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The economic policy of governments covers the systems for setting levels of taxation, government budgets, the money supply and interest rates as well as the labour market, national ownership, and many other areas of government interventions into the economy.
Most factors of economic policy can be divided into either fiscal policy, which deals with government actions regarding taxation and spending, or monetary policy, which deals with central banking actions regarding the money supply and interest rates.
Almost every aspect of government has an important economic component. A few examples of the kinds of economic policies that exist include:
Policy is generally directed to achieve particular objectives, like targets for inflation, unemployment, or economic growth. Sometimes other objectives, like military spending or nationalization are important.
These are referred to as the policy goals: the outcomes which the economic policy aims to achieve.
To achieve these goals, governments use policy tools which are under the control of the government. These generally include the interest rate and money supply, tax and government spending, tariffs, exchange rates, labor market regulations, and many other aspects of government.
Government and central banks are limited in the number of goals they can achieve in the short term. For instance, there may be pressure on the government to reduce inflation, reduce unemployment, and reduce interest rates while maintaining currency stability. If all of these are selected as goals for the short term, then policy is likely to be incoherent, because a normal consequence of reducing inflation and maintaining currency stability is increasing unemployment and increasing interest rates.
This dilemma can in part be resolved by using microeconomic supply-side policy to help adjust markets. For instance, unemployment could potentially be reduced by altering laws relating to trade unions or unemployment insurance, as well as by macroeconomic (demand-side) factors like interest rates.
For much of the 20th century, governments adopted discretionary policies like demand management designed to correct the business cycle. These typically used fiscal and monetary policy to adjust inflation, output and unemployment.
However, following the stagflation of the 1970s, policymakers began to be attracted to policy rules.
A discretionary policy is supported because it allows policymakers to respond quickly to events. However, discretionary policy can be subject to dynamic inconsistency: a government may say it intends to raise interest rates indefinitely to bring inflation under control, but then relax its stance later. This makes policy non-credible and ultimately ineffective.
A rule-based policy can be more credible, because it is more transparent and easier to anticipate. Examples of rule-based policies are fixed exchange rates, interest rate rules, the stability and growth pact and the Golden Rule. Some policy rules can be imposed by external bodies, for instance the Exchange Rate Mechanism for currency.
A compromise between strict discretionary and strict rule-based policy is to grant discretionary power to an independent body. For instance, the Federal Reserve Bank, European Central Bank, Bank of England and Reserve Bank of Australia all set interest rates without government interference, but do not adopt rules.
Another type of non-discretionary policy is a set of policies which are imposed by an international body. This can occur (for example) as a result of intervention by the International Monetary Fund.
Early governments generally relied on tax in kind and forced labor for their economic resources. However, with the development of money came the first policy choice. A government could raise money through taxing its citizens. However, it could now also debase the coinage and so increase the money supply.
Early civilizations also made decisions about whether to permit and how to tax trade. Some early civilizations, such as Ptolemaic Egypt adopted a closed currency policy whereby foreign merchants had to exchange their coin for local money. This effectively levied a very high tariff on foreign trade.
By the early modern age, more policy choices had been developed. There was considerable debate about mercantilism and other restrictive trade practices like the Navigation Acts, as trade policy became associated with both national wealth and with foreign and colonial policy.
Throughout the 19th Century, monetary standards became an important issue. Gold and silver were in supply in different proportions. Which metal was adopted influenced the wealth of different groups in society.
With the accumulation of private capital in the Renaissance, states developed methods of financing deficits without debasing their coin. The development of capital markets meant that a government could borrow money to finance war or expansion while causing less economic hardship.
This was the beginning of modern fiscal policy.
The business cycle became a predominant issue in the 19th century, as it became clear that industrial output, employment, and profit behaved in a cyclical manner. One of the first proposed policy solutions to the problem came with the work of Keynes, who proposed that fiscal policy could be used actively to ward off depressions, recessions and slumps. The Austrian School of economics argues that central banks create the business cycle.