Say’s Law – some basic distinctions

A few days ago I put a post onto the SHOE website on Say’s Law for which there was one reply from Daniel Besomi. My reply should make clear what he had written:

I appreciate Daniel Besomi’s comments, which I hope will help us clarify these issues. I might also mention that most of what I summarise here, as in the previous post, was discussed in my Say’s Law and the Keynesian Revolution: How Macroeconomic Theory Lost its Way (Elgar 1998).

The first point I am trying to make begins here. There are two fundamental economic questions:

1) what is the basis for demand?

2) what causes recessions, or perhaps more accurately in this case, what does not cause recessions?

What Say, and Robinet, were explaining was the origins of demand, which they argue is based on previous sales. Demand is constituted by supply. What they wrote is an answer to the first question, but it is not an answer to the second.

The second question may be rephrased in this way: can there be such a thing as a general glut? This is a completely different question from the first, and the answer, as a consequence of the general glut debate, was that no, there is no such thing as a general glut, demand deficiency does not cause recessions. James Mill’s answer to this question was, in part, premised on Say’s answer to the first but were not an answer to the first. They are separate but related issues. Mill used Say’s discussion on the basis for demand to explain why a general glut was impossible.

It is because James Mill was the first, so far as I know, to answer the second question that I see him to have been the first to frame the classical statement on what is now called Say’s Law. The General Theory is about whether demand deficiency, a general glut, is possible. And when one finally accepts the classical answer to question 2, as FH may have done, then, but only then, the economic issues revolve around 1, which is what kind of supply will actually create demand.

And then, in answering that question, we can ask ourselves whether the Keynesian notion that spending on anything at all will do the trick is a correct answer. To a classical economist, it need hardly be said, the idea that anyone would think non-value-adding production could create growth and employment is too ridiculous even to contemplate. Only a modern economist might think so, but to anyone from the classical tradition, the idea is still ridiculous.

Daniel also points out that Fred Taylor had used the phrase “Say’s Law” earlier than 1921. This is true, but 1921 nevertheless remains the significant date, which is why I chose my words very carefully. What I wrote was this:

The first thing that might be noted is that the term ‘Say’s Law’ is not classical in origin but was consciously invented by Fred Manville Taylor and introduced into general economic discourse with the publication of his Principles of Economics text in 1921.

If you go to my Say’s Law text (pp 148-149 and especially the footnote), you will find that I discuss Taylor’s invention of the term, including his first use in 1909 in an obscure article on how to teach economics. He then brings Say’s Law into his introductory text, but the first seven editions were student editions distributed only within the University of Michigan. It is only following the publication of the eighth edition as a general text with commercial distribution that the term enters general economic discourse. It is the publication of the book for sale outside the U of M campus that brings the term to a wider public, and it is only after 1921 that it enters into more general discourse.

But it is really neither here nor there whether Taylor invented the term in 1909 or 1921. What is important to understand is that the term was invented in the twentieth century and it was invented by Taylor. What is not in any way affected by the dating is the need recognise that Keynes must, as an absolute certainty, have been reading other things about the various issues that end up in The General Theory that he never mentioned to anyone else. The locked-himself-in-a-room-and-came-up-with-these-ideas-one-by-one version, as he tells the tale himself and is now repeated as gospel, is obviously untrue since Keynes had to have picked up the phrase from somewhere else. If not from Taylor than from someone who had read Taylor.

Then, on the third point raised, if it can be said, as Daniel says, that my stating that everyone accepted Say’s Law through until 1936 was only “approximately true in the English, French and Italian literature”, that’s more than good enough for me. I perfectly well understand that there were some very few and generally obscure dissenters, particularly in English. I even discuss this very weak opposition in my book, with the two (three, I guess) most important dissenters in English having been John Hobson on the one hand and Foster and Catchings on the other. Keynes can himself name only five in his “Brave Army of Heretics” (GT 371), and if you look at the list and choose only his contemporaries, aside from Hobson who is iffy, you are looking at a very dubious list of authorities, namely, Silvio Geselle and Major Douglas. During the period up until 1936, there may hardly have been a theory more universally accepted than Say’s Law.

Say’s Law and the law of markets are not the same

I have belatedly come to realise that Say’s Law is not the law of markets. How weird is that, after all these years. I have put the following up on the SHOE website as a continuation of my previous post L’offre crée même la demande. Hollande, as a result of the bitter experiences in trying to manage the French economy, now has a better grip on our fundamental economic principles than pretty well the whole of the economics profession.

