The Four Horsemen of the Teapocalypse

Meet the dead thinkers who defined 2010.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

John Maynard Keynes once famously observed, "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." During the crisis years of 2007, 2008, and 2009, it was the great British economist himself, along with three other dead men, who dictated the world’s response from beyond the grave: Hyman Minsky, Walter Bagehot, and Milton Friedman.

Minsky, an economist at Washington University in St. Louis, for warning that times of financial calm and economic growth led banks to step further and further out onto the ice of leverage — until finally they would step too far and fall through. Bagehot, the 19th-century Economist editor, for advising that when the bankers fell into the ice-cold lake it was essential that the government spare no expense to make sure that the network of banking survived, but needed to do so in a way that took the bankers’ fortunes away. Friedman, the consummate monetarist, for seconding Bagehot’s call for bank rescues in depressions — and calling for central banks to keep the money flowing. And Keynes, for his gloomy fears that central banks would not prove powerful enough to do the job — coupled with his overoptimistic hope that clever technocrats could then boost government spending to take up the slack.

But we are now into the "recovery," and 2010 has been a very different year. Its horsemen are of a different breed entirely. Where Keynes and his ilk were optimistic believers in the power of technocratic governments to do good, this year’s horsemen are practitioners of more dismal sciences: believers that the market metes out judgments that we must suffer — and that it is our own flawed nature that makes us believe so. In short, it has been a year for Austrian economists Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, for plutocrat and Great Depression-era Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon — and, above all, for Friedrich Nietzsche.

There was silence in the seminar room.
Richard Kahn broke it. "Do you mean to say," he asked, "that if I were to go out tomorrow and buy a new overcoat, that it would increase unemployment?"

"Yes," said the man in the front of the room, Friedrich von Hayek, "but it would take a long and complicated mathematical argument to explain why."

That is how historian Robert Skidelsky describes Hayek’s visit to the proto-Keynesian economists of Cambridge University. It was the 1930s, and Hayek had met them in London to convince them that depressions were not to be avoided or cured, but rather endured. In his thinking, they were righteous karmic payback for past sins against the gods of monetary orthodoxy. Any attempts to cut them short or make them shallower would produce only temporary palliation, at the cost of a fiercer, deeper, and nastier further depression in the future.

Hayek’s fellow countryman, Joseph Schumpeter, went further: "Gentlemen!" he announced to his students at Harvard University (there were no ladies). "A depression is healthy! Like a good ice-cold douche!" If depressions did not exist, Schumpeter thought, we would have to invent them. They were "the respiration of the economic mechanism."

Agreeing with Schumpeter was Herbert Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon. In his memoirs Hoover was bitter toward many, but bitterest of all toward Mellon, whom he called the head of the "leave it alone liquidationists." Hoover quotes Mellon: "It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people." Hoover opposed Mellon’s policies, he said, and worked to undermine them. But what could he do? He was, after all, only the president. And Mellon was Treasury secretary.

Think Mellon is just an anachronism? Then consider current British chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and his claim that today’s record-low interest rates in Britain are a sign of financial strength and not of anticipated prolonged depression: "The emergency budget in June was the moment when fiscal credibility was restored. Our market interest rates fell to near-record lows." That is pure Mellon. It is definitely not Keynes. It is definitely not even Milton Friedman.

Friedman himself condemned Hayek, Schumpeter, and Mellon as devotees of an "atrophied and rigid caricature" of his own doctrines. "[T]his dismal picture," said Friedman, led "young, vigorous, and generous mind[s]" to recoil. And both Keynes’s and Friedman’s flavors of postwar American macroeconomics, with its focus on government action to maintain stable growth, were the happy result.

Nothing has changed in the past few years to make Hayek’s, Schumpeter’s, and Mellon’s arguments stronger intellectually against the critiques of Keynes and Friedman than they were 60 years ago. On substance, their current victory is inexplicable. But their triumph, epitomized by the Tea Party movement and its hostility to government action, can be explained by our fourth horseman: Friedrich Nietzsche in his role as psychologist of human ressentiment.

Nietzsche talked about the losers — or rather, about those who thought they were the losers. He looked at those who saw themselves as weak and poor — rather than strong and rich — and saw trouble. "[N]othing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment," he wrote. It drives us to madness.

Think of that when you consider this: The U.S. unemployment rate is stubbornly high, yet aid from a federal government that can borrow at unbelievably good terms could allow states to maintain their levels of public employment, and those public workers would then spend their incomes and so boost the number of private-sector jobs as well. But the voters are against that. No, they say. We have lost our jobs. It is only fair that those who work for the government lose their jobs as well — never mind that each public-sector job lost triggers the destruction of yet another private-sector job. It’s the underlying logic that has led to a wave of austerity across Europe that is now headed for America’s shores. And it’s the same logic that says, "It is only fair that homeowners lose their money" — never mind that everyone’s home prices will suffer. What does not kill me makes me stronger.

Because some are unemployed, unemployment is good — we need more of it. Because some have lost their wealth, wealth destruction is good — we need more of it. That is a psychology that Friedrich Nietzsche would have understood all too well. For, as he put it, "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you."

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