Inflationism

This post is taken from Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit (1934), chapter 13 Monetary Policy (PDF, HTML), covering inflationism. Follow this link for the series.

Emphasis mine.

3 Inflationism

Inflationism is that monetary policy that seeks to increase the quantity of money.

Naive inflationism demands an increase in the quantity of money without suspecting that this will diminish the purchasing power of the money. It wants more money because in its eyes the mere abundance of money is wealth. Fiat money! Let the state “create” money, and make the poor rich, and free them from the bonds of the capitalists! How foolish to forgo the opportunity of making everybody rich, and consequently happy, that the state’s right to create money gives it! How wrong to forgo it simply because this would run counter to the interests of the rich! How wicked of the economists to assert that it is not within the power of the state to create wealth by means of the printing press!—You statesmen want to build railways, and complain of the low state of the exchequer? Well, then, do not beg loans from the capitalists and anxiously calculate whether your railways will bring in enough to enable you to pay interest and amortization on your debt. Create money, and help yourselves.

Other inflationists realize very well that an increase in the quantity of money reduces the purchasing power of the monetary unit. But they endeavor to secure inflation nonetheless, because of its effect on the value of money; they want depreciation, because they want to favor debtors at the expense of creditors and because they want to encourage exportation and make importation difficult. Others, again, recommend depreciation for the sake of its supposed property of stimulating production and encouraging the spirit of enterprise.

Depreciation of money can benefit debtors only when it is unforeseen. If inflationary measures and a reduction of the value of money are expected, then those who lend money will demand higher interest in order to compensate their probable loss of capital, and those who seek loans will be prepared to pay the higher interest because they have a prospect of gaining on capital account. Since, as we have shown, it is never possible to foresee the extent of monetary depreciation, creditors in individual cases may suffer losses and debtors make profits, in spite of the higher interest exacted. Nevertheless, in general it will not be possible for any inflationary policy, unless it takes effect suddenly and unexpectedly, to alter the relations between creditor and debtor in favor of the latter by increasing the quantity of money. Those who lend money will feel obliged, in order to avoid losses, either to make their loans in a currency that is more stable in value than the currency of their own country, or to include in the rate of interest they ask, over and above the compensation that they reckon for the probable depreciation of money and the loss to be expected on that account, an additional premium for the risk of a less probable further depreciation. And if those who were seeking credit were inclined to refuse to pay this additional compensation, the diminution of supply in the loan market would force them to it. During the inflation after the war it was seen how savings deposits decreased because savings banks were not inclined to adjust interest rates to the altered conditions of the variations in the purchasing power of money.

It has already been shown in the preceding chapter that it is a mistake to think that the depreciation of money stimulates production. If the particular conditions of a given case of depreciation are such that wealth is transferred to the rich from the poor, then admittedly saving (and consequently capital accumulation) will be encouraged, production will consequently be stimulated, and so the welfare of posterity increased. In earlier epochs of economic history a moderate inflation may sometimes have had this effect. But the more the development of capitalism has made money loans (bank and savings-bank deposits and bonds, especially bearer bonds and mortgage bonds) the most important instruments of saving, the more has depreciation necessarily imperiled the accumulation of capital, by decreasing the motive for saving. How the depreciation of money leads to capital consumption through falsification of economic calculation, and how the appearance of a boom that it creates is an illusion, and how the depreciation of the money really reacts on foreign trade have similarly been explained already in the preceding chapter.

A third group of inflationists do not deny that inflation involves serious disadvantages. Nevertheless, they think that there are higher and more important aims of economic policy than a sound monetary system. They hold that although inflation may be a great evil, yet it is not the greatest evil, and that the state might under certain circumstances find itself in a position where it would do well to oppose greater evils with the lesser evil of inflation. When the defense of the fatherland against enemies, or the rescue of the hungry from starvation is at stake, then, it is said, let the currency go to ruin whatever the cost.

