July 5, 2017
Our Lawless Central Bank
(Ryan McMaken) The economic arguments against central banks are numerous to say the least. Through the writings of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard we have a wide variety of critiques that explain the many ways the central banks distort economies, cause booms and busts, punish savers, and chose winners and losers through monetary policy.
But, even if confronted with these arguments, and one remains supportive of central banks, other non-economic arguments must still be addressed.
For example, it is becoming increasing important — in our current age of “non-traditional” monetary policy — to take note of the fact that central banks, and especially the Federal Reserve, are essentially unrestrained by law.
Economists themselves often defend this total unmooring from legal or political accountability, saying it is necessary for the Fed to have “independence” from elected officials.
In reality, however, this “independence” is best described as “total lack of accountability.”
Writing in today’s Dallas Morning News, Texas Tech economist Alexander William Salter writes:
A phenomenal amount of time and money is spent trying to anticipate what the Fed will do and, afterwards, what the ramifications will be. The reason it takes so many experts to weigh in on Fed behavior is because the Fed’s actions are fundamentally unpredictable. This is a huge defect in an organization of such public importance in a nation whose founding principles include the sanctity of the rule of law.
“Rule of law” does not merely mean “according to some official procedure.” In order to be truly lawful, the behaviors of government entities must adhere to a more general framework of rules, so that these behaviors are not arbitrary. The more general rules must be more or less fixed, known in advance, and — most importantly — not subject to reinterpretation by those whose hands the rule is supposed to bind. This concept of the rule of law is central to classically liberal constitutionalism and jurisprudence, which underlies the American experiment in ordered liberty.
The behavior of the Fed fails to meet any of these criteria.
Fed activities are more or less unpredictable on any given day, as indicated by the need for various financial houses to devote significant resources to Fed-watching. Congress has almost entirely abdicated its responsibility in holding the Fed accountable, so Fed’s actions are not in conformity with any general rule other than what the Fed Board of Governors thinks is expedient. This means the Fed is a judge in its own cause and a law unto itself.
In recent years, some observers — Robert Higgs, for instance — have focused on “regime uncertainty” which is a problem arising from “a pervasive lack of confidence among investors in their ability to foresee the extent to which future government actions will alter their private-property rights.”
Much of the focus in this research has been on the presidency and the Congress and the courts while ignoring the central role of the Fed itself in promoting this uncertainty.
As Salter notes, the Fed is now unpredictable, and it’s anyone’s guess what policy change might be coming down the road at any given time. Needless to say, this isn’t great for economic growth for all the reasons laid out in the regime-uncertainty research.
Of course, the Fed has always essentially been unaccountable to any outside institutions. Nevertheless, both political ideology and prevailing views among many economists helped to restrain Fed action over the past century. Since World War II, another important factor has been the fact that the US economy has often been relatively strong, and there rarely appeared to be ample justification for the sorts of radical monetary policy now routinely being discussed among Fed policymakers.
As a perfect example of how radical monetary thought has become might be the discussion surrounding Marvin Goodfriend, who was recently revealed to be a leading candidate for appointment by Donald Trump to the Fed’s board of governors. According to the Financial Times, Goodfriend possesses “a radical willingness to embrace deeply negative rates.”
As a member of the Fed’s board, would Goodfriend push for negative rates under the “right” conditions? Who knows?
But if he was successful in winning over a majority of voting members to such a position what could anyone do about it? More importantly, what documents, guidelines, or statutes would indicate for us ahead of time what the “right” conditions would be for implementing negative rates?
There are none. Whether or not the “time is right” for negative rates is completely up to the whims of Board members.
This situation is, as Salter points out, the complete opposite of “the Rule of Law” and has no place in a legal or political regime that claims to respect such a concept.
Moreover, the situation that now prevails at the Fed is exactly the sort of thing F.A. Hayek warned about in The Road to Serfdom when Hayek outlines the incompatibility between the rule of law and an economy controlled by government planners.
…stripped of all its technicalities, [the rule of law] means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand — rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.
Serious problems begin to arise, Hayek continues, when “ad hoc actions” on the part of government planners prevent market actors from planning for their own economic futures.
Unfortunately, “ad hoc” would appear to be one of the most apt phrases for describing how the Fed functions in today’s world.
The Fed’s defenders will tell us that this unrestrained capriciousness must be tolerated or else the Fed will no longer have its precious “independence.”
Of course, applying this logic to any other political institution — and the Fed most certainly is a political institution — would be immediately denounced as absurdly authoritarian.
And rightly so.
But the Fed’s lack of accountability continues to be sacrosanct among many in power — and it continues in spite of a decade of lackluster economic performance under the Fed’s “leadership. Salter is forced to conclude:
But when money is governed by the arbitrary rule of central bankers, things become much more uncertain. Trade slows. The economy stagnates, jobs are hard to come by, and the gains from trade mostly accrue to politically connected financial elites. The Fed bears no small responsibility for the past 10 years of anemic economic performance.