As for the need to cut social spending to revive growth, there is no historical evidence to support it either. From 1945 to 1990, per capita income in Europe grew considerably faster than in the US, despite its countries having welfare states on average a third larger than that of the US. Even after 1990, when European growth slowed down, countries like Sweden and Finland, with much larger welfare spending, grew faster than the US.
As for the belief that making life easier for the rich through tax cuts and deregulation is good for investment and growth, we need to remind ourselves that this was tried in many countries after 1980, with very poor results. Compared to the previous three decades of higher taxes and stronger regulation, investment (as a proportion of GDP) and economic growth fell in those countries. Also, the world economy in the 19th century grew much more slowly than in the high-tax, high-regulation era of 1945-80, despite the fact that taxes were much lower (most countries didn’t even have income tax) and regulation thinner on the ground.
The argument on hiring and firing is also not grounded in historical evidence. Unemployment rates in the major capitalist economies were between 0% (some years in Switzerland) and 4% from 1945-80, despite increasing labour market regulation. There were more jobless people during the 19th century, when there was effectively no regulation on hiring and firing.
So, if the whole history of capitalism, and not just the experiences of the last few years, shows that the supposed remedies for today’s economic crisis are not going to work, what are our political and economic leaders doing? Perhaps they are insane – if we follow Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But the more likely explanation is that, by pushing these policies against all evidence, our leaders are really telling us that they want to preserve – or even intensify, in areas like welfare policy – the economic system that has served them so well in the past three decades.
If you haven’t heard of Chang’s book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, I highly recommend it. It makes a surprisingly cogent case for tariff barriers and other forms of protectionism by means of a historical analysis of the development of capitalism. In brief, today’s major developed countries got to where they are by protectionism and subterfuge (e.g. ignoring intellectual property laws). In particular, he focuses on the success of South Korea as a case study showing that such policies still work, even while the developed world hypocritically bars developing countries from using them. The book has certainly given me a lot to think about, and at the very least, Chang and his mentor Joseph Stiglitz deserve a comprehensive refutation by those on the opposite side of the economic spectrum.