Reifying a classification

In my previous post on how useless Keynesian economics is I wrote:

A Keynesian believes that economies are driven from the demand side and that recessions are due to a deficiency of demand. The cure for recessions are therefore increased public spending to increase the level of demand, raise the level of activity and return an economy to full employment. You know, from the equation Y=C+I+G etc, where more G leads to more Y and therefore more jobs. Introduced into economic theory in 1936, there has never been a single occasion when a Keynesian “stimulus” has led to a recovery. Not one, not ever.

The first comment was by 2dogs who wrote:

The problem with this is that it is a logic fallacy known as “reifying a classification”.

Y=C+I+G is merely a classification system, not some empirical result. One can create classifications to divide up the total transactions any number of different ways. The totals resulting are completely arbitrary; none of the classifications so created have a real existence in and of themselves. Suggesting that increasing the size of one classification will increase the overall total is mindless paper shuffling. I could just as easily create a different classification system that demonstrated the need to increase in the amount of money paid to me.

This, let me tell you, was a revelation. I have never heard of this particular form of fallacy nor has anyone ever before brought it to my attention. I often compare, and discuss in my text, the difference between the identity

Y ≡ C + I + G

which is the formula for calculating the National Accounts since it is essentially an accounting measure which is just true by definition, and this:

Y = C + I + G

which is the fundamental equation of modern macro, which says that an increase of any of the elements on the right side, such as an increase in government spending of any kind represented by G will lead to an automatic increase in output, represented by the letter Y. In fact, according to theory, Y will increase even more than whatever G is increased by because of supposed multiplier effects. The difference was highlighted by Duncan in a comment on the original article I cited.

Keynesian economics says that if you borrow $1m to dig a hole and $1m to fill it in you have ‘created’ $2m of ‘production’ and jobs.

In reality you have subtracted $2m from your wealth.

That is exactly right but requires a return to pre-Keynesian kinds of thinking. Why that is not obvious beyond argument I cannot work out. Nevertheless, the argument has now progressed so that even loss-making operations, or even activities that are wholly wasteful, can contribute to growth by adding to the number of jobs. Is it not obvious how stupid this is? No it’s not, and here’s part of the proof: With economic recovery far from assured, the PM’s nerve may be fraying by the ever unreliable Ross Gittens:

The plain truth is that the only way out of deep recessions is for governments to spend their way out….

Recessions always involve the private sector – businesses and households – contracting and the public sector expanding to take up the slack and get things moving again. In our particular circumstances, six years of weak wage growth and record household housing debt means consumers have little scope to start spending big.

This is economically illogical but such arguments are now almost universally held. And he even notices that we have already had six years of weak wages growth following the so-called stimulus packages that followed the GFC. It would never occur to him, nor to the millions of trained economists around the world, that real wages have fallen not in spite of the stimulus spending but because of them.

Would the real anti-Keynesian economist please stand up

Classical Economic Theory and the Modern Economy

Here there are two anti-Keynesians in Australia and we both disagree with each other. The headline in the paper was kind of all right – It’s Keynes’s fault – again we go into debt to ‘stimulate’ the economy – but so incoherent was this as an anti-Keynesian rant that it has left me completely nonplussed (defined as: “so surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react”).

A Keynesian believes that economies are driven from the demand side and that recessions are due to a deficiency of demand. The cure for recessions are therefore increased public spending to increase the level of demand, raise the level of activity and return an economy to full employment. You know, from the equation Y=C+I+G etc, where more G leads to more Y and therefore more jobs. Introduced into economic theory in 1936, there has never been a single occasion when a Keynesian “stimulus” has led to a recovery. Not one, not ever.

I should also add that Keynes, in writing his General Theory, made a point about his rejecting this concept called “Say’s Law”. Mere detail to others who enter these discussions. And while I sort of agree with the conclusion, I am completely foxed by how it was arrived at:

Cutting government spending should take precedence over raising taxes. Reduced public spending, particularly on industry assistance and overlap in spending at federal-state levels, should be central to the recovery program.

