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A Free Market Guru Gone Wrong

The death of the economist Milton Friedman at the age of 94 last November has robbed the free-market of perhaps its greatest advocate of modern times, but his views were wrong in theory and a failure in practice

Friedman did much to prepare the ground for the resurgence in free-market economics that occurred once capitalism had entered a new phase of economic crisis in the 1970s, and was the main driving force behind what became known as ‘monetarist’ economic theory.

Friedman was a New Yorker by birth but made his name at the University of Chicago, where he was Professor of Economics from 1948. His particular brand of free-market economics gave rise to the ‘Chicago School’ of economists who provided much of the intellectual impetus behind Mrs Thatcher’s early years as UK Prime Minister and influenced countless other governments across the world. After his retirement from Chicago, Friedman joined the Hoover Institute and spent considerable time on the lucrative US lecture circuit preaching his free-market creed.

Friedman was a prolific writer on economic matters for much of his life, but his two most well-known works were also the most transparently political: Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and Free To Choose (1980), the latter written jointly with his wife, Rose. Most of his other writings were concerned with monetary economics where he became the guru of those opposed to the dominant economic orthodoxies of the post-war period, particularly Keynesian economics.

The position of Friedman and the Chicago School can be divided into two (related) parts. Firstly, the view that markets are the most efficient way of allocating resources and that government intervention in the economy should be as limited as possible, leaving firms and individuals free to maximise their wealth in competitive markets. Secondly, the view that the massive and persistent rise in price levels across much of the world since the Second World War has been essentially a monetary phenomenon, causing dislocations in the normally efficient workings of the market mechanism, eventually leading to rising unemployment and other economic problems.

Free market voodoo

Friedman and the Chicago School viewed capitalism – if left to its own devices – as a largely unproblematic way of organising society, with its own in-built regulatory mechanisms for successful wealth generation and allocation. The key problem with society was not capitalism, but governments. Throughout the twentieth century governments had become more involved in every aspect of economic life and, in the view of Friedman, were creating problems under the guise of preventing them. State ownership, direction and fiscal policy meant that firms were unable to operate in ways that would otherwise be encouraged by free and unregulated markets, causing economic inefficiencies and blockages. The solution was to ‘free the market’ and reduce as far as practicable the interference of the state.

To this end, within a year of Mrs Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in the UK, Friedman latched upon her government’s stated intention to ‘roll-back the state’ as the first example of his free-market solution in action in the developed world. Friedman advocated ‘the elimination of all government interference in free enterprise, from minimum wage to social welfare programmes’ and told the Washington Post in 1980 that Mrs Thatcher’s economic experiment ‘could mark the turning away from the welfare state back to the free-market economies of the nineteenth century’.

But this view was problematic for two reasons. One, that no economy, even in the nineteenth century, was a genuinely free-market one. Indeed, the free-market economy is a construct or model – a postulate of economists – and has never existed in reality. Because of the way the capitalist economy works in practice, it almost certainly never will as capitalism, a competitive and necessarily class-divided society, is dependent on state intervention and regulation as an arbiter (and enforcer) of competing interests. Indeed, ironically enough, it was brought into being in large part because of the actions of the state itself in removing feudal peasants from the land through the Enclosure Acts and other devices, so as to create a pool of available wage-workers (without which capitalism would have no producer class).

Second, while the economies of the nineteenth century (and other economies too admired by Friedman in more recent times such as South Korea and Malaysia) were closer to this model than most, there is little about their economic structure which is suggestive of a desirable environment for human beings. In fact, countries with the most rampant free-market economies tend to exhibit characteristics of mass poverty, social polarisation and raging crime above all others.

In many respects then, Friedman’s conception of the free-market was a utopian one, a notion that existed in the heads of the Chicago School economists but not in reality. It could never exist in actuality and the nearer one got to it, the less desirable it appeared anyway.

But Friedman’s resurrection of the totem of the free-market betrayed its unoriginality too. From the outset, Friedman had been a follower of some of those in the earlier ‘classical’ school of economics (such as Alfred Marshall) who thought that governments and trade unions were the economic villains preventing the effective operation of the market economy as the most efficient mechanism for allocating scarce resources. Whatever the inadequacies of the Keynesian School that had replaced their thinking as the dominant one, the very reason classical economics from Adam Smith to Marshall was overturned as the orthodoxy by Keynes was precisely because it had failed to explain – let alone provide a cure for – the most persistent and endemic problems of the capitalist system, such as poverty amidst plenty, mass unemployment and economic crises.

