When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading voluntarily in markets, we find that many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The tenth myth — Markets Lead to Disastrous Economic Cycles, Such as the Great Depression — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.
Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism. An eleven minute podcast of Palmer speaking on this topic is at The Morality of Capitalism.
Myth: Markets Lead to Disastrous Economic Cycles, Such as the Great Depression
Myth: Reliance on market forces leads to cycles of “boom and bust,” as investor overconfidence feeds on itself, leading to massive booms in investment that are inevitably followed by contractions of production, unemployment, and a generally worsening economic condition.
Tom G. Palmer: Economic cycles of “boom and bust” are sometimes blamed on reliance on markets. The evidence, however, is that generalized overproduction is not a feature of markets; when more goods and services are produced, prices adjust and the result is general affluence, not a “bust.” When this or that industry expands beyond the ability of the market to sustain profitability, a process of self-correction sets in and profit signals lead resources to be redirected to other fields of activity. There is no reason inherent in markets for such correction to apply to all industries; indeed, it is self-contradictory (for if investment is being taken away from all and redirected to all, then it’s not being taken away from all in the first place).
Nonetheless, prolonged periods of general unemployment are possible when governments distort price systems through foolish manipulation of monetary systems, a policy error that is often combined with subsidies to industries that should be contracting and wage and price controls that keep the market from adjusting, thus prolonging the unemployment. Such was the case of the Great Depression that lasted from 1929 to the end of World War II, which economists (such as Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman) showed was caused by a massive and sudden contraction in the money supply by the U.S. Federal Reserve system, which was pursuing politically set goals. The general contraction was then deepened by the rise in protectionism, which extended the suffering worldwide, and prolonged greatly by such programs as the National Recovery Act, programs to keep farm prices high (by destroying huge quantities of agricultural products and restricting supply), and other “New Deal” programs that were aimed at keeping market forces from correcting the disastrous effects of the government’s policy errors.
More recent crashes, such as the Asian financial crisis of 1997, have been caused by imprudent monetary and exchange rate policies that distorted the signals to investors. Market forces corrected the policy failures of governments, but the process was not without hardship; the cause of the hardship was not the medicine that cured the disease, but the bad monetary and exchange rate policies of governments that caused it in the first place.
With the adoption of more prudent monetary policies by governmental monetary authorities, such cycles have tended to even out. When combined with greater reliance on market adjustment processes, the result has been a reduction in the frequency and severity of economic cycles and long-term and sustained improvement in those countries that have followed policies of freedom of trade, budgetary restraint, and the rule of law.