mistake the means for the cause; an error that proceeds from the circumstance, that almost all produce is in the first instance exchanged for money, before it is ultimately converted into other produce: and the commodity, which recurs so repeatedly in use, appears to vulgar apprehensions the most important of commodities, and the end and object of all transactions, whereas it is only the medium. Sales cannot be said to be dull because money is scarce, but because other products are so. There is always money enough to conduct the circulation and mutual interchange of other values, when those values really exist. Should the increase of traffic require more money to facilitate it, the want is easily supplied, and is a strong indication of prosperity—a proof that a great abundance of values has been created, which it is wished to exchange for other values. In such cases, merchants know well enough how to find substitutes for the product serving as the medium of exchange or money [2]: and money itself soon pours in, for this reason, that all produce naturally gravitates to that place where it is most in demand. It is a good sign when the business is too great for the money; just in the same way as it is a good sign when the goods are too plentiful for the warehouses. When a superabundant article can find no vent, the scarcity of money has so little to do with the obstruction of its sale, that the sellers would gladly receive its value in goods for their own consumption at the current price of the day: they would not ask for money, or have any occasion for that product, since the only use they could make of it would be to convert it forthwith into articles of their own consumption. [3] This observation is applicable to all cases, where there is a supply of commodities or of services in the market. They will universally find the most extensive demand in those places, where the most of values are produced; because in no other places are the sole means of purchase created, that is, values. Money performs but a momentary function in this double exchange; and when the transaction is finally closed, it will always be found, that one kind of commodity has been exchanged for another. It is worth while to remark, that a product is no sooner created, than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value. When the producer has put the finishing hand to his product, he is most anxious to sell it immediately, lest its value should diminish in his hands. Nor is he less anxious to dispose of the money he may get for it; for the value of money is also perishable. But the only way of getting rid of money is in the purchase of some product or other. Thus, the mere circumstance of the creation of one product immediately opens a vent for other products. For this reason, a good harvest is favourable, not only to the agriculturist, but likewise to the dealers in all commodities generally. The greater the crop, the larger are the purchases of the growers. A bad harvest, on the contrary, hurts the sale of commodities at large. And so it is also with the products of manufacture and commerce. The success of one branch of commerce supplies more ample means of purchase, and consequently opens a market for the products of all the other branches; on the other hand, the stagnation of one channel of manufacture, or of commerce, is felt in all the rest. But it may be asked, if this be so, how does it happen, that there is at times so great a glut of commodities in the market, and so much difficulty in finding a vent for them? Why cannot one of these superabundant commodities be exchanged for another? I answer that the glut of a particular commodity arises from its having outrun the total demand for it in one or two ways; either because it has been produced in excessive abundance, or because the production of other commodities has fallen short. It is because the production of some commodities has declined, that other commodities are superabundant. To use a more hackneyed phrase, people have bought less, because they have made less profit [4]; and they have made less profit for one or two causes; either they have found difficulties in the employment of their productive means, or these means have themselves been deficient. It is observable, moreover, that precisely at the same time that one commodity makes a loss, another commodity is making excessive profit [5]. And, since such profits must operate as a powerful stimulus to the cultivation of that particular kind of products, there must needs be some violent means, or some extraordinary cause, a political or natural convulsion, or the avarice or ignorance of authority, to perpetuate this scarcity on the one hand, and consequent glut on the other. No sooner is the cause of this political disease removed, than the means of production feel a natural impulse towards the vacant channels, the replenishment of which restores activity to all the others. One kind of production would seldom outstrip every other, and its products be disproportionately cheapened, were production left entirely free [6]. Should a producer imagine, that many other classes, yielding no material products, are his customers and consumers equally with the classes that raise themselves a product of their own; as, for example, public functionaries, physicians, lawyers, churchmen, &c., and thence infer, that there is a class of demand other than that of the actual producers, he would but expose the shallowness and superficiality of his ideas. A priest goes to a shop to buy a gown or a surplice; he takes the value, that is to make the purchase, in the form of money. Whence had he that money? From some tax-gatherer who has taken it from a tax-payer. But whence did this latter derive it? From the value he has himself produced. This value, first produced by the tax-payer, and afterwards turned into money, and given to the priest for his salary, has enabled him to make the purchase. The priest stands in the place of the producer, who might himself have laid the value of his product on his own account, in the purchase, perhaps, not of a gown or surplice, but of some other more serviceable product. The consumption of the particular product, the gown or surplice, has but supplanted that of some other product. It is quite impossible that the purchase of one product can be affected, otherwise than by the value of another [7]. From this important truth may be deduced the following important conclusions:— 1. That, in every community the more numerous are the producers, and the more various their productions, the more prompt, numerous, and extensive are the markets for those productions; and, by a natural consequence, the more profitable are they to the producers; for price rises with the demand. But this advantage is to be derived from real production alone, and not from a forced circulation of products; for a value once created is not augmented in its passage from one hand to another, nor by being seized and expended by the government, instead of by an individual. The man, that lives upon the productions of other people, originates no demand for those productions; he merely puts himself in the place of the producer, to the great injury of production, as we shall presently see. 2. That each individual is interested in the general prosperity of all, and that the success of one branch of industry promotes that of all the others. In fact, whatever profession or line of business a man may devote himself to, he is the better paid and the more readily finds employment, in proportion as he sees others thriving equally around him. A man of talent, that scarcely vegetates in a retrograde state of society, would find a thousand ways of turning his faculties to account in a thriving community that could afford to employ and reward his ability. A merchant established in a rich and populous town, sells to a much larger amount than one who sets up in a poor district, with a population sunk in indolence and apathy. What could an active manufacturer, or an intelligent merchant, do in a small deserted and semi-barbarous town in a remote corner of Poland or Westphalia? Though in no fear of a competitor, he could sell but little, because little was produced; whilst at Paris, Amsterdam, or London, in spite of the competition of a hundred dealers in his own line, he might do business on the largest scale. The reason is obvious: he is surrounded with people who produce largely in an infinity of ways, and who make purchases, each with his respective products, that is to say, with the money arising from the sale of what he may have produced. This is the true source of the gains made by the towns’ people out of the country people, and again by the latter out of the former; both of them have wherewith to buy more largely, the more amply they themselves produce. A city, standing in the centre of a rich surrounding country, feels no want of rich and numerous customers; and, on the other hand, the vicinity of an opulent city gives additional value to the produce of the country. The division of nations into agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial, is idle enough. For the success of a people in agriculture is a stimulus to its manufacturing and commercial prosperity; and the flourishing condition of its manufacture and commerce reflects a benefit upon its agriculture also [8]. The position of a nation, in respect of its neighbours, is analogous to the relation of one of its provinces to the others, or of the country to the town; it has an interest in their prosperity, being sure to profit by their opulence. The government of the United States, therefore, acted most wisely, in their attempt, about the year 1802, to civilize their savage neighbours, the Creek Indians. The design was to introduce habits of industry amongst them, and make them producers capable of carrying on a barter trade with the States of the Union; for there is nothing to be got by dealing with a people that have nothing to pay. It is useful and honourable to mankind, that one nation among so many should conduct itself uniformly upon liberal principles. The brilliant results of this enlightened policy will demonstrate, that the systems and theories really destructive and fallacious, are the exclusive and jealous maxims acted upon by the old European governments, and by them most impudently styled practical truths, for no other reason, as it would seem, than because they have the misfortune to put them in practice. The United States will have the honour of proving experimentally, that true policy goes hand-in-hand with moderation and humanity [9]. 3. From this fruitful principle, we may draw this further conclusion, that it is no injury to the internal or national industry and production to buy and import commodities from abroad; for nothing can be bought from strangers, except with native products, which find a vent in this external traffic. Should it be objected; that this foreign produce may have been bought with specie, I answer, specie is not always a native product, but must have been bought itself with the products of native industry; so that, whether the foreign articles be paid for in specie or in home products, the vent for national industry is the same in both cases [10]. 4. The same principle leads to the conclusion, that the encouragement of mere consumption is no benefit to commerce; for the difficulty lies in supplying the means, not in stimulating the desire of consumption; and we have seen that production alone, furnishes those means. Thus, it is the aim of good government to stimulate production, of bad government to encourage consumption. For the same reason that the creation of a new product is the opening of a new market for other products, the consumption or destruction of a product is the stoppage of a vent for them. This is no evil where the end of the product has been answered by its destruction, which end is the satisfying of some human want, or the creation of some new product designed for such a satisfaction. Indeed, if the nation be in a thriving condition, the gross national re-production exceeds the gross consumption. The consumed products have fulfilled their office, as it is natural and fitting they should; the consumption, however, has opened no new market, but just the reverse [11]. Having once arrived at the clear conviction, that the general demand for products is brisk in proportion to the activity of production, we need not trouble ourselves much to inquire towards what channel of industry production may be most advantageously directed. The products created give rise to various degrees of demand, according to the wants, the manners, the comparative capital, industry, and natural resources of each country; the article most in request, owing to the competition of buyers, yields the best interest of money to the capitalist, the largest profits to the adventurer, and the best wages to the labourer; and the agency of their respective services is naturally attracted by these advantages towards those particular channels. In a community, city, province, or nation, that produces abundantly, and adds every moment to the sum of its products, almost all the branches of commerce, manufacture, and generally of industry, yield handsome profits, because the demand is great, and because there is always a large quantity of products in the market, ready to bid for new productive services. And, vice versâ, wherever, by reason of the blunders of the nation or its government, production is stationary, or does not keep pace with consumption, the demand gradually declines, the value of the product is less than the charges of its production; no productive exertion is properly rewarded; profits and wages decrease; the employment of capital becomes less advantageous and more hazardous; it is consumed piecemeal, not through extravagance, but through necessity, and because the sources of profit are dried up [12]. The labouring classes experience a want of work; families before in tolerable circumstances, are more cramped and confined; and those before in difficulties are left altogether destitute. Depopulation, misery, and returning barbarism, occupy the place of abundance and happiness. Such are the concomitants of declining production, which are only to be remedied by frugality, intelligence, activity, and freedom.

