Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ludwig von Mises and the Great Depression

Another economics lesson from David Glasner that Austrians will ignore.--SS

Ludwig von Mises and the Great Depression:

Many thanks to gliberty who just flagged for me a piece by Mark Spitznagel in today’s (where else?) Wall Street Journal about how Ludwig von Mises, alone among the economists of his day, foresaw the coming of the Great Depression, refusing the offer of a high executive position at the Kredit-Anstalt, Austria’s most important bank, in the summer of 1929, because, as he put it to his fiancĂ©e (whom he did not marry till 1938 just before escaping the Nazis), “a great crash is coming, and I don’t want my name in any way connected with it.” Just how going to work for the Kredit Anstalt would have led to Mises’s name being associated with the crash (the result, in Mises’s view, of the inflationary policy of the US Federal Reserve) is left unclear. But it’s such a nice story.

Ludwig von Mises was an extremely well-read and diligent economist, who had some extraordinary insights into economics and business and politics. As a result he made some important contributions to economics, most important the discovery that idea of a fully centrally planned economy is not just an impossibility, it is incoherent. He made other contributions to economics as well, but that insight, perhaps also perceived by Max Weber, was first spelled out and explained by Mises in his book Socialism. That contribution alone is enough to ensure Mises an honorable place in the history of economic thought.

Mises also perceived how the monetary theory of Knut Wicksell, based on a distinction between a market and a natural rate of interest, could be combined with the Austrian theory of capital, developed by his teacher Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk into a theory of business cycles. Von Mises is therefore justly credited with being the father of Austrian business-cycle theory. His own development of the theory was somewhat sketchy, and it was his student F. A. Hayek, who made the great intellectual effort of trying to work out the detailed steps in the argument by which monetary expansion would alter the structure of capital and production, leading to a crisis when the monetary expansion was halted or reversed.

Relying on their newly developed theory of business cycles, Mises and Hayek warned in the late 1920s that the decision of the Federal Reserve to reduce interest rates in 1927, when it appeared that the US economy could be heading into a recession, would distort the structure of production and lead eventually to an even worse downturn than the one the Fed avoided in 1927. That was the basis for Mises’s “prediction” of a “crash” ahead of the Great Depression.

Of course, as I have pointed out previously, Mises and Hayek were not the only ones to have predicted that there could be a downturn. R.G. Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel had been warning about that danger since 1919, should an international return to the gold standard not be managed properly, failing to prevent a rapid deflationary increase in the international monetary demand for gold. When the insane Bank of France began accumulating gold at a breathtaking rate in 1928, and the US reversed its monetary stance in late 1928 and itself began accumulating gold, Hawtrey and Cassel recognized the potential for disaster and warned of the disastrous consequences of the change in Federal Reserve policy.

So Mises and Hayek were not alone in their prediction of a crash; Hawtrey and Cassel were also warning of a looming disaster, and were doing so on the basis of a theory that was both more obvious and more relevant to the situation than theory with which Mises and Hayek were working, a theory that, even giving it the benefit of every doubt, could not possibly have predicted a downturn even remotely approaching the severity of the 1929-31 downturn. Indeed, as I have also pointed out, the irrelevance of the Mises and Hayek “explanation” of the Great Depression is perfectly illustrated by Hayek’s 1932 defense of the insane Bank of France, showing a complete misunderstanding of the international adjustment mechanism and the disastrous consequences of the gold accumulation policy of the insane Bank of France.

Mr. Spitznagel laments that the economics profession somehow ignored Ludwig von Mises. Actually, they didn’t. Some of the greatest economists of the twentieth century were lapsed believers in the Austrian business-cycle theory. A partial list would include, Mises’s own students, Gottfried Haberler and Fritz Machlup; it would include Hayek’s dear friend and colleague, Lionel Robbins who wrote a book on the Great Depression eloquently explaining it in terms of the Austrian theory in a way that even Mises might have approved, a book that Robbins later repudiated and refused to allow to be reprinted in his lifetime (but you can order a new edition here); it would include Hayek’s students, Nobel Laureate J.R. Hicks, Nicholas Kaldor, Abba Lerner, G.L.S. Shackle, and Ludwig Lachmann (who sought a third way incorporating elements of Keynesian and Austrian theory). Hayek himself modified his early views in important ways and admitted that he had given bad policy advice in the 1930s. The only holdout was Mises himself, joined in later years after his arrival in America by a group of more doctrinaire (with at least one notable exception) disciples than Mises had found in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s. The notion that Austrian theory was ignored by the economics profession and has only lately been rediscovered is just the sort of revisionist history that one tends to find on a lot of wacko Austro-libertarian websites like Apparently the Wall Street Journal editorial page is providing another, marginally more respectable, venue for such nonsense. Rupert, you’re doing a heckuva job.

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