The history of ‘crowding out’, and its use as a justification for austerity and state deflation from its origins in the 1920s to its latest post-2010 incarnation
Stewart Lansley is Visiting Fellow at the School of Policy Studies, University of Bristol.
Cross-posted from PEF (This version includes footnotes)
The idea of ‘crowding out’ has long been one of the central canons of pro-market economic theory. The concept was first promoted at an international conference of officials in Brussels in 1920 to discuss ‘sound economic policy’ in the postwar years. Given limited capital, asked the British delegation, will ‘Governments or private industry’ use it more productively? ‘The answer is … private industry’. This argument was then placed at the heart of a strategy of state-imposed austerity through cuts in public spending and wages applied in Britain and other nations in the early 1920s.
Following the short-lived boom at the end of the 1914–18 war, Britain, along with much of Europe, faced growing economic turbulence and surging dole queues, along with high levels of public debt from funding the war. With heightened public expectations of social reform, the coalition government Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, initially promised social reconstruction through higher state spending, especially on homes and schooling. Simultaneously, the Prime Minister faced demands from the owners of capital for a return to the pre-war status quo.
During the war, large chunks of the economy had been taken under state control, with the subordination of private profit to steer resources to the war effort. While the public was calling for a better society in return for the sacrifices of war, business leaders were demanding the dismantling of the heightened state intervention of the war years, lower rather than higher public spending, and the reversal of the strengthened bargaining power labour had enjoyed during the war years. Political and industrial clashes were the inevitable outcome.
Deepening recession and the fear of mounting unrest, fuelled by the shadow of Bolshevism, induced panic among the ruling political and corporate classes. In response, the government dropped its commitment to social renewal in favour of a programme of austerity, or state induced deflation. This involved severe cuts in public spending, including reductions in pay for police, teachers and other public servants—cuts dubbed the ‘Geddes axe’ on the advice of a committee chaired by Sir Eric Geddes, the Minister of Transport.
Economic revival, it was argued, depended on lower spending by the state, lower wages and a return to a balanced budget, with state spending matched by tax revenue. If the state had borrowed more to meet its high-profile postwar pledges on housing and education, it was argued, more efficient and more pro-value private activity would have been ‘crowded out’. The measures, based on the idea of an automatic trade-off between state and private activity, were, it was asserted, simply sound economics based on fundamental laws—and not to be tinkered with—of how the economy worked. These ‘laws’ drew on the doctrines of the early classical economists that free markets and minimal state intervention would bring equilibrium, stability, and optimal growth.
Since the 1920s, governments have repeated this strategy of austerity—based on the doctrine of crowding out—on several occasions. These include the early 1930s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the post-2010 decade. Despite the time gaps, these episodes have been marked by almost identical justifications and remarkably similar impacts.
One of the constant themes has been a replay of the balanced budget theory of the 1920s and 1930s. Another has been that public spending cuts and lower wages would release scarce resources for the private sector. In 1975, two Oxford economists, Roger Bacon and Walter Eltis, argued in Britain’s Economic Problem: Too Few Producers that Britain’s economic plight stemmed from too many social workers, teachers and civil servants and not enough workers in industry and commerce. Buying into this argument, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, told the House of Commons in 1979, ‘[we need to] roll back the boundaries of the public sector’ in order ‘to leave room for commerce and industry to prosper’. In June 2010, launching another rolling programme of spending cuts in his first budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne, repeated this claim that public spending ‘crowds out’ private endeavour.
Again, the presumption was that a more robust economy requires more private and less state activity, along with the counter-intuitive idea that austerity was the route to growth and enterprise. The somewhat crude ‘private sector good, public sector bad’ mantra was widely echoed. ‘The next government is going to have many challenges’, wrote the Times in 2010, ‘but tackling a public sector that has become obese … is going to have to be a priority’. Channel 4 went a step further with a programme describing state spending as a ‘Trillion pound horror story’, while The Spectator magazine called it ‘the most important programme to appear on British television this year’.
So, does the austerity/crowding out theory stand up? And if not, why has it been so widely applied? The accumulated evidence shows that it is at best a significant oversimplification of the way economies work. Crowding out of private by too much public sector activity might apply when an economy is operating at full capacity and employment, but the doctrine has only been applied in situations of economic crisis, high unemployment and inadequate demand. Even at full capacity, there is still a choice to be made about the appropriate balance between public and private activity.
