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2.10 Keynes’s Rejection of Say’s Law

Say’s Law, if accepted, makes macroeconomic demand management policies

redundant. We have seen earlier that in the classical model a decision to

refrain from current consumption is equivalent to a decision to consume more

in the future. This decision therefore automatically implies that resources

need to be diverted to the production of investment goods which will be

needed to provide the flow of future consumption goods. An increase in

saving automatically becomes an increase in investment expenditure via adjustment

of the interest rate. In the classical model, saving is in effect just

another form of spending. The principles underlying Say’s Law raised their

head during discussions relating to anti-depression economic policy during

the interwar period. Ralph Hawtrey, a strong advocate of the ‘Treasury View’,

argued forcefully that public works programmes would be useless since such

expenditures would simply ‘crowd out’ an equivalent amount of private spending.

Such views only make sense in the context of a fully employed economy

(Deutscher, 1990).

A principal objective of writing the General Theory was to provide a

theoretical refutation of Say’s Law, something Malthus over a century earlier

had tried and failed to do. In Keynes’s model output and employment are

determined by effective demand, and the operation of the labour market

cannot guarantee full employment. The interest rate is determined in the

money market rather than by saving and investment decisions. Variations in

the marginal efficiency of investment bring about variations in real output via

the multiplier effect and as a result saving adjusts to investment through

changes in income. Hence in Keynes’s model any inequality between planned

investment and planned saving leads to quantity adjustments rather than

equilibrating adjustments of the rate of interest. By demonstrating the flaws

inherent in wage and price flexibility as a method of returning the economy

to full employment following a negative demand shock, Keynes effectively

reversed Say’s Law. In Keynes’s world of underemployment equilibrium,

demand creates supply!