With the economy on the brink of a major collapse, there would seem to be no better time than the present to become reacquainted with the Austrian theory of the trade cycle, since this theory is nearly the only one which can come close to explaining the present crisis. Whereas most academic economists, under the influence of Keynes, believe that the economy, if manipulated in the right ways by the central banking authorities, can be kept in a state of expansion indefinitely, the Austrians argued for what has been called, by one critic, the "hangover theory," according to which any attempt to artificially stimulate the economy through a policy of credit inflation and low interest rates is bound to fail in the long run, so that any attempt to prevent a recession by lowering the interest rate can only wind up making things worse. Now while the Austrian theory in all its manifold details may not provide us with an entirely adequate description of economic reality, it is difficult to argue with the premise that artificially lowering the interest rate through easy money policies must lead to serious economic dislocations down the road. The cluelessness in regard to this issue demonstrated by most academic economists and by investment analysts merely proves the inveterate irrationality of the majority of the human race and the tremendous influence of wishful thinking on those who do not have the guts to see things as they are. There is no better introduction to Austrian trade cycle theory than this modest book which includes essays by von Mises, Hayek, Halberler, and Rothbard. The theory is presented in a clear, succinct manner, so that even economic illiterates have a chance to understand it. Roger Garrison provides an excellent introduction and summary.
Although I regard the Austrian theory as the best so far promulgated, this should not be construed as a full-hearted endorsement of the theory. In many important respects, the theory is flawed. Specifically, the theory suffers from two major shortcomings: (1) it is derived entirely from rationalistic speculation based on oversimplified generalizations of economic reality; and (2) it tacitly assumes that human behavior and motivation is far more rational than the facts would suggest. Given these weaknesses, it's not surprising that only the extreme rationalists within the Austrian movement except the theory in toto, and that many who once accepted (including even Haberler, one of the contributors to this volume) later rejected it. Perhaps the main reason for this rejection is the view that what causes the recession (or depression) is misallocation of resources within the capital structure. When interest rates are artificially lowered, this leads (according to the Austrian theory) to over-investment in more durable over less durable capital industries and for temporally more remote rather than less remote stages of production. This part of the theory has not sit well even with those economists who might otherwise be sympathetic to it. This is a pity, because this portion of the theory is not even necessary for explaining the phenomenon of economic recessions. In fact, they can be explained in virtue of credit expansion alone. The key is to merely understand that credit expansion through fractional reserve banking (or the equivalent thereof) is equivalent to debt expansion, since debt is merely the obverse side of credit. But it should be obvious to those whose common sense has not been debauched by too much Keynsianism that expansion of debt through fractional reserves cannot be carried on indefinitely, since debt of this kind is tantamount to leveraged debt and becomes more and more like a ponzi scheme the longer the banking and treasury authorities allow it to go on.
An excellent and important little book. Highly recommended.