Has Keynes trumped Adam Smith?

In this think piece, Mark Skousen considers Marxist, Keynesian and Smithian economics, and their comparative importance to contemporary academic and political culture.

The problem today is Keynesian-style policy, the darling of the establishment politicos and media giants:  big government solutions, deficit spending, easy money, bailouts. Keynes has suddenly trumped Adam Smith. And that’s dangerous.

One day last week, I walked into the largest Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York and saw a big display table up front with all kinds of books on John Maynard Keynes and Keynesian economics. One book, The Return of Depression Economics, was written by Paul Krugman, the caustic New York Times columnist who just won the Nobel Prize.

Another book was called The Case for Big Government by Jeff Madrick, the editor of Challenge magazine. I can understand writing a book in support of good, efficient, strong, and productive government, but “big” alone? Most Americans prefer the motto “cheaper and better.”

The biggest surprise at Barnes & Noble was to see my own book, The Big Three in Economics, prominently displayed along side all the Keynesian and Marxist books. It has suddenly become my most successful book.

But mine was the only book there that took a dim view of Keynes and Marx and their solutions to the financial crisis (always more government, more taxes, and more regulations). For my money, Adam Smith and his followers (Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard) deserve to be on top of the Totem Pole of Economics.

Unfortunately, Keynes is all the rage now. The British economist became famous in the 1930s for advocating going off the gold standard, running deficits and bailing out troubled banks with easy money as a way to end the Great Depression.

Today’s politicians, from George Bush to Barack Obama, have suddenly become Keynesians during this financial crisis, spending money they don’t have in a vain effort to right the ship. Even Newsweek has gone so far to say, “We are all socialists now.”  Alan Greenspan, the ex-student of Ayn Rand, now favors nationalization of the big American banks Citibank and Bank of America.

Every investor and gold bug should know the enemy: Keynes, the advocate of big government and the welfare state, and Karl Marx, the radical who advocated outright state socialism and total central control of the means of production.

After World War I, Randolph Bourne observed, “War is the health of the state.” Today he might say, “A financial crisis is the health of the state.”

It looks like modern-day statists are getting their wish. We’re getting big government, good and hard. Adam Smith and Milton Friedman are out of favor, while John Maynard Keynes, the patron saint of bailouts, inflation, and the welfare state, is making a comeback with a vengeance.

The tentacles of the leviathan state are growing by leaps and bounds. In 2009, global governments will be the largest shareholders in commercial banks, reversing 20 years of retreat by the state. The costs of entitlements are exploding upwards, and Congress hasn’t had the courage to address future liabilities. Social Security and Medicare are government-sponsored Ponzi schemes that will make Bernie Madoff’s embezzlement look like a picnic.

The late management guru Peter Drucker said, “Government is better at creating problems than solving them.” In fact, wrote a cynical Ducker, government has gotten bigger, not stronger, and can only do three things well — taxation, inflation, and making war. According to Drucker, the state has become a “swollen monstrosity….Indeed, government is sick — and just at a time when we need a strong, healthy, and vigorous government.” (He said all this in 1969.) If you want to solve problems, he counseled, you must turn to business and the private sector.

But where does one get the straight scoop on Keynes, Marx, and their nemesis, Adam Smith and the followers of free-market capitalism?

I have no apologies for where I stand on the issue. In writing The Big Three, I commissioned a Florida woodcarver, James Sagui, to create “The Totem Pole of Economics.” (The Tolem Pole of Economics is shown on the back cover of the book.) Clearly, my hero is Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, a declaration of economic independence.

Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher, is on top of the Totem Pole for his advocacy of a revolutionary new doctrine which he called a “system of natural liberty,” what we might call laissez faire or free-market capitalism. He used the “invisible hand” to symbolized how the private actions of individual entrepreneurs would lead to the public good.

Today’s advocates of Smithian economics have real solutions to the crisis, as I’ve outlined in previous HUMAN EVENTS columns:  suspend “mark to market” accounting rules, make the Bush tax cuts permanent, slash the corporate tax rate, and mostly importantly “do no harm.” Also, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at the Canadian banking system, ranked #1 in the world in soundness (US is #40) for its conservative reserve requirements and nationwide branching. (Not a single Canadian bank has failed in either the Great Depression or now.)

Keynes is ranked below Adam Smith, because he supported big government and the welfare state as a way to stabilize the crisis-prone capitalist economy, the “middle ground” between laissez faire and totalitarian socialism. But as we have seen, Keynesian activism has led to much mischief in the world today, and countries that have adopted his bureaucratic, regulated mindset have witnessed “slow growth” and “stagflation” style economies.

And Marx is the “low man” on the Totem Pole. His radical solution, government ownership and control of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, would be, as Hayek says, “the road to serfdom.”

Adam Smith and his “system of natural liberty” have come under attack many times by his arch enemies, the Marxists and Keynesians. But Smithian economics has nine lives, and has always managed a comeback. With your help, Adam Smith will return.

Click here for a copy of The Big Three in Economics.