Heterodox economists, such as John Hobson in the early twentieth century, had offered an alternative route to growth and out of crisis. His work, which had an important influence on J. M. Keynes, showed that recessions were the product of a shortfall of demand stemming from ‘under-consumption’ and ‘over-production’ triggered in large part by a lack of purchasing power among low- and middle-income households arising from extreme levels of wealth and income inequality.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, slamming on the public spending brakes proved counter-productive. It cut demand and slowed recovery, with private as well as public activity ‘crowded out’. The strategy had minimal effect on improving the state of the public finances, but led to a retreat on social programmes, while unemployment never fell below one million in the inter-war years.
A hundred years on, the Osborne cuts have had a very similar, and predictable impact. They also came with a new label: ‘expansionary austerity’, but an identical message—that a smaller state would generate greater stability via lower interest rates, greater confidence and faster growth. In the event, the strategy turned out to be an additional assault on an already weakened economy, with the cuts in public spending having little or no impact on expanding private activity, while damaging the quality of Britain’s social infrastructure and weakening its system of social support. One critic, David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, concluded that, by destroying productive capacity and making households worse off, the austerity programme simply ‘crushed the fragile recovery’. In one estimate, rolling cuts in public spending were said to have shrunk the economy by £100 billion by the end of the decade. Another study showed that if real-terms growth in public spending at the 3 per cent level inherited in 2010 from the previous Labour government had been maintained and paid for by matching tax rises, Britain’s government debt burden would still have been lowered by 2019.
None of this means that crowding out never occurs. It just takes very different forms from the process advanced in neoliberal thinking. There are three alternative and distinct types of crowding out at work that have consistently had a malign effect on both the economy and wider society, yet have not been systematically addressed in the mainstream economic literature or by relevant government departments.1 First, the idea that markets know best in nearly all circumstances has shifted the balance between private and public activity too far in favour of the former, thus crowding out the latter. Second, an increasing share of private activity has been geared less to its primary function—to building economic strength and creating new wealth—than to boosting personal corporate rewards in a way which fuels inequality, weakens economies and crowds out economic and social progress. Third, there is the way the return of the ‘luxury capitalism’ of the nineteenth century (triggered by the application of pro-inequality neoliberal policies) has come at the expense of the meeting of essential material and social needs.
The balance between private and public activity
The simple notion—private good, public bad—has long been overplayed by neoliberal theorists. Both have a role to play and the real issue is getting the right balance between the two. State spending plays a crucial role not just in meeting wider social goals, but in supporting economic dynamism and stability. Private corporations do not operate in a vacuum. The profits they make, the dividends they pay and the rewards received by executives stem from a too-often unacknowledged interdependence with wider society, including the state. Business provides jobs and livelihoods, while responding to consumer demand. Society provides the workforce, education, transport, multiple forms of inherited infrastructure and often substantial state subsidies.
History shows that while bad decisions are too common, carefully constructed and evidence-based state intervention can have a highly positive impact. Government responsibility lies in helping to shape markets, prevent market abuse, support innovation, share the burden of risk-taking in the development of new technologies, promote public and private wealth creation and protect citizens. It is now time to ask if these functions—from market regulation to citizen protection—have been underplayed.
Britain is a heavily privatised and weakly regulated economy. Among affluent nations, it has a comparatively low level of public spending, including social spending and public investment in infrastructure, relative to the size of the economy. A relatively low portion of the economy is publicly owned. With the cut-price sell-off of state assets, from land to state-owned enterprises, the share of the national wealth pool held in common has fallen sharply from a third in the 1970s to less than a tenth today. This ongoing privatisation process has also greatly weakened the public finances. Britain is one of only a handful of rich nations with a deficit on their public finance balance sheet, with net public wealth—public assets minus debt—now at minus 20 per cent of the economy. The balance stood at plus 40 per cent in 1970. This shift has greatly weakened the state’s capacity to handle issues like inequality, social reconstruction and the climate crisis.
The emphasis on private capital as the primary engine of the economy has failed to deliver the gains promised by its advocates. Since the counter-revolution against postwar social democracy from the early 1980s, and especially since 2010, levels of private investment, research and development, and productivity—key determinants of economic strength—have been low both historically and compared with other rich countries. Several factors account for Britain’s relative private ‘investment deficit’. They include Britain’s low wage history, with abundant cheap labour dulling the incentive to invest, and the perverse system of financial incentives that makes it more attractive for executives to line their pockets than build for the future. There is also the preference given to capital owners—an increasingly narrow group—in the distribution of the gains from corporate activity. In the four years from 2014, FTSE 100 companies generated net profits of £551 billion and returned £442 billion of this to shareholders in share buy-backs and dividends, leaving only a small portion of these gains to be used for private investment and improved wages that support economic strength. With UK corporations increasingly owned by overseas institutional investors, such as US asset management firms, little of this profit flow has ended up in UK pension and insurance funds and back into the domestic economy.
