In his September 28 New York Times blog post, Paul Krugman announced that “economics is not a morality play.” That turn of phrase is his way of defending the idea that in unusual times, such as the sort of deep recession we are in, we can get strange relationships between economic cause and effect. The result is that actions which we might find highly distasteful can have positive effects. Thus we cannot afford to be overly concerned with morality if the goal is to get out of the recession.
Specifically, Krugman defends the claim that World War II got us out of the Great Depression, because “this is a situation in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn’t particularly wise.” Even spending on something destructive like war, he argues, is what is needed to solve the problem, especially when the “political consensus for [domestic] spending on a sufficient scale” is not available. In Krugman’s version of Orwell’s Newspeak, destruction creates wealth, and war, though not ideal, is morally acceptable because it produces economic growth.
Thankfully, we can get behind his Newspeak to see the fallacy of his economics. To believe that spending — any kind of spending — is the cure for what ails us is to ignore the subjective nature of wealth and the microeconomic basis of economic growth in favor of an absolute reification of economic aggregates such as GDP and unemployment. Spending trillions of dollars fighting a war can certainly bring idle capital and labor into employment, driving up GDP and lowering unemployment. But this does not mean we are any wealthier than we were before.
Mutually Beneficial Exchange
Wealth increases when people are able to engage in exchanges they believe will be mutually beneficial. The production of new goods that consumers wish to purchase is the beginning of this process. When instead we borrow from future generations to spend on goods and services connected not to the desires of consumers, but rather to the desire of the politically powerful to rain death and destruction on other parts of the world, we are not allowing individuals the freedom to do the things they think will make themselves better off. And we are certainly not extending that freedom to those killed in the name of our economy-enhancing war. At a very basic level, the idea that any kind of spending is desirable overlooks the fact that spending on war (and, I would argue, public works as well) actively prevents people from enhancing their wealth through production and exchange linked to consumer demand.
Employing people to dig holes and fill them up again, or to build bombs that will blow up Iraqis, will certainly reduce unemployment and increase GDP, but it won’t increase wealth. The problem of economics is the problem of coordinating producers and consumers. This coordination happens when we produce what consumers want using the least valuable resources possible. That is why it is wealth-enhancing to dig a canal using earth-movers with a few drivers rather than millions of people using spoons, even though the latter will generate more jobs.
Sending soldiers off to war is a waste of human and material resources, and is almost by definition wealth-destroying, no matter what it does to GDP or unemployment rates. The only way one can view economics amorally, as Krugman wishes to, is if one is only concerned with total GDP and not its composition. However, it is the composition of GDP, in the sense of how well what we’ve produced matches consumer wants, that ultimately matters for human well-being. It’s easy to create jobs and generate spending, but those do not constitute economic growth, and they are not necessarily indicators of human betterment.
So yes, Professor Krugman, it does matter how we try to get ourselves out of depressions. The world is not upside down and vices aren’t virtues. War isn’t peace and destruction isn’t wealth-creation. The real solution to digging out of a recession is to remove the barriers to the free exchange and production that actually comprises wealth-creation. Borrowing trillions more from our grandchildren to spend on building the equivalent of pyramids or on blowing up innocents abroad only digs the hole deeper. And when one is reduced, as Krugman is, to saying we “needed Hitler and Hirohito” to get us out of that hole in the 1930s, one has abandoned morality to worship at the altar of economic aggregates.
No critic of free-market economics can ever again accuse us of being irrational and immoral when it is Paul Krugman who says destruction creates wealth, and war is an acceptable second-best path to economic growth. Don’t let Krugman’s Newspeak fool you: War and destruction are exactly what they appear to be. To argue as Krugman does is to abandon both economics and morality. Big Brother would be proud.