Adam Smith once commented that "there is a great deal of ruin in a nation". He meant that bungling governments imposed only a limited check on the economic performance of a Great Nation.
As Nathanael Smith and I show in our study of US economic contractions, Adam Smith would be much less sanguine were he confronted by today's financial crisis and the US government's response. Indeed, it is not impossible that the US will experience the kind of economic collapse from first- to third-world status experienced by Argentina under the national socialist governance of Juan Peron.
The US economy suffers from a growing culture of indebtedness that has increasingly contaminated the federal government since 2001 and has spilled over dramatically into private household behaviour. The combination of the ill-conceived fiscal-furnace fired by President Bush and the US Congress and the reckless monetary-furnace fired by Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke throughout the period 2001-2007, created unsustainable housing market and stock market bubbles whose collapse brought on the financial crisis and economic contraction of 2008-2009.
The policy responses to the debt bubble demonstrate crude political consideration rather than economic understanding. If excessive government indebtedness is a major source of the problem, why increase the government debt? Why encourage households to go yet further into debt?
The prognosis is catastrophic if projected government policies are not cut back. According to the White House's own estimates, the federal budget deficit in 2009 will be $1.6 trillion, approximately 11.2pc of the overall economy, the highest on record since the end of the Second World War. In 2019, the national debt will represent 76.5pc of the US national economy, the highest proportion since just after the Second World War. In such circumstances, the international reserve status of the US dollar will not survive. As it fades, so interest rates on government securities will rise and the real burden of servicing the debt will increase. In such circumstances, the US economy will teeter on the edge of a black hole.
Prosperity and full employment in the US will only be restored by a return to laissez-faire capitalism. Our study outlines a radical, but politically feasible, approach. Monetary policy should be expansionary. But, on the micro-economic side, tariffs and other trade barriers should be repealed unilaterally; a "Right-to-Work" Act should reduce the minimum wage and curtail the powers of unions; and business regulation should be reduced. Individual banks and their counterparties should not be bailed out, although the system should be protected by ensuring that failing banks are wound up in an orderly fashion – this is the only way to restore market discipline.
Charles K Rowley is Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and general director of The Locke Institute. He is the author (with Nathanael Smith) of Economic Contractions in the United States: A Failure of Government, published by the IEA and the Locke Institute