Even more on Say’s Law and Austrian economics

The debate on the Coordination Problem website continues but see here and here for the prior discussion. The following three posts have just been put up.

Hayek detailed the influence of classical political economists on his theory of the business cycle. See the 1st chapter of Prices and Production. Many predecessors are mentioned, just not Say.

In Economics as a Coordination Problem, I suggest that Say is relevant. But it is Say’s theory of the entrepreneur that is relevant.
Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 18, 2015 at 08:35 PM

James Mill did not use the term “Say’s Law,” preferring the “Law of Markets,” but he and Say corresponded and they each cited the other in their works.
Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 18, 2015 at 11:17 PM

In the WN, Adam Smith argued that “parsimony” was the immediate cause of “the increase of capital.” That is an ex ante version of what came to be known as Say’s Law.
“What is annually saved is as regularly consumed as what is annually spent, and nearly in the same time too.” In other words, the supply of savings constitutes the demand for investment.
Even earlier, there are statements by the Physiocrat, Mercier de la Rivière, that anticipate Say’s Law. And so on.
Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 18, 2015 at 11:55 PM

Again it is Barkley Rosser who sticks to the issues to whom I focus my reply.

It is not a little odd to be instructed by Barkley Rosser that James Mill and J.B. Say corresponded and cited each other’s works. I have written one book, many articles, and brought together two collections of writings on Say’s Law, including a five volume set on everything written on Say’s Law through until the year 2000. Of course James Mill didn’t use the term “Say’s Law”. The phrase wasn’t even invented until the twentieth century. That he discussed “le loi des débouchés” (the law of markets) is different since that is the name he applied himself. That still doesn’t answer where Keynes came up with the term Say’s Law since that is from F.M.Taylor (1921). Those who think they know the story of how Keynes went from the Treatise (1930) to The General Theory (1936) typically ignore this very inconvenient fact.

Say’s Law does not mean “goods buy goods”. What Say’s Law means is that demand deficiency (overproduction) does not cause recessions and therefore a demand stimulus is never the remedy. Everyone once knew that goods bought goods – see the second paragraph of the introduction to Book II of The Wealth of Nations where it is spelt out with perfect clarity.

For an indubitably Austrian perspective on Say’s Law, let me then direct you to Murray Rothbard in an article specifically titled “Say’s Law of Markets”. It is mostly right but Rothbard is unfortunately caught up in the trap of thinking that Say’s Law was originated by Say, or worse, that Say explains it properly. But here he is absolutely on the money as he is on most of the rest in his article:

“Essentially Say’s law is a stern and proper response to the various economic ignoramuses as well as self-seekers who, in every economic recession or crisis, begin to complain loudly about the terrible problem of general ‘overproduction’ or, in the common language of Say’s day, a ‘general glut’ of goods on the market.”

And please take note of the technical term he uses, “economic ignoramuses”. I understand the exasperation, especially in the face of yet another massive failure of policy in the various Keynesian stimulus packages that followed the GFC.

That no one gets it is as normal, but perhaps, by pulling Murray Rothbard into the mix, there might be some recognition that Say’s Law has a legitimate Austrian pedigree.

The evolving nature of the history of economic thought

An email to a colleague in Europe who is going off to the Congress on J.-B. Say and the entrepreneur at the end of August.

I am very pleased to hear from you and to find you are heading off to this Congress. It seems exceptionally interesting and the focus on the entrepreneur has been for too long ignored within economic theory and policy. There was some interest expressed to me about my going there as well but it has unfortunately come to nothing. It would have been a quite long journey and as I also have a conference in Hong Kong just after may have been too much of an excursion. But whatever might have been the original interest in my attendance, nothing has come of it so I am off to Hong Kong which will be a bit easier than the 20,000 mile round trip going to France would have required. Still, I would have liked to have gone but that’s life.

The seriously interesting part for me, but probably of little interest to anyone looking at what Say was writing in 1803, is that I have written what amounts to Say’s Treatise for the 21st century. I will attach a blog post I did on the book, but it is about nothing less than the crucial role of the entrepreneur combined with an understanding of Say’s Law as expressed by Say, Ricardo, James Mill and John Stuart Mill. I am the living embodiment of those values but probably 150 years behind the times, but in my view, also about 15-20 years before my time. The fact of this conference is a sign of the subterranean changes going on. But it is hard for anyone who has grown up on aggregate demand and math ec to understand what’s required if you remove AD from within macro and start treating the future as genuinely uncertain. What happens then is you end up with the classical theory of the cycle which no one any longer understands. You should be able to read the back cover of the text in the blog post attached which explains all this in more detail.

I should also mention one other reason I was pleased to hear from you. Had you not written, I would not have known that my post to the SHOE website had actually been posted since it drew not a single response and google mail doesn’t post returned emails that one has sent out oneself. My campaign to save HET from the historians and philosophers of science seems to fall on deaf ears, but the more I engage in this debate, the most astonished I am at how misconceived their ideas are. Sure certain aspects of HET are HaPoS but that is not anywhere near HET’s core significance. I really do believe that HET has been overrun by philosophers and sociologists who have almost no interest in economic issues other than as a peripheral matter upon which they can contemplate everything else under the sun aside from the way an economy works. I think that because HET in Australia retains its original essence almost entirely, that the shifts that are going on elsewhere were almost invisible to us when they came to try to remove HET from economics which is why we all rose up as one. Now with conferences such as this in Boulogne-sur-Mer, where the central interest is mainly in understanding how economies function but using past economists as a vehicle, there may be a shift back coming into play. My intervention to preserve HET, however much it seems to have been resented by some of our American and European colleagues, was just in time. Had HET gone to HaPoS, it would have died within the decade within departments of economics. It would have become as relevant to economics as the history of physics is to physicists.

Finally, I am going to copy into this email my young colleague from Auchy so he can know what’s going on. I hope you enjoy the conference which I hope will be a great success and please do keep me informed.

Kind regards

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.