In the teeth of the Depression, Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon famously told President Herbert Hoover to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate”—in other words, to resist bailing out any industry through state intervention. This was a tough sell even in those days, and of course Hoover succumbed to politics and took the opposite approach, greatly and needlessly damaging the US economy for decades to come.
Less often quoted are Mellon’s follow-up words to Hoover: Liquidation would “purge the rottenness out of the system,” so “people will work harder” and “live a more moral life.”
Mellon, having lived most of his life in an America without a central bank, understood economic recessions as necessary cures rather than ills to be avoided. But he also understood the human price that would be paid in the aftermath of a period of phony economic prosperity. Only hard work and personal sacrifice, person by person and town by town, could get America out of its economic mess. Fiscal and monetary policy would provide no free lunch, as millions of Americans learned the hard way in the 1930s.
Fast-forward to 2022, and it’s hard to imagine Janet Yellen calling for liquidation or telling Americans to improve their moral fiber. Nobody votes for austerity or personal responsibility, and any politician or bureaucrat or central banker who even suggests it is doomed today.