Economic Liberalism and (Re)Building Europe after WWII.

It is important to understand that economic recovery and growth in Europe after World War II is not as tied to Keynesianism, unfunded welfarism, and corporatism as is sometimes assumed.

The Glorious Thirty Years of European recovery from world war and subsequent growth were not due to ‘Keynesianism’ etc. The Thirty Years ended because the influence of liberal policies had weakened and the costs of other policies had accumulated to create an obviously dysfunctional system. Left-wingers (and communitarian-corporatist conservatives) who think ‘market fundamentalists’ overthrew a well functioning social and economic settlement which was behind all the economic growth and associated institution building (post-war national recovery and European Union construction) are in error. It is a major error to ignore the influence of Austrian School liberals (see the discussion by a leading current practitioner of Austrian economics, Peter Boettke) and the related Ordoliberalismus of the Freiburg School.

My remarks on what the major terms and schools in this paragraph refer to have become uncontrollably long, so they are relegated to the bottom of the post. I hope readers will have the patience to reach them.

The key points are that the German post-war Economic Miracle came from Ordo-liberal policies, while economic growth in France after Charles de Gaulle came to power for the second time in 1958 comes from the policies of Jacques Rueff, a civil servant, judge, and economist who participated in the 1938 Walter Lippmann Colloquium in Paris, a decisive event in the revival of liberal economic thinking attended by Hayek and many other notable liberal thinkers.

Such ideas have had a lot more influence in France than lazy propagators of clichés about statist France and liberal America understand. Of course, if we look at the French and American economies we can see notable ways in which the US economy is more liberal, but that should not obscure the reality that France has had good economic times and that these have come about because liberal economic policies were applied, even where, as under de Gaulle, the political narrative of the government was not liberal. The France of 1958 and after was able to stabilise institutionally after a real danger of the collapse of constitutional democracy and have a good economic period because of neoliberal economic ideas.

Some on the left think the relative revival of market liberalism in the 1970s can be rooted in the Chilean Coup of September 1973, after which economic policy was to some degree influenced by Chilean economists with doctorates from the University of Chicago. This revival of market liberalism is known as neoliberalism, a potentially useful term which came out of the Lippmann Colloquium (see below) that has unfortunately collapsed into an empty term of abuse for any kind of market thinking in government policy, wherein even the most modest accommodation of economic rationality is labelled ‘neoliberal’ and therefore extreme, authoritarian, and based on the narrow greed of the rich. It is sometimes accompanied by attempts to read enlightenment liberals as somehow ‘really’ left-liberal, social democratic, or even socialist.

The reality is that neoliberal ideas were first obviously influential on Continue reading

August 15, 1971

People who were alive in 1941 can tell you right where they were on Pearl Harbor day.  I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  We all remember 9/11.   Another day that I sticks in my memory just as clearly is one that is now remembered by few: Sunday, August 15, 1971.

There was no internet in those days and no cable news channels, so I was mercifully spared the news until the following morning at 8:15 when I opened my motel room door in Huntington Beach and saw the L.A. Times on the doorstep with a headline that said something like “Nixon Imposes Price Controls.”

I was shocked and disgusted for two reasons: though I was employed as an aerospace engineer, I was beginning to learn about free markets, having attended a FEE seminar the year before at which Mises and Hazlitt  – now saints of Austrian economics – lectured.  And I had voted for Nixon in 1968, naively believing the Republicans were the party of free markets.  The following year I signed up with the new Libertarian Party and never looked back on the Republicans until 2008 when Ron Paul ran.

Here is a video recording of Nixon announcing a 90-day “freeze” on prices and wages. Note the Orwellian references to the evils of price controls even as he imposes them.Image

So what was the big emergency that prompted such a drastic response?  Unemployment was running about 6%; price inflation at about 5%.  Nixon’s problem was that an election was coming up in the following year.  He remembered bitterly his narrow loss to Kennedy in the 1960 election which he attributed to a mild recession of that year. Now he was determined to goose the economy and get himself re-elected. Like FDR, Nixon loved dramatic strokes and never mind the consequences. Earlier that year the man who had made his reputation as an implacable anti-communist had made a sudden and dramatic overture to communist China.  So on that sleepy Sunday Nixon delivered another bold stroke, in an end run around the Democratic opposition.  Perhaps it worked: he won 49 states in the 1972 election with considerable help from his bumbling opponent, George McGovern.

His action was quite popular.  The stock market surged that Monday morning and polls showed a 75% approval rate.  But Milton Friedman was right when he predicted “utter failure and the emergence into the open of suppressed inflation.”  Another freeze was imposed in 1973 but this time the damage to the economy became evident.  As explained in the excellent video series “The Commanding Heights,” “ranchers stopped shipping their cattle to the market, farmers drowned their chickens, and consumers emptied the shelves of supermarkets.”  Inflation reached a peak of about 14% before the decade was out and before the powers that be accepted the fact that excessive money creation is the main cause of price inflation. George Schulz, Nixon’s economic advisor and a vigorous opponent of price controls consoled himself with the thought that Nixon had demonstrated dramatically how not to fight inflation.

Nixon wasn’t finished.  During that same Sunday broadcast he slapped a 10% tariff on imported goods, accompanied by some blather about fairness.  More significantly, he ended the Bretton Woods international monetary system.  That arrangement, conceived in 1944, had the U.S. dollar convertible into gold at $35 per ounce, but only for foreign central banks.  Not only could private banks and private citizens not convert their dollars, it was even illegal to own gold (with exceptions for dentists, jewelers, etc.).  I made a point of violating that particular law on principle before the prohibition was lifted in 1974.

In all fairness, the Bretton Woods system was doomed long before that August.  The gold exchange standard had persisted only because of a gentlemen’s agreement that European central bankers would refrain from exercising their redemption rights to any significant degree.  So many new dollars had been created to finance Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam and his “Great Society” at home, and so many of those dollars were parked overseas as a result of trade imbalances, that the U.S. government could not come close to honoring its Bretton Woods obligation in full.  The French under de Gaulle and his gold-bug advisor Jacques Rueff had become increasingly strident about the situation, but in early August the British ambassador showed up with $3 billion to be redeemed, and that may have been the straw that broke the camels back.

So on that same Sunday Nixon slammed the gold window shut (video here)  pushing us out of the frying pan of Bretton Woods, under which numerous wrenching devaluations had wracked international trade, into the fire of floating exchange rates, the system we have now.  The devaluations are gone but the wild swings in currency values, something that was not foreseen by Milton Friedman who was an early advocate of currency markets, are almost as bad.  Now, wonder of wonders, there is resurgent talk of some sort of gold standard.

Reagan tempted me with with some pretty inspiring rhetoric in his 1980 campaign about getting the government off our backs.  Not enough to vote for him, but I was glad he got elected and with the help of Fed chairman Paul Volcker he did break the back of inflation, but he never got spending under control and he didn’t deserve as much credit as he got for the fall of communism, which had been rotten at its core for decades.  But Bush I was terrible and in hindsight Clinton wasn’t all bad, yet I confess I was relieved when Bush II beat Gore in 2000.  I needn’t remind anyone what a disaster GWB was with his wars, his unfunded medicare expansion and his bailouts (OK, thanks for the tax cut).

I’m voting for Gary Johnson who won’t win, and I really don’t care who wins.  Gridlock is the least bad outcome, even if that means the despicable Obama stays in office facing a Republican congress.