This post is taken from Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit (1934), chapter 13 Monetary Policy (PDF, HTML), covering monetary policy and the instruments of monetary policy. Follow this link for the series.
1 Monetary Policy Defined
The economic consequences of fluctuations in the objective exchange value of money have such important bearings on the life of the community and of the individual that as soon as the state had abandoned the attempt to exploit for fiscal ends its authority in monetary matters, and as soon as the large-scale development of the modern economic community had enabled the state to exert a decisive influence on the kind of money chosen by the market, it was an obvious step to think of attaining certain sociopolitical aims by influencing these consequences in a systematic manner Modern currency policy is something essentially new; it differs fundamentally from earlier state activity in the monetary sphere. Previously, good government in monetary matters—from the point of view of the citizen—consisted in conducting the business of minting so as to furnish commerce with coins which could be accepted by everybody at their face value; and bad government in monetary matters—again from the point of view of the citizen—amounted to the betrayal by the state of the general confidence in it. But when states did debase the coinage, it was always from purely fiscal motives. The government needed financial help, that was all; it was not concerned with questions of currency policy.
Questions of currency policy are questions of the objective exchange value of money. The nature of the monetary system affects a currency policy only insofar as it involves these particular problems of the value of money; it is only insofar as they bear upon these questions that the legal and technical characteristics of money are pertinent. Measures of currency policy are intelligible only in the light of their intended influence on the objective exchange value of money. They consequently comprise the antithesis of those acts of economic policy which aim at altering the money prices of single commodities or groups of commodities.
Not every value problem connected with the objective exchange value of money is a problem of currency policy. In conflicts of currency policy there are also interests involved which are not primarily concerned with the alteration of the value of money for its own sake. In the great struggle that was involved in the demonetization of silver and the consequent movement of the relative exchange ratio of the two precious metals gold and silver, the owners of the silver mines and the other protagonists of the double standard or of the silver standard were not actuated by the same motives. While the latter wanted a change in the value of money in order that there might be a general rise in the prices of commodities, the former merely wished to raise the price of silver as a commodity by securing, or more correctly regaining, an extensive market for it. Their interests were in no way different from those of producers of iron or oil in trying to extend the market for iron or oil so as to increase the profitability of their businesses. It is true that this is a value problem, but it is a commodity-value problem—that of increasing the exchange value of the metal silver—and not a problem of the value of money.
But although this motive has played a part in currency controversy, it has been a very subordinate part. Even in the United States, the most important silver-producing area, it has been of significance only inasmuch as the generous practical encouragement of the silver magnates has been one of the strongest supports of the bimetallistic agitation. But most of the recruits to the silver camp were attracted, not by the prospect of an increase in the value of the mines, which was a matter of indifference to them, but by the hope of a fall in the purchasing power of money, from which they promised themselves miraculous results. If the increase in the price of silver could have been brought about in any other way than through the extension of its use as money, say by the creation of a new industrial demand, then the owners of the mines would have been just as satisfied; but the farmers and industrialists who advocated a silver currency would not have benefited from it in any way. And then they would undoubtedly have transferred their allegiance to other currency policies. Thus, in many states, paper inflationism was advocated, partly as a forerunner of bimetallism and partly in combination with it.
But even though questions of currency policy are never more than questions of the value of money, they are sometimes disguised so that their true nature is hidden from the uninitiated. Public opinion is dominated by erroneous views on the nature of money and its value, and misunderstood slogans have to take the place of clear and precise ideas. The fine and complicated mechanism of the money and credit system is wrapped in obscurity, the proceedings on the stock exchange are a mystery, the function and significance of the banks elude interpretation. So it is not surprising that the arguments brought forward in the conflict of the different interests often missed the point altogether. Counsel was darkened with cryptic phrases whose meaning was probably hidden even from those who uttered them. Americans spoke of “the dollar of our fathers” and Austrians of “our dear old gulden note”; silver, the money of the common man, was set up against gold, the money of the aristocracy. Many a tribune of the people, in many a passionate dis course, sounded the loud praises of silver, which, hidden in deep mines, lay awaiting the time when it should come forth into the light of day to ransom miserable humanity languishing in its wretchedness. And while some thus regarded gold as nothing less than the embodiment of the very principle of evil, all the more enthusiastically did others exalt the glistening yellow metal which alone was worthy to be the money of rich and mighty nations. It did not seem as if men were disputing about the distribution of economic goods; rather it was as if the precious metals were contending among themselves and against paper for the lordship of the market. All the same, it would be difficult to claim that these Olympic struggles were engendered by anything but the question of altering the purchasing power of money.