Notes for this chapter

1. Even when money is obtained with a view to hoard or bury it, the ultimate object is always to employ it in a purchase of some kind. The heir of the lucky finder uses it in that way, if the miser do not; for money, as money, has no other use than to buy with. 2. By bills at sight, or after date, bank-notes, running-credits, write-offs, &c. as at London and Amsterdam. 3. I speak here of their aggregate consumption, whether unproductive and designed to satisfy the personal wants of themselves and their families, or expended in the sustenance of reproductive industry. The woollen or cotton manufacturer operates a two-fold consumption of wool and cotton: 1. For his personal wear. 2. For the supply of his manufacture; but, be the purpose of his consumption what it may, whether personal gratification or reproduction, he must needs buy what he consumes with what he produces. 4. Individual profits must, in every description of production, from the general merchant to the common artisan, be derived from the participation in the values produced. The ratio of that participation will form the subject of Book II., infrà. 5. The reader may easily apply these maxims to any time or country he is acquainted with. We have had a striking instance in France during the years 1811, 1812, and 1813; when the high prices of colonial produce of wheat, and other articles, went hand-in-hand with the low price of many others that could find no advantageous market. 6. These considerations have hitherto been almost wholly overlooked, though forming the basis of correct conclusions in matters of commerce, and of its regulation by the national authority. The right course where it has, by good luck been pursued, appears to have been selected by accident, or, at most, by a confused idea of its propriety, without either self-conviction, or the ability to convince other people. Sismondi, who seems not to have very well understood the principles laid down in this and the three first chapters of Book II. of this work, instances the immense quantity of manufactured products with which England has of late inundated the markets of other nations, as a proof, that it is impossible for industry to be too productive. (Nouv. Prin. liv. iv. c. 4.) But the glut thus occasioned proves nothing more than the feebleness of production in those countries that have been thus glutted with English manufactures. Did Brazil produce wherewithal to purchase the English goods exported thither, those goods would not glut her market. Were England to admit the import of the products of the United States, she would find a better market for her own in those States. The English government, by the exorbitance of its taxation upon import and consumption, virtually interdicts to its subjects many kinds of importation, thus obliging the merchant to offer to foreign countries a higher price for those articles, whose import is practicable, as sugar, coffee, gold, silver, &c. for the price of the precious metals to them is enhanced by the low price of their commodities, which accounts for the ruinous returns of their commerce. I would not be understood to maintain in this chapter, that one product can not be raised in too great abundance, in relation to all others; but merely that nothing is more favourable to the demand of one product, than the supply of another; that the import of English manufactures into Brazil would cease to be excessive and be rapidly absorbed, did Brazil produce on her side returns sufficiently ample; to which end it would be necessary that the legislative bodies of either country should consent, the one to free production, the other to free importation. In Brazil every thing is grasped by monopoly, and property is not exempt from the invasion of the government. In England, the heavy duties are a serious obstruction to the foreign commerce of the nation, inasmuch as they circumscribe the choice of returns. I happen myself to know of a most valuable and scientific collection of natural history, which could not be imported from Brazil into England by reason of the exorbitant duties.*

  • * The views of Sismondi, in this particular, have been since adopted by our own Malthus, and those of our author by Ricardo. This difference of opinion has given rise to an interesting discussion between our author and Malthus, to whom he has recently addressed a correspondence on this and other parts of the science. Were any thing wanting to confirm the arguments of this chapter, it would be supplied by a reference to his Lettre 1, à M. Malthus. Sismondi has vainly attempted to answer Ricardo, but has made no mention of his original antagonist. Vide Annales de Legislation, No. 1. art. 3. Geneve, 1820. Translator.