This should be accompanied by tax reform (including to internationally uncompetitive company tax rates), business deregulation and industrial relations reform. Without this, our economy will remain in limp convalescence for decades.

That raising taxes is even an option is beyond me, but as for cutting public spending I am all in. But unless you understand the reasoning behind the pre-Keynesian position and Say’s Law, you won’t understand what needs to be done, and especially why it needs to be done. Everyone seems to be in for “infrastructure spending” but if we haven’t learned from the NBN, there is no hope for any of us.

Which reminds me that my latest book – Classical Economic Theory and the Modern Economy – is being released just this month.

Economic theory reached its zenith of analytical power and depth of understanding in the middle of the nineteenth century among John Stuart Mill and his contemporaries. This book explains what took place in the ensuing Marginal Revolution and Keynesian Revolution that left economists less able to understand how economies operate. It explores the false mythology that has obscured the arguments of classical economists, providing a pathway into the theory they developed.

I read other economists today and laugh since what else is there to do? Real wages have been falling across the world – other than in the US and then only until recently – since the stimulus programs that followed the GFC. If you want to know why, you could always buy the book, or at least get your library to order it in.

The illegitimate spawn of a relic from the Great Depression

From Judy yesterday: A Keynesian solution even Keynes would have tossed. A program Keynes came up with during the Great Depression when unemployment was 25% is still being applied by moron economists 80+ years later who are ruining our economies while rewarding their friends. Crony capitalism is the illegitimate spawn of a depression level theory, that was useless even back then. She begins:

I thought active demand management or fine-tuning the economy had gone out with the ark — or, to be more precise, in the 1970s. Stagflation — high rates of unemployment and inflation — put paid to that party trick.

Of course, the idea of central authorities or governments controlling the pace and nature of economic growth was preposterous. Mind you, you could understand the reasons for this naive belief, particularly among those affected by the hardships associated with the 30s Depression.

Now the only people who come out ahead are millionaire recipients of the money paid out for the various projects governments come up with. Judy again:

And let’s not forget the waste in so much government spending. Can anyone forget the fiasco of the pink batts scheme: four deaths, and hundreds of millions of dollars to remediate the problems? Or what about the school halls program where the cost of building the new structures was at least 20 per cent greater than the efficient price?

Value for money from government! The idea is as nonsensical as it gets.

I also liked this from David in the comments, of which everything he says is true:

I’m not expert but it is one of the great ironies of world economics to me that the 1980’s were spent identifying inflation as the enemy of the economy and taking all measures possible to lower it and now the world experts want inflation back and can’t get it. What is more when it was at its highest most governments quietly changed the method of measuring inflation so now we have the position where officialdom says inflation is low but we in the streets who go to buy anything know how prices have risen considerably if not dramatically in many areas. But they are doing so without increase in real production the secret to any good economy.

I will finish off with a bit more from Judy:

Then there are the many ill-­educated media commentators and finance sector “economists” who dismiss concerns about ongoing budget deficits and rising government debt. The government must take action, according to this tribe. Clearly, they never understood anything beyond Macroeconomics 101.

And for myself, it would make hardly any difference had they gone on to graduate school since almost everything now taught in an economics course is valueless bilge.

A classic case of economic ignorance

I am in the midst of finishing off a book on classical economic theory from which, and only from which, you can discover just how fatal to economic health modern economic theory is. The Australian economy is not far from disaster, real growth is falling as are real wages. But this we find at the top of the front page of The Oz.


Here are the opening paras.

Surging federal and state government spending has insulated the economy from a dramatic plunge in growth, as business investment and household spending shrank, raising questions about the health of the economy.

The latest national accounts show annual economic growth fell to 1.4 per cent — the slowest since 2009 — as rapid increases in public spending and global demand for the nation’s coal, LNG and iron ore papered over weak or falling household spending and business investment.

That it is the public spending that is taking the economy to death’s door occurs to no one. Let me therefore take you to a bit from the introduction to my forthcoming book.