Sometimes this sort of conditional inflation is supported by the argument that inflation is a kind of taxation that is advisable in certain circumstances. Under some conditions, according to this argument, it is better to meet public expenditure by a fresh issue of notes than by increasing the burden of taxation or by borrowing. This was the argument put forward during the war when the expenditure on the army and navy had to be met; and this was the argument put forward in Germany and Austria after the war when a part of the population had to be provided with cheap food, the losses on the operation of the railways and other public undertakings met, and reparations payments made. The assistance of inflation is invoked whenever a government is unwilling to increase taxation or unable to raise a loan; that is the truth of the matter The next step is to inquire why the two usual methods of raising money for public purposes cannot or will not be employed.

It is only possible to levy high taxes when those who bear the burden of the taxes assent to the purpose for which the resources so raised are to be expended. It must be observed here that the greater the total burden of taxation becomes, the harder it is to deceive public opinion as to the impossibility of placing the whole burden of taxation upon the small richer class of the community. The taxation of the rich or of property affects the whole community, and its ultimate consequences for the poorer classes are often more severe than those of taxation levied throughout the community. These implications may perhaps be harder to grasp when taxation is low; but when it is high they can hardly fail to be recognized. There can, moreover, be no doubt that it is scarcely possible to carry the system of relying chiefly upon “taxation of ownership” any farther than it has been carried by the inflating countries, and that the incidence of further taxation could not have been concealed in the way necessary to guarantee continued popular support.

Who has any doubt that the belligerent peoples of Europe would have tired of war much more quickly if their governments had clearly and candidly laid before them at the time the account of their war expenditure? In no European country did the war party dare to impose taxation on the masses to any considerable extent for meeting the cost of the war. Even in England, the classical country of “sound money,” the printing presses were set in motion. Inflation had the great advantage of evoking an appearance of economic prosperity and of increase of wealth, of falsifying calculations made in terms of money, and so of concealing the consumption of capital. Inflation gave rise to the pseudo-profits of the entrepreneur and capitalist which could be treated as income and have specially heavy taxes imposed upon them without the public at large—or often even the actual taxpayers themselves—seeing that portions of capital were thus being taxed away. Inflation made it possible to divert the fury of the people to “speculators” and “profiteers.” Thus it proved itself an excellent psychological resource of the destructive and annihilist war policy.

What war began, revolution continued. The socialistic or semi-socialistic state needs money in order to carry on undertakings which do not pay, to support the unemployed, and to provide the people with cheap food. It also is unable to secure the necessary resources by means of taxation. It dare not tell the people the truth. The state-socialist principle of running the railways as a state institution would soon lose its popularity if it was proposed, say, to levy a special tax for covering their running losses. And the German and Austrian people would have been quicker in realizing where the resources came from that made bread cheaper if they themselves had to supply them in the form of a bread tax. In the same way, the German government that decided for the “policy of fulfillment” in opposition to the majority of the German people, was unable to provide itself with the necessary means except by printing notes. And when passive resistance in the Ruhr district gave rise to a need for enormous sums of money, these, again for political reasons, were only to be procured with the help of the printing press.

A government always finds itself obliged to resort to inflationary measures when it cannot negotiate loans and dare not levy taxes, because it has reason to fear that it will forfeit approval of the policy it is following if it reveals too soon the financial and general economic consequences of that policy. Thus inflation becomes the most important psychological resource of any economic policy whose consequences have to be concealed; and so in this sense it can be called an instrument of unpopular, i.e., of antidemocratic, policy, since by misleading public opinion it makes possible the continued existence of a system of government that would have no hope of the consent of the people if the circumstances were clearly laid before them. That is the political function of inflation. It explains why inflation has always been an important resource of policies of war and revolution and why we also find it in the service of socialism. When governments do not think it necessary to accommodate their expenditure to their revenue and arrogate to themselves the right of making up the deficit by issuing notes, their ideology is merely a disguised absolutism.

The various aims pursued by inflationists demand that the inflationary measures shall be carried through in various special ways. If depreciation is wanted in order to favor the debtor at the expense of the creditor, then the problem is to strike unexpectedly at creditor interests. As we have shown, to the extent to which it could be foreseen, an expected depreciation would be incapable of altering the relations between creditors and debtors. A policy aiming at a progressive diminution of the value of money does not benefit debtors.