7. The capitalist, in spending the interest of his capital, spends his portion of the products raised by the employment of that capital. The general rules that regulate the ratio he receives will be investigated in Book II., infrà. Should he ever spend the principal, still he consumes products only; for capital consists of products, devoted indeed to reproductive, but susceptible of unproductive consumption; to which it is in fact consigned whenever it is wasted or dilapidated. 8. A productive establishment on a large scale is sure to animate the industry of the whole neighbourhood. “In Mexico,” says Humboldt, “the best cultivated tract, and that which brings to the recollection of the traveller the most beautiful part of French scenery, is the level country extending from Salamanca as far as Silao, Guanaxuato, and Villa de Leon, and encircling the richest mines of the known world. Wherever the veins of precious metal have been discovered and worked, even in the most desert part of the Cordilleras, and in the most barren and insulated spots, the working of the mines, instead of interrupting the business of superficial cultivation, has given it more than usual activity. The opening of a considerable vein is sure to be followed by the immediate erection of a town; farming concerns are established in the vicinity; and the spot so lately insulated in the midst of wild and desert mountains, is soon brought into contact with the tracts before in tillage.” Essai pol. sur. la Nouv. Espagne. 9. It is only by the recent advances of political economy, that these most important truths have been made manifest, not to vulgar apprehension alone, but even to the most distinguished and enlightened observers. We read in Voltaire that “such is the lot of humanity, that the patriotic desire for one’s country’s grandeur, is but a wish for the humiliation of one’s neighbours;—that it is clearly impossible for one country to gain, except by the loss of another.” (Dist. Phil. Art. Patrie.) By a continuation of the same false reasoning, he goes on to declare, that a thorough citizen of the world cannot wish his country to be greater or less, richer or poorer. It is true, that he would not desire her to extend the limits of her dominion, because, in so doing, she might endanger her own well-being; but he will desire her to progress in wealth, for her progressive prosperity promotes that of all other nations. 10. This effect has been sensibly experienced in Brazil of late years. The large imports of European commodities, which the freedom of navigation directed to the markets of Brazil, has been so favourable to its native productions and commerce, that Brazilian products never found so good a sale. So there is an instance of a national benefit arising from importation. By the way, it might have perhaps been better for Brazil if the prices of her products and the profits of her producers had risen more slowly and gradually; for exorbitant prices never lead to the establishment of a permanent commercial intercourse; it is better to gain by the multiplication of one’s own products than by their increased price. 11. If the barren consumption of a product be of itself adverse to re-production, and a diminution pro tanto of the existing demand or vent for produce, how shall we designate that degree of insanity, which would induce a government deliberately to burn and destroy the imports of foreign products, and thus to annihilate the sole advantage accruing from unproductive consumption, that is to say the gratification of the wants of the consumer? 12. Consumption of this kind gives no encouragement to future production, but devours products already in existence. No additional demand can be created until there be new products raised; there is only an exchange of one product for another. Neither can one branch of industry suffer without affecting the rest.

Ostriches at the IASB

By Toby Baxendale, on 15 February 12
In an article for the FT on the 5th of February, highlighted by Steve Baker in a recent speech, Lord Lawson wrote:

The auditing of banks’ accounts … is fundamentally flawed in itself. The IFRS accounting system itself has proved to be damagingly pro-cyclical, and the ability to pay genuine (and genuinely large) bonuses out of purely paper profits, which are never subsequently realised, is at the heart of both the bonuses that cause such public and political outrage, and the reason why bank management consistently does so well when bank shareholders do so badly.

His position was supported yesterday in a letter to that same newspaper by Stella Fearnley, Professor in Accounting at Bournemouth University, which conjures an amusing mental image:

Hans Hoogervorst, chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board (Companies & Markets, February 10), claims that gross overvaluation of bank assets which led to the crisis, and the market for lemons which followed, had nothing to do with accounting. This is hard to believe when IFRS’s incurred loss model forced loan loss provisions down and financial instruments were marked to a suspect market. How much more ostrich behaviour do we have to tolerate from the IASB and the UK accounting establishment before we insist on major change to the whole setup? All stakeholders should be entitled to believe that audited accounts reflect the economic substance of the entity; otherwise, what is the point of producing them? Keep at it, Lord Lawson. You have got them on the run.

The whole letter is worth reading.

What The Classical Economists Knew And The Moderns Have Forgotten – Part 4

Hazlitt referred to the great economist Benjamin M. Anderson in the same breath as Mises when saying that both of them had already penned essays that had dealt with the so called “refutation” of Say’s Law by Keynes. We part republish his “Digression on Keynes,” which appeared as Chapter 60 of Anderson’s Economics and the Public Welfare and Chapter 9 of Hazlitt’s The Critics of Keynesian Economics. For me, this is a great essay as it does do what Hazlitt says and it adds the important dimension that the addition of bank credit is not a substitute for savings and that an excess of credit will cause the disturbing effects of putting production out of line with consumption (i.e. a recession). What’s required is a realignment of prices to what consumers are prepared to pay for the goods offered. This is a warning to modern politicians: “credit easing” will just cause more goods to be created that are not wanted, prolonging the recession.

DIGRESSION ON KEYNES by BENJAMIN M. ANDERSONA REFUTATION OF KEYNES’S ATTACK ON THE DOCTRINE THAT AGGREGATE SUPPLY CREATES AGGREGATE DEMAND The central theoretical issue involved in the problem of postwar economic readjustment, and in the problem of full employment in the postwar period, is the issue between the equilibrium doctrine and the purchasing power doctrine. Those who advocate vast governmental expenditures and deficit fianancing after the war as the only means of getting full employment, separate production and purchasing power sharply. Purchasing power must be kept above production if production is to expand, in their view. If purchasing power falls off, production will fall off. The prevailing view among economists, on the other hand, has long been that purchasing power grows out of production. The great producing countries are the great consuming countries. The twentieth century world consumes vastly more than the eighteenth century world because it produces vastly more. Supply of wheat gives rise to demand for automobiles, silks, shoes, cotton goods, and other things that the wheat producer wants. Supply of shoes gives rise to demand for wheat, for silks, for automobiles and for other things that the shoe producer wants. Supply and demand in the aggregate are thus not merely equal, but they are identical, since every commodity may be looked upon either as supply of its own kind or as demand for other things. But this doctrine is subject to the great qualification that the proportions must be right; that there must be equilibrium. On the equilibrium theory occasional periods of readjustment are inevitable and are useful. An active boom almost inevitably generates disequilibria. The story in the present volume of the boom of 1919-1920 and the crisis of 1920-1921 gives a classical illustration. The period of readjustment may be relatively short and need not be severe, but a period of shakedown, a period in which overexpanded industries are contracted and opportunities made for under-developed industries to expand, a period in which prices and costs come into equilibrium, a period in which weak spots in the credit situation are cleaned up, a period in which excessive debts are liquidated— such periods we must have from time to time. The effort to prevent adjustment and liquidation by the pouring out of artificial purchasing power is, from the standpoint of the equilibrium doctrine, an utterly futile and wasteful and dangerous performance. Once a re-equilibration is accomplished, moreover, the equilibrium doctrine would regard pouring out new artificial purchasing power as wholly unnecessary and further as dangerous, since it would tend to create new disequilibria. The late Lord Keynes was the leading advocate of the purchasing power doctrine, and the leading opponent of the doctrine that supply creates its own demand. The present chapter is concerned with Keynes’s attack on the doctrine that supply creates its own demand. Keynes was a dangerously unsound thinker.[1] His influence in the Roosevelt Administration was very great. His influence upon most of the economists in the employ of the Government is incredibly great. There has arisen a volume of theoretical literature regarding Keynes almost equal to that which has arisen around Karl Marx. [2] His followers are satisfied that he has destroyed the long accepted economic doctrine that aggregate supply and aggregate demand grow together. It seems necessary to analyze Keynes’s argument with respect to this point. Keynes Ignores the Essential Point in the Doctrine He Attacks. Keynes presents his argument in his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936. But he nowhere in the book takes account of the law of equilibrium among the industries, which has always been recognized as an essential part of the doctrine that supply creates its own demand. He takes as his target a seemingly crude statement from J. S. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (Book III, chap. 14, par. 2) which follows:

What constitutes the means of payment for commodities is simply commodities. Each person’s means of paying for the productions of other people consist of those which he himself possesses. All sellers are inevitably, and by the meaning of the word, buyers. Could we suddenly double the productive powers of the country, we should double the supply of commodities in every market; but we should, by the same stroke, double the purchasing power. Everybody would bring a double demand as well as supply: everybody would be able to buy twice as much, because every one would have twice as much to offer in exchange.