The chapter goes to some length in discussing the advent of Keynesian theory, which was summarised by Paul Krugman in his introduction to The General Theory which was published in 2006, seventy years after Keynes’s original publication in 1936.

“Stripped down, the conclusions of The General Theory might be expressed as four bullet points:

1. Economies can and often do suffer from an overall lack of demand, which leads to involuntary unemployment
2. The economy’s automatic tendency to correct shortfalls in demand, if it exists at all, operates slowly and painfully
3. Government policies to increase demand, by contrast, can reduce unemployment quickly
4. Sometimes increasing the money supply won’t be enough to persuade the private sector to spend more, and government spending must step into the breach.

“To a modern practitioner of economic policy, none of this – except, possibly, the last point – sounds startling or even especially controversial. But these ideas weren’t just radical when Keynes proposed them; they were very nearly unthinkable. And the great achievement of The General Theory was precisely to make them thinkable.”

There is no question that Keynes did indeed make each of these more than just thinkable. He was able to turn these propositions into the mainstream where they have been accepted by virtually every economist ever since. It is classical economic theory that has now become unthinkable. The result of the Keynesian Revolution has left things so that the classical alternative is not just no longer contemplated by anyone within the mainstream of economic theory, but that no one within the mainstream even knows what that alternative is.

I stumbled onto classical theory by accident but it has been so accurate in allowing me to understand what’s going on that I can never understand why others don’t sicken of this Keynesian trash. It has never ever in a single instance brought an economy from recession into recovery. It’s all set out in my Free Market Economics. How we ended up in this dismal place we are now in is what my next book will go into chapter and verse.

How Keynesian economics came to dominate told by Keynesians

The papers from the History of Economics section at the US Conference of Economists during the session on “Keynesianism: Its Rise, Fall, and Transformation in Europe and North America”. So long as Y=C+I+G is central to how macro is taught at all levels of study, the notion that there has been any kind of a fall is ludicrous. No economists taught Keynesian macro ever finds their way to understanding how an economy actually works. These were the papers presented.

Keynesianism in France

Goulven Rubin

University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne


According to Pierre Rosanvallon (1987), Keynesianism arrived very late in France but its triumph was complete. It offered a common language to a very large group of senior officers and engineers working in public administration and nationalized firms. It reconciled the French tradition of Colbertism with the necessity of a modern State. Richard Arena (2000) insists also on the fact that Keynesian ideas spread in a hostile context and initially outside universities and academia where typically French economic traditions dominated. The situation in universities started to change in the 1970s and 1980s when curricula in French universities began to incorporate macroeconomic courses based on IS-LM and with the development of disequilibrium economics. The paper retraces the unfolding of this historical process and insists on the variety of heterodox interpretations of Keynes that flourished in the French context like the works of Bernard Schmitt and the circuitists.

Keynesianism in Germany

Harald Hagemann
University of Hohenheim


Keynes had been a central point of reference in debates on economic theory and policy in Germany ever since his Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), as, e.g., in the controversial debates on the wage-employment relationship at the end of the Weimar Republic. No wonder that the first foreign-language translation of the General Theory was published in German. With the great resonance Keynes had in Germany in the interwar period it is no surprise that from the early 1950s onwards neoclassical synthesis Keynesianism became the dominant approach at West German universities. More astonishing is the fact that with Erich Schneider at Kiel, a former student of Schumpeter played a key role in this process. In economic policy, however, Keynesianism gained a rather late entry in the recession of 1967 and only lasted until 1974-75.

Keynesianism in Canada

Robert W. Dimand
Brock University


Canada was one of the first countries to commit to a Keynesian goal of maintaining high and steady levels of employment after World War II with the 1945 White Paper. Keynes’s former students A. F. Wynne Plumptre and Robert Bryce were prominent in the Federal Government, notably the Department of Finance, in the quarter century after the war, but others, notably Mabel Timlin, author of Keynesian Economics (1942), also helped spread Keynesian ideas among Canadian economists. William A. Mackintosh, both as an academic and a wartime temporary civil servant, was a central figure, drafting the 1945 White Paper and seconding Keynes’s motion to accept the final act of the Bretton Woods conference. Bank of Canada Governor Gerald Bouey’s 1975 embrace of monetary aggregate targeting signaled the decline of Keynesian influence on Canadian public policy.

