Without the bailouts we would have had many more failed banks, very strong deflationary pressures, a stronger seize-up in credit markets than what we had, and a climate of sheer political and economic panic, leading to greater pressures for bad state interventions than what we now see. Milton Friedman understood all this quite well, which is why argued bailouts would have been a good idea in the 1929-1931 period. [...]
If you are a libertarian, is not our current course more favorable for liberty than would have been a repeat of 1929-1931? If not, I would be curious to hear your counterfactual version of how matters would have proceeded, without the financial bailouts. Is it that you think the regional banks would have raised the financing to pick up the entire bag and keep the banking system afloat? Or is it that natural market forces would have somehow avoided a wrenching surprise deflation? Or do you think the authorities for some reason would have not nationalized the major banks? Please let us know.
I’m not inclined to debate economic policy with Tyler and Megan, so I won’t presume to take a position on the ultimate wisdom of the approach that was taken, but this sounds an awful lot like the old debate trick I’ve previously referred to as the fiat shuffle. Just to refresh: The way the trick works is that, for the purposes of arguing the merits of a given policy, you assume away various real-world political barriers to the policy’s being enacted—in debate lingo, you get to “fiat” the policy and restrict the argument to whether this would be a good thing without fussing over whether you could get the votes in the House (or whatever) to do it. The shuffle comes when you assume the same political constraints back in again as part of an argument that the proposed policy would create pressure for other salutary reforms, or to dismiss alternatives as infeasible.
Now, this isn’t a clear case of fiat shuffle, because it’s easy to imagine that we might have had the political will to resist the bailouts, but that this would not have been sufficient to forestall still more aggressive intervention later assuming things would have gotten far worse. Still, despite a an initial defeat in the house, the bailout ultimately passed by a 3-to-2 margin there, and by an even more lopsided 3-to-1 vote in the Senate. Which is to say, the world in which we didn’t do the bailout is clearly a world with a pretty radically different political culture, presumably populated by legislators with a very different average worldview. When would the inhabitants of that world have given up their resistance to intervention, and how much more dramatic would the intervention have been when they did? Damned if I know, but projections based on the current composition and views of Congress probably don’t apply.
Update: I didn’t think this post made the claim that “if legislators had had the guts to stop the first bailout, they would also have had the backbone to stop a second one,” but I suppose I should train myself to start talking that way in case I ever need to do cable news.