Now this passage by itself does not present the essentials of the doctrine. If we doubled the productive power of the country, we should not double the supply of commodities in every market, and if we did, we should not clear the markets of the double supply in every market. If we doubled the supply in the salt market, for example, we should have an appalling glut of salt. The great increases would come in the items where demand is elastic. We should change very radically the proportions in which we produced commodities. But it is unfair to Mill to take this brief passage out of its context and present it as if it represented the heart of the doctrine. If Keynes had quoted only the three sentences immediately following, he would have introduced us to the conception of balance and proportion and equilibrium which is the heart of the doctrine—a notion which Keynes nowhere considers in this book. Mill’s next few lines, immediately following the passage torn from its context, quoted above, are as follows:

It is probable, indeed, that there would now be a superfluity of certain things. Although the community would willingly double its aggregate consumption, it may already have as much as it desires of some commodities, and it may prefer to do more than double its consumption of others, or to exercise its increased purchasing power on some new thing. If so, the supply will adapt itself accordingly, and the values of things will continue to conform to their cost of production.

Keynes, furthermore, ignores entirely the rich, fine work done by such writers as J. B. Clark and the Austrian School, who elaborated the laws of proportionality and equilibrium. The doctrine that supply creates its own demand, as presented by John Stuart Mill, assumes a proper equilibrium among the different kinds of production, assumes proper terms of exchange (i.e., price relationships) among different kinds of products, assumes proper relations between prices and costs. And the doctrine expects competition and free markets to be the instrumentality by means of which these proportions and price relations will be brought about. The modern version of the doctrine [3] would make explicit certain additional factors. There must be a proper balance in the international balance sheet. If foreign debts are excessive in relation to the volume of foreign trade, grave disorders can come. Moreover, the money and capital markets must be in a state of balance. When there is an excess of bank credit used as a substitute for savings, when bank credit goes in undue amounts into capital uses and speculative uses, impairing the liquidity of bank assets, or when the total volume of money and credit is expanded far beyond the growth of production and trade, disequilibria arise, and, above all, the quality of credit is impaired. Confidence may be suddenly shaken and a countermovement may set in. With respect to all these points, automatic market forces tend to restore equilibrium in the absence of overwhelming governmental interference. Keynes has nothing to say in his attack upon the doctrine that supply creates its own demand, in the volume referred to, with respect to these matters. Indeed, far from considering the intricacies of the interrelations of markets, prices and different kinds of production, Keynes prefers to look at things in block. He says:

In dealing with the theory of employment I propose, therefore, to make use of only two fundamental units of quantity, namely, quantities of money-value and quantities of employment. The first of these is strictly homogeneous, and the second can be made so. For, in so far as different grades and kinds of labor and salaried assistance enjoy a more or less fixed relative remuneration, the quantity of employment can be sufficiently defined for our purpose by taking an hour’s employment of ordinary labor as our unit and weighing an hour’s employment of special labor in proportion to its remuneration; i.e., an hour of special labor remunerated at double ordinary rates will count as two units. [Italics mine.] [4] . . . It is my belief that much unnecessary perplexity can be avoided if we limit ourselves strictly to the two units, money and labor, when we are dealing with the behavior of the economic system as a whole … [5]

Procedure of this kind is empty and tells us nothing about economic life. How empty it is becomes apparent when we observe that these two supposedly independent units of quantity, namely, “quantities of money value” and “quantities of employment,” are both merely quantities of money value. If ten laborers working for $2 a day are dismissed and two laborers working for $10 a day are taken on, there is no change in the volume of employment, by Keynes’s method of reckoning, as is obvious from the italicized portion of the quotation above. His “quantity of employment” is not a quantity of employment. It is a quantity of money received by laborers who are employed. [6] Throughout Keynes’s analysis he is working with aggregate, block concepts. He has an aggregate supply function and an aggregate demand function. [7] But nowhere is there any discussion of the interrelationships of the elements in these vast aggregates, or of elements in one aggregate with elements in another. Nowhere is there a recognition that different elements in the aggregate supply give rise to the demand for other elements in the aggregate supply. In Keynes’s discussion, purchasing power and production are sharply sundered.


[1] Lord Keynes was a man of genius. He had great abilities and great personal charm. [2] I have not read much of this elaborate literature. Keynes himself I have studied with care. I think it probable that other critics have anticipated many of the points I make here, and I would gladly give them credit if I knew. [3] See the Chase Economic Bulletin, Vol. XI, No. 3, June 12, 1931. [4] The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, p. 41. [5] Ibid.,p. 43 [6] See my criticism of the analogous procedure by Irving Fisher in his “Equation of Exchange,” in my Value of Money, New York, 1917 and 1936, pp. 158-162. [7] Ibid., p. 29.

What The Classical Economists Knew And The Moderns Have Forgotten – Part 3

Today we reproduce a wonderful essay written by Ludwig von Mises for the Oct 30th 1950 edition of The Freeman, and subsequently published in his book Planning for Freedom (1952). Like Hazlitt in my previous post, Mises draws to our attention to the fact that Adam Smith and J B Say had already dealt with all suggestions that recessions were manifestations of shortages of money. Keynes certainly had not refuted their views. Instead, he expounded the views of the most notorious money cranks. Sadly, most economists today hold those same cranky views. It is important that we, in our own small way, do our bit to refute them.  You can download the full book here.

