Thursday, 11 January 2018

Ebeling on the virtues of Austrian and the fallacies of Keynesian Macroeconomics

Dr. Richard Ebeling posted a piece on the Cobden Centre website on 10th January contrasting Austrian with Keynesian economics. 

On the one hand Ebeling criticises the widely accepted `Keynesian´ approach to macro economics on the grounds that it deals with aggregate quantities (average prices, average wages); quantities that "have no real existence", using an approach that overlooks all the individual prices and wages of specific products and skills. On the other hand he praises the 'Austrian' way of looking at macro economics (as expounded by von Mise, Hayek, Rothbard and others) for its refusal to consider such aggregates, and its insistence that the economy will adjust itself far better if left alone than when tampered with by ill-informed government intervention.

I think it is ridiculous to view these two approaches to macroeconomics as though they are in conflict; as though one must be `wrong´if the other is `right´.

Of course there is an average wage and an average price level. They do not exist, but they are determinable quantities.  Keynesian theory does not interfere with the prices of individual items nor the wages of particular operatives, any more than the Austrian theory does; they are of course left to market forces, by both theories. If the average price level rises (or is raised) a few percent relative to appropriate wages, individual productions will become profitable one after the other in the same general(#) way on the Keynesian theory as with the Austrian theory.

The Austrian theory does not require aggregates because it is not going to advocate any government interference. It is simply going to watch while the business cycle works its way through the economy, bankrupting firms and depriving families, until entrepreneurs once again find that there are too few skilled workers, and start to hire `foreigners´. It explains, but does not intervene. 

Non-intervention is better than bad intervention, and that is the virtue of the Austrian school. But is it better than good intervention? I think not, and that is the weakness of the Austrian school. I think that it is morally impossible to sit back and watch capitalism at work. I mean impossible for a moral conscience. It is too easy for the wealthy to exploit the poor, the clever to cheat the foolish. And I think western civilisation has come to the same conclusion over the last thousand years, instituting taxes and charities, encouraged by a predominantly Christian view of heaven and hell.

But if that is the weakness of the Austrian School, what of its strengths? And do governments effect more harm that good? 

It is undoubtedly a weakness of democracies that they find it hard to raise sufficient revenue in taxes. Who, for example, campaigns for votes by offering to raise taxes? (Only in Scandinavia where, one suspects, it is for predominantly climatic reasons.) So, I suggest that the fact that governments seem to get it wrong more often than right, may not be solely down to their (governmental) stupidity. As for the newspapers and the voters, that is another matter, and I suspect that ignorance plays a considerable part.  I like to think that, since 1936 when Keynes published his General Theory, governments have, occasionally, mitigated the severity of the business cycle on the populations in their care, by providing relief, or work on infrastructural projects. 

However, tinkering with bank rate has its limitations, and I am not yet convinced of the benefits of quantitive easing, except benefits for the bankers, for I am skeptical of the extent of trickle-down.

(#  I realize that the order in which businesses become profitable one after the other will be slightly different when the price rise is general (as it might be if government intervenes) compared with the diverse price rises that pure market forces can devise. The Keynesian result will not be identical to the Austrian result.)

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