The Keynes-Hayek Rematch

LONDON – The Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who died in 1992 at the age of 93, once remarked that to have the last word requires only outliving your opponents. His great good fortune was to outlive Keynes by almost 50 years, and thus to claim a posthumous victory over a rival who had savaged him intellectually while he was alive.

Hayek’s apotheosis came in the 1980’s, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took to quoting from The Road to Serfdom (1944), his classic attack on central planning. But in economics there are never any final verdicts. While Hayek’s defense of the market system against the gross inefficiency of central planning won increasing assent, Keynes’s view that market systems require continuous stabilization lingered on in finance ministries and central banks.

Both traditions, though, were eclipsed by the Chicago school of “rational expectations,” which has dominated mainstream economics for the last twenty-five years. With economic agents supposedly possessing perfect information about all possible contingencies, systemic crises could never happen except as a result of accidents and surprises beyond the reach of economic theory.

The global economic collapse of 2007-2008 discredited “rational expectations” economics (though its high priests have yet to recognize this) and brought both Keynes and Hayek back into posthumous contention. The issues have not changed much since their argument began in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. What causes market economies to collapse? What is the right response to a collapse? What is the best way to prevent future collapses?