Epstein: "Beyond Austerity"

Beyond Austerity
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
May 1, 2012

Grim is the right word to describe the latest economic news from both the European Union and the United States. Throughout the European Union, austerity programs have failed both politically and economically. In Spain, unemployment rates have soared above 24 percent. The Dutch government is on the edge of collapse because of the popular and political unwillingness to accept the austerity program proposed by its conservative government. Romania is not far behind. Greece, Italy, and Portugal remain in perilous condition. France faces a presidential run-off election between President Nicholas Sarkozy, who is moving rightward on immigration issues, and the free-spending socialist candidate Franciose Hollande. On the American front, the decline of GDP growth to 2.2 percent rightly raises fears that our sputtering domestic recovery is just about over.

It is no surprise, therefore, that leading columnists like Paul Krugman have taken this opportunity to announce triumphantly that austerity is a “fairy tale” that shatters the social confidence that it is designed to shore up. It is futile to invoke fiscal austerity, he argues, when economically beleaguered countries really need to be “spending more to offset falling private demand.” The cure is supposed to be increased government spending, but that solution has its own serious problems. Krugman assumes that the declines in private demand and private investment are attributable to mysterious external forces that are beyond the power of government to control.

The rise in public expenditures has to be financed in one of three ways: higher taxes, increased inflation, or more borrowing. The question of which device is used is, in general, a secondary issue. But the primary insight is this: Any increase in public expenditures in either good or bad times will necessarily result in a larger fraction of the economy under government control.