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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Keynes and Social Democracy

Was Keynes in favor of big government? Do Keynesian policies necessarily lead to big government?:

Keynes and Social Democracy Today, by Robert Skidelsky, Commentary, Project Syndicate: For decades, Keynesianism was associated with social democratic big-government policies. But John Maynard Keynes’s relationship with social democracy is complex. Although he was an architect of core components of social democratic policy – particularly its emphasis on maintaining full employment – he did not subscribe to other key social democratic objectives, such as public ownership or massive expansion of the welfare state. ...
Until The General Theory was published in 1936, social democrats did not know how to go about achieving full employment. Their policies were directed at depriving capitalists of the ownership of the means of production. How this was to produce full employment was never worked out. ...
Keynes demonstrated that the main cause of bouts of heavy and prolonged unemployment was ... fluctuating prospects of private investment in an uncertain world. Nearly all unemployment in a cyclical downturn was the result of the failure of investment demand.
Thus, the important thing was not to nationalize the capital stock, but to socialize investment. Industry could be safely left in private hands, provided the state guaranteed enough spending power in the economy to maintain a full-employment level of investment. This could be achieved by monetary and fiscal policy: low interest rates and large state investment programs.
In short, Keynes aimed to achieve a key social democratic objective without changing the ownership of industry. Nevertheless, he did think that redistribution would help secure full employment. A greater tendency to consume would “serve to increase at the same time the inducement to invest.” ...
Moderate re-distribution was the more politically radical implication of Keynes’s economic theory, but the measures outlined above were also the limits of state intervention for him. As long as “the state is able to determine the aggregate amount of resources devoted to augmenting the instruments [i.e., the capital base] and the basic reward to those who own them,” there is no “obvious case” for further involvement. ...
Today, ideas about full employment and equality remain at the heart of social democracy. But the political struggle needs to be conducted along new battle lines. Whereas the front used to run between government and the owners of the means of production – the industrialists, the rentiers – now, it runs between governments and finance. ...
Being too big to fail simply means being too big. Keynes saw that “it is the financial markets’ precariousness which creates no small part of our contemporary problem of securing sufficient investment.” That rings truer today – more than 70 years later – than in his own day. ...
This, once again, calls for an activist government policy. ... Keynes’s main contribution to social democracy, however, does not lie in the specifics of policy, but in his insistence that the state as ultimate protector of the public good has a duty to supplement and regulate market forces. If we need markets to stop the state from behaving badly, we need the state to stop markets from behaving badly. Nowadays, that means stopping financial markets from behaving badly. That means limiting their power, and their profits.

On Keynesian policy and big government, as I've explained many times (e.g.), there is no necessary connection between the size of government and Keynesian stabilization policy. Want the government to grow? Then cure recessions by increasing spending, and pay for it by raising taxes during the good times. After a few business cycles under this policy, government will be larger. This is the strategy that Democrats are accused of playing.

Want the opposite result? No problem, just use tax cuts to stimulate the economy during a recession, then pay for the cuts by reducing government spending during the subsequent boom. A few cycles later, and government is much smaller. This is the Republican starve the beast strategy that they fully admit to playing (I am abstracting, of course, from the political difficulties with either strategy).

Want to keep government the same size? Then simply use the same policy tool on both sides of the business cycle. Increase government spending in a recession, then reverse it in the good times, or, alternatively, cut taxes during the bad times, then raise them when things improve.

Summarizing: Using a different policy tools on each side of as recession changes the size of government, while using the same policy tool does not. But the main point is that, contrary to what you may have been led to believe, there is nothing inherent in Keynesian economics that connects stabilization policy to the size of government. There are, I think, political considerations that make it easier to cut taxes or raise spending when times are bad than to do the opposite when things improve (e.g. the argument that it will kill job growth!). But there is nothing in the underlying economics that says Keynesian policy necessarily leads to a change in the size of government.

    Posted by on Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 03:33 PM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy, Social Insurance | Permalink  Comments (29)

          


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