Greenspan: Ideology Meant Nothing


During his near 20-year reign at the helm of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan was among the world’s leading proponents of the free market ideology—that governments and regulators shouldn’t meddle in the markets, and instead let the financial industry regulate and run itself. You know, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, all that. Observers point to a slew of Greenspan’s decisions during his tenure at the Fed—his backing of massive financial deregulation, like the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, and belief that financial institutions could oversee themselves—as evidence of his free market beliefs impacting his work at the Fed.

In the wake of the crisis, Greenspan admitted that he’d found a “flaw” in his free market worldview. Big banks, investment houses, non-bank institutions, and so on couldn’t control themselves, Greenspan said; enhanced regulation was needed. It was presumed, at the time of Greenspan’s concession, that he was repudiating the ideology that guided his leadership at the Fed.

Today, however, Greenspan rejected altogether the notion that his free market mentality at all inflected tenure at the Fed. When asked by Brooksley Born, the former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whether his ideology led to the Fed’s laissez faire approach to regulation and failure to stop the housing bubble, Greenspan replied, “It didn’t look that way from my point of view.” Greenspan countered that he was only doing what Congress told him to do, and enforcing the laws already in place. “I ran my office as required by law, and there’s an awful lot of laws that I wouldn’t have constructed in the way they were constructed, but I enforced them nonetheless because that was my job,” he said.

Sure, in one sense, Greenspan essentially played the hand he was dealt. However, no one can forget how influential he was the apogee of his Fed tenure. His support for bills like Gramm-Leach-Bliley no doubt impacted their passage. Thus his claim today is one that many of Greenspan’s critics will surely take issue with. What’s more, for the growing chorus of critics who say that Greenspan, in recent months, has launched a campaign to whitewash his and the Fed’s record, this latest pushback is sure to give those critics even more ammunition.

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  • Andy Kroll

    Andy Kroll is an investigative reporter at Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. Follow him on Twitter here. Send tips, scoops, and documents to akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.