Central Bank Activism
82 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2021 Last revised: 21 Mar 2022
Date Written: February 1, 2021
Today, the Federal Reserve is at a critical juncture in its evolution. Unlike any prior period in U.S. history, the Fed now faces increasing demands to expand its policy objectives to tackle a wide range of social and political problems—including climate change, income and racial inequality, and foreign and small business aid.
This Article develops a framework for recognizing, and identifying the problems with, “central bank activism.” It refers to central bank activism as situations in which immediate public policy problems push central banks to aggrandize their power beyond the text and purpose of their legal mandates, which Congress has established. To illustrate, the Article provides in-depth exploration of both contemporary and historic episodes of central bank activism, thus clarifying the indicia of central bank activism and drawing out the lessons that past episodes should teach us going forward.
The Article urges that, while activism may be expedient in the near term, there are long-term social costs. Activism undermines the legitimacy of central bank authority, erodes its political independence, and ultimately renders a weaker central bank. In the end, the Article issues an urgent call to resist the allure of activism. And it places front and center the need for vibrant public discourse on the role of a central bank in American political and economic life today.
Keywords: central banks, Federal Reserve, law and macroeconomics
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