If, on the other hand, the depreciation is desired in order to “stimulate production” and to make exportation easier and importation more difficult in relation to other countries, then it must be borne in mind that the absolute level of the value of money—its purchasing power in terms of commodities and services and its exchange ratio against other kinds of money—is without significance for external (as for internal) trade; the variations in the objective exchange value of money have an influence on business only so long as they are in progress. The “beneficial effects” on trade of the depreciation of money only last so long as the depreciation has not affected all commodities and services. Once the adjustment is completed, then these “beneficial effects” disappear. If it is desired to retain them permanently, continual resort must be had to fresh diminutions of the purchasing power of money. It is not enough to reduce the purchasing power of money by one set of measures only, as is erroneously supposed by numerous inflationist writers; only the progressive diminution of the value of money could permanently achieve the aims which they have in view. [5] But a monetary system that corresponds to these requirements can never be actually realized.

Of course, the real difficulty does not lie in the fact that a progressive diminution of the value of money must soon reach amounts so small that they would no longer meet the requirements of commerce. Since the decimal system of calculation is customary in the majority of present-day monetary systems, even the more stupid sections of the public would find no difficulty in the new reckoning when a system of higher units was adopted. We could quite easily imagine a monetary system in which the value of money was constantly falling at the same proportionate rate. Let us assume that the purchasing power of this money, through variations in the determinants that lie on the side of money, sinks in the course of a year by one-hundredth of its amount at the beginning of the year The levels of the value of the money at each new year then constitute a diminishing geometrical series. If we put the value of the money at the beginning of the first year as equivalent to 100, then the ratio of diminution is equivalent to 0.99, and the value of money at the end of the nth year is equivalent to 100 × 0.99n-1. Such a convergent geometrical progression gives an infinite series, any member of which is always to the next following member in the ratio of 100 : 99. We could quite easily imagine a monetary system based on such a principle; perhaps even more easily still if we increased the ratio, say, to 0.995 or even 0.9975.

But however clearly we may be able to imagine such a monetary system, it certainly does not lie in our power actually to create one like it. We know the determinants of the value of money, or think we know them. But we are not in a position to bend them to our will. For we lack the most important prerequisite for this; we do not so much as know the quantitative significance of variations in the quantity of money. We cannot calculate the intensity with which definite quantitative variations in the ratio of the supply of money and the demand for it operate upon the subjective valuations of individuals and through these indirectly upon the market. This remains a matter of very great uncertainty. In employing any means to influence the value of money we run the risk of giving the wrong dose. This is all the more important since in fact it is not possible even to measure variations in the purchasing power of money. Thus even though we can roughly tell the direction in which we should work in order to obtain the desired variation, we still have nothing to tell us how far we should go, and we can never find out where we are already, what effects our intervention has had, or how these are proportioned to the effects we desire.

Now the danger involved in overdoing an arbitrary influence—a political influence; that is, one arising from the conscious intervention of human organizations—upon the value of money must by no means be underestimated, particularly in the case of a diminution of the value of money. Big variations in the value of money give rise to the danger that commerce will emancipate itself from the money which is subject to state influence and choose a special money of its own. But without matters going so far as this it is still possible for all the consequences of variations in the value of money to be eliminated if the individuals engaged in economic activity clearly recognize that the purchasing power of money is constantly sinking and act accordingly. If in all business transactions they allow for what the objective exchange value of money will probably be in the future, then all the effects on credit and commerce are finished with. In proportion as the Germans began to reckon in terms of gold, so was further depreciation rendered incapable of altering the relationship between creditor and debtor or even of influencing trade. By going over to reckoning in terms of gold, the community freed itself from the inflationary policy, and eventually even the government was obliged to acknowledge gold as a basis of reckoning.

