Alfred and Mary Marshall and the Confidence Fairy: Annals of the History of Economic Thought

Alfred and Mary Marshall and the Confidence Fairy: Annals of the History of Economic Thought: Hoisted from the Archives: Alfred Marshall and Mary Marshall (1885), Economics of Industry, Book III: Market Value: Chapter 1: Changes in the Purchasing Power of Money

(4) After every crisis, in every period of commercial depression, it is said that supply is in excess of demand. Of course there may easily be an excessive supply of some particular commodities; so much cloth and furniture and cutlery may have been made that they cannot be sold at a remunerative price. But something more than this is meant. For after a crisis the warehouses are overstocked with goods in almost every important trade; scarcely any trade can continue undiminished production so as to afford a good rate of profits to capital and a good rate of wages to labour. And it is thought that this state of things is one of general over-production. We shall however find that it really is nothing but a state of commercial disorganization; and that the remedy for it is a revival of confidence.
To begin with, it is clear that, as [John Stuart] Mill says:
“What constitutes the means of payment for commodities is simply commodities.”
Each person’s means of paying for the productions of other people consist of those which he himself possesses. All sellers are inevitably, and by the meaning of the word, buyers. Could we suddenly double the productive powers of the country, we should double the supply of commodities in every market; but we should, by the same stroke, double the purchasing power. Everybody would bring a double demand as well as supply; everybody would be able to buy twice as much, because every one would have twice as much to offer in exchange.
But though men have the power to purchase they may not choose to use it. For when confidence has been shaken by failures, capital cannot be got to start new companies or extend old ones. Projects for new railways meet with no favour, ships lie idle, and there are no orders for new ships. There is scarcely any demand for the work of navvies, and not much for the work of the building and the engine-making trades. In short there is but little occupation in any of the trades which make fixed capital. Those whose skill and capital is specialized in these trades are earning little, and therefore buying little of the produce of other trades. Other trades, finding a poor market for their goods, produce less; they earn less, and therefore they buy less; the diminution of the demand for their wares makes them demand less of other trades.
Thus commercial disorganization spreads, the disorganization of one trade throws others out of gear, and they react on it and increase its disorganization.
The chief cause of the evil is a want of confidence. The greater part of it could be removed almost in an instant if confidence could return, touch all industries with her magic wand, and make them continue their production and their demand for the wares of others…

In addition to the first explicit invocation of the Confidence Fairy ‘touch[ing] all industries with her magic wand’ I have found, I find it interesting that Alfred and Mary Marshall quote Mill on the truth of Say’s Law without quoting Mill on when Say’s Law breaks down — on how excess demand in (and after) a financial crisis for financial assets like money is deficient demand for and excess supply of currently-produced goods and services and labor: a general glut.

This failure to note Mill’s insights from his Essays on Some Unsettled Questions — this failure to recognize that not just Malthus but Mill and indeed Say himself had big problems with the empirical applicability of Say’s Law — is, I think, what lies behind Keynes’s peroration in Chapter 3 of his General Theory:

Malthus, indeed, had vehemently opposed Ricardo’s [and Say’s] doctrine… but vainly. For, since Malthus was unable to explain clearly (apart from an appeal to the facts of common observation) how and why effective demand could be deficient or excessive, he failed to furnish an alternative construction; and Ricardo conquered England as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain. Not only was his theory accepted by the city, by statesmen and by the academic world. But controversy ceased; the other point of view completely disappeared; it ceased to be discussed.
The great puzzle of effective demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from economic literature. You will not find it mentioned even once in the whole works of Marshall, Edgeworth and Professor Pigou, from whose hands the classical theory has received its most mature embodiment. It could only live on furtively, below the surface, in the underworlds of Karl Marx, Silvio Gesell or Major Douglas…

Meanwhile, back at the Economics of Industry, Alfred and Mary Marshall continue:

