Capital Controls: Hayek versus the IMF

Authored by Steve H. Hanke of The Johns Hopkins University.

With each financial crisis, politicians of all stripes go into overdrive. They busy themselves by ducking any examination of the policy blunders that created the crisis in the first place. A favorite tactic is to fan anti-market flames. Markets get a bum wrap, and a cascade of new laws and regulations ensue.

Par for the course, the Great Recession has served up a plethora of wrongheaded laws and regulations. Capital controls designed to throw sand in the gears of unrestricted capital flows are but one example. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has climbed on this bandwagon.

Capital controls as a panacea for economic ills are nothing new. Their pedigree can be traced back to Plato, the father of statism. Inspired by Lycurgus, the tyrant of Sparta, Plato embraced the idea of an inconvertible currency as a means to preserve the autonomy of the state from outside interference.

Before more people come under the spell of capital controls, they should reflect on the following passage from Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom:

“The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference. Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty. It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape — not merely for the rich but for everybody.”

The imposition of capital controls leads to an instantaneous reduction in the wealth of the country, because all assets decline in value.

Full convertibility is the only guarantee that protects people’s rights to what belongs to them. Even if governments are not compelled by arguments on the grounds of freedom, the prospect of seeing every asset in the country suddenly lose value as a result of capital controls should give policymakers pause.

This brings us to China — a country with a maze of capital controls and an inconvertible currency. After years of twisting Beijing’s arm to remove controls, now the IMF is willing to turn a blind eye, and what is worse, to embrace “temporary” measures designed to further restrict capital flows.

The I.M.F has chosen the road to serfdom.