A danger necessarily involved in all attempts to carry out an inflationary policy is that of excess. Once the principle is admitted that it is possible, permissible, and desirable, to take measures for “cheapening” money, then immediately the most violent and bitter controversy will break out as to how far this principle is to be carried. The interested parties will differ not merely about the steps still to be taken, but also about the results of the steps that have been taken already. It would be impossible for any inflationary measures to be taken without violent controversy. It would be practically impossible so much as to consider counsels of moderation. And these difficulties arise even in the case of an attempt to secure what the inflationists call the beneficial effects of a single and isolated depreciation. Even in the case, say, of assisting “production” or debtors after a serious crisis by a single depreciation of the value of money, the same problems remain to be solved. They are difficulties that have to be reckoned with by every policy aiming at a reduction of the value of money.

Consistently and uninterruptedly continued inflation must eventually lead to collapse. The purchasing power of money will fall lower and lower, until it eventually disappears altogether. It is true that an endless process of depreciation can be imagined. We can imagine the purchasing power of money getting continually lower without ever disappearing altogether, and prices getting continually higher without it ever becoming impossible to obtain commodities in exchange for notes. Eventually this would lead to a situation in which even retail transactions were in terms of millions and billions and even higher figures; but the monetary system itself would remain.

But such an imaginary state of affairs is hardly within the bounds of possibility. In the long run, a money which continually fell in value would have no commercial utility. It could not be used as a standard of deferred payments. For all transactions in which com modities or services were not exchanged for cash, another medium would have to be sought. In fact, a money that is continually depreciating becomes useless even for cash transactions. Everybody attempts to minimize his cash reserves, which are a source of continual loss. Incoming money is spent as quickly as possible, and in the purchases that are made in order to obtain goods with a stable value in place of the depreciating money even higher prices will be agreed to than would otherwise be in accordance with market conditions at the time. When commodities that are not needed at all or at least not at the moment are purchased in order to avoid the holding of notes, then the process of extrusion of the notes from use as a general medium of exchange has already begun. It is the beginning of the “demonetization” of the notes. The process is hastened by its paniclike character. It may be possible once, twice, perhaps even three or four times, to allay the fears of the public; but eventually the affair must run its course and then there is no longer any going back. Once the depreciation is proceeding so rapidly that sellers have to reckon with considerable losses even if they buy again as quickly as is possible, then the position of the currency is hopeless.

In all countries where inflation has been rapid, it has been observed that the decrease in the value of the money has occurred faster than the increase in its quantity. If m represents the nominal amount of money present in the country before the beginning of the inflation, P the value of the monetary unit then in terms of gold, M the nominal amount of money at a given point of time during the inflation, and p the value in gold of the monetary unit at this point of time; then, as has often been shown by simple statistical investigations, mP > Mp. It has been attempted to prove from this that the money has depreciated “too rapidly” and that the level of the rate of exchange is not “justified.” Many have drawn from it the conclusion that the quantity theory is obviously not true and that depreciation of money cannot be a result of an increase in its quantity. Others have conceded the truth of the quantity theory in its primitive form and argued the permissibility or even the necessity of continuing to increase the quantity of money in the country until its total gold value is restored to the level at which it stood before the beginning of the inflation, that is, until Mp = mP.

The error that is concealed in all of this is not difficult to discover. We may completely ignore the fact already referred to that the exchange rates (including the bullion rate) move in advance of the purchasing power of the money unit as expressed in the prices of commodities, so that the gold value must not be taken as a basis of operations, but purchasing power in terms of commodities, which as a rule will not have decreased to the same extent as the gold value. For this form of calculation too, in which P and p do not represent value in terms of gold but purchasing power in terms of commodities, would still as a rule give the result mP > Mp. But it must be observed that as the depreciation of money proceeds, the demand for money (that is, for the kind of money in question) gradually begins to fall. When loss of wealth is suffered in proportion to the length of time money is kept on hand, endeavors are made to reduce cash holdings as much as possible. Now if every individual, even if his circumstances are otherwise unchanged, no longer wishes to maintain his cash holding at the same level as before the beginning of the inflation, the demand for money in the whole community, which can only be the sum of the individuals’ demands, decreases too. There is also the additional fact that as commerce gradually begins to use foreign money and actual gold in place of notes, individuals begin to hold part of their reserves in foreign money and in gold and no longer in notes.