So Friedman’s solution to the emerging economic crises of the 1970s and 80s was an old, discredited one, resurrected for a new audience but where – as the mass unemployment record of the Thatcher government testified – the second performance was no better than the first. That right-wing US politicians such as the former President George Bush were driven to describe the Chicago School’s tax-cutting, free-market approach as ‘voodoo economics’ is in itself quite some testimony to its failure.

Monetarism

The second distinctive aspect of Friedman’s economic thinking was often – and loosely – labelled ‘monetarism’. This was the idea that inflation is a monetary phenomenon with a monetary cause, but – just like free-market economics – this was really an old idea given new life by Friedman and the Chicago School. As an attempt to explain the persistent rises in the price level that had taken place since the Second World War, together with the Keynesian failure to deal with the problem, monetarism represented an attempt to get back to economic basics.

If persistently rising prices had become a noticeable issue after the war, by the 1970s it was a serious problem across much of the world, reaching double-digit figures in most countries, including the most advanced. The explanations for it advanced by economists and politicians of every hue were many and varied. The most prominent were that it was caused by factors such as:

1 the profiteering of the big corporations

2 excess levels of overall demand in the economy

3 wage increases above rises in productivity/ coupled with trade union power

4 excessive government expenditure

5 excessive government borrowing

6 the expansion of bank deposits and credit

7 psychological ‘expectations’, i.e. that price rises are a self-fulfillingprophecy

8 low interest rates

As the problem got worse and the analysis of it more desperate, some of these explanations interlinked. The monetarists at various times indicated some agreement with all of these explanations except the first two, though it was the monetary aspect of their argument that won them most attention and separated their approach most clearly from what had become the prevailing Keynesian orthodoxy.

In essence, monetarism was based on the Quantity Theory of Money and a formula for it developed by Irving Fisher which is the notion that changes in the money supply, all other things being equal, have a direct impact on the general level of prices. Friedman even went so far as to explain that in this respect Karl Marx was one of the first monetarists, holding to an explanation of inflation that focused on the supply of money as the key variable.

Friedman’s argument was that persistent inflation caused a serious imbalance to the successful operation of the market economy, leading to market distortions and failures (which, in turn, explained high unemployment and other contemporary phenomena). Its cause was once again mistaken government interference, this time governments failing to conduct monetary policy based on the equilibrium formula identified by the Quantity Theory of Money as being essential for a stable price level.

Friedman summarised his view in the Financial Times (7 September 1970) by claiming that ‘inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon – in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output’. This indeed sounded like the analysis of Karl Marx based on his labour theory of value. Marx’s view was that the over-issue of an inconvertible (such as into gold) paper currency above and beyond that needed to carry out production and trade in an economy at any one time, would cause a commensurate rise in prices. This was because such an excess issue of paper money caused an artificial bloating of monetary demand, injecting purchasing power into the economy that was not based on the production of real value embodied in commodities. As demand increases, caused by this excess of circulating money, prices rise in response to it.

For Marx as well as many of the earlier classical economists, inflation was properly called ‘currency inflation’ as it was based on an artificial bloating of the currency leading to a diminution of its purchasing power. Individual prices of commodities could rise and fall too, of course, and the trade cycle would cause the price level as a whole to rise in booms and fall in slumps, but currency inflation was a different phenomenon, caused by governments over-issuing an inconvertible currency.

If this is what Friedman had really meant too, it would have no doubt had some effect on the conduct of monetary policy in a way that could have tackled the problem – but in the eventuality it was not quite what the monetarists meant at all. In fact, the monetarists got themselves into the ridiculous position of agreeing that inflation was caused by an excess supply of money, without being able to agree on what actually constituted ‘money’ in the first place.

Applying his labour theory of value, Marx had taken the view that ‘money’ in capitalism was really the money-commodity, typically gold, through which other commodities acquire a price, and which denotes how much of the money-commodity they will exchange for. In the situation of a currency that is not convertible into gold, this underlying relationship is merely expressed by paper token money (as today) and its purchasing power is determined solely by its quantity in relation to the amount of gold the token paper money is supposed to represent.

