Once Again We Must Ask: ‘Who Governs?’

In 1974, Edward Heath asked: “Who governs – government or trade unions?” Five years later British voters delivered a final verdict by electing Margaret Thatcher. The equivalent today would be: “Who governs – government or financial markets?” No clear answer has yet been given, but the question may well define the political battleground for the next five years.

In one sense, next week’s emergency Budget is simply the logical working out of an intellectual theorem. The implicit premise of the coming retrenchment is that market economies are always at, or rapidly return to, full employment. It follows that a stimulus, whether fiscal or monetary, cannot improve on the existing situation. All that increased government spending does is to withdraw money from the private sector; all that printing money does is to cause inflation.

These propositions are a re-run of the famous “Treasury view” of 1929. By contrast, Keynes argued that demand can fall short of supply, and that when this happened, government vice turned into virtue. In a slump, governments should increase, not reduce, their deficits to make up for the deficit in private spending. Any attempt by government to increase its saving (in other words, to balance its budget) would only worsen the slump. This was his “paradox of thrift”. The current stampede to thrift shows that the re-conversion to Keynes in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 was only skin-deep: the first story remains deeply lodged in the minds of economists and politicians.

But this story alone does not explain the conversion to austerity. Politicians clamouring for cuts in public spending do not cite Chicago University economists. They talk about the need to restore “confidence in the markets”. The argument here is that deficits do positive harm by destroying business confidence. This collapse of confidence may come in several forms – fear of higher taxes, fear of default, fear of inflation. Deficits thus delay the natural (and rapid) recovery of the economy. If markets have come to the view that deficits are harmful, they must be appeased, even if they are wrong. What market participants believe to be the case becomes the case, not because their beliefs are true, but because they act on their beliefs, true or false.

The parallel with what happened in 1931 is irresistible. In February of that year, Philip Snowden, the Labour government’s chancellor of the exchequer, set up the May Committee to recommend cuts in public spending. The committee projected a budget deficit of £120m, later raised to £170m, the latter figure amounting to about 5 per cent of gross domestic product, and proposed raising taxes and reducing spending to “balance the budget”. The international financial crisis caused by the collapse of the Austrian Credit-Anstalt bank in July 1931 brought huge pressure on the government to act on the May Report. In a notable display of patriotic fervour, the financial and political establishment united to demand cuts in unemployment benefits to “save the pound”.

Keynes was one of the very few who stood out against the herd. Of the May Report’s authors, he wrote: “I suppose that they are such very plain men that the advantages of not spending money seem obvious to them.” They had ignored the fact that their proposed cuts would add 250,000-400,000 to the unemployed and diminish tax receipts. “At the present time,” Keynes continued, “all governments have large deficits. They are nature’s remedy for preventing business losses from being … so great as to bring production altogether to a standstill.”

When the Conservative-Liberal coalition that had succeeded the Labour government introduced an emergency budget in September 1931, Keynes again stood out against the chorus of approval. The budget was, he wrote, “replete with folly and injustice”. He explained to an American correspondent that “every person in this country of super-asinine propensities, everyone who hates social progress and loves deflation, feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every form of economic activity, we can all become prosperous again.”

Conservative spokesmen often claim that fiscal consolidation causes economies to recover. If so, the effect of the outbreak of public frugality in 1931 was curiously roundabout. Cuts in salaries produced a “mutiny” of naval ratings at Invergordon, suggesting that the empire was crumbling. This was enough to force Britain off the gold standard. A combination of sterling depreciation and lower interest rates revived exports and started a housing boom. But there was never a complete recovery until the war. Such evidence for the success of the cuts is the stuff of castles in the sky.

We are about to embark on a momentous experiment to discover which of the two stories about the economy is true. If, in fact, fiscal consolidation proves to be the royal road to recovery and fast growth then we might as well bury Keynes once and for all. If however, the financial markets and their political fuglemen turn out to be as “super-asinine” as Keynes thought they were, then the challenge that financial power poses to good government has to be squarely faced.