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Over at Equitable Growth: The Failure of Demand Management Policy since 2007...: Evening Comment

Another Note on Mont Pelerin: Thinking Some More About Bob Solow's View...: Friday Focus for August 15, 2014

So, as I said, just as I finish writing up my virtual office-hour thoughts on a framework for organizing one's thoughts on Friedrich A. von Hayek and twentieth century political economy, along comes the esteemed Lars P. Syll with a link to an excellent piece I had never read on the same thing by Equitable Growth's Fearless Leader Bob Solow.

It has been my experience that disagrees with Bob Solow at one's peril: not only has he already thought about and found reasons to object to your objection, but if you go further and find a reason to object his objection of your objection, he has already thought of a very good objection to that as well.

Nevertheless...

Solow sees a good, technocratic, information-theory focused economist Hayek, and a bad political pamphleteer Hayek. Solow sees the real Hayek as being the Good Hayek. He sees the Good Hayek as more moderate than Milton Friedman--committed to some level of professional technocratic economics guiding a social-insurance state providing basic incomes, implementing Pigovian taxes, enforcing standards and quality, and aggressively breaking-up monopolies. It is, Solow thinks, the Bad Hayek who is the problem. And the Bad Hayek is not the real Hayek, for the real Hayek had "not meant to provide a manifesto for the far right..."

I, by contrast, see not two but three Hayeks: the good Hayek, a bad macroeconomic business-cycle Hayek, and a profoundly problematic political-economy Hayek.

The Good Hayek was, I think, very very good--much better than Solow allows. Papers in mechanism design and information theory written forty and fifty years later are footnotes (often unacknowledged footnotes) to the Good Hayek.

The Bad Hayek was, I think, very very bad. To claim that the market economy exhibited large business-cycle fluctuations only because of policy errors produced by the existence of central banks (and, sometimes, because the potential availability of a lender of last resort allowed private bankers to engage in fractional-reserve banking) was just batty: contrary to all sound theory and all empirical evidence. Only an astonishing imperviousness to both thinking deeply and looking at the world could allow clinging to such a dead-ender position. Yet Hayek did. And his epigones do.

The Political Economy Hayek is, as I said, highly problematic. First of all, there is the dodging and weaving. Here is Hayek writing to Paul Samuelson:

I am afraid and glancing through the eleventh edition of your Economics I seem to have discovered the source of the false allegation about my book The Road to Serfdom which I constantly encounter, most resent, and can only regard as a malicious distortion.... You assert that I contend that 'each step away from the market system towards the social reform of the welfare state is inevitably a journey that must end in the totalitarian state' and that 'government modification of market laissez-faire must lead inevitably to political serfdom'.... How anyone who can just read my book in good faith can say this when ever since the first edition I say right at the beginning... 'Nor am I arguing that these developments are inevitable. If they were, there would be no point in writing this. They can be prevented if people realize in time where their efforts may lead...'

And here is Hayek writing a new forward for The Road to Serfdom in the mid-1950s:

Six years of socialist [i.e., Labour Party] government in England have not produced anything resembling a totalitarian state. But those who argue that this has disproved the thesis of The Road to Serfdom have really missed... that the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change... necessarily a slow affair... not over a few years but perhaps over one or two generations.... The change undergone by the character of the British people... can hardly be mistaken... Is it too pessimistic to fear that a generation grown up under these conditions is unlikely to throw off the fetters to which it has grown used? Or does this description not rather fully bear out De Tocqueville’s prediction of the 'new kind of servitude'?... I have never accused the socialist parties of deliberately aiming at a totalitarian regime.... What the British experience convinces me... is that the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand... (I)

But we also have:

The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born... (II)

Yet, in 1956:

The most serious development is the growth of a measure of arbitrary administrative coercion and the progressive destruction of the cherished foundation of British liberty, the Rule of Law.... [E]conomic planning under the Labour government [has] carried it to a point which makes it doubtful whether it can be said that the Rule of Law still prevails in Britain... (III)