Keynesianism in the United States

Mathew Forstater
University of Missouri-Kansas City


Two issues are at the heart of Keynesian economics in the United States, one theoretical and the other practical. The theoretical issue regards whether Keynes’s demonstration in the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that there can be involuntary unemployment in macroeconomic equilibrium requires an assumption that wages, prices and/or interest rates are “sticky” (inflexible) downward, or some other market imperfection. The practical issue is related to the theoretical one. Keynesians have tended to be pragmatic when it comes to economic policy, preferring to use fiscal and monetary policies to pursue macro goals of full employment, price stability, and stable economic growth rather than focusing on efforts to remove the imperfections, which would permit market forces to work out the short-term Keynesian troubles. The most recent mainstream incarnation, so-called “New Keynesian” economics, has all but abandoned the important remaining economic and political legacies of the tradition.

No such thing as “the level of demand” at an aggregate level

Through the whole of the Costello years as Treasurer, I would say that everyone would live through these exceptionally good economic times, but no one would learn a thing. And it’s not just that we had balanced budgets, but had ZERO DEBT. Only country ever to do this and we floated on air. So then we elected Labor and then we had the GFC, and then we had the advice from Treasury to go early and go hard, and so here we are today, in a crumbling economy with living standards heading south. Which is a preamble to this: Peter Costello and later treasurers right to stress benefit of surpluses. Not so sure about those later treasurers, but Peter was the legitimate article, Australia’s greatest Treasurer.

In his book on Australian treasurers, Bowen describes Costello as the country’s first post-Keynesian treasurer, rejecting the idea that taxes and spending should be used to manage the level of demand in the economy, with that task left to the Reserve Bank. The pursuit of a budget surplus was seen as evidence of good economic management and became an end in itself. Costello was able to distil his political message into a simple message: “Surpluses are good and Liberals deliver surpluses,” Bowen writes.

Half way there. There is no such thing as “the level of demand” at an aggregate level. You cannot manage it. You cannot cause it to go up and down. Aggregate demand has no separate existence apart from aggregate supply. It is Keynesian junk theory whether it is spending or adjusting rates. It will not work and never has, ever. Modern macro is false from end to end. As John Stuart Mill put it, and found in my Free Market Economics where it is explained at great length: “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. That was written 170 years ago. The idea that there is progress in economic theory is just plain wrong.

PLUS THIS: From Max in the comments:

“Austrian theorist Henry Hazlitt argued that aggregate demand is ‘a meaningless concept’ in economic analysis. Friedrich Hayek , another Austrian, wrote that Keynes’ study of the aggregate relations in an economy is ‘fallacious’, arguing that recessions are caused by micro-economic factors.”

“The Keynesian is a collectivist methodologically. He looks at aggregates. He recommends government programs that affect aggregates.”

“Keynes argued, and his disciples still argue, that the cause of unemployment is insufficient aggregate demand. This is another way of saying that the cause of unemployment is excessive aggregate supply. The fact that Keynesians never put it this way does not affect the analytical truth of the argument.”

Absolutely dead on. Is this the source: Illegal Aliens and Unemployment: Causes and Effects by Gary North?

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.

Keynes vs the classics

A reminder that there will be a debate – more I suspect sequential talking points – between Alan Oster, the NAB’s Chief Economist, and myself on “Stimulus versus Austerity”. This is taking place on Wednesday August 19 @ 5:30 pm at the Imperial Hotel on the corner of Spring and Bourke Streets in Melbourne. If you are interested in coming, email to let him know.

