For more than three centuries, defenders of people’s freedom and dignity against the oppression of governments have frequently focused on economic depredations. In the 17th century, John Locke decried unjust limits on private property. In the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek attacked the state’s control of the means of production. The Austrian philosopher, who is a kind of patron saint for today’s crusaders against big government, was certain that men could not be free without free markets. He saw socialist economics behind all big governments, which he believed to be universally oppressive.
Why has the recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 been so slow? To answer that question, it helps to reflect on two items in the newly opened Citi Money Gallery at London’s British Museum. The first is a photograph of a two-tonne carved stone which once served as money on the Pacific island of Yap. The second is the exhibit of counterfeit notes and coins.
The headline could have come from a hundred places any time in the last hundred years. “Market has gone wild”, it read. The accompanying news report explains that the price of a crucial financial asset is in “free fall”. Traders and businessmen are calling on the government to step in.
In one corner of the intellectual boxing ring is Stimulo. His fighting words: more economic stimulus. History and theory, he declaims, teach that governments should run much larger fiscal deficits in a downturn. In the other corner is the Cutback Kid, who delivers the opposite message: more austerity. He asserts that history and theory teach that governments should reduce their deficits. The two contestants for the Economic Policy Prize are in the midst of a long fight. Amazingly, they are both losing.
Sometimes big news stories seem unbearably dull. The euro crisis is often presented as an apparently endless stream of technical titbits that only a financial geek could love: alchemical recapitalisations of possibly insolvent banks, and the subtle differences between the European Financial Stability Facility and the European Stability Mechanism. But the mind-numbing details hide an exciting drama about the dysfunctional European family of nations.
Stability has been one of the most elusive economic goods. Despite more than a century of effort, economies remain prone to downturns, which often come after booms that proved unsustainable. Rich countries are currently stuck in one of the down periods, a seemingly endless Lesser Depression.
In the labour market, there is a fine line between inefficiency and wastefulness. “This place is so inefficient,” it is said, often with justification, especially in rich economies. “We could do everything we’re supposed to with a third fewer people.” Factories can be streamlined, high quality new equipment can save on labour, and offices are prone to the incubation of worthless bureaucracy.