The difference between Keynesian and classical economics

Just posted on Quora in answer to the question: What is the difference between Keynesian and classical economics? There are 13 other replies which not much more than prove to me that no one without a truly specialist knowledge of classical theory would have the slightest idea what an economist between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would have understood about anything in relation to the operation of an economy. Their ignorance of what classical economists believed is matched by their ignorance of how an economy actually works. Anyway, this is what I wrote.

The differences between classical and Keynesian economics are so vast that to accept one version of how an economy works means you must reject the other. Classical economic theory is the theory that was developed between let us say 1776 and the 1870s, almost entirely by philosophers and business people who were actually looking at the economy. Modern economic theory has almost entirely been developed within universities by people who have neither a philosophical training nor have ever run a business as their primary mode of earning a living.

Here’s the difference. Classical economic theory begins from the existence of a market economy in which, on one side of the equation, there is a mass of people who would like to buy goods and services, and on the other side there are people who would like to earn their living by producing and selling things to others. The producers continually try to work out what to produce that others will buy, and do it by trying to decide what buyers will pay enough for in total to cover their production costs. These producers hire employees and the combined incomes of producers and wage earners become the purchasing power of the community.

Classical economic theory is thus entirely supply-side driven. And what is particularly interesting about reading the classical literature is that government regulation was an important part of how the economic system worked. The very first Factory Act in Great Britain was introduced in 1802, and there were many others that came after. The notion that classical economics was simply leave everything to the market is 100% wrong. If you look at the greatest economics text of the era, John Stuart Mill’s 1848 Principles of Political Economy, the final 200 pages are devoted to discussing the role of government in ensuring that economic activity was carried out in a morally acceptable way to the benefit of the entire community.

But crucially, classical theory assumes the role of the independent entrepreneur as the linchpin in making an economy work. Try to find a modern economic text that starts from there. Other than my own – Free Market Economics, Third Edition – none of the major mainstream texts starts from the supply side and none – as in zero – feature the role of the entrepreneur.

Keynesian economics assumes economies are driven from the demand side. That is, it is buying goods and services that makes an economy grow and employ, not their production. It is based on the total confusion between the demand for a single product – the greater the demand for shoes the greater the production of shoes will be along with the greater the level of employment for shoemakers. Demand affects individual products; demand in aggregate does not affect the level of output in total. The more that is produced, the higher the level of demand, for the obvious reason that the more that is produced, the more there is that buyers are able to demand. But if you are a Keynesian, you will go on believing that the cause of higher output is higher demand, whereas the reason more can be demanded is that more output is being produced. Public spending may have many benefits, but increasing the level of income and speeding up the rate of economic growth is not one of them. If anything, higher levels of public spending slow things down and lower real incomes below levels that otherwise would have been reached.

Keynesian economics is based on the fallacious belief that buyers will not buy as much as an economy can produce, and therefore demand must be stimulated to ensure everything produced is bought and that everyone who wants to work is employed. A great theory if you are in government and need a justification for taking as much money as you can get away with from income-earning citizens and spending it yourself. But a pernicious theory if you are interested in raising living standards as rapidly as possible.

 

Only one book written in the twenty-first century will explain the classical economics of the nineteenth

At Quora, this question: What are 25 economics books that you would recommend (preferably classical and neoclassical)? My answer:

If you are seriously interested in understanding economics you need to understand classical economic theory, the economics of the period from the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776 until the marginal revolution began about a hundred years later in the 1870s. And if you are interested in understanding classical economic theory, you should read the third edition of my own Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader.

Modern economic theory has fallen into very hard times since its classical period, and is now incapable of explaining almost anything that matters. My FME third edition is entirely supply-side, explaining how classical economists understood the operation of an economy which is how an economy actually does work.

From the marginal revolution with its focus on marginal utility, through to the Keynesian Revolution of the 1930s with its introduction of aggregate demand, economic theory has looked at economies from the demand side. And while it has a superficial appeal, no economy is driven by demand. All economies are driven from its production side. People buy more where more is produced. If you want to understand what allows people to demand, you first have to understand what makes them capable of producing.

I will just add that if you try to read classical theory without some preparation for the changes in the terminology between economics today and economics then, you will miss the point. This is a paper you can find at SSRN which will help you get past what is a quite formidable barrier.

