That mythology is illustrated well in this section of the Commanding Heights documentary below.
First, nobody denies that Germany experienced economic chaos after 1945. The war devastated the economy. The destruction of so much of Germany’s capital stock and its severe supply problems obviously meant that special economic polices were required. Demand-led Keynesian stimulus was obviously the wrong policy in the immediate post-1945 period.
Nevertheless, let us review the myths and problems with this video:
(1) This video creates the myth that in 1948 the German economy was suddenly and completely liberalised. Nothing could be further from the truth. The West German economic miracle in the 1940s and 1950s occurred with a high degree of government intervention.What about other aspects of West German economy policy after 1948?
(2) We are told that Ludwig Erhard decided to abolish “all price controls.” That is simply not true. Ludwig Erhard’s abolition of price controls was hardly complete. The “Law of Guiding Principles” that outlined Erhard’s reform reveals a very different program from the myth created in this documentary. For example,(1) food and raw materials remained under control;(3) There is no doubt that moderate liberalisation of prices eliminated the black market in many goods. But the speed with which goods “reappeared” is exaggerated in the documentary; it did not happen “overnight.” In fact, it took weeks for goods to reappear in serious quantities (Mierzejewski 2004: 72), and one consequence of the reform was that unemployment rose (Mierzejewski 2004: 72).
(2) textiles, clothes, shoes and soap continued to be rationed, and
(3) prices for staple foods, raw materials, and rents were also still subject to regulation. (Mierzejewski 2004: 71).
Arguably, three other factors did far more for the German economic recovery from 1948. First, the currency reform of 1948 and the introduction of the new Deutsche Mark (on 20 June 1948) was an important step, since the old Reichsmark was near worthless.
Secondly, the industrial and economic problems in Germany were partly caused by the “industrial disarmament program” pursued by the Allies from 1945 that involved actual removal of capital goods equipment and an import embargo on raw materials. The abandonment of that policy was a major step in the economic recovery.
Thirdly, the Marshall aid program did more to provide consumer goods in Germany after 1945 than the liberalisation of price controls. Germany’s import needs were greatly depend on Marshall aid: 70% of imports in 1946–1947, 65% in 1948 and 43% in 1949 (Hitchcock 2010: 164). When the recovery of 1948 caused a balance of payments crisis, Marshall aid covered the deficit.
Also, government earnings from the sale of Marshall aid goods were used by the government to finance public investments in electricity, coal mining, agriculture, housing, railways and shipping (Hitchcock 2010: 164).
(4) The soaring inflation and difficulty many people had in obtaining basic consumer goods caused what can only be described as a volte face by Erhard.
By September 1948, Erhard oversaw an intervention called the “Everyman Program” designed to control the inflation unleashed by his liberalisation. In this program, raw materials were directly allocated to producers of consumer goods, so that these businesses would charge prices deemed fair by the government. The public had access to consumer goods such as clothing, shoes, and kitchen utensils at prices well below what were being charged on unregulated markets, and the type of goods subject to control varied as circumstances dictated (Mierzejewski 2004: 75). That program did not end until 1951.
(5) Erhard happily accepted Marshall aid which, crucially, overcame the balance of payments constraint in post-WWII Germany and provided the imports of consumer goods and capital goods that the Germans badly needed given their crippled economy (Mierzejewski 2004: 76). Needless to say, Marshall aid was hardly a “free market” policy.
(6) Also, much is made in this documentary of the fact that the German economy overtook that of the UK in the post-war period, as if this had to do with Germany’s alleged laissez faire policies. In fact, Germany, had always been the largest economy in Europe from the early 20th century, and its return to that position by post-1945 economic growth was nothing but the natural consequence of its reconstruction and the recovery of its export-led growth sector.
(7) Another paradox is that it was Ludwig Erhard who popularised the term “social market economy,” the term that described the West German mixed economy after 1945. Mises spits bile at West Germany’s “social market economy,” and regarded it as just another interventionist state that would allegedly lead to totalitarian socialism. One wonders how Austrians could seriously point to West Germany as an example of their brand of economics.
(8) One final statement in the documentary is that after 1945 “most countries preferred to plan their economies” (in contrast to West Germany), a gross exaggeration. West Germany had the same fundamental mixed economy as most other Western nations. The mixed economies in the capitalist West – even those with some nationalised industries – were hardly “planned economies,” for that phrase, if it is to have any meaning, must refer to communist command economies.
Although the West German government practised fiscal restraint in the 1950s, the mass destruction of so much of Germany’s capital stock allowed good returns from investment in capital for many years, and the growth of the post-war era was a function of reconstruction. Germany required a great deal of reconstruction, much greater than, say, the United States and even the UK.
Germany policies in the 1950s essentially drove the economy back to its export-led growth model, though one consequence was that Germany suffered a serious problem of unemployment in the 1950s: unemployment was shockingly high at the beginning of this decade and only gradually fell from about 10% to 3% during the course of the decade. At the same time, the 1950s saw a great expansion of the welfare state in West Germany, and social outlays provided automatic stabilisers to some degree.
But the economy was hardly an example of a free market paradise. Even in the 1950s, a vast swathe of German industry was still owned by the government: about 40% of coal and steel, 66% of electricity production, 75% of aluminium and most German banks. For example, Volkswagen was owned by the West German state until 1961 when the government sold its majority stake in the company (a move which was part of a privatisation program by Konrad Adenauer that had begun in 1957). The German government also prevented foreigners from taking over German automakers.
By the mid-1960s, the post-war boom ended, and German governments turned to overt Keynesian policies to stimulate demand.
In general, though I have not read these German works, Berger (1997) and Nützenadel (2005) detail how there was a great deal of macroeconomic management of the West German economy by the government from the early 1950s.
Allen, Christopher. 1989. “The Underdevelopment of Keynesianism in the Federal Republic of Germany,” in Peter Hall (ed.), The Political Power of Economic Ideas: Keynesianism Across Nations. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 263–289.
Berger, Helge. 1997. Konjunkturpolitik im Wirtschaftswunder : Handlungsspielräume und Verhaltensmuster von Bundesbank und Regierung in den 1950er Jahren. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen.
Hitchcock, W. I. 2010. “The Marshall Plan and the Creation of the West,” in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad (eds.). The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume I. Origins. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 154–174.
Mierzejewski, Alfred C. 2004. Ludwig Erhard: A Biography. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C. and London.
Nützenadel, Alexander. 2005. Stunde der Ökonomen: Wissenschaft, Politik und Expertenkultur in der Bundesrepublik 1949–1974. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.