Some forms of financial and business activity have played a destructive role. In a remarkable parallel with the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression, the 2008 financial crash and the financial crisis that followed were classic examples of the impact of uncontrolled market failure. They were the product of tepid regulation of the financial system that turned a blind eye to a lethal cocktail of excessive profiteering and reckless gambling by global finance. It was only public intervention on a mass scale to bail out the banks—and many of the architects of the crash—that prevented an even greater crisis.
Claims about the overriding benefits of the outsourcing of public services to private companies have been exposed by a succession of scandals involving large British companies like G4S and Serco and by damning reports of the consequences of outsourcing in the NHS, the probation service and army recruitment. Such claims were also undermined by the collapse of two giant multi-billion-pound behemoths—the UK construction company Carillion and the public service supplier Interserve (which employed 45,000 people in areas from hospital cleaning to school meals). In the ten years to 2016, Carillion, sunk by self-serving executive behaviour and mismanagement, liked to boast about another malign form of crowding out—of how it raised dividend payments to shareholders every year, with such payments absorbing most of the annual cash generation, rather than building resilience.
A second form of crowding out stems from the return of a range of extractive business mechanisms aimed at capturing a disproportionate share of the gains from economic activity. While some of today’s towering personal fortunes are a reward for value-creating activity that brings wider benefits for society as a whole, many are the product of a carefully manipulated, and largely covert, transfer of existing (and some new) wealth upwards. Early economists, such as the influential Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, warned—in 1896—of the distinction between ‘the production or transformation of economic goods’ and ‘the appropriation of goods produced by others.’ Such ‘appropriation’ or ‘extraction’ benefits capital owners and managers—those who ‘have’ rather than ‘do’—and crowds out activity that could yield more productive and social value. It delivers excessive rewards to owners and executives at the expense of others, from ordinary workers and local communities to small businesses and taxpayers.
Extraction has been a key driver of Britain’s low wage, low productivity and growth sapping economy. Many large companies have been turned into cash cows for executives and shareholders. A key source of this process has been the return of anti-competitive devices described as ‘market sabotage’ by the American heterodox economist Thorstein Veblen over a century ago’. In contrast to the claims of pro-market thinkers, corporate attempts to undermine competitive forces have been an enduring feature in capitalism’s history, contributing to erratic business performance and economic turbulence.
Far from the competitive market models of economic textbooks, the British—and global—economy is dominated by giant, supranational companies. Key markets—from supermarkets, energy supply and housebuilding, to banking, accountancy and pharmaceuticals—are controlled by a handful of ‘too big to fail’ firms. The oligopolistic economies created in recent decades are, despite the claims of neoliberal theorists, a certain route, as predicted by many distinguished economists, from the Polish economist Michal Kalecki, to the Cambridge theorist, Joan Robinson, to weakened competition, extraction and abnormally high profit. This new monopoly power, according to one study of the US economy, has been a key determinant of ‘the declining labor share; rising profit share; rising income and wealth inequalities; and rising household sector leverage, and associated financial instability.’
Although they helped pioneer popular and important innovations, the founders of today’s monolithic technology companies have turned themselves from original ‘makers’ into ‘takers’ and ‘predators’. Companies like Google and Amazon have entrenched their market power by destroying rivals and hoovering up smaller competitors, a form of private-on-private crowding out of small by more powerful firms. Multi-billionaires in large part because of immense global monopoly power, the Google, Amazon and Facebook founders can be seen as the modern day equivalents of the American monopolies created by the ‘robber barons’ such as J. D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould through the crushing of competitors at the end of the nineteenth century.
The House of Have and the House of Want
The third type of crowding out follows from the way the growth of extreme opulence for the few has too often been bought, in effect, at the expense of wider wellbeing and access to basic essentials for the many. Today’s tearaway fortunes are less the product of an historic leap in entrepreneurialism and new wealth creation than of the accretion of economic power and elite control over scarce resources. It is a paradox of contemporary capitalism that as societies get more prosperous, many fail to ensure the most basic of needs are fully met.
In Britain, elements of the social progress of the past are, for a growing proportion of society, being reversed. Compared with the 1970s, a decade when inequality and poverty levels were at an historic low, poverty rates have more or less doubled, while both income and wealth have become increasingly concentrated at the top. Housing opportunities for many have shrunk and life expectancy rates have been falling for those in the most deprived areas. Mass, but hit and miss, charitable help has stepped in to help fill a small part of the growing gaps in the state’s social responsibilities. While Britain’s poorest families have faced static or sinking living standards, the limits to the lifestyle choices of the rich are constantly being raised. The private jet, the luxury yacht, the staff, even the private island, are today the norm for the modern tycoon.
