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In Defense of Monetarism (2008)
George A. Selgin, "In Defense of Monetarism", Mises Wire (Auburn, AL: Lugwig von Mises Institute, 11 November 2008).
- Although I realize that Austrian-school economists have themselves been highly critical of monetarism, many of its most fundamental claims are in fact fully consistent with their own understanding of monetary theory. Indeed, back in the 1970s the difference between Austrian and monetarists writings about money seemed trivial compared to the difference between them and the writings of other (broadly "Keynesian") economists. I recall very well how I myself got "deprogrammed" from mainstream thinking about money and inflation by reading Henry Hazlitt's wonderful book, The Inflation Problem, and How to Resolve It [sic]. Hazlitt was, of course, a thoroughgoing Misesian. Yet no one who reads his book can fail to note the many crucial similarities between his arguments and those of Milton Friedman concerning the same subject.
- Your friend, rather perversely I think, refers to the "disastrous results" that followed the monetary tightening of Volcker and other more monetarist-minded central bankers without even hinting at the facts that that the tightening was aimed at bringing down inflation rates, and that it succeeded remarkably well in doing precisely that. In other words, the tightening did precisely what monetarism said it would do, and what monetarists' critics at the time, wedded to the view that monetary policy was ineffective, and that inflation was entirely caused by OPEC (or by unions, or by anything except monetary policy) insisted it could not do. And yet your friend imagines that the experience proved the monetarists wrong!
- In one respect, however, I agree that monetarism was wrong, namely, to the extent that it failed to recognize the need to allow inflation to occur to the extent that it was solely due to falling output or productivity—a case I have argued, along with the symmetrical one for letting prices fall as productivity improves, in my IEA pamphlet Less Than Zero.
- It is indeed true that the reduction of inflation came at a big price—that Volcker's tightening, for instance, succeeded in lowering inflation only in the wake of a severe recession. But this possibility was, first of all, one concerning which monetarists were perfectly aware: they understood the danger that, once inflation, and accelerating inflation especially, came to be anticipated by the public, putting the breaks on money growth would result in prices and wages continuing for some time to rise beyond their new, less-rapidly rising equilibrium values, with a consequent rise in unemployment.
- No monetarist, certainly not Friedman, welcomed this side-effect of monetary restraint. But then again, had Friedman been listened to earlier (and had the likes of Paul Samuelson been ignored), things would never have come to this tragic stage. By way of analogy, should we blame those who would end the war in Iraq, and who opposed it all along, for the tragic consequences that are likely to follow any rapid U.S withdrawal?