Lacking a labour theory of value to underpin their analysis and – just like the other conventional economists who content themselves with examining surface appearances in the capitalist economy rather than underlying relationships – the monetarists decided that things that had often been termed ‘near-money’ were so close to money as to become indistinguishable from it and should therefore be included in any definition of the money supply. This primarily included bank deposits.

This seemingly theoretical distinction had a real, practical impact. When Jim Callaghan’s Labour government from 1976-9 signalled a move towards rejecting Keynesianism in favour of monetarism – and was then followed by the more full-blooded version of monetarism from 1979 onwards when Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power – their stated aim was to ‘watch and control’ the expansion of the money supply. But the favoured money supply indicators (labelled ‘M1’ and ‘M3’ at the time) consisted primarily of bank deposits and it was no surprise that their movements bore little relationship to what was happening to the price level. Indeed, Thatcher herself was later to comment that these indicators were ‘often distorted, confusing and volatile’ (The Downing Street Years, p.688), with their control soon being abandoned as a policy instrument.

In effect, what Friedman had done was to encourage governments in the UK, US and elsewhere to resurrect what had been known decades earlier as the ‘bank deposit theory of prices’. This was a long-discredited theory that had been comprehensively demolished by (among others) one of the last of the classical economists, Professor Edwin Cannan of the London School of Economics, who, in his Modern Currency and the Regulation Of Its Value (1931) claimed with a remarkable sense of prophecy that ‘this is one of the most obstructive of all modern monetary delusions’. Like Marx, and like his fellow classical economists, Cannan adhered to a theory of value which allowed him to underpin what happened on the ‘surface’ of the economy with what was happening in the sphere of real wealth production and distribution. His argument was summarised in his Money: Its Connexion With Rising and Falling Prices (1923):

‘A[n] . . . error, which has, unfortunately, been countenanced by many high monetary authorities in recent years, is to suppose that the aggregate of deposits is a kind of money (sometimes it is called ‘bank-money’) which should be added to the actual stock of coins and notes existing at any moment. The individual, no doubt, finds ‘money in the bank’ much the same as ‘cash in the house’, but the aggregate of all the individuals’ balances at their banks is only an amount which the bankers are liable to pay, but which they could not possibly pay in cash at one moment. A liability to pay cash is certainly not cash: both debtors and creditors are painfully aware of the fact. When additional currency is put on the market by some one who has the power of issuing it, prices are raised, because the issuer’s offer of money in exchange for goods and services is additional, the power of nobody else to spend money having been reduced. When, on the other hand, a person increases his balance at his bank he increases the bank’s power to lend only at most by the amount which he forgoes, so that the aggregate money-spending is not increased’ (p.81).

An inability to recognise this fact (compounded by a general adherence to the mistaken view that banks can create vast multiples of credit from a single deposit base) meant that Friedman’s ‘monetarism’ amounted to little more than the advocacy of a discredited economic theory with predictably disastrous results.

Legacy

The modern legacy of Milton Friedman is not a strong one. Where free-market solutions to problems are not in open retreat, they are being questioned with renewed vigour and ‘monetarism’ has deservedly died something of a death, even among many of its previous adherents. And while Friedman hugely exaggerated the role governments have played in market failures such as economic slumps (his book A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 being something of a case in point) where he was right – with inflation being a government-promoted monetary phenomenon – it was not always for the right reasons.

In most developed countries the creeping inflation of the currency that started at the time of the Second World War is still with us, partly because Friedman’s ‘monetarism’ ended up obscuring the issue. The amount of currency in circulation in the UK in 1938 was under £600 million, now it is around £45,000 million having steadily increased year-on-year, being far in excess of what is actually required for production and trade. The result is that the price level has risen every single year since and – despite the current downward pressure on many prices caused by world competition – continues to do so. And capitalism’s other attendant social and economic problems are still with us as they always are, whether there is inflation or not.

Seen in this light, Professor Friedman’s most important interventions verged between the disastrous and the useless. In promoting a free-market dogma which refuses, against all the evidence, to countenance the fact that there is something intrinsically wrong with the capitalist system of production for profit he was seriously misguided; furthermore, in effectively resurrecting the formerly discredited ‘bank deposit theory of prices’ he did little but add further confusion on the principal issue that made his name.

In 1976 he won the Nobel Prize for Economics. Little did they probably suspect at the time that it was for breathing life into two economic corpses that would have been better left dead and buried.

DAP