The Great Recession Of 1920-21 And What It Can Teach Us Today

Thomas Woods, author of the highly-recommended Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, has both a scholarly article and a video out discussing the Harding Administration’s response to the economic downturn of 1920, which by some measures was even more severe than the Great Depression of the 1930s and what it can teach us today.

From the article:

The economic situation in 1920 was grim. By that year unemployment had jumped from 4 percent to nearly 12 percent, and GNP declined 17 percent. No wonder, then, that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover—falsely characterized as a supporter of laissez-faire economics—urged President Harding to consider an array of interventions to turn the economy around. Hoover was ignored.

Instead of “fiscal stimulus,” Harding cut the government’s budget nearly in half between 1920 and 1922. The rest of Harding’s approach was equally laissez-faire. Tax rates were slashed for all income groups. The national debt was reduced by one-third. The Federal Reserve’s activity, moreover, was hardly noticeable. As one economic historian puts it, “Despite the severity of the contraction, the Fed did not move to use its powers to turn the money supply around and fight the contraction.” 2 By the late summer of 1921, signs of recovery were already visible. The following year, unemployment was back down to 6.7 percent and was only 2.4 percent by 1923.

It is instructive to compare the American response in this period to that of Japan. In 1920, the Japanese government introduced the fundamentals of a planned economy, with the aim of keeping prices artificially high. According to economist Benjamin Anderson, “The great banks, the concentrated industries, and the government got together, destroyed the freedom of the markets, arrested the decline in commodity prices, and held the Japanese price level high above the receding world level for seven years. During these years Japan endured chronic industrial stagnation and at the end, in 1927, she had a banking crisis of such severity that many great branch bank systems went down, as well as many industries. It was a stupid policy. In the effort to avert losses on inventory representing one year’s production, Japan lost seven years.”3

The U.S., by contrast, allowed its economy to readjust. “In 1920–21,” writes Anderson, “we took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression, and in August 1921 we started up again… . The rally in business production and employment that started in August 1921 was soundly based on a drastic cleaning up of credit weakness, a drastic reduction in the costs of production, and on the free play of private enterprise. It was not based on governmental policy designed to make business good.” The federal government did not do what Keynesian economists ever since have urged it to do: run unbalanced budgets and prime the pump through increased expenditures. Rather, there prevailed the old-fashioned view that government should keep spending and taxation low and reduce the public debt.

(…)

The experience of 1920–21 reinforces the contention of genuine free-market economists that government intervention is a hindrance to economic recovery. It is not in spite of the absence of fiscal and monetary stimulus that the economy recovered from the 1920–21 depression. It is because those things were avoided that recovery came. The next time we are solemnly warned to recall the lessons of history lest our economy deteriorate still further, we ought to refer to this episode—and observe how hastily our interrogators try to change the subject.

Woods discusses the article in this video, which is nearly an hour long, but well worth watching:

The contrast with 1920-21, of course, is the twin responses of the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations to the deteriorating economic conditions after 1929. In both cases, their policies did nothing to solve the underlying economic problems they supposedly intended to deal with and instead made the situation much, much worse. There’s a lesson there, if we’re willing to learn it.


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