Preventing Another Great Depression

Pundits are using the financial markets mess to raise fears of another Great Depression in order to justify large-scale federal intervention. But government interventions, not markets, cause great depressions.

What markets do naturally when left alone is grow. Sure, people in markets make mistakes and markets sometimes experience panics, but if prices are allowed to adjust, recessions are short-lived and stability and growth returns.

Why do markets naturally grow when left alone? Because of people’s “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” as Adam Smith noted. Since voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial, that propensity gives rise to what can be called a surplus, profits, or economic growth. Growth results from simply allowing individuals to seek their economic advantage within the rule of law.

As I note in this summary of the causes of the Great Depression, the U.S. economy experienced a sharp contraction in 1921 with the unemployment rate rising to 12 percent and output falling 9 percent. But the economy bounced back quickly as the government stood aside and let prices adjust and profits recover.

A decade later, the government adopted vastly different policies, which prevented the economy from adjusting and recovering from the monetary contraction that precipated the Great Depression. As I discuss, there were six key reasons for the severity and duration of the Great Depression:

1) Monetary contraction and bank regulations.

2) Tax increases.

3) International trade restrictions.

4) Mandated high prices.

5) Mandated high wages.

6) Harassment and demonizing of businesses.

This 2004 study by UCLA economists provides recent academic support for a number of these points. The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes also provides interesting insights into the depression.

Today, policymakers are starting to make some of these same mistakes again. Will they stop before they turn today’s recession into a full-blown depression?