Say’s Law on the HES website continues

This is a continuation of my posting on the Societies for the History of Economics (SHOE) website. It follows from this and this. And note very carefully that Keynes might have read Ricardo’s letter to Malthus.

I certainly appreciate the replies to my previous postings by Daniele Besomi and Barkley Rosser.

Let me begin with a news item reporting on my testimony to the Australian Senate Economic References Committee. They were reviewing the effects of the stimulus and had invited me because of my views on Keynesian theory and policy. This is from the Sydney Morning Herald of 21 September 2009.

“Labor senator Doug Cameron said Prof Kates’ comments had certainly embedded in his mind that you should never let an ‘academic economist run the economy’.

“‘Why have the IMF, the OECD, the ILO, the treasuries of every advanced economy, the Treasury in Australia, the business economists around the world, why have they got it so wrong and yet you in your ivory tower at RMIT have got it so right?’”

I can now more clearly see Senator Cameron’s point about academic economists, but I draw you attention to the second of his statements.

Since J.-B. Say had put together what is in English called the law of markets, it does not surprise me that the phrase “Say’s Law” may have turned up on various stray occasions. But as someone who had been curious about the origins of this term, which is used by none of the major classical economists, it did finally dawn on me that it had come from Fred Taylor, not least because he specifically states that he is inventing the term. He used the phrase in his 1909 article on teaching economics; it is in his 1911 and six subsequent student editions of his for-students-only principles text distributed at the University of Michigan and buried in a chapter he titles, “Certain Fundamental Principles of Trade”. But by the time his text is released commercially in 1921, Say’s Law is a chapter on its own, titled “Say’s Law” in big letters, and in that chapter Taylor specifically says he is giving a name to what he describes as a yet unnamed principle. That someone used the term in 1920 is not a surprise but the phrase Say’s Law does not enter into economic discourse in a big way until after that. If it pleases you to think that Keynes took the name because of one of these stray mentions picked up by Daniele, be my guest as long as you accept that he took it from somewhere else. It just seems reasonable to me that Keynes used the term because it expressed exactly the point he was trying to make. Whether he was reading Taylor directly, or someone else who had read Taylor who had used the term, we cannot know. But that he was reading the mostly American literature on Say’s Law is as near certain as any such thing can be. And the only reason anyone resists this common sense, indeed obvious point, is that it is damaging to Keynes’s reputation since it suggests that his letter to Harrod, about how he had on his own by himself thought up one idea and then another, is not what actually happened at all.

And perhaps it is Daniel who has not understood my point. His point, he writes, is that “Say’s law was not ACCEPTED throughout the 19th century by writers trying to explain crises” (his emphasis). I don’t think that’s right. If you go the Haberler’s 1937 Prosperity and Depression, which is a compendium of all of the theories of recession that were then in existence, virtually all of the theories presented are about structural dislocations. In what was probably the most common theory of recession of the time, people had used their savings all right – hoarding was not the problem – but had produced non-saleable output leading to recession, with the reason for such dislocation often but by no means always related to financial mayhem of one sort or another. To the extent that classical economists had a view about saving as a cause of recession, it was that recessions might occur because the level of saving had been insufficient to complete all of the projects that had been commenced following the previous trough. There wasn’t too much saving, there was too little. Read Haberler discussing Hobson and under-consumption if you are looking for a dismissive view of oversaving as a theory of recession.

What Say’s Law said to economists was this: when trying to explain the causes of recession, “there is no deficiency of demand” (and that is a quote from Ricardo), so you should therefore look somewhere else. I will, for a change, let Keynes be my authority.

“Malthus, indeed, had vehemently opposed Ricardo’s doctrine that it was impossible for effective demand to be deficient; but vainly. . . . The great puzzle of Effective Demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from economic literature.” (GT: 32)

It may seem a negative conclusion but it is a crucial one. There is no such thing as a general glut. Overproduction never occurs. Demand deficiency does not cause recessions. And so far as policy is concerned, increases in non-value-adding public spending cannot lead to a recovery but will, instead, make them worse. That is what I was trying to say to our Senate. Five years later, who has the runs on the board? Is it the IMF, the OECD, the ILO, the treasuries of every advanced economy, the Treasury in Australia, the business economists around the world, or is it our classical predecessors? Is it Keynes or Mill?

So to come back to my original post. There may well be something to what classical economists had been saying, which is the point Francois Hollande has very bravely made. And it is brave since he will be opposed by his political enemies, by his political friends and by economists who refuse to think that just maybe perhaps Keynes was wrong.

Let me finish with a quote from another politician, the former Labour Prime Minister of the UK, James Callahagn, speaking to the Labour Party Conference in 1976 during the Great Inflation, which was also a period of persistently high unemployment:

“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.”

It’s not as if our economies, as a result of these high levels of public spending in the period after the GFC, returned to rapid rates of economic growth and low rates of unemployment. We have seen the effects of the stimulus and they are dismal. Hollande, who is a first rate economist, went into government as a Keynesian but a Keynesian he no longer is. Why anyone else still is remains the central question in economic theory today.

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