The ‘Consumer Spending’ Myth

Journalists talk endlessly these days about the need for more consumer spending to revive the economy, and for government programs to juice consumer spending. Economist Steven Horwitz takes on the assumption that spending is the key to economic activity:

One of the most pernicious and widespread economic fallacies is the belief that consumption is the key to a healthy economy.  We hear this idea all the time in the popular press and casual conversation, particularly during economic downturns.  People say things like, “Well, if folks would just start buying things again, the economy would pick up” or “If we could only get more money in the hands of consumers, we’d get out of this recession.”  This belief in the power of consumption is also what has guided much of economic policy in the last couple of years, with its endless stream of stimulus packages.

This belief is an inheritance of misguided Keynesian thinking. Production, not consumption, is the source of wealth.  If we want a healthy economy, we need to create the conditions under which producers can get on with the process of creating wealth for others to consume, and under which households and firms can engage in thesaving necessary to finance that production….

Putting more resources in the hands of consumers through a government stimulus package fails precisely because the wealth so transferred ultimately has to come from producers.  This is obvious when the spending is financed by taxation, but it’s equally true for deficit spending and inflation.  With deficit spending the wealth comes from producers’ purchases of government bonds.  With inflation it comes proportionately from holders of dollars (obtained through acts of production) whose purchasing power is weakened by the excess supply of money.  In neither case does government create wealth. Nor does consumption.  The new ability to consume still originates in prior acts of production.  If we want real stimulus, we need to free up producers by creating a more hospitable environment for production and not penalize the saving that finances them.