Moral Courage and the Austrian School

When economic crises hit, most pundits and intellectuals never see it coming. That is because they have never learned the lesson that Bastiat sought to teach, namely that we need to look beneath the surface, to the unseen dimensions of human action, in order to see the full economic reality. It is not enough just to stand back and look at points on a chart going up and down, smiling when things go up and frowning when things go down. That is the nihilism of an economic statistician who employs no theory, no notion of cause and effect, no understanding of the dynamics of human history.

So long as things were going up, everyone thought the economic system was healthy. It was the same in the late ’20s. In fact, it has been the same throughout human history. It is no different today. The stock market is going up, so surely that is a sign of economic health. But people ought to reflect on the fact that the highest performing stock market in the world in 2007 belonged to Zimbabwe, which is now home to a spectacular economic collapse.

Because of this tendency to look at the surface rather than the underlying reality, the business-cycle theory has been a source of much confusion throughout economic history. To understand the theory requires looking beyond the data and into the core of the structure of production and its overall health. It requires abstract thinking about the relationship between capital and interest rates, money and investment, real and fake saving, and the economic impact of the central bank and the illusions it weaves. You can’t get that information by watching numbers blow by at the bottom of your TV screen.

Then when the crisis hits, it comes as a complete surprise every time, and economists find themselves in the role of forging a plan to do something about the problem. This is when a crude form of Keynesianism comes into play. The government spends what money it has and prints what it doesn’t have. Unemployed people are paid. Tricks to prop up failing industries abound. Generally, the approach is to gin up the public to engage in some form of exchange, in order to keep reality at bay.

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