If all trades which make goods for direct consumption agreed to work on and to buy each other’s goods as in ordinary times, they would supply one another with the means of earning a moderate rate of profits and of wages. The trades which make fixed capital might have to wait a little longer, but they too would get employment when confidence had revived so far that those who had capital to invest had made up their minds how to invest it.
Confidence by growing would cause itself to grow; credit would give increased means of purchase, and thus prices would recover. Those in trade already would make good profits, new companies would be started, old businesses would be extended; and soon there would be a good demand even for the work of those who make fixed capital. There is of course no formal agreement between the different trades to begin again to work full times and so make a market for each other’s wares. But the revival of industry comes about through the gradual and often simultaneous growth of confidence among many various trades; it begins as soon as traders think that prices will not continue to fall: and with a revival of industry prices rise.
[Note: The most plausible of all the plans that have been suggested by Socialists for the artificial organization or industry is on which aims at the ‘abolition of commercial risk’. They propose that in times of depression government should step forward and, by guaranteeing each separate industry against risk, cause all industries to work, and therefore to earn and therefore to buy each other’s products. Government, by running every risk at once, would, they thin, run no risk. But they have not yet shown how government could tell whether a man’s distress was really due to causes beyond his own control, nor how its guarantee could be worked without hindering that freedom on which energy and the progress of invention depend.]
(5) The connexion between a fall of prices and a suspension of industry requires to be further worked out.
There is no reason why a depression of trade and a fall of prices should stop the work of those who can produce without having to pay money on account of any expenses of production. For instance a man who pays no wages, who works with his own hands, and produces what raw material he requires, cannot lose anything by continuing to work. It does not matter to him how low prices have fallen, provided that the prices of his goods have not fallen more in proportion than those of others. When prices are low, he will get few coins for his goods; but if he can buy as many things with them as he could with the greater number of coins he got when prices were high, he will not be injured by the fall of prices. He would be a little discouraged if be thought that the price of his goods would fall more than the prices of others; but even then be would not be very likely to stop work.
And in the same way a manufacturer, though he has to pay for raw material and wages would not check his production on account of a fall in prices, if the fall affected all things equally, and were not likely to go further. If the price which he got for his goods had fallen by a quarter, and the prices which he had to pay for labour and raw material had also fallen by a quarter, the trade would be as profitable to him as before the fall. Three sovereigns would now do the work of four, he would use fewer counters in measuring off his receipts against his outgoings; but his receipts would stand in the same relation to his outgoings as before. His net profits would be the same percentage of his total business. The counters by which they are reckoned would be less by one quarter, but they would purchase as much of the necessaries, comforts, and luxuries of life as they did before.
It however very seldom happens in fact that the expenses which a manufacturer has to pay out fall as much in proportion as the price which he gets for his goods. For when prices are rising, the rise in the price of the finished commodity is generally more rapid than that in the price of the raw material, always more rapid than that in the price of labour ; and when prices are falling, the fall in the price of the finished commodity is generally more rapid than that in the price of the raw material, always more rapid than that in the price of labour. And therefore when prices are falling the manufacturer’s receipts are sometimes scarcely sufficient even to repay him for his outlay on raw material, wages, and other forms of circulating capital; they seldom give him in addition enough to pay interest on his fixed capital and earnings of management for himself.
Even if the prices of labour and raw materials fall as rapidly as those of finished goods, the manufacturer may lose by continuing production if the fall has not come to an end. He may pay for raw material and labor at a time when prices generally have fallen by one-sixth; but if, by the time he comes to sell, prices have fallen by another sixth, his receipts may be less than is sufficient to cover his outlay.
We conclude then that manufacturing cannot be carried on except at a low rate of profit, or at a loss, when the prices of finished goods are low relative to those of labour and raw material; or when prices are falling, even if the prices of all things are falling equally.
(6) Thus a fall in prices lowers profits and impoverishes the manufacturer: while it increases the purchasing power of those who have fixed incomes. So again it enriches creditors at the expense of debtors. For if the money that is owing to them is repaid, this money gives them a great purchasing power; and if they have lent it at a fixed rate of interest, each payment is worth more to them than it would be if prices were high. But for the same reasons that it enriches creditors and those who receive fixed incomes, it impoverishes those men of business who have borrowed capital; and it impoverishes those who have to make, as most business men have, considerable fixed money payments for rents, salaries, and other matters. When prices are ascending, the improvement is thought to be greater than it really is ; because general opinion with regard to the prosperity of the country is much influenced by the authority of manufacturers and merchants. These judge by their own experience, and in time of ascending prices their fortunes are rapidly increased; in a time of descending prices their fortunes are stationary or dwindle. But statistics prove that the real income of the country is not very much less in the present time of low prices, than it was in the period of high prices that went before it. The average amount of the necessaries, comforts and luxuries which are enjoyed by Englishmen is probably greater now, in 1886, than it was in 1872.

Originally published at