When Ben Bernanke took charge of the Federal Reserve in 2006, the media made a few passing references that suggested he secretly subscribed to libertarianism. “I worked with him for years before I even knew he was a libertarian-leaning Republican,” the former Fed vice chairman Alan Blinder told CNN. The Wall Street Journal reported that Bernanke, “though a libertarian Republican …displays few partisan leanings.”
Last summer President Barack Obama re-nominated Bernanke to another four-year term atop the central bank, a reward for allegedly saving the world from a second Great Depression. Bernanke will arrive at his Senate confirmation hearings this January with an unbeatable recommendation. “As an expert on the causes of the Great Depression,” Obama raved in August, “I’m sure Ben never imagined that he would be part of a team responsible for preventing another. But because of his background, his temperament, his courage and his creativity, that’s exactly what he has helped to achieve.”
“Mission Accomplished,” the banner might have read.
Missing from Obama’s speech was any mention of Bernanke’s economic philosophy. These days, the media have taken to calling him a Keynesian—a believer in fiscal stimulus and the mixed economy. “We are all Keynesians again,” the liberal Washington Monthly headlined a January 2009 feature on the Fed chief.
In reality, Bernanke is following a monetarist depression-prevention model laid out by Nobel laureate and libertarian patron saint Milton Friedman. The Fed chairman has invoked the late economist in support of lowering interest rates to zero and bailing out banks. Trillions of dollars have been staked on the insights of “monetarism,” the economic theory of central banking and inflation-management associated with Friedman and Anna Schwartz. Though Schwartz now distances herself from Bernanke, opposing his reappointment on the grounds that he’s gone too far, the irony remains that a series of Fed policies many libertarians find repugnant are being championed by a man claiming to take his chief inspiration from the most influential libertarian economist of the 20th century.
A Monetary History of Ben Bernanke
The story begins in 1963, when Friedman and co-author Anna Schwartz published A Monetary History of the United States, an opening salvo in what Friedman called a “counterrevolution” against Keynesian theory. Their chapter on the Great Depression was spun off into a stand-alone book, The Great Contraction: 1929–1933, an epic revisionist history that changed America’s understanding of the causes of the Depression. Friedman and Schwartz contended that the Federal Reserve—not capitalism or Wall Street—was to blame for the dismal ’30s.
“The fact of the matter is that it was the [Fed’s] decision to tighten credit policy in 1928 that produced the Great Contraction,” the 93-year-old Schwartz says by phone from her office at the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York City. The Fed hiked interest rates in 1928 to curb what it saw as rampant speculation on Wall Street—a conflagration of leverage, margin buying, and outright Ponzi scheming fueled in the first instance by cheap credit from the Federal Reserve. (Goldman Sachs’ various pyramid schemes from that era, after they collapsed in 1929, generated losses of $475 billion in today’s dollars.)
Friedman and Schwartz rejected the widely held theory that speculation had been a major problem, or that there had even been a credit bubble in the 1920s. Bad loans and reckless banking practices were a “minor factor,” at most, in the Great Depression, they said. In this narrative, a Federal Reserve paranoid about speculation had needlessly constricted the money supply, imploding an otherwise sound economy.
After the Great Crash of 1929, the Federal Reserve drastically cut interest rates from a brief high of 6 percent to 1.5 percent by mid-1931. But during the first few years of the crisis, the Fed occasionally felt forced to abruptly raise rates again in complicated maneuvers to stem outflows of gold into Europe. Friedman and Schwartz blamed these sporadic interest rate hikes for smothering incipient recoveries, opening a vortex of deflation, and transforming a recession into the Great Depression.
“What the Fed had to do was increase the money supply,” Schwartz tells me. “By taking that action, it would have revived the economy. That’s the lesson of the Great Depression.” In The Great Contraction, she and Friedman argued that the Fed squandered its ample latitude to combat deflation. “The monetary authorities,” they wrote, “could have prevented the decline in the stock of money—indeed, could have produced almost any desired increase in the money stock.”
When it comes to his academic specialty, Bernanke is a disciple of Friedman and Schwartz. In 2002, at Friedman’s 90th birthday party at the University of Chicago, Bernanke was effusive. “Among economic scholars,” he began, “Friedman has no peers.” He developed the “leading and most persuasive” explanation of the Depression, whose impact on economics and the popular mind “cannot be overstated.”
At the end of his encomium, Bernanke made a soon-to-be-famous apology on behalf of the Federal Reserve, where he was then president of the powerful New York branch: “I would like to say to Milton and Anna…regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.” (The speech was published as the afterword to the latest edition of The Great Contraction.)
Schwartz was present at the birthday party. “I’m sure he was sincere when he said that,” she says. And Bernanke stayed true to his word. In 2006 he replaced Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Greenspan, a self-described “libertarian Republican” who had once been part of Ayn Rand’s inner circle, had engineered an era of low-inflation growth that won Friedman’s endorsement. “There is no other period of comparable length in which the Federal Reserve System has performed so well,” Friedman declared in The Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2006.
Monetarism and Freedom