Of course, the reason I’m coming along is because I cannot actually think of how to defend the stimulus at this late stage. Back in 2008-09, even though a Keynesian stimulus had never worked anywhere else, not ever, we might have ended up lucky this time. It’s in all the texts, everyone learns Y=C+I+G, so how could every single economics text in the world have been wrong? But that was then. So I have been tossing around various thoughts on what Alan might say, what I might try to argue if I were defending the stimulus. This is kind of a Paul Krugman/Ken Henry version of all the lame things that might be part of such an argument. And I emphasise, the bailing out of financial institutions is not on the table. The financial crisis was over by May 2009. I am only interested in the public spending side of it. Here are my thoughts:

1) The stimulus worked a treat – we would have been back in the Great Depression if nothing had been done. As dismal as things seem, it is a better outcome than the alternative would have been had nothing at all been done.

2) The imperative was to use up those unused savings. No one was investing. The bottom was falling out of our economies. Savings were going to waste. This is still a problem as can be seen from all those unused bank accounts. People still aren’t spending so the government must do it for us.*

3) The theory was all right but the execution was badly done. A stimulus could have worked but the money was poured into the wrong kinds of activities.

4) We didn’t spend enough. A half-hearted stimulus would not only fail to solve the problem but would discredit the very idea of a stimulus.

5) The problems run even deeper than we originally thought. We are into a secular stagnation, not just a temporary fall off in demand.

6) Let me show you the stats to prove how fantastic things turned out relative to our forecasts at the time.

7) Fiscal policy might have been relatively weak but monetary policy has made a major difference by keeping rates low and encouraging investment.

Have I left anything out? Anyway, come along on Wednesday. For my part, I am going to present a short version of my Liberty Fund postings on “Reassessing the Political Economy of John Stuart Mill”, that is, real classical economics versus Keynesian inanities. We each get twenty minutes and then it is thrown open to the floor. And being Policy in the Pub, there is alcohol as well if that’s your sort of thing.

* Just today, in the AFR, Saul Eslake was arguing more spending is needed to put “idle” capital and labour back to work.

More on Say’s Law and Austrian economics

The conversation on Say’s Law continues at The Coordination Problem website. These were posted following my own post yesterday. Neither of the posts are anything other than assertions with no actual text references, but they do raise issues that are raised all the time. But the second, from Barkley Rosser, gets into the issues that truly matter.

Actually, Hayek viewed Say’s Law as an equilibrium concept. He argued it did not hold in a monetary economy because money allows there to be demand without supply. One could say the denial of Say’s Law in a monetary economy undergirds Hayek’s monetary theory of economic fluctuations.

It is not clear that the Law originated with Say. It already appears in the Wealth of Nations.

Then there is the question of whether Say changed his mind. In the fifth edition of the Treatise, never translated, Thomas Sowell argues that Say changed his mind about the Law.

Finally, Mill’s Fourth Fundamental Proposition Respecting Capital is at the heart of Hayek’s cycle theory. Hayek clarifies that in an Appendix to The Pure Theory of Capital. And I analyzed its relevance in Economics as a Coordination Problem. It is not a forgotten concept.

Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 18, 2015 at 02:43 PM

The quote that Kates provides from Mises is peculiar. It is clearly a criticism of Keynes, but aside from declaring that Keynes failed to disprove Say’s Law, he really provides no defense of it or how it fits into Austrian economics.

I am interested to see that Steve Horwitz basically that the main Austrians said very little about it, and one has to go such figures as Hutt to find much, with followups by Steve himself and some others.

I think Jerry is right that Hayek probably did not accept it in a monetary economy.

Mill took it very seriously and spent much time talking about it and relying on it in his arguments.

Regarding Say himself, he may have changed his mind on it, but from the very beginning he always recognized that it did not universally hold and gave various examples of how and when it might not hold, most of these involving people hoarding money for some reason or other, such as in the Ottoman Empire not to have to spend more on taxes if one engaged in conspicuous consumption, although one can find numerous quotes from him in various places where he certainly states some version of it. As it is, I think it was James Mill who coined the term and promoted it in the English literature, thus making it not too surprising that his son would also be an advocate of it, although I may be mistaken on this last point (and I accept that versions of it may well have been around earlier).

Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 18, 2015 at 05:31 PM

Understanding Say’s Law may be as difficult an issue as it is possible to find in a world where every economist is taught Keynesian aggregate demand as their first approach to thinking about the nature of recession. Say’s Law is the essence of supply side economics. At the aggregate level, demand has absolutely no role to play. What demand there is originates with supply and can come from no other source. Public spending unbacked by real production is no more a stimulus than the printing of counterfeit money. I have therefore put up the following post:

The fact that this fundamental principle of pre-Keynesian economic theory is named “Say’s” Law has been one of the more damaging aspects of both the history of economics and of economic theory itself. Here is something to contemplate about the true origins of the Keynesian Revolution. The term “Say’s Law” was invented by Fred Manville Taylor and entered into common usage on the American side of the Atlantic in the 1920’s with the publication of Taylor’s Principles of Economics. How, it may be asked, did the term get into The General Theory? Say himself never understood Say’s Law properly. If you do want to understand it properly you need to go to John Stuart Mill and those among the classical school who followed after. J.E. Cairnes is the most accessible source.

Say’s Law states that you can never make an economy grow from the demand side. Mill’s version is a direct refutation of Keynesian economics: “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. Mill and the classics said you could not make an economy grow by increased expenditure; Keynes said you could. All modern macro continues to argue that it can be done and is to that extent entirely Keynesian. That there is no real world evidence that increases in aggregate demand lead to increases in output and employment confirms in every instance a stimulus has been applied that Say’s Law is valid. If you would like to see my explanation in short form, you have my articles at the Liberty Fund to go to. If you would like to see the longer and more extended version, you could try the second edition of my Free Market Economics. I will just leave you with Ricardo’s reply to Malthus in the midst of the general glut debate (the first attempt to introduce “Keynesian” economics during the 1820s): “men err in their productions, there is no deficiency of demand”. This is the classical and Austrian theory of recession. There has been a disorganisation of markets that has led to recession and unemployment (that is, men have erred in their productions). The problem is not over-saving and a lack of aggregate demand.

Will anyone get it? It is such a frustration.

Criticising Keynes

People worry about many aspects of the economy, and about their future security and income, but there is hardly enough worrying going on specifically about Keynesian economics, today’s mainstream version of what used to be the theory of the cycle. Keynesian theory has done an immense amount to undermine our potential for growth, and has made billions of people around the world insecure about the future, ironically based on the promise of higher incomes and greater security if one merely follows the prescriptions laid out by “Keynes”. The number of versions of “Keynes” there are is, of course, approximately equal to the number of Keynesians there are, but that’s another matter.

As it happens, I am at the final turn in producing what will be a two-volume, 1600-page collection on the critics of Keynes. The collection is complete, in that I am unlikely to add any additional articles. There is therefore only the introduction to write, which I have set aside the next three months to complete. Sometime thereafter, in 2015, the two volumes will be published. I cannot guess how many people will seek to read it, but the one criterion I laid down was that each article had to be accessible. The number of books on how wonderful Keynesian theory is remains amazing to me, and they keep pouring off the shelves. Even this year, there have been yet more of the same, when you would have thought Keynesian economics would be in deep retreat. It is a phenomenon.

My latest venture into dealing with Keynesian economics came from this query by Andysaurus: “This article which argues that governments have bottomless purses seems unlikely to me. Do you have anything with which I may refute it please? Thanks.”

The article was at The Conversation, and although my first instincts was merely to reply in-house, having written what I did I sent it off to The Conversation, which from the note I received, is apparently closed to new articles on economics until January 5 next year. So I sent it off to Quadrant Online instead, where it is now posted under the title, Seduced by Keynes’ Sweet ‘Nothings’. Why “sweet ‘nothings'” you may ask? Here is what I think of as the central para in the article I was replying to:

“Times like these represent opportunities for the government to finance productivity improving infrastructure and provide much needed services for nothing. I know it sounds too good to be true but this is the reality of a fiscally sovereign government.” (author’s emphasis)

It sounds too good to be true because it is. Here is part of the answer I wrote but I know that for a Keynesian this is the kind of thing that just pings off their armour, an attitude reinforced with virtually every macro text published today.

