The excitement about toppling Col Gadaffi is understandable, but a distraction from our real troubles. I have significant reservations about the intervention, but he was a brute and it's good to see the end of him. In the long run, though, the ongoing financial crisis will probably prove to be much more important to our lives. We shouldn't lose sight of it. We may be witnessing the start of a double-dip recession, or even the end of the beginning of another Great Depression.
What happened? The Mises Institute blog has posted a fabulous speech by Ludwig von Mises this week. Given in 1931, Mises spoke on "The Causes of the Economic Crisis" (PDF, pp. 155–182). Then, as now, a secondary economic crash pushed the world deeper into recession. It was avoidable, but not by the time it became apparent to the world. Sometimes you cannot undo the mistakes of the past. Massive malinvestments caused by central banks "underbidding interest rates" (in Mises's terms) can only be undone through business failure, however painful. Bailing businesses out simply prolongs the pain.
As usual, Mises is on the money here:
The severe convulsions of the economy are the inevitable result of policies which hamper market activity, the regulator of capitalistic production. If everything possible is done to prevent the market from fulfilling its function of bringing supply and demand into balance, it should come as no surprise that a serious disproportionality between supply and demand persists, that commodities remain unsold, factories stand idle, many millions are unemployed, destitution and misery are growing and that finally, in the wake of all these, destructive radicalism is rampant in politics.
The periodically returning crises of cyclical changes in business conditions are the effect of attempts, undertaken repeatedly, to underbid the interest rates which develop on the unhampered market. These attempts to underbid unhampered market interest rates are made through the intervention of banking policy—by credit expansion through the additional creation of uncovered notes and checking deposits—in order to bring about a boom. The crisis under which we are now suffering is of this type, too. However, it goes beyond the typical business cycle depression, not only in scale but also in character—because the interventions with market processes which evoked the crisis were not limited only to influencing the rate of interest. The interventions have directly affected wage rates and commodity prices, too. . . .
All attempts to emerge from the crisis by new interventionist measures are completely misguided. There is only one way out of the crisis: Forgo every attempt to prevent the impact of market prices on production. Give up the pursuit of policies which seek to establish interest rates, wage rates and commodity prices different from those the market indicates. This may contradict the prevailing view. It certainly is not popular. Today all governments and political parties have full confidence in interventionism and it is not likely that they will abandon their program. However, it is perhaps not too optimistic to assume that those governments and parties whose policies have led to this crisis will some day disappear from the stage and make way for men whose economic program leads, not to destruction and chaos, but to economic development and progress.
Treating too much debt with more debt or giving reckless banks a bailout is economic homeopathy. There's no post-hoc cure to long-term foolishness. Eventually, you have to pay the piper, and resolve to take the steps necessary to avoid that situation in future. The only solution to our current crisis is to weather the storm.
There may be certain types of monetary central planning that are less bad than others, but all are still least-bad ways of doing something the government should have no involvement in. If we're serious about avoiding a repeat in a couple of years, we need to start thinking seriously about how to abolish central banks. It isn't the symptoms we need to fight, it's the disease.