To understand how economies work and how we can manage them and prosper, we must pay attention to the thought patterns that animate people’s ideas and feelings, their animal spirits. We will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature.
It is unfortunate that most economists and business writers apparently do not seem to appreciate this and thus often fall back on the most tortured and artificial interpretations of economic events. They assume that variations in individual feelings, impressions, and passions do not matter in the aggregate and that economic events are driven by inscrutable technical factors or erratic government action. In fact, as we shall discover in this book, the origins of these events are quite familiar and are found in our own everyday thinking.
We started work on this book in the spring of 2003. In the intervening years the world economy has moved in directions that can be understood only in terms of animal spirits. It has taken a rollercoaster ride. First there was the ascent. And then, about a year ago, the fall began. But oddly, unlike a trip at a normal amusement park, it was not until the economy began to fall that the passengers realised that they had embarked on a wild ride. And, abetted by this obliviousness, the management of this amusement park paid no heed to setting limits on how high the passengers should go. Nor did it provide for safety equipment to limit the speed, or the extent, of the subsequent fall.
What had people been thinking? Why did they not notice until real events – the collapse of banks, the loss of jobs, mortgage foreclosures – were already upon us? There is a simple answer. The public, the government, and most economists had been reassured by an economic theory that said that we were sage. It was all OK. Nothing dangerous could happen. But that theory was deficient. It had ignored the importance of ideas in the conduct of the economy. It had ignored the role of animal spirits. And it had also ignored the fact that people could be unaware of having boarded a rollercoaster.Traditional economics teaches the benefits of free markets. This belief has taken hold not just in the bastions of capitalism, such as the United States and Great Britain, but throughout the world, even in countries with more established socialist traditions, such as China, India, and Russia. According to traditional economics, free market capitalism will be essentially perfect and stable. There is little, if any, need for government interference. On the contrary, the only risk of major depression today, or in the future, comes from government intervention.