And, as Paul Samuelson wrote:

The Hayek I met on various occasions--at the LSE, at the University of Chicago, in Stockholm (1945), at Lake Constance-Lindau Nobel summer conferences--definitely bemoaned progressive income taxation, state-provided medical care and retirement pensions, fiat currencies remote from gold and subject to discretionary policy decisions by central bank and treasury agents.... This [is] what constitutes his predicted serfdoms... (IV)

To say the least, there is a difficulty in figuring out what the Political Economy Hayek believed. Solow takes the real Hayek to be (II) and regards (I), (III), and (IV) as line wobbles from the Bad Hayek that he, Solow, will overlook. But the Bad Hayek is not just "in the text": the Bad Hayek seems to me to be well-nigh omnipresent except when Hayek is playing the injured party in front of a social-democratic audience. I think you are more likely to find the Real Hayek in the "shut up and be glad you were born" passage in The Mirage of Social Justice:

While in a market order it may be a misfortune to have been born and bred in a village where... the only chance of making a living is fishing... it does not make sense to describe this as unjust. Who is supposed to have been unjust?--especially... if these local opportunities had not existed, the people in question would probably never have been born at all... [for lack of] the opportunities which enabled their ancestors to produce and rear children... (V)

And that in fact those who do not shut up and be grateful are guilty of moral fault, as in The Political Order of a Free People:

By the slogan... 'it is not your fault'... the demagoguery of unlimited democracy, assisted by a scientistic psychology, has come to the support of those who claim a share in the wealth of our society without submitting to the discipline to which it is due. It is not by conceding 'a right to equal concern and respect’ to those who break the code that civilization is maintained... (VI)

And then there is the (missing) letter from Hayek to Thatcher, apparently urging that Thatcher go all Pinochet-medieval on Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill, that elicited this reply:

The progression from Allende's Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons. However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times the process may seem painfully slow. But I am certain we shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time. Then they will endure. (VII)

Why, then, do I call the Political Economy Hayek just "problematic" and not "evil"? Because I think there are some passages of great value in The Constitution of Liberty and in the three-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty. But it is, I think, important not to pretend that the Bad Hayek elements were some kind of anomaly

While Solow is much easier on Hayek than I would be, he is much harder on Milton Friedman. For Solow, it is Milton Friedman who is the real Mephistopheles here. It is Friedman who over and over again would frame the issues as freedom vs. socialism, when actually the issue is "which of the defects of a 'free', unregulated economy should be repaired by regulation, subsidization, or taxation? Which... tolerated... because the best available fix would have even more costly side-effects?" It was Friedman whose "rhetoric... irrelevant or, worse, misleading, or, even worse, intentionally misleading... made... [the] policy discussion more difficult to have... [and] did the market economy a disservice."

I disagree: I see Friedman and Hayek as being equally willing to call social democracy "socialism", and equally likely to see it as corrosive of individual freedom.

But I see Friedman as being much more moderate than Hayek--not just in terms of being a true social and personal libertarian, not just in having a more sophisticated view of social insurance, but also having both a belief in democracy and education as well as a willingness to (sometimes) mark his beliefs to market that Hayek definitely lacked. When stabilizing the growth of the money supply did not produce the smooth aggregate demand path that Friedman had expected, he changed his mind--and became a big advocate of quantitative easing...

The key paragraphs from Solow:

Robert Solow (2012): Hayek, Friedman, and the Illusions of Conservative Economics: "A Review of Angus Burgin...

...The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression.... There was a Good Hayek and a Bad Hayek. The Good Hayek was a serious scholar who was particularly interested in the role of knowledge... [but] also knew that unrestricted laissez-faire is unworkable... monopoly power... better-informed actors can exploit the relatively ignorant... distribution of income... grossly unequal and... unfair... unemployment and underutilized capacity... environmental damage... the Good Hayek’s attempts to formulate and to propagate a modified version of laissez-faire that would work better....

