Very sobering opinion piece by Holman Jenkins in today's Wall Street Journal (free).
How many times have you heard that we've learned the lessons of the Great Depression and won't repeat the same mistakes?
That statement is a bit of a false promise, since there was only one Great Depression, and many, many steps were taken and not taken, with no chance to rerun the experiment over and over to figure out what worked, or would have worked, and what didn't.
Letting hundreds of banks collapse, destroying savings and confidence, is one mistake we won't make again. But many want to insist, without evidence, that more government spending would have ended the depression. That's the direction the Obama administration is taking. Others say government did not do enough to restore business confidence, or did too much to damage it, piling on taxes, regulation and labor unions. This at least is firmer ground. Plenty of evidence from history shows that actions hostile to business tend to be related to an absence of prosperity.
But more important than these talismanic assurances about what we've learned from the Great Depression is the mistake in assuming that, even if we had a coherent view of what should be done, coherent polices would therefore be implemented.
Policy is always bad to a degree, but long periods of prosperity tend to be self-reinforcing since powerful interests are born with the means and motive to preserve the status quo. That status quo may really be a contributor to prosperity, such as regulatory restraint and moderate tax rates. That status quo may in some respects be ill-advised, such as excessive subsidy to housing debt.
But once prosperity blows up, the quasi-virtuous policy circle becomes an unvirtuous one as new interest groups come to the fore to exploit an appetite, previously weak, to impose their costly or vindictive wish lists. And even well-meaning policy gets twisted and rendered incoherent.
It's already happening to our banking bailout. If injecting government capital to improve confidence in banks was a good idea, it did nothing to improve the banks' own confidence in their borrowers. Yet now that banks have government capital, they're being pressed to lend to politically favored constituents regardless of their own judgment about whether the borrower is good for the money.
Or take the gathering auto bailout: Taxpayer dollars are being thrown at Detroit auto makers to make them "viable," even as Congress imposes new fuel-mileage mandates requiring them to incur tens of billions in costs unlikely to be recouped from their customers -- the definition of "nonviable."