An expected fall in the value of money is anticipated by speculation so that the money has a lower value in the present than would correspond to the relationship between the immediate supply of it and demand for it. Prices are asked and given that are not related to the present amount of money in circulation nor to present demands for money, but to future circumstances. The panic prices paid when the shops are crowded with buyers anxious to pick up something or other while they can, and the panic rates reached on the exchange when foreign currencies and securities that do not represent a claim to fixed sums of money rise precipitously, anticipate the march of events. But there is not enough money available to pay the prices that correspond to the presumable future supply of money and demand for it. And so it comes about that commerce suffers from a shortage of notes, that there are not enough notes on hand for fulfilling commitments that have been entered into. The mechanism of the market that adjusts the total demand and the total supply to each other by altering the exchange ratio no longer functions as far as the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods is concerned. Business suffers sensibly from a shortage of notes. This bad state of affairs, once matters have gone as far as this, can in no way be helped. Still further to increase the note issue (as many recommend) would only make matters worse. For, since this would accelerate the growth of the panic, it would also accentuate the maladjustment between depredation and circulation. Shortage of notes for transacting business is a symptom of an advanced stage of inflation; it is the reverse aspect of panic purchases and panic prices, the reflection of the “bullishness” of the public that will finally lead to catastrophe.

The emancipation of commerce from a money which is proving more and more useless in this way begins with the expulsion of the money from hoards. People begin at first to hoard other money instead so as to have marketable goods at their disposal for unforeseen future needs—perhaps precious-metal money and foreign notes, and sometimes also domestic notes of other kinds which have a higher value because they cannot be increased by the state (for example, the Romanoff ruble in Russia or the “blue” money of communist Hungary); then ingots, precious stones, and pearls; even pictures, other objects of art, and postage stamps. A further step is the adoption of foreign currency or metallic money (that is, for all practical purposes, gold) in credit transactions. Finally, when the domestic currency ceases to be used in retail trade, wages as well have to be paid in some other way than in pieces of paper which are then no longer good for anything.

The collapse of an inflation policy carried to its extreme—as in the United States in 1781 and in France in 1796—does not destroy the monetary system, but only the credit money or fiat money of the state that has overestimated the effectiveness of its own policy. The collapse emancipates commerce from etatism and establishes metallic money again.

It is not the business of science to criticize the political aims of inflationism. Whether the favoring of the debtor at the expense of the creditor, whether the facilitation of exports and the hindrance of imports, whether the stimulation of production by transferring wealth and income to the entrepreneur, are to be recommended or not, are questions which economics cannot answer. With the instruments of monetary theory alone, these questions cannot even be elucidated as far as is possible with other parts of the apparatus of economics. But there are nevertheless three conclusions that seem to follow from our critical examination of the possibilities of inflationary policy.

In the first place, all the aims of inflationism can be secured by other sorts of intervention in economic affairs, and secured better, and without undesirable incidental effects. If it is desired to relieve debtors, moratoria may be declared or the obligation to repay loans may be removed altogether; if it is desired to encourage exportation, export premiums may be granted; if it is desired to render importation more difficult, simple prohibition may be resorted to, or import duties levied. All these measures permit discrimination between classes of people, branches of production, and districts, and this is impossible for an inflationary policy. Inflation benefits all debtors, including the rich, and injures all creditors, including the poor; adjustment of the burden of debts by special legislation allows of differentiation. Inflation encourages the exportation of all commodities and hinders all importation; premiums, duties, and prohibitions can be employed discriminatingly.

Second, there is no kind of inflationary policy the extent of whose effects can be foreseen. And finally, continued inflation must lead to a collapse.

Thus we see that, considered purely as a political instrument, inflationism is inadequate. It is, technically regarded, bad policy, because it is incapable of fully attaining its goal and because it leads to consequences that are not, or at least are not always, part of its aim. The favor it enjoys is due solely to the circumstance that it is a policy concerning whose aims and intentions public opinion can be longest deceived. Its popularity, in fact, is rooted in the difficulty of fully understanding its consequences.

Further Reading

Please see our literature for a range of further reading and also The Crack Up Boom.

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