Lord Keynes’s main contribution did not lie in the development of new ideas but “in escaping from the old ones,” as he himself declared at the end of the Preface to his “General Theory.” The Keynesians tell us that his immortal achievement consists in the entire refutation of what has come to be known as Say’s Law of Markets. The rejection of this law, they declare, is the gist of all Keynes’s teachings; all other propositions of his doctrine follow with logical necessity from this fundamental insight and must collapse if the futility of his attack on Say’s Law can be demonstrated.[1] Now it is important to realize that what is called Say’s Law was in the first instance designed as a refutation of doctrines popularly held in the ages preceding the development of economics as a branch of human knowledge. It was not an integral part of the new science of economics as taught by the Classical economists. It was rather a preliminary—the exposure and removal of garbled and untenable ideas which dimmed people’s minds and were a serious obstacle to a reasonable analysis of conditions. Whenever business turned bad, the average merchant had two explanations at hand: the evil was caused by a scarcity of money and by general overproduction. Adam Smith, in a famous passage in “The Wealth of Nations,” exploded the first of these myths. Say devoted himself predominantly to a thorough refutation of the second. As long as a definite thing is still an economic good and not a “free good,” its supply is not, of course, absolutely abundant. There are still unsatisfied needs which a larger supply of the good concerned could satisfy. There are still people who would be glad to get more of this good than they are really getting. With regard to economic goods there can never be absolute overproduction. (And economics deals only with economic goods, not with free goods such as air which are no object of purposive human action, are therefore not produced, and with regard to which the employment of terms like underproduction and overproduction is simply nonsensical.) With regard to economic goods there can be only relative overproduction. While the consumers are asking for definite quantities of shirts and of shoes, business has produced, say, a larger quantity of shoes and a smaller quantity of shirts. This is not general overproduction of all commodities. To the overproduction of shoes corresponds an underproduction of shirts. Consequently the result can not be a general depression of all branches of business. The outcome is a change in the exchange ratio between shoes and shirts. If, for instance, previously one pair of shoes could buy four shirts, it now buys only three shirts. While business is bad for the shoemakers, it is good for the shirtmakers. The attempts to explain the general depression of trade by referring to an allegedly general overproduction are therefore fallacious. Commodities, says Say, are ultimately paid for not by money, but by other commodities. Money is merely the commonly used medium of exchange; it plays only an intermediary role. What the seller wants ultimately to receive in exchange for the commodities sold is other commodities. Every commodity produced is therefore a price, as it were, for other commodities produced. The situation of the producer of any commodity is improved by any increase in the production of other commodities. What may hurt the interests of the producer of a definite commodity is his failure to anticipate correctly the state of the market. He has overrated the public’s demand for his commodity and underrated its demand for other commodities. Consumers have no use for such a bungling entrepreneur; they buy his products only at prices which make him incur losses, and they force him, if he does not in time correct his mistakes, to go out of business. On the other hand, those entrepreneurs who have better succeeded in anticipating the public demand earn profits and are in a position to expand their business activities. This, says Say, is the truth behind the confused assertions of businessmen that the main difficulty is not in producing but in selling. It would be more appropriate to declare that the first and main problem of business is to produce in the best and cheapest way those commodities which will satisfy the most urgent of the not yet satisfied needs of the public. Thus Smith and Say demolished the oldest and most naive explanation of the trade cycle as provided by the popular effusions of inefficient traders. True, their achievement was merely negative. They exploded the belief that the recurrence of periods of bad business was caused by a scarcity of money and by a general overproduction. But they did not give us an elaborated theory of the trade cycle. The first explanation of this phenomenon was provided much later by the British Currency School. The important contributions of Smith and Say were not entirely new and original. The history of economic thought can trace back some essential points of their reasoning to older authors. This in no way detracts from the merits of Smith and Say. They were the first to deal with the issue in a systematic way and to apply their conclusions to the problem of economic depressions. They were therefore also the first against whom the supporters of the spurious popular doctrine directed their violent attacks. Sismondi and Malthus chose Say as the target of passionate volleys when they tried—in vain—to salvage the discredited popular prejudices.


Say emerged victoriously from his polemics with Malthus and Sismondi. He proved his case, while his adversaries could not prove theirs. Henceforth, during the whole rest of the nineteenth century, the acknowledgment of the truth contained in Say’s Law was the distinctive mark of an economist. Those authors and politicians who made the alleged scarcity of money responsible for all ills and advocated inflation as the panacea were no longer considered economists but “monetary cranks.” The struggle between the champions of sound money and the inflationists went on for many decades. But it was no longer considered a controversy between various schools of economists. It was viewed as a conflict between economists and anti-economists, between reasonable men and ignorant zealots. When all civilized countries had adopted the gold standard or the gold-exchange standard, the cause of inflation seemed to be lost forever. Economics did not content itself with what Smith and Say had taught about the problems involved. It developed an integrated system of theorems which cogently demonstrated the absurdity of the inflationist sophisms. It depicted in detail the inevitable consequences of an increase in the quantity of money in circulation and of credit expansion. It elaborated the monetary or circulation credit theory of the business cycle which clearly showed how the recurrence of depressions of trade is caused by the repeated attempts to “stimulate” business through credit expansion. Thus it conclusively proved that the slump, whose appearance the inflationists attributed to an insufficiency of the supply of money, is on the contrary the necessary outcome of attempts to remove such an alleged scarcity of money through credit expansion. The economists did not contest the fact that a credit expansion in its initial stage makes business boom. But they pointed out how such a contrived boom must inevitably collapse after a while and produce a general depression. This demonstration could appeal to statesmen intent on promoting the enduring well-being of their nation. It could not influence demagogues who care for nothing but success in the impending election campaign and are not in the least troubled about what will happen the day after tomorrow. But it is precisely such people who have become supreme in the political life of this age of wars and revolutions. In defiance of all the teachings of the economists, inflation and credit expansion have been elevated to the dignity of the first principle of economic policy. Nearly all governments are now committed to reckless spending, and finance their deficits by issuing additional quantities of unredeemable paper money and by boundless credit expansion. The great economists were harbingers of new ideas. The economic policies they recommended were at variance with the policies practiced by contemporary governments and political parties. As a rule many years, even decades, passed before public opinion accepted the new ideas as propagated by the economists, and before the required corresponding changes in policies were effected. It was different with the “new economics” of Lord Keynes. The policies he advocated were precisely those which almost all governments, including the British, had already adopted many years before his “General Theory” was published. Keynes was not an innovator and champion of new methods of managing economic affairs. His contribution consisted rather in providing an apparent justification for the policies which were popular with those in power in spite of the fact that all economists viewed them as disastrous. His achievement was a rationalization of the policies already practiced. He was not a “revolutionary,” as some of his adepts called him. The “Keynesian revolution” took place long before Keynes approved of it and fabricated a pseudo-scientific justification for it. What he really did was to write an apology for the prevailing policies of governments. This explains the quick success of his book. It was greeted enthusiastically by the governments and the ruling political parties. Especially enraptured were a new type of intellectual, the “government economists.” They had had a bad conscience. They were aware of the fact that they were carrying out policies which all economists condemned as contrary to purpose and disastrous. Now they felt relieved. The “new economics” reestablished their moral equilibrium. Today they are no longer ashamed of being the handymen of bad policies. They glorify themselves. They are the prophets of the new creed.


The exuberant epithets which these admirers have bestowed upon his work cannot obscure the fact that Keynes did not refute Say’s Law. He rejected it emotionally, but he did not advance a single tenable argument to invalidate its rationale. Neither did Keynes try to refute by discursive reasoning the teachings of modern economics. He chose to ignore them, that was all. He never found any word of serious criticism against the theorem that increasing the quantity of money cannot effect anything else than, on the one hand, to favor some groups at the expense of other groups, and, on the other hand, to foster capital malinvestment and capital decumulation. He was at a complete loss when it came to advancing any sound argument to demolish the monetary theory of the trade cycle. All he did was to revive the self-contradictory dogmas of the various sects of inflationism. He did not add anything to the empty presumptions of his predecessors, from the old Birmingham School of Little Shilling Men down to Silvio Gesell. He merely translated their sophisms—a hundred times refuted—into the questionable language of mathematical economics. He passed over in silence all the objections which such men as Jevons, Walras and Wicksell— to name only a few—opposed to the effusions of the inflationists. It is the same with his disciples. They think that calling “those who fail to be moved to admiration of Keynes’s genius” such names as “dullard” or “narrow-minded fanatic”[2] is a substitute for sound economic reasoning. They believe that they have proved their case by dismissing their adversaries as “orthodox” or “neo-classical.” They reveal the utmost ignorance in thinking that their doctrine is correct because it is new. In fact, inflationism is the oldest of all fallacies. It was very popular long before the days of Smith, Say and Ricardo, against whose teachings the Keynesians cannot advance any other objection than that they are old.


The unprecedented success of Keynesianism is due to the fact that it provides an apparent justification for the “deficit spending” policies of contemporary governments. It is the pseudo-philosophy of those who can think of nothing else than to dissipate the capital accumulated by previous generations. Yet no effusions of authors however brilliant and sophisticated can alter the perennial economic laws. They are and work and take care of themselves. Notwithstanding all the passionate fulminations of the spokesmen of governments, the inevitable consequences of inflationism and expansionism as depicted by the “orthodox” economists are coming to pass. And then, very late indeed, even simple people will discover that Keynes did not teach us how to perform the “miracle … of turning a stone into bread,”[3] but the not at all miraculous procedure of eating the seed corn.


