Hayek vs Keynes in the London Times Oct. 19, 1932

UPDATE:  Mario Rizzo has posted a pdf image of newspaper clips from the London Times of both the Hayek letter and the Pigou/Keynes letter.

Hayek vs Keynes is the watchword of the economic debate of your time, the debate between Merkel and Obama, Europe and America, over the the soundness of a government-led Keynesian consumption binge as a solution to the asset crash set in motion by the artificial malinvestment boom of the early and mid 00s.  The original debate played out in public in the pages of The Times of London in the month of October, 1932.  In reply to an invitation from The Times of London, John M. Keynes, A. C. Pigou, and other Cambridge and Oxford economists signed a letter advocating profligate spending by all British government entities on any and every projects they might imagine, as part of their patriotic duty to advance the public interest via consumption spending.

Two days later, Hayek and his colleagues at the London School of Economics provided their own response.  Writing for a British audience and targeted at a near decade old British macroeconomic situation marked by significant deflation and internationally overpriced labor which had begun in 1925 with Winston Churchill’s decision to return Britain to the gold standard at par despite a massive wartime inflation, Friedrich Hayek signed a letter along others reading as follows:

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES

Sir, the question whether to save or whether to spend which has been raised in your columns, is not unambiguous.  It involves three separate issues:  (1) Whether to use money or whether to hoard it; (2) whether to spend money or whether to invest it; (3) whether Government investment is on all fours with investment by private individuals.  While we do not wish to over-stress the nature of our differences with those of our professional colleagues who have already written to you on these subjects, yet on certain points that difference is sufficiently great to make the expression of an alternative view desirable.

(1)  On the first issue — whether to use one’s money or whether to hoard it — there is no important difference between us.  It is agreed that hording money, whether in cash or in idle balances, is deflationary in its effects.  No one thinks that deflation is in itself desirable.

(2)  On the question whether to spend or whether to invest our position is different from that of the signatories [Pigou, Keynes et al] of the letter which appeared in your columns on Monday.  They appear to hold that it is a matter of indifference as regards the prospects of revival whether money is spent on consumption or on real investment.  We, on the contrary, believe that one of the main difficulties of the world today is a deficiency of investment — a depression of the industries making for capital extension, etc., rather than of the industries making directly for consumption.  Hence we regard a revival of investment as peculiarly desirable.  The signatories of the letter referred to, however, appear to deprecate the purchase of existing securities on the ground that there is no guarantee that the money will find its way into real investment.  We cannot endorse this view.  Under modern conditions the security markets are an indispensable part of the mechanism of investment.  A rise in the value of old securities is an indispensable preliminary to the flotation of new issues.  The existence of a lag between the revival in old securities and revival elsewhere is not questioned.  But we should regard it as little short of a disaster if the public should infer from what has been said that the purchase of existing securities and the placing of deposits in building societies, etc., were at the present time contrary to public interest or that the sale of securities or the withdrawal of such deposits would assist the coming recovery.  It is perilous in the extreme to say anything which may still further weaken the habit of private saving.

But it is perhaps on the third question — the question whether this is an appropriate time for State and municipal authorities to extend their expenditure — that our difference with the signatories of the letter is most acute.  On this point we find ourselves in agreement with your leading article on Monday.  We are of the opinion that many of the troubles of the world at the present time are due to imprudent borrowing and spending on the part of the public authorities.  We do not desire to see a renewal of such practices.  At best they mortgage the Budgets of the future, and they tend to drive up the rate of interest — a process which is surely particularly undesirable at this juncture, when the revival of the supply of capital to private industry is an admitted urgent necessity.  The depression has abundantly shown that the existence of public debt on a large scale imposes frictions and obstacles to readjustment very much greater than the frictions and obstacles imposed by the existence of private debt.  Hence we cannot agree with the signatories of the letter that this is a time for new municipal swimming baths, etc., merely because people “feel they want” such amenities.

If the Government wish to help revival, the right way for them to proceed is, not to revert to their old habits of lavish expenditure, but to abolish those restrictions on trade and the free movement of capital (including restrictions on new issues) which are at present impeding even the beginning of recovery.

We are, Sir, your obedient servants,

T. E. Gregory, F. A. von Hayek, Arnold Plant, Lionel Robbins

The significance of this letter for the debates of the current historical moment cannot be missed.

UPDATE:  Mario Rizzo, “It does not take much to see that the issues are basically the same today. The positions of the opposing sides are also the same. As I have said many times before, the great debate is still Keynes versus Hayek. All else is footnote.”  Read the whole thing.

More Hayek vs Keynes:

(I thank Richard Ebeling for sharing with me a copy of this important letter.)

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2 Responses to Hayek vs Keynes in the London Times Oct. 19, 1932

  1. Daniel Kuehn says:

    It seems to me if you’re going to claim that they advocated “profligate spending by all British government entities on any and every projects they might imagine”, you oughta quote the letter itself.

    I didn’t think I ever heard them advocate this, but I reread it just in case and have confirmed my initial suspicion. Before we arbitrate between them, we oughta at least lay out each case accurately.

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