Classical Economics Explained: Understanding Economic Theory Before Keynes

Steven Kates

Abstract

Since the publication of The General Theory, pre-Keynesian economics has been labelled “classical,” but what that classical economics actually consisted of is now virtually an unknown. There is, instead, a straw-man caricature most economists absorb through a form of academic osmosis but which is never specifically taught, not even as part of a course in the history of economics. The paper outlines the crucial features that differentiate modern macroeconomics from classical theory, with the emphasis on what an economist would have understood as The General Theory was being published. Based on the differences outlined, a model of classical economic theory is presented which explains how pre-Keynesian economists understood the operation of the economy, the causes of recession and why a public-spending stimulus was universally rejected by mainstream economists before 1936. The classical model presented is an amalgam of the final edition of John Stuart Mill’s 1848 Principles of Political Economy published in his lifetime and Henry Clay’s influential 1916 Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader, a text which was itself built from the economics of Mill.

Here’s the link to the paper.

Classical Economics Explained: Understanding Economic Theory Before Keynes

Not just about Say’s Law but also why almost the whole of modern economic theory is useless

You may think such a thing is impossible, and certainly impossible to prove, and even more certainly impossible for me to prove, but before you say that first you have to watch the presentation yourself. The venue is Los Angeles.

I also replied to the fellow who had invited me and sent the video because he wrote that “I suggest the phrase Supply Creates the Means to Demand” which is his own way of explaining Say’s Law to himself. And this is the way someone brought up in a Keynesian environment will understand these issues because it has become second nature to think in relation to demand. But unless you can break the habit that thinking an economy is driven by demand and not supply, it becomes impossible to understand classical theory, and in my view impossible to understand how a market economy works. So I wrote back with this:

Your note does remind me how difficult it is to understand since the issue of spending never seems to go away, which a supply-side economist, like Mill and myself, see as about as irrelevant to aggregate economic outcomes as it is possible to be. If you tell me that in a recession there is some kind of panic and credit freezes up and business ventures are not commenced at the same rate as in good times, I will say of course, but so too did JSM.

Thinking in money flows and in relation to spending will stop you from understanding Mill and thus, in my view, from understanding how an economy adjusts. Once you are thinking about whether people will spend their money and not whether entrepreneurs will try to open new businesses and expand old ones, you fall into the Keynesian trap from which economic theory has been unable to emerge for more than eighty years. A financial crisis stops the flow of credit but does not stop the desire of business people to set up new firms or expand the ones they already run, nor does it stop wage earners from trying to find jobs. A really bad downturn can take 2-3 years to get back to normal but things do re-arrange themselves. Having a government stimulus on top of all of the other disruptions in the flow of capital and labour into their most productive forms of contribution can extend the recession outwards for a much longer period of time, and like the situation right now everywhere round the world, it can prevent a serious recovery from ever gathering pace. The Japanese lost decade of the 1990s is now 25 years long! The notion that buyers will stop buying for years on end and businesses will stop trying to find ways to earn profits because there has been a downturn is not just incoherent but contrary to every historical situation in which a downturn has ever occurred. It might be what an academic would do – just give up and wait for a government subsidy – but it is not the kind thing people who make a living by running businesses are apt to do. A stimulus can kill off a recovery but it can never cause one. All this is perfectly obvious to me, but very difficult to explain. This is my own variant on demand for commodities is not demand for labour: employment varies directly with productivity and inversely with the real wage. I developed the theory as an employer advocate in our national wage cases in the 1980s and then when I found the same thing in Mill, which is his explanation for his fourth proposition on capital*, I had found the parent stem for everything which I now believe, and see demonstrated everywhere I go.

Mill noted that even in his own time how difficult it was to keep these things straight, and every economist of his time had read his text. Much more difficult now because of the Keynesian presuppositions and terminology that infuse modern theory with virtually no supply-side economics to be found anywhere at all.

* Mill’s fourth proposition on capital – the Fermat’s Last Theorem of economics – states that “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. Universally accepted by mainstream economics in Mill’s lifetime, even described in 1876 as “the best test of a sound economist”, which it is. You can read my entire paper on it if you are interested: MILL’S FOURTH FUNDAMENTAL PROPOSITION ON CAPITAL: A PARADOX EXPLAINED.

Classical economics rediscovered

I have come across a summary of David Simpson’s The Rediscovery of Classical Economics written by David Simpson himself and published by the Royal Economic Society. Before I quote more extensively, I will note where he wrote:

I refer to an intellectual tradition that began with Adam Smith, was continued by Marx, Menger and Marshall, Schumpeter and Hayek and in the present day is represented by theorists of complexity.

