The Federal Reserve Board seeks to maintain an inflation rate around two percent per year. While this rate might sound low for older types who remember double-digit inflation rates in the late 70s and early 80s, and a rate of 5.4 percent as recently as 1990, why tolerate, let alone seek to sustain, any inflation at all? Why not seek to establish zero inflation and stable prices? After all, even an inflation rate of only two percent a year means nominal prices still double every 36 years. And while people can and do broadly adjust their behavior in the face of anticipated inflation, it’s not a seamless process. Inflation distorts people’s economic decisions, whether as producers or consumers, labor or capital, and so imposes costs on us all.
There’s some historical elegance to the fact that the Fed’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is roughly as old as the modern Fed itself. The symposium, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, started in 1978.
To compare The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace to a 100,000-word inflationist op-ed by Paul Krugman would be unfair—unfair to Paul Krugman. It goes beyond Keynesian hagiography to Keynesian deification.
A recent article in the French newspaper Le Monde drew attention to an important difference between the French and the Germans. The French, said the author, think that the government spends other people’s money; the Germans think that the government spends their own money. This, if true, is important because each attitude must affect the politics as well as the economic policy of its respective country.
A lively and informed discussion was held at the American Enterprise Institute on March 20, 2014 on the question: Is the Federal Reserve a philosopher king or servant of the treasury? Alex Pollock, a frequent contributor to Law and Liberty and participant in the AEI discussion, offers here in condensed form the arguments and the instructive history presented.
We come now to the final and perhaps most important part of McCraw’s Founders and Finance: the practical effects of Hamilton’s political economy. Here is where Hamilton’s ultimate legacy is often said to be. The precedent of the idea of a national bank or ultimate regulatory authority over money became, at this point in time, inextricably part of American politics. This is not to say that the idea of national banking was inextricable institutionally. Andrew Jackson ended the second Bank of the United States, and the idea of the Independent Treasury held sway until the National Bank Acts of the Civil War. But Hamilton had established the first political precedent of national involvement in money and finance. That history and its supposed success would be continually asserted to pave the way, at least in part, for the Federal Reserve System in the early twentieth century.
A Practice to Justify a Theory of Freedom: Friedman’s Engagement with a Collectivist World
Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is a modern classic. Along with F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Friedman’s 1962 book introduced many readers to classical liberal or libertarian ideas. Friedman stated his philosophy of freedom, and filled in the details with many examples and applications. He not only taught the reader the meaning of freedom, but how to apply the freedom philosophy to real-world issues.
For its time, it was a radical book. At the end of the second chapter, he identified 14 activities that could not be justified by classical liberal principles. These included all manner of price, wage and rent controls. But they also included social security, occupational licensure and national parks. It is a gutsy modern-day libertarian who would take on the national parks.
Included on the list of 14 indefensible activities was also peacetime conscription. In 1962, compulsory military service had reflexive and unthinking support. Friedman’s personal campaign against the practice helped lead to its abolition. Martin Anderson helped persuade Richard Nixon on the issue. For those who think the work of academics has no practical impact, Friedman’s work on conscription stands in refutation.
It is no exaggeration to say that two-and-one-half billion people today are enjoying a degree of freedom and prosperity that might not have happened, at least not when it did, but for the work of Milton Friedman and like-minded free-market economists. I am talking here of the opening up of the Chinese and Indian economies (and others in what used to be called the Third World). In the very first chapter, Friedman makes the case for the importance, indeed the primacy, of economic freedom over political freedom.