[1] P. M. Sweezy in The New Economics, Ed. by S. E. Harris, New York, 1947, p. 105. [2] Professor G. Haberler, Opus cit., p. 161. [3] Keynes, Opus cit., p. 332.

What The Classical Economists Knew And The Moderns Have Forgotten – Part 2

On Wednesday, I talked about the forgotten wisdom embodied in Say’s Law. Today, we reprint the chapter called “Keynes vs. Say’s Law” from Henry Hazlitt’s The Failure of the “New Economics” which is a quick read and sheds more light on what the classical economists did and did not think with regards to Say’s law, whilst exposing some very poor scholarship from Keynes and revealing a startling contradiction in his work. This is very relevant to today, when we have shops and factories stuffed full of goods that they can’t sell. This is a situation generally called a recession whose cure, according to conventional wisdom, is more Keynesian style spending, be it by way of deficit spending, increased taxation and spending, or the minting up of new money and spending. A full copy of Hazlitt’s book can be downloaded here (with thanks to our friends at


1. Keynes’s “Greatest Achievement”

We come now to Keynes’s famous ”refutation” of Say’s Law of Markets. All that it is necessary to say about this ”refutation” has already been said by Benjamin M. Anderson, Jr.,[1] and Ludwig von Mises.[2] Keynes himself takes the matter so cavalierly that all he requires to “refute” Say’s Law to his own satisfaction is less than four pages. Yet some of his admirers regard this as alone securing his title to fame:

Historians fifty years from now may record that Keynes’ greatest achievement was the liberation of Anglo-American economics from a tyrannical dogma, and they may even conclude that this was essentially a work of negation unmatched by comparable positive achievements. Even, however, if Keynes were to receive credit for nothing else . . . his title to fame would be secure .. . [Yet] the Keynesian attacks, though they appear to be directed against a variety of specific theories, all fall to the ground if the validity of Say’s Law is assumed.[3]

I think I am justified, therefore, in devoting a special chapter to the subject. It is important to realize, to begin with, as Mises [4] has pointed out, that what is called Say’s Law was not originally designed as an integral part of classical economics but as a preliminary—as a refutation of a fallacy that long preceded the development of economics as a recognized special branch of knowledge. Whenever business was bad, the average merchant had two explanations at hand: the evil was caused by a scarcity of money and by general overproduction. Adam Smith, in a famous passage in The Wealth of Nations [5] exploded the first of these myths. Say devoted himself to a refutation of the second. For a modern statement of Say’s Law, I turn to B. M. Anderson:

“The central theoretical issue involved in the problem of postwar economic adjustment, and in the problem of full employment in the postwar period, is the issue between the equilibrium doctrine and the purchasing power doctrine. Those who advocate vast governmental expenditures and deficit financing after the war as the only means of getting full employment, separate production and purchasing power sharply. Purchasing power must be kept above production if production is to expand, in their view. If purchasing power falls off, production will fall off. The prevailing view among economists, on the other hand, has long been that purchasing power grows out of production. The great producing countries are the great consuming countries. The twentieth-century world consumes vastly more than the eighteenth-century world because it produces vastly more. Supply of wheat gives rise to demand for automobiles, silks, shoes, cotton goods, and other things that the wheat producer wants. Supply of shoes gives rise to demand for wheat, for silks, for automobiles, and for other things that the shoe producer wants. Supply and demand in the aggregate are thus not merely equal, but they are identical, since every commodity may be looked upon either as supply of its own kind or as demand for other things. But this doctrine is subject to the great qualification that the proportions must be right; that there must be equilibrium.” [6]

Keynes’s “refutation” of Say’s Law consists in simply ignoring this qualification. He takes as his first target a passage from John Stuart Mill:

“What constitutes the means of payment for commodities is simply commodities. Each person’s means of paying for the production of other people consist of those which he himself possesses. All sellers are inevitably, and by the meaning of the word, buyers. Could we suddenly double the productive powers of the country, we should double the supply of commodities in every market; but we should, by the same stroke, double the purchasing power. Everybody would bring a double demand as well as supply; everybody would be able to buy twice as much, because every one would have twice as much to offer in exchange.” [7]

By itself, this passage from Mill, as B. M. Anderson [8] has pointed out, does not present the essentials of the modern version of Say’s Law:

“If we doubled the productive power of the country, we should not double the supply of commodities in every market, and if we did, we should not clear the markets of the double supply in every market. If we doubled the supply in the salt market, for example, we should have an appalling glut of salt. The great increases would come in the items where demand is elastic. We should change very radically the proportions in which we produced commodities.”

But as Anderson goes on to point out, it is unfair to Mill to take this brief passage out of its context and present it as if it were the heart of Say’s Law. If Keynes had quoted only the three sentences immediately following, he would have introduced us to the conception of balance and proportion and equilibrium which is the heart of the doctrine—a conception which Keynes nowhere considers in his General Theory. Mill’s next few lines, immediately following the passage torn from its context, quoted above, are as follows:

“It is probable, indeed, that there would now be a superfluity of certain things. Although the community would willingly double its aggregate consumption, it may already have as much as it desires of some commodities, and it may prefer to do more than double its consumption of others, or to exercise its increased purchasing power on some new thing. If so, the supply will adapt itself accordingly, and the values of things will continue to conform to their cost of production.”

The doctrine that supply creates its own demand, in other words, is based on the assumption that a proper equilibrium exists among the different kinds of production, and among prices of different products and services. And it of course assumes proper relationships between prices and costs, between prices and wage-rates. It assumes the existence of competition and free and fluid markets by which these proportions, price relations, and other equilibria will be brought about. No important economist, to my knowledge, ever made the absurd assumption (of which Keynes by implication accuses the whole classical school) that thanks to Say’s Law depressions and unemployment were impossible, and that everything produced would automatically find a ready market at a profitable price. Say’s Law, to repeat, was, contrary to the assertions of the Keynesians, not the cornerstone on which the great edifice of the positive doctrines of the classical economists was based. It was itself merely a refutation of an absurd belief prevailing prior to its formulation. To resume the quotation from Mill:

“At any rate, it is a sheer absurdity that all things should fall in value, and that all producers should, in consequence, be insufficiently remunerated. If values remain the same, what becomes of prices is immaterial, since the remuneration of producers does not depend on how much money, but on how much of consumable articles, they obtain for their goods. Besides, money is a commodity; and if all commodities are supposed to be doubled in quantity, we must suppose money to be doubled too, and then prices would no more fall than values would.”

In sum, Say’s Law was merely the denial of the possibility of a general overproduction of all goods and services. If you had presented the classical economists with “the Keynesian case”—if you had asked them, in other words, what they thought would happen in the event of a fall in the price of commodities, if money wage-rates, as a result of union monopoly protected and insured by law, remained rigid or rising—they would have undoubtedly replied that sufficient markets could not be found for goods produced at such economically unjustified costs of production and that great and prolonged unemployment would result. Certainly this is what any modern subjective-value theorist would reply.