It never surprises me to see the name of John Stuart Mill missing from such lists since Mill is the most difficult of all of the classical economists to access for any one schooled in modern theory. Yet it was Mill who set the standard for the second half of the nineteenth century and was explicitly followed by Marshall and even Hayek even as they turned economics into the more familiar form we find today. I might also mention that what makes Marx interesting even now is found in Mill only with much more common sense as well as a far deeper economic understanding. Mill is the high point of classical thought, and in many ways the high point of economic thought. But who amongst any of you would be able to contradict me, you followers of Keynes and marginal analysis, who barely know Mill’s name never mind have any idea of what he wrote? This is Simpson’s description of the economics that has all but disappeared.

The hallmarks of this classical tradition are principally three. The first is the belief that the growth of the economy, rather than relative prices, should be the principal object of analysis. Coupled with that belief is an understanding of the market economy as a collection of processes of continuing change
rather than as a structure, and that the nature of this change is self-organising and evolutionary. Finally there is a conviction that economic activity is rooted in human nature and the interaction of individual human beings.

The differences between classical theory and equilibrium theory can be summarised in the following terms. Classical theory focuses on change and growth within open, dynamic nonlinear systems that are normally far from equilibrium. Equilibrium theory, on the other hand, analyses the theory of value within closed, static linear systems that are always in equilibrium. As to the essential nature of economic activity, classical economics makes no distinction between micro- and macroeconomics. Patterns of activity at the macro level emerge from interactions at the micro level. Evolutionary processes provide the economy with novelty, and are responsible for its growth in complexity. In equilibrium theory micro-and macroeconomics remain separate disciplines, and there is no endogenous mechanism for the creation of novelty or growth.

The behaviour of human beings in classical theory is analysed individually. People typically have incomplete information that is subject to errors and biases, and they use inductive rules of thumb to make decisions and to adapt over time. Their interactions also change over time as they learn from experience. In equilibrium theory, individual behaviour is assumed to be homogeneous and can be modelled collectively. It is assumed that humans are able to make decisions using difficult deductive calculations, that they have complete information about the present and the future, that they make no mistakes and have no biases, and therefore have no need for adaptation or learning.

Simpson finishes by discussing where economics now needs to go under the heading, “The Implications for Economic Theory”. I think this is both very limited in what is sought but also almost impossible to imagine being taken up within the profession. I’m not so sure about the need for non-linear algebra, but at least with this we have the commencement of a program for change:

First of all, courses in economic history and in the history of economic thought should be a required part of the curriculum for every student of economics. The study of economic history, like the study of complex systems, reveals the importance of context in understanding economic behaviour. The study of the development of economic thought helps us to appreciate the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a theory. Macroeconomics should be downgraded, and give way to the study of business cycles.

Secondly, more space should be found for the analysis of dynamic processes at the expense of static theory. The study of the processes of economic growth should be restored to centre stage. This probably means a greater emphasis on nonlinear algebra.

At the same time, the limitations inherent in applying mathematics to economics need to be acknowledged. The importance of the human factor and of human institutions in economic activity means that more attention needs to be given to non-quantitative methods of analysis.

With the scale of disaster that has befallen us since the GFC, there is something radical that needs to be done. And if you are interested in seeing a twenty-first century update on Mill and classical theory, you can always try this.

John Stuart Mill and the logic of economics

I have just been confronted by two articles I have refereed, both on the economics of John Stuart Mill, that I rejected because they have no idea what Mill is trying to explain or the logic of what he is getting at. Both, however, are likely to be published no matter what I might think. Here was Mill, the man with the nineteenth century’s highest IQ, the author of the book on logic that was used for two generations across the English speaking world, a book still eminenty worth reading to this day, yet both of these papers criticise Mill for contradicting himself and faulty logic.

Mill’s Principles of Political Economy is far and away the best book on economic theory ever written. My own book on Free Market Economics (now in its second edition) is Mill brought up to date with a few modern gadgets. Also brought into the text and heavily criticised are the various additions to economic theory that have made economics far worse as a tool of analysis and a basis for policy, most notably MC=MR and Keynes.

All I can say is how exasperating it is to read these critics of Mill who cannot even begin to understand the problems with their interpretations. But what is the peculiar bit is that in being possibly the only economist in the world who thinks of Mill as the best economist who has ever lived, there is not a soul alive who I can turn to for support. I am not the smartest person on the world today, but I do come closer to understanding Mill than anyone else writing on economics. The massacre of our economies by the modern doctors of economic theory is as obvious to me as it is invisible to them. So on it will go but the certainty is that if we keep up in the way we have, we will never ever generate a recovery worth having and living standards will continue to fall.