There are a number of facts that are relevant in any discussion of Say’s Law which I thought I might set out. What I find something of a problem is the common assumption that Say’s Law refers to something that was believed during the early parts of the nineteenth century and was of little significance thereafter. No discussion ever seems to get past Malthus, Say and Mill in looking at what was an embedded principle right up until 1936.

The first thing that might be noted is that the term “Say’s Law” is not classical in origin but was consciously invented by Fred Manville Taylor and introduced into general economic discourse with the publication of his Principles of Economics text in 1921. Before Taylor no one called this association of demand with previous supply “Say’s Law”. Taylor introduced the term because he thought economic theory needed to identify one of its most important underlying principles. The ironies of what followed next are too obvious for comment.

This continuous fixation on the early classical economists has had a number of unfortunate consequences. The first is that economists are always returning to Say as if he provided the definitive statement on Say’s Law. He did not. If you want the point of origin, it is in James Mill in his Commerce Defended published in 1807. Here is the passage that matters, although the whole of his discussion is well worth the effort:

“No proposition however in political economy seems to be more certain than this which I am going to announce, how paradoxical soever it may at first sight appear; and if it be true, none undoubtedly can be deemed of more importance. The production of commodities creates, and is the one and universal cause which creates a market for the commodities produced.”

The final sentence should be familiar but is not the actual origins of the specific words used by Keynes.

It is also important to appreciate James Mill’s role since I see his statement not only as exactly right, but he wrote his book in response to an argument in which too much saving and too little demand were seen as the causes of recession. This was the first instance in which an argument that economies are driven by demand was rejected. Mill was saying an economy could not be stimulated from the demand side. That was the point of Say’s Law, and still is.

This nameless principle was universally accepted by the mainstream. But if you would like to find Say’s Law as clearly stated as it is possible to find it in the classical literature, this is David Ricardo writing to Malthus just after the commencement of the General Glut debate in 1820. Malthus said the post-Napoleonic recessions had been caused by too much saving and too little demand. To this, Ricardo replied:

“Men err in their productions, there is no deficiency of demand.”

That’s it. Say’s Law. Recessions are caused by mis-directed production, not deficient demand. This was the foundation for the entire theory of the cycle that would develop over the following century. It is the disappearance of the theory of the cycle that may be the greatest loss economists have experienced because of the General Theory.

There is then this. At the end of the General Glut debate in 1848, John Stuart Mill published his Principles of Political Economy, which included his fourth proposition on capital. This may be the most enigmatic statement ever made by a great economist, but if you want to see the principle behind Say’s Law, whether you agree with it or not, this is what Mill wrote:

“Demand for commodities is not demand for labour.”

Or as we might put it today, an economic stimulus will not create jobs. This is a statement whose reasoning is perfectly clear to me. I teach it to my students and it is in my text and few ever have any trouble with it. Described in 1876 as “the best test of a sound economist”, in my view it still is. It was a conclusion that policy makers accepted right through until the 1930s and perhaps even for a while after. But it was an enduring concept.

So I take you back to Francois Hollande. What he said in French was this:

“Le temps est venu de régler le principal problème de la France : sa production. Oui, je dis bien sa production. Il nous faut produire plus, il nous faut produire mieux. C’est donc sur l’offre qu’il faut agir. Sur l’offre ! Ce n’est pas contradictoire avec la demande. L’offre crée même la demande.”

This is the whole thing in my free translation:

“The time has come to work through the number one problem in France: which is production. Yes, that’s what I said, production. We must produce more, we must produce better. Hence, it is upon supply that we must concentrate. On supply! This is not in opposition to demand. Supply actually creates demand.”

It is true the point Hollande makes takes you back to J.-B. Say, David Ricardo and James and John Stuart Mill, all of whom are, of course, classical. But he also takes you back to Fred Taylor whose book was published only a few years before the General Theory, where he was trying to state what every economist of his own generation knew and accepted. Today, so far as aggregate demand goes, we are all Keynesians now, with some very few exceptions.

And while we’re at it, you might also ask yourself how Taylor’s very much twentieth century phrase ended up in The General Theory. The standard story of the trek from the Treatise to the General Theory has a lot of gaps, even after the hundred million words that have been devoted to explaining what the General Theory means and how it came to be written.