Dead Men Walking: Why 2009's Truly Top Thinkers Are Yesterday's News

By Ferguson, Niall | Foreign Policy, December 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Dead Men Walking: Why 2009's Truly Top Thinkers Are Yesterday's News


Ferguson, Niall, Foreign Policy


There is nothing like a really big economic crisis to separate the Cassandras from the Panglosses, the horsemen of the apocalypse from the Kool-Aid-swigging optimists. No, the last year has shown that all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. On the contrary, we might be doomed.

At such times, we do well to remember that most of today's public intellectuals are mere dwarves, standing on the shoulders of giants. So, if they had e-mail in the hereafter, which of the great thinkers of the past would be entitled to send us a message with the subject line: "I told you so'? And which would prefer to remain offline?

It has, for example, been a bad year for Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his "invisible hand," which was supposed to steer the global economy onward and upward to new heights of opulence through the action of individual choice in unfettered markets. By contrast, it has been a good year for Karl Marx (1818-1883), who always maintained that the internal contradictions of capitalism, and particularly its tendency to increase the inequality of the distribution of wealth, would lead to crisis and finally collapse. A special mention is also due to early 20th-century Marxist theorist Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941), whose Das Finanzkapital foresaw the rise of giant "too big to fail" financial institutions.

Joining Smith in embarrassed silence, you might think, is Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), who warned back in 1944 that the welfare state would lead the West down the "road to serfdom." With a government-mandated expansion of health insurance likely to be enacted in the United States, Hayek's libertarian fears appear to have receded, at least in the Democratic Party. It has been a bumper year, on the other hand, for Hayek's old enemy, John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), whose 1936 work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money has become the new bible for finance ministers seeking to reduce unemployment by means of fiscal stimuli. His biographer, Robert Skidelsky, has hailed the "return of the master." Keynes's self-appointed representative on Earth, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, insists that the application of Keynesian theory, in the form of giant government deficits, has saved the world from a second Great Depression.

The marketplace of ideas has not been nearly so kind this year to the late Milton Friedman (1912-2006), the diminutive doyen of free-market economics. "Inflation," wrote Friedman in a famous definition, "is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, in the sense that it cannot occur without a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output." Well, since September of 2008, Ben Bernanke has been printing dollars like mad at the U.S. Federal Reserve, more than doubling the monetary base. And inflation? As I write, the headline consumer price inflation rate is negative 2 percent. Better throw away that old copy of Friedman's Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz, who is happily still with us).

Invest, instead, in a spanking new edition of The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi (1886-1964). We surely need Polanyi's more anthropological approach to economics to explain the excesses of the boom and the hysteria of the bust. For what in classical economics could possibly account for the credulity of investors in Bernard Madoff's long-running Ponzi scheme? Or the folly of Richard Fuld, who gambled his personal fortune and reputation on the very slim chance that Lehman Brothers, unlike Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, could survive the crisis without being sold to a competitor?

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The biggest intellectual losers of all, however, must be the pioneers of the theory of efficient markets--economists still with us, such as Harry M. Markowitz, the University of Chicago-trained economist who developed the theory of portfolio diversification as the best protection against economic volatility, and William Sharpe, inventor of the capital asset pricing model. …

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