The belief that a government has any idea where value-adding activities can be found is one of the dopiest notions ever concocted. Governments can certainly spend the money they create, and some of what they do is value adding, but hardly everything. To believe that what governments produce automatically has greater value than the resources they use up is so nonsensical it is hard to believe any economist would ever peddle such a notion.

Take our own Rudd-Gillard stimulus. The two major projects were pink batts and school halls. Ask me if we are better off with more and better insulated houses and a better school infrastucture, I am happy to say that, all things being equal, we are. But if you ask me whether we have seen a return of more than $43 billion on our outlay – the approximate price tag of this spending – then the answer is that we have not had anything like that amount of benefit.

You may delude yourself from now until the end of time that these benefits were provided “for nothing”, but have you not seen our own reality: the dollar is falling, our standard of living is being dragged down, unemployment is on the rise. Ah, but where is that inflation? For most, real incomes are not rising, so however small the official inflation rate may be, it is plenty high enough to erode our ability to demand. Have you tried to buy a house lately, to cite but one example?

Keynesian economics has a lot to answer for. When I think of how sensationally prosperous we could all be, each and every one of us, had governments not seen it as their role to divert trillions into useless projects of their own choosing, it does make me despair. Not all government spending is useless, of course, but there are only so many roads and schools you can build, and almost every government project comes in over-budget and under-delivered. Anyway, the next three months will be devoted to thinking these issues through as my own small contribution to a better world.

Let me therefore end with a quote from Henry Hazlitt, my predecessor in putting together a collection of criticisms of Keynesian economics back in 1960. The following was written in 1984 when he was over ninety:

At this point I hear someone say: “Why are you still whipping a dead horse? The criticism of the last quarter-century has done its work. Keynesianism has already been discredited in the minds of economists.”

Of most professional economists, perhaps. But it is still the prescription of the great majority of politicians, and is at least still acquiesced in by the majority of voters. The undiminished prevalence of punitive graduated income taxes, the steady increase of other redistributive measures, the persistence of government monetary authorities in trying to hold down interest rates, and the endless and mounting budget deficits of the last half-century–these are Keynesianism rampant.

Keynesian economics is more rampant than ever, in spite of everything that has happened since.

OTHER LISTS: This is a list on critics of Keynes put together by Tom Woods that has been forwarded to me. If you see how thin this list is, you can see more clearly how hard such books and papers are to find.

Critiques of Keynes: Here’s a List

5th March 2012Tom Woods14 COMMENTS

A reader wrote to ask what he could read that challenged Keynes and his system. On a popular level, there’s Hunter Lewis’ book Where Keynes Went Wrong. Henry Hazlitt’s book The Failure of the “New Economics”: An Analysis of the Keynesian Fallacies goes through and critiques the General Theory line by line. It’s a valuable book and a great achievement, but my own opinion is that it gets so caught up in line-by-line minutiae that the reader never really gets the big-picture critique. Mark Skousen edited a good collection of essays called Dissent on Keynes: A Critical Appraisal of Keynesian Economics, which you can read for free online.

Murray Rothbard wrote the lengthy memo “Spotlight on Keynesian Economics” when he was only 21. Also worth reading are Robert P. Murphy’s “The Critical Flaw in Keynes’s System” and George Reisman’s “Standing Keynesianism on Its Head.”

The only one on the list that I think of serious use was Mark Skousen’s Dissent on Keynes. I may have gone through a thousand articles and book on the way to my PhD but that was far and away my favourite. It exactly captured what I thought myself and I kept his book on hand and out of the library for a year after the thesis was done, with the intention of writing to him to tell him how much I admired what he had written. In the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I gave the book back to the library. And on the very next morning, there were, like an apparition, two emails to me from Mark Skousen, who was then writing his history of economic text and had run across my Say’s Law and the Keynesian Revolution, the title I gave my thesis when it was published by Elgar. Mark had read it, and wrote to me to say what I had wanted to say to him. It remains the single most mystical experience of my life.