2. Ricardo’s Statement

We might rest the case here. But such a hullabaloo has been raised about Keynes’s alleged “refutation” of Say’s Law that it seems desirable to pursue the subject further. One writer [9] has distinguished “the four essential meanings of Say’s Law, as developed by Say and, more fully, by [James] Mill and Ricardo.” It may be profitable to take her formulation as a basis of discussion. The four meanings as she phrases them are: (1) Supply creates its own demand; hence, aggregate overproduction or a ”general glut” is impossible. (2) Since goods exchange against goods, money is but a “veil” and plays no independent role. (3) In the case of partial overproduction, which necessarily implies a balancing underproduction elsewhere, equilibrium is restored by competition, that is, by the price mechanism and the mobility of capital. (4) Because aggregate demand and supply are necessarily equal, and because of the equilibrating mechanism, output can be increased indefinitely and the accumulation of capital proceed without limit. I shall contend that of these four versions, 1, 3 and 4 are correct, properly interpreted and understood; that only version 2 is false as stated, and that even this is capable of being stated in a form that is correct. Now Ricardo clearly stated the doctrine in versions 1, 3, and 4; and though he implied it also in version 2, his statement even of this can be interpreted in a sense that would be correct:

“M. Say has . . . most satisfactorily shown that there is no amount of capital which may not be employed in a country, because a demand is only limited by production. No man produces but with a view to consume or sell, and he never sells but with an intention to purchase some other commodity, which may be immediately useful to him, or which may contribute to future production. By producing, then, he necessarily becomes either the consumer of his own goods, or the purchaser and consumer of the goods of some other person. It is not to be supposed that he should, for any length of time, be ill-informed of the commodities which he can most advantageously produce, to attain the object which he has in view, namely, the possession of other goods; and, therefore, it is not probable that he will continually produce a commodity for which there is no demand. There cannot, then, be accumulated in a country any amount of capital which cannot be employed productively until wages rise so high in consequence of the rise of necessaries, and so little consequently remains for the profits of stock, that the motive for accumulation ceases. While the profits of stock are high, men will have a motive to accumulate. Whilst a man has any wished-for gratification unsupplied, he will have a demand for more commodities; and it will be an effectual demand while he has any new value to offer in exchange for them. . . . Productions are always bought by productions, or by services; money is only the medium by which the exchange is effected. Too much of a particular commodity may be produced, of which there may be such a glut in the market as not to repay the capital expended on it; but this cannot be the case with respect to all commodities.” [10]

The italics above are my own, intended to bring out the fact that Ricardo by no means denied the possibility of gluts, but merely of their indefinite prolongation.[11] In his Notes on Malthus, in fact, Ricardo wrote:

“Mistakes may be made, and commodities not suited to the demand may be produced—of these there may be a glut; they may not sell at their usual price; but then this is owing to the mistake, and not to the want of demand for productions.” [12]

The whole of Ricardo’s comment on this phase of Malthus’s thought will repay study. “I have been thus particular in examining this question [Say’s Law]/’ wrote Ricardo, “as it forms by far the most important topic of discussion in Mr. Malthus’ work.” [13] i.e., Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy. It was Malthus who, in 1820, more than a century before Keynes, set himself to “refuting” Say’s Law. Ricardo’s answer (most of which was not discovered or available until recent years) is devastating. If it had been earlier available in full, it would have buried Malthus’s fallacious “refutation” forever. Even as it was, it prevented its exhumation until Keynes’s time. Ricardo’s answer was, it is true, weak or incomplete at certain points. Thus he did not address himself to the problem of what happens in a crisis of confidence, when for a time even the commodities that are relatively underproduced may not sell at existing price levels, because consumers, even though they have the purchasing power and the desire to buy those commodities, do not trust existing prices and expect them to go still lower. But the basic truth of Say’s Law (and Say’s Law was only intended as a basic or ultimate truth) is not invalidated but merely concealed by a temporary abnormal situation of this kind. This situation is possible only in those periods when a substantial number of consumers and businessmen remain unconvinced that “bottom” has been reached in wages and prices, or feel that their job or solvency may still be in danger. And this is likely to happen precisely when wage-rates are artificially forced or held above the equilibrium level of marginal labor productivity. Again, it is true that Ricardo declares at one point (already quoted) that “Money is only the medium by which the exchange is effected.” If this is interpreted to mean, as Bernice Shoul interprets it, that money “plays no independent role,” then of course it is not true. But if it is interpreted to mean: “If we, for the moment, abstract from money, we can see that in the ultimate analysis goods exchange against goods,” then it is both true and methodologically valid. Having recognized this truth, of course, we must in the solution of any dynamic problem put money back into our equation or “model” and recognize that in the modern world the exchange of goods is practically always through the medium of money, and that the interrelationship of goods and money-prices must be right for Say’s Law to be valid. But this is merely to return to the qualification of correct price relationships and equilibrium that has always been implicit in the statement of Say’s Law by the leading classical economists.

3. The Answer of Haberler

Before leaving this subject it may be important to address ourselves to some of the confusions about it, not of Keynes himself, but of the “post-Keynesians.” Prof. Gottfried Haberler has been by no means uncritical of Keynes [14], but his discussion of Keynes’s discussion of Say’s Law is peculiar. He presents part of the quotation I have already presented from Ricardo (on pp. 37-38) but does so in truncated form, and ends with the sentence: “Money is only the medium by which the exchange is effected.” He then declares: “The meaning of this original formulation of this law seems to me quite clear: It states that income received is always spent on consumption or investment; in other words, money is never hoarded. . . .” [15] Now the meaning of Ricardo’s formulation of Say’s Law is already quite clear, particularly when it is given in full. It does not require any exegesis by Haberler or anyone else, and certainly no paraphrase that quite changes its meaning. Not only did Ricardo never explicitly assert the proposition that Haberler attributes to him; there is every reason to suppose that he would have repudiated it. At several points he actually describes what we today might call money hoarding and its effects. At many points in his Notes on Malthus he writes, regarding some view that Malthus attributes to him: “Where did I ever say this?” [16]. We may be confident that he would have written the same regarding this Haberler “interpretation.”

“Our conclusion, thus [Haberler goes on] is that there is no place and no need for Say’s Law in modern economic theory and that it has been completely abandoned by neo-classical economists in their actual theoretical and practical work on money and the business cycle. . . . Summing up, we may say that there was no need for Keynes to rid neo-classical economics of Say’s Law in the original, straightforward sense, for it had been completely abandoned long ago.” [17]

The short answer to this is that there is still need and place to assert Say’s Law whenever anybody is foolish enough to deny it. It is itself, to repeat, essentially a negative rather than a positive proposition. It is essentially a rejection of a fallacy. It states that a general overproduction of all commodities is not possible. And that is all, basically, that it is intended to assert. Haberler is right insofar as he denies the belief of Keynes (and such disciples as Sweezy) that Say’s Law “still underlies the whole classical theory, which would collapse without it” (General Theory, p. 19). It is true that Say’s Law is not explicitly needed in the solution of specific economic problems if its truth is tacitly taken for granted. Mathematicians seldom stop to assert that two and two do not make five. They do not explicitly build elaborate solutions of complicated problems upon this negative truth. But when someone asserts that two and two make five, or that an existing depression is the result of a general overproduction of everything, it is necessary to remind him of the error. There is still another line of attack on Say’s Law, which Haberler among others seems to adopt, and this is to assert that in the sense in which Say’s Law is true it is “mere tautology.” If it is tautological, it is so in the same sense in which basic logical and mathematical propositions are tautological: “Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” One does not need to say this as long as one does not forget it. To sum up, Keynes’s “refutation” of Say’s Law, even if it had been successful, would not have been original: it does not go an inch beyond Malthus’s attempted refutation more than a century before him. Keynes ”refuted” Say’s Law only in a sense in which no important economist ever held it.

