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1.3 Objectives, Instruments and the Role of Government

In our historical journey we will see that macroeconomics has experienced

periods of crisis. There is no denying the significant conflicts of opinion that

exist between the different schools of thought, and this was especially evident

during the 1970s and 1980s. However, it should also be noted that economists

tend to disagree more over theoretical issues, empirical evidence and the

choice of policy instruments than they do over the ultimate objectives of

policy. In the opening statement of what turned out to be one of the most

influential articles written in the post-war period, Friedman (1968a) gave

emphasis to this very issue:

There is wide agreement about the major goals of economic policy: high employment,

stable prices, and rapid growth. There is less agreement that these goals are

mutually compatible or, among those who regard them as incompatible, about the

terms at which they can and should be substituted for one another. There is least

agreement about the role that various instruments of policy can and should play in

achieving the several goals.

The choice of appropriate instruments in order to achieve the ‘major goals’ of

economic policy will depend on a detailed analysis of the causes of specific

macroeconomic problems. Here we encounter two main intellectual traditions

in macroeconomics which we can define broadly as the classical and Keynesian

approaches. It is when we examine how policy objectives are interconnected

and how different economists view the role and effectiveness of markets in

coordinating economic activity that we find the fundamental question that

underlies disagreements between economists on matters of policy, namely,

what is the proper role of government in the economy? The extent and form of

government intervention in the economy was a major concern of Adam Smith

(1776) in the Wealth of Nations, and the rejection of uncontrolled laissez-faire

by Keynes is well documented. During the twentieth century the really big

questions in macroeconomics revolved around this issue. Mankiw (1989) identifies

the classical approach as one ‘emphasising the optimization of private

actors’ and ‘the efficiency of unfettered markets’. On the other hand, the

Keynesian school ‘believes that understanding economic fluctuations requires

not just the intricacies of general equilibrium, but also appreciating the possibility

of market failure’. Obviously there is room for a more extensive role for

government in the Keynesian vision. In a radio broadcast in 1934, Keynes

presented a talk entitled ‘Poverty and Plenty: is the economic system selfadjusting?’

In it he distinguished between two warring factions of economists:

On the one side are those that believe that the existing economic system is, in the

long run, a self-adjusting system, though with creaks and groans and jerks and

interrupted by time lags, outside interference and mistakes … On the other side of

the gulf are those that reject the idea that the existing economic system is, in any

significant sense, self-adjusting. The strength of the self-adjusting school depends

on it having behind it almost the whole body of organised economic thinking of

the last hundred years … Thus, if the heretics on the other side of the gulf are to

demolish the forces of nineteenth-century orthodoxy … they must attack them in

their citadel … Now I range myself with the heretics. (Keynes, 1973a, Vol. XIII,

pp. 485–92)

Despite the development of more sophisticated and quantitatively powerful

techniques during the past half-century, these two basic views identified by

Keynes have persisted. Witness the opening comments of Stanley Fischer in a

survey of developments in macroeconomics published in the late 1980s:

One view and school of thought, associated with Keynes, Keynesians and new

Keynesians, is that the private economy is subject to co-ordination failures that

can produce excessive levels of unemployment and excessive fluctuations in real

activity. The other view, attributed to classical economists, and espoused by monetarists

and equilibrium business cycle theorists, is that the private economy

reaches as good an equilibrium as is possible given government policy. (Fischer,

1988, p. 294)

It appears that many contemporary debates bear an uncanny resemblance to

those that took place between Keynes and his critics in the 1930s. Recently,

Kasper (2002) has argued that in the USA, the 1970s witnessed a strong

revival in macroeconomic policy debates of a presumption in favour of laissezfaire,

a clear case of ‘back to the future’.

In this book we are primarily concerned with an examination of the intellectual

influences that have shaped the development of macroeconomic theory

and the conduct of macroeconomic policy in the period since the publication

of Keynes’s (1936) General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. The

first 25 years following the end of the Second World War were halcyon days

for Keynesian macroeconomics. The new generation of macroeconomists

generally accepted Keynes’s central message that a laissez-faire capitalist

economy could possess equilibria characterized by excessive involuntary

unemployment. The main policy message to come out of the General Theory

was that active government intervention in order to regulate aggregate demand

was necessary, indeed unavoidable, if a satisfactory level of aggregate

output and employment were to be maintained. Although, as Skidelsky (1996a)

points out, Keynes does not deal explicitly with the Great Depression in the

General Theory, it is certain that this major work was written as a direct

response to the cataclysmic events unfolding across the capitalist economies

after 1929.