The Bad Hayek.... The Road to Serfdom was a popular success but was not a good book.... Hayek’s implicit prediction is a failure.... The source of their alarm was not the danger from Soviet communism or Nazi Germany, but rather the... New Deal here and the Labor Party there... ameliorat[ing] and... revers[ing] the ravages of falling incomes and rising unemployment.... Lionel Robbins... Friedrich von Hayek... Frank Knight... Jacob Viner... Henry Simons.... What seems off-key (at least now, at least to me) is that they all felt themselves to be in a struggle between free markets and collectivism (or socialism) with no possible intermediate stopping point....

This apocalyptic tone survived into the period dominated by Milton Friedman... the language of the Tea Party Hayekians.... In 2004, Friedman told The Wall Street Journal that, although the battle of ideas had been won, 'currently, opinion is free market while practice is heavily socialist'. The point to keep in mind is that 'socialist practice' includes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the certification of doctors, and the public schools.... Of course for those of us trying to live on this planet, the issue is... between an extreme version of free markets and effective regulation of the shadow banking system, or between an extreme version of free markets and the level and progressivity of the personal income tax....

THE GOOD HAYEK... had not meant to provide a manifesto for the far right.... There is no reason to doubt Hayek’s sincerity in this (although the Bad Hayek occasionally made other appearances)... [that] Knight and moderates such as Viner thought that he had overreached suggests that the Bad Hayek really was there in the text....

In the spring of 1947, with a grant from the Volker Fund of Kansas City, who were the Koch Brothers of their time, Hayek was able to bring together... thirty-nine colleagues... the Mont Pèlerin Society... [which] Burgin... endows... with more significance than it ever really had.... They... could not agree on... the permissible, indeed the desirable, deviations from laissez-faire?... Good answers are available, and many of them involve government intervention.... The inability to agree about this sort of thing, or even to face up to it, seems to have dogged the MPS.... Maybe the main function of the MPS was to maintain the morale of the free-market fellowship....

Leadership... passed... to Milton Friedman... different in style and, to some extent, even in ideology.... As his ideas and his career evolved... he moved in a different, almost opposite, direction, toward a cruder government-can-do-no-right position, certainly not given to ethical worries or even to economic-theoretical fine points.... Under Milton Friedman’s influence, the free-market ideology shifted toward unmitigated laissez-faire. Whereas earlier advocates had worried about the stringent conditions that were needed for unregulated markets to work their magic, Friedman was the master of clever (sometimes too clever) arguments to the effect that those conditions were not really needed, or that they were actually met in real-world markets despite what looked a lot like evidence to the contrary. He was a natural-born debater: single-minded, earnestly persuasive, ingenious, and relentless....

Friedman’s... most important work... consumer expenditure... important and useful... anticipated in much less satisfactory form by James Duesenberry, and Franco Modigliani developed a similar and in some ways more satisfactory theory.... But monetarism... has not proved to be tenable analytically or empirically. His Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960 (written with the late Anna Schwartz), while highly interesting, is not a towering intellectual achievement.

Burgin... attaches a lot of importance to the respectability conferred on the political right by the ideas of Hayek, Friedman, and the others.... I would not disagree, but... Thatcher profited from an ill-judged miners’ strike and, as Lyndon Johnson famously remarked, the passage of the Civil Rights Act lost the Solid South for the Democratic Party for at least a generation.

For a serious modern reader, the rhetoric is irrelevant or, worse, misleading, or, even worse, intentionally misleading.... The real issues are pragmatic. Which of the defects of a 'free', unregulated economy should be repaired by regulation, subsidization, or taxation? Which of them may have to be tolerated... because the best available fix would have even more costly side-effects? To the extent that the MPS circle made that kind of policy discussion more difficult to have, it did the market economy a disservice.

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