In heavily marketised economies with high levels of income and wealth concentration, the demands of the wealthy will outbid the needs of those on lower incomes. More than one hundred years ago, the Italian-born radical journalist and future British MP, Leo Chiozza Money, had warned, in his influential book, Riches and Poverty, that ‘ill-distribution’ encourages ‘non-productive occupations and trades of luxury, with a marked effect upon national productive powers.’ The ‘great widening’ of the last four decades has, as in the nineteenth century, turned Britain (and other high inequality nations such as the US) into a nation of ‘luxury capitalism’. The pattern of economic activity has been skewed by a super-rich class with resources deflected to meeting their heightened demands.
While Britain’s poorest families lack the income necessary to pay for the most basic of living standards, demand for superyachts continues to rise. The UK is one of the highest users of private jets, contributing a fifth of related emissions across Europe. The French luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH—Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy—is the first European mega-company to be worth more than $500 billion. Resources are also increasingly directed into often highly lucrative economic activity that protects and secures the assets of the mega-rich. Examples include the hiring of ‘reputation professionals’ paid to protect the errant rich and famous, the use of over-restrictive copyright laws, new ways of overseeing and micromanaging workers, as well as a massive corporate lobbying machine.
The distributional consequences of an over-emphasis on market transactions is starkly illustrated in the case of the market for housing. Here, a toxic mix of extreme wealth and an overwhelmingly private market has brought outsized profits for developers and housebuilders at the cost of a decline in the level of home ownership, a lack of social housing and unaffordable private rents. The pattern of housebuilding is now determined by the power of the industry and the preferences of the most affluent and rich. Following the steady withdrawal of state intervention in housing from the 1980s—with local councils instructed by ministers to stop building homes—housebuilders and developers have sat on landbanks and consistently failed to meet the social housing targets laid down in planning permission. Instead of boosting the supply of affordable social housing, scarce land and building resources have been steered to multi-million-pound super-luxury flats, town houses and mansions. In London, Manchester and Birmingham, giant cranes deliver top end sky-high residential blocks, mostly bought by speculative overseas buyers and left empty. The richest crowd out the poorest, or as Leonard Cohen put it, ‘The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes, everybody knows.’
There has been no lack of warnings of the negative economic and social impact of economies heavily geared to luxury consumption, most of them ignored. Examples include the risk of the coexistence of stark poverty and extreme wealth: of what the radical Liberal MP, Charles Masterman, called, in 1913 ‘public penury and private ostentation’, and what the American radical political economist Henry George had earlier called ‘The House of Have and the House of Want’. Then there was the influential 1950s’ warning from the American economist, J. K. Galbraith, of ‘private affluence and public squalor’. ‘So long as material privation is widespread’, wrote the economist, Fred Hirsch, in the 1970s, ‘the conquest of material scarcity is the dominant concern.’
For much of the last century, policy makers have seen wealth and poverty as separate, independent conditions. But that view has always been a convenient political mistruth. If poverty has nothing to do with what is happening at the top, the issue of inequality can be quietly ignored. Yet, the scale of the social divide and the life chances of large sections of society are ultimately the outcome of the conflict over the spoils of economic activity and of the interplay between governments, societal pressure and how rich elites—from land, property and private equity tycoons to city financiers, oil barons and monopolists—exercise their power. In recent decades, the outcome of these forces has favoured the already wealthy, with the shrinking of the economic pie secured by the poorest. As the eminent historian and Christian Socialist, R. H. Tawney, declared in 1913, ‘What thoughtful people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice, a problem of riches.
These three alternative forms of crowding out have imposed sustained harm on social and economic resilience. Despite this, governments have continued to apply a long-discredited austerity-based theory of crowding out, while ignoring other, arguably more damaging forms of the phenomena. The latest application of the original theory since 2010 has inflicted ‘vast damage on public services and the public sector workforce’, without delivering the declared goal of ‘crowding in’ through faster recovery and growth, or improved public finances.
Britain is currently being subjected to yet another wave of austerity, with the 2022 Autumn Statement announcing a new package of projected public spending plans, higher taxes and lower public sector real wages, again in the name of fixing the public finances and boosting growth.26 It’s the same short-term, narrowly focussed strategy that, by digging the economy into a deeper hole and cutting public investment, has failed time and again over the last 100 years.
Meanwhile, other damaging forms of the crowding out of key public services, value-adding economic activity and the meeting of vital needs, driven by over-reliance on markets, excess inequality and dubious private-on-private activity, are simply ignored or dismissed.