by Mario Rizzo
Although by the standards of contemporary economics, I am a historian of economic thought, I am not a historian of economic thought, properly considered. Thus my major interest in F.A. Hayek’s business cycle theory is not from the point of view of a historian. My interest is only incidentally in how Hayek’s contributions were perceived in the 1930s and 1940s, especially in light of John Maynard Keynes’s Treatise on Money and General Theory.
I am interested in Hayek’s business cycle theory because I believe it has much to teach us today – both in the style of reasoning it embodies and for its substantive points. Of course this is not to say that Hayek’s approach cannot be improved upon and revised in light of more recent theoretical and empirical developments.
But now comes Paul Krugman with his sometimes-echo Brad Delong (or is it vice versa?). Krugman thinks that Hayek was not an important “macro” economist; certainly not the rival or alternative to Keynes, either in the 1930s or today. In fact, Hayek embarrassed himself with his cycle and capital theory. Hayek’s brilliance as a monetary theorist (aka “macroeconomist”) is a figment of the political imaginations of those who love him for his “political” book, The Road to Serfdom.
Until just a little while ago, I thought it best to ignore the latest Krugmanic outburst, especially since there are excellent posts at Marginal Revolution and Café Hayek, just to mention two. And yet the recent obsession Krugman has with Hayek (and lately the obsession DeLong has with Mises) means that some nerve has been touched. Of course, it might simply be that Krugman needs material for his blogs and columns.
However, I think the real issue is this. Hayek’s approach attacks, root-and-branch, the macroeconomic way of thinking. It is not simply a challenge to a particular theory of the determinants of mass unemployment, inflation, business cycles and the like. Hayek is not accepting the rules of the game or the parameters of the sub-discipline of modern macroeconomics. Hayek does not want to argue that the government expenditure multiplier is 0.5 instead of 2.0, for example. He does not want to discuss just how much fiscal stimulus should be undertaken and what form it should assume.
In short, he does not want to focus on aggregate spending and aggregate consequences. Hayek’s approach says: Let us pierce the veil of aggregates and look at the distortive effects on relative prices and relative output produced by boom-time credit expansions. Let us look at the distortive effects that booms leave us as we work our way through a recession. Let us concentrate on sustainable lines of expenditure both during the boom and during the road out from the bust.
Suffice it to say this greatly erodes the intellectual capital of a field of economics – although one not noted for its successes. It mocks the claim that Keynes was a true revolutionary in economic thought. It opens the possibility that he was muddled, inconsistent and unaware of the contributions to monetary and business cycle theory made by the “classical economists” on the eve of the General Theory.
It also opens the possibility that Keynes’s economics was catapulted into prominence not so much by its technical or scientific excellence but the compatibility of its policy nostrums with the temper of the times.
From the perspective of scientific frameworks, the debate is really between Hayek and Keynes – the traditional project of economic theory versus the obscurantist veil of macroeconomics. Hayek and his business cycle theory did not appear out of the blue.
Hayek is in a long classical tradition that eschewed focus on surface macro aggregates and understood business cycles as first and foremost crises of production disproportionality and only secondarily (and not always) problems of excess demand to hold money. This John Stuart Mill argued as early as the 1820s. (The economist Steve Kates traces the century-long history of classical business cycle theories in his book Say’s Law and the Keynesian Revolution and in some journal articles as well as other books.)
This is what the conflict is all about and this is what Krugman and DeLong cannot abide. Politics is just an excuse for bad behavior.