4. To Save Is to Spend

Risking the accusation of beating a dead horse, I should like to address myself to one more effort by Keynes to disprove Say’s Law, or what he calls “a corollary of the same doctrine” (p. 19). “It has been supposed,” he writes, “that any individual act of abstaining from consumption necessarily leads to, and amounts to the same thing as, causing the labor and commodities thus released from supplying consumption to be invested in the production of capital wealth” (p. 19). And he quotes the following passage from Alfred Marshall’s Pure Theory of Domestic Values (p. 34) in illustration:

“The whole of a man’s income is expended in the purchase of services and of commodities. It is indeed commonly said that a man spends some portion of his income and saves another. But it is a familiar economic axiom that a man purchases labor and commodities with that portion of his income which he saves just as much as he does with that he is said to spend. He is said to spend when he seeks to obtain present enjoyment from the services and commodities which he purchases. He is said to save when he causes the labor and the commodities which he purchases to be devoted to the production of wealth from which he expects to derive the means of enjoyment in the future.”

This doctrine, of course, goes much further back than Marshall. Keynes could have quoted his bête noir, Ricardo, to the same effect. “Mr. Malthus,” wrote Ricardo, “never appears to remember that to save is to spend, as surely as what he exclusively calls spending.” [18] Ricardo went much further than this, and in answering Malthus answered one of Keynes’s chief contentions in advance: “I deny that the wants of consumers generally are diminished by parsimony —they are transferred with the power to consume to another set of consumers.” [19] And on still another occasion Ricardo wrote directly to Malthus: “We agree too that effectual demand consists of two elements, the power and the will to purchase; but I think the will is very seldom wanting where the power exists, for the desire of accumulation [i.e., saving] will occasion demand just as effectually as a desire to consume; it will only change the objects on which the demand will exercise itself.” [20] For the present, however, it may be sufficient merely to note Keynes’s contention on this point rather than to try to analyze it in full. There will be plenty of opportunity for that later. As we shall see, Keynes himself alternates constantly between two mutually contradictory contentions: (1) that saving and investment are “necessarily equal,” and “merely different aspects of the same thing” (p. 74), and (2) that saving and investment are “two essentially different activities” without even a “nexus” (p. 21), so that saving not only can exceed investment but chronically tends to do so. The second is the view which he chooses to support at this point. We shall have occasion to analyze both views later. For the present it is sufficient merely to note the presence of this deep-seated contradiction in Keynes’s thought.[21]


1 Economics and the Public Welfare, (New York: Van Nostrand, 1949), pp. 390-393. 2 Planning for Freedom. (South Holland, 111.: Libertarian Press, 1952), pp. 64-71. 3 Paul M. Sweezy in The New Economics, ed. by Seymour E. Harris, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1947), p. 105. 4 Op. cit., pp. 64-65. 5 Vol. I, Book IV, Chap. I, (Edwin Cannon edition, 1904), p. 404 ff. 6 Economics and the Public Welfare, p. 390. 7 Principles of Political Economy, Book III, Chap. xiv. Sect. 2. 8 Op. cit., p. 392. 9 Bernice Shoul, “Karl Marx and Say’s Law,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Nov., 1957, p. 615. 10 David Ricardo, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, (Everyman ed., New York), pp. 193-194. 11 The phrase “effectual demand,” however, was italicized merely to bring out here the fact that Keynes did not invent this phrase. Ricardo even uses the phrase “effective demand” in his Notes on Malthus (Sraffa edition, Cambridge University Press, p. 234). The term “effectual demand” was actually introduced by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chap. 7). John Stuart Mill explains. “Writers have . . . defined [demand as] the wish to possess, combined with the power of purchasing. To distinguish demand in this technical sense, from the demand which is synonymous with desire, they call the former effectual demand.” Principles of Political Economy, 1848, Book III, Chap. II, § 3. 12 Sraffa edition, Cambridge University Press, p. 305. 13 Op. cit.} pp. 306-307. 14 Haberler’s comments on the General Theory in Chap. 8 of the third edition of his Prosperity and Depression (Geneva: League of Nations, 1941) contain many penetrating observations. 15 The New Economics, ed. by Seymour E. Harris, p. 174. 16 See, e.g., Sraffa edition, p. 424. 17 Op. cit., pp. 175-176. 18 David Ricardo, Notes on Malthus (Sraffa edition), p. 449. 19 Ibid.,p.3O9. 20 Letters of Ricardo to Malthus, ed. by Bonar (1887). Letter of Sept. 16, 1814, p. 43. 21 Supplementing the present chapter, the reader is referred to the remarkable statement and defense of Say’s Law by John Stuart Mill, quoted at length on pp. 364-371.

Mal-Investments Small And Large

In yesterday’s article I emphasised that it is profit that is beneficial, not revenue. I’ve just read an excellent article (H/T Sean Corrigan) by Jerry L. Jordan, past president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. He makes the same point, with particular reference to government “investment” and national accounting. He opens with an analogy to warm the hearts of American readers:

It is tempting to think that the Soviets perfected negative-value-added investment — the stuff produced is worth less than the value of the resources to produce it. However, most families have experienced this first hand. It usually surfaces with an entrepreneurial adolescent deciding it would be a good idea to sell lemonade at the curbside to passers-by Parents, wanting to encourage the idea that working and making money is a good idea, drive around to buy the lemon, sugar, designer bottled water, cups, spoons, napkins, a sign or two, and probably a paper table cloth. Aside from time and gas, the outing adds up to something north of $10. At the opening of business the next day, the kids find business is slow to non-existent at $1 per cup. So, they start to learn about market demand and find that business becomes so brisk at only 10 cents per cup that they are sold out by noon, having served 70 cups of lemonade and hauled in $7. The excited lunch-time conversation is about expanding the business. A stand across the street to catch traffic going the opposite direction; maybe one around the corner for the cross-street traffic. The kids see growing revenue; the “investors” see mounting losses. There is a strand of economics, we’ll call it the K-brand, that sees all this as worthwhile. They add together the $10 spent by the parents to back the venture and the $7 spent by the customers and conclude that an additional $17 of spending is clearly a good thing. Surely, the neighbourhood economy has been stimulated. To the family it is a loss, chalked up as a form of consumption. If this were a business enterprise it would be a write-off. In classical economics it is a “mal-investment.”

But of course the government “invests” on a much larger scale:

To K-brand economics, such “investing” is better done by the government because there never has to be a write-down for bad ideas. So, Japan spent a couple of decades “investing” in airports few people fly to, highways few people drive on and bullet trains that not enough people ride on. All the expenditures were recorded as investment and were additions to national output, never recognizing that the value of what was produced is less than the value of the resources needed to produce it — negative-value-added. Surely it is clear that Japan was made poorer by lots of bad “investments.” The U.S. recorded a great amount of “residential investment spending” in the central valleys of California that added to national output, only to have the houses bulldozed because there were no buyers. Subsequently, the home-builders incurred losses, reducing business income, thus shrinking national output. Nevertheless, the national accounts will never be revised to reflect that the “investment spending” of a few years earlier was all “mal-investment” and should have been recorded as a form of business consumption. Such “investment” actually made us poorer. The irony of this example is the expenditures incurred to bulldoze the vacant houses is recorded as “stimulus” to the economy. Thanks for that to K-brand economics. They now want California to “invest” in a Japanese-style bullet train that is negative-value-added economics.

I recommend the whole article.