2 The Instruments of Monetary Policy
The principal instrument of monetary policy at the disposal of the state is the exploitation of its influence on the choice of the kind of money. It has been shown above that the position of the state as controller of the mint and as issuer of money substitutes has allowed it in modern times to exert a decisive influence over individuals in their choice of the common medium of exchange. If the state uses this power systematically in order to force the community to accept a particular sort of money whose employment it desires for reasons of monetary policy then it is actually carrying through a measure of monetary policy. The states which completed the transition to a gold standard a generation ago, did so from motives of monetary policy. They gave up the silver standard or the credit-money standard because they recognized that the behavior of the value of silver or of credit money was unsuited to the economic policy they were following. They adopted the gold standard because they regarded the behavior of the value of gold as relatively the most suitable for carrying out their monetary policies.
If a country has a metallic standard, then the only measure of currency policy that it can carry out by itself is to go over to another kind of money. It is otherwise with credit money and fiat money. Here the state is able to influence the movement of the objective exchange value of money by increasing or decreasing its quantity. It is true that the means is extremely crude, and that the extent of its consequences can never be foreseen. But it is easy to apply and popular on account of its drastic effects.
Please see our literature for a range of further reading.
Steven, it is brilliant that you are doing so much to publicise this remarkable book. With Mises publishing the first edition of ‘The Theory of Money and Credit’ in 1912, it is remarkable that after nearly 100 years of such prescience, that he is still such a relatively obscure figure, with Keynesian halfwits like Paul Krugman still dominating most of the economic roosts of the world.
Unfortunately, this is mainly because Mises wrote the original in German and main English-speaking intellectual gatekeeper of the time was a certain John Maynard Keynes, who was then editor of the Cambridge Economic Journal.
Keynes wrote a review which left ‘The Theory of Money and Credit’ in obscurity for two crucial decades. If Keynes hadn’t been so arrogant and condescending about the book, it may have gained much more traction in the English-speaking world and may possibly have helped prevent the turmoil and economic crashes of the time, which gave rise to the demagogues of the 1930s.
Keynes, alas, had other ideas and wrote a dismissive review, swiping Mises with the slur of being unoriginal (despite the book being the most original work in economics for 40 years). So why was Keynes so unimpressed? Well, it was mainly because he was incapable of reading original ideas in German, as he himself admitted in his own treatise on money, a few years later.
Here’s what Murray Rothbard wrote, on page 11 of his short monograph, ‘Keynes the Man’, about this incident:
“One striking illustration of Maynard Keynes’s unjustified arrogance and intellectual irresponsibility was his reaction to Ludwig von Mises’s brilliant and pioneering Treatise on Money and Credit, published in German in 1912. Keynes had recently been made the editor of Britain’s leading scholarly economic periodical, Cambridge University’s Economic Journal. He reviewed Mises’s book, giving it short shrift. The book, he wrote condescendingly, had “considerable merit” and was “enlightened,” and its author was definitely “widely read,” but Keynes expressed his disappointment that the book was neither “constructive” nor “original” (Keynes 1914). This brusque reaction managed to kill any interest in Mises’s book in Great Britain, and Money and Credit remained untranslated for two fateful decades. The peculiar point about Keynes’s review is that Mises’s book was highly constructive and systematic, as well as remarkably original. How could Keynes not have seen that? This puzzle was cleared up a decade and a half later, when, in a footnote to his own Treatise on Money, Keynes impishly admitted that “in German, I can only clearly understand what I already know—so that new ideas are apt to be veiled from me by the difficulties of the language” (Keynes 1930a: I, 199 n.2). Such unmitigated gall. This was Keynes to the hilt: to review a book in a language where he was incapable of grasping new ideas, and then to attack that book for not containing anything new, is the height of arrogance and irresponsibility.”
You can read the rest of Rothbard’s view on Keynes, here:
Even better, you can listen to the audio version, via a speech by