Debating the Great Depression: Steve Horwitz’s Latest Contribution

The Great Depression has been a deeply contested subject from the very beginning. After John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory became sacred writ for most mainstream economists, Keynesian interpretations generally prevailed, notwithstanding pockets of resistance among older economists, in general, and Austrian school economists, in particular. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s monumental Monetary History of the United States eventually helped to displace Keynesian interpretations with a monetarist interpretation, especially after the stagflation of the 1970s worked to discredit Keynesian macroeconomics.

Nevertheless, in part because mainstream macroeconomics never settled into a fixed orthodoxy for very long, competing interpretations of the Great Depression continued to attract adherents and to incorporate new elements of analysis during the past thirty years. The Austrians, once again attracting young economists to their ranks from the 1970s onward, persisted in waging guerrilla warfare against Keynesian, monetarist, New Classical, and other varieties of interpretation of the Depression.

With the onset of the current economic troubles—what some call the Great Recession—the debate about the Great Depression flared up anew, because many commentators began to compare these two episodes of exceptionally subpar overall economic performance. In 2008, an article by Gauti Eggertsson, “Great Expectations and the End of the Depression,” was published in the leading mainstream journal, the American Economic Review. This article advances a variation on one of the leading themes among mainstream economists, attributing the U.S. recovery after 1933 to a regime change associated with the New Deal’s abandonment of the gold standard and its commitment to active intervention in the private economy, allegedly in sharp contrast to the Hoover administration’s hands-off policy stance.

Steven Horwitz has taken issue with Eggertsson’s article in an important critique published in 2009 in the online journal Econ Journal Watch, edited by Daniel B. Klein. Eggertsson replied to Horwitz’s critique in 2010. Now, Horwitz has rejoined this back-and-forth in a new contribution to Econ Journal Watch titled “Unfortunately Unfamiliar with Robert Higgs and Others: A Rejoinder to Gauti Eggertsson on the 1930s.” No one will be surprised if I recommend Horwitz’s original critique and his follow-up piece as important contributions to this highly significant debate.

Misunderstanding the Great Depression has caused much mischief in modern macroeconomics and, more important, in government fiscal and monetary policies based on or influenced by this faulty understanding. If we are ever to arrive at a sound understanding of the Depression, we will have to persuade the economics profession to take Austrian economics seriously, as most economists did before the publication of Keynes’s magnum opus in 1936. Keynesianism in particular has proven itself to be a fundamentally flawed mode of analysis, yet one that has survived, evolved, and—like the zombies in the film “Night of the Living Dead”—keeps coming back, no matter how many times anti-Keynesians credit themselves with having dealt it a fatal blow. Monetarist, New Classical, and other recent critiques have themselves been inadequate or indefensible in various ways, as well.

Horwitz’s recent contributions have valuable things to say, not only about our understanding of the Great Depression, but also about the most productive way to do economic analysis and about the importance of working with correct historical facts, as opposed to the “stylized facts” that mainstream economists all too often are content to accept as an adequate foundation for the development and testing of their models.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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