The great thing about the blogosphere is that everything is happening in “real-time”. In economic journals the exchange of ideas and arguments can go on forever without getting to any real conclusion and some debates is never undertaken in the economic journals because of the format of journals.
Such a debate is the discussion about whether central banking is central planning, which has been going on between the one hand Kurt Schuler and on the other hand David Glasner and Bill Woolsey. Frankly speaking, I shouldn’t really get involved in this debate as the three gentlemen all are extreme knowledgeable about exactly this topic and they have all written extensively about Free Banking – something that I frankly has not written much about.
In my day-job central banks are just something we accept as a fact that is not up for debate. Anyway, I want to let me readers know about this interesting debate and maybe add a bit of my humble opinion as we go along. There is, however, no reason to “reprint” every single argument in the debate so here are the key links:
Initially my thinking was, yes, of course central banking is central planning, but Bill Woolsey arguments won the day (Sorry David, the Hayek quotes didn’t convince me…).
Here is Bill Woolsey:
“Comprehensive central planning of the economy is the central direction of the production and consumption of all goods services. How many cars do we want this year? How much steel is needed to produce those cars? How much iron ore is needed to produce the steel?…Trying to do this for every good and service all the time for millions of people producing and consuming is really, really hard. Perhaps impossible is not too strong of a word, though that really means impossible to do very well at all, much less do better than a competitive market system…Central banking is very different. It does involve having a monopoly over a very important good–base money. Early on, governments sold that monopoly to private firms, but later either explicitly nationalized the central banks, or regulated and “taxed” them to a point where any private elements are just window dressing…Schuler’s error is to identify this monopoly on the provision of an important good with comprehensive central planning. Yes, a monopolist must determine how much of its product to produce and what price to charge. The central bank must determine what quantity of base money to produce and what interest rate to pay (or charge) on reserve balances. But that is nothing like determining how much of each and every good is to be produced while making sure that the resources needed to produce them are properly delivered to the correct places at the correct times.”
Bill continues (here its gets really convincing…):
“Suppose electric power was produced as a government monopoly. That is certainly realistic. The inefficiency of multiple sets of transmission lines provides a plausible rationale. The government power monopoly would need to determine some pricing scheme and how much power to generate. And, of course, these decisions would have implications for the overall level of economic activity. Not enough capacity, and blackouts disrupt economic activity. Too much capacity, and the higher rates needed to pay for it deter economic activity…It is hard to conceive of an electric utility centrally directing the economy, but it isn’t impossible. Ration electricity to all firms based upon a comprehensive plan for what they should be doing. Any firm that produces the wrong amount and sends it to the wrong place is cut off.”
Central banking might not be central planning
Hence, there is a crucial difference between central planning and a government monopoly on the production of certain goods (as for example money). One can of course argue that if government produces anything it is socialism and therefore central planning. However, then central planning loses its meaning and will just become synonymous with socialism. Therefore, arguing that central banking is central planning as Schuler does is in my view wrong. It might be a integral part of an socialist economic system that money is monopolized, but that is still not the same thing as to say central banking is central planning.
But increasingly central banking is conducted as central planning
While central banking need not to be central banking it is also clear that during certain periods of history and in certain countries monetary policy has been conducted as if part (or actually being part of) a overall central planning scheme. In fact until the early 1980s most Western European economies and the US had massively regulated financial markets and credit and money were to a large extent allocated with central planning methods by the financial authorities and by the central banks. Furthermore, exchange controls meant that there was not a free flow of capital, which “necessitated” central planning of which companies and institutions should have access to foreign currency. Therefore, central banking during the 1970s for example clearly involved significant amounts of central planning.
However, the liberalization of the financial markets in most Western countries during the 1980s sharply reduced the elements of central planning in central banking around the world.
The Great Recession, however, has lead to a reversal of this trend away from “central bank planning” and central banks are increasingly involved in “micromanagement” and what clear feels and look like central planning.
In the US the Federal Reserve has been highly involved in buying “distressed assets” and hence strongly been influencing the relative prices in financial markets. In Europe the ECB has been actively interfering in the pricing of government bonds by actively buying for example Greek or Italian bonds to “support” the prices of these bonds. This obviously is not central banking, but central planning of financial markets. It is not and should not be the task of central banks to influence the allocation of credit and capital.
With central banks increasingly getting involved in micromanaging financial market prices and trying to decide what is the “right price” (contrary to the market price) the central banks obviously are facing the same challenges as any Soviet time central planning would face.
Mises and Hayek convincing won the Socialist calculation debate back in the 1920s and the collapse of communism once and for all proved the impossibility of a central planned economy. I am, however, afraid that central banks around the world have forgotten that lesson and increasing are acting as if it was not Mises and Hayek who prevailed in the Socialist-calculation debate but rather Lerner and Lange.
Furthermore, the central banks’ focus on micromanaging financial market prices is taking away attention from the actual conduct of monetary policy. This should also be a lesson for Market Monetarists who for example have supported quantitative easing in the US. The fact remains that what have been called QE in the US in fact does not have the purpose of increasing the money supply (to reduce monetary disequilibrium), but rather had the purpose of micromanaging financial market prices. Therefore, Market Monetarists should again and again stress that we support central bank actions to reduce monetary disequilibrium within a rule-based framework, but we object to any suggestion of the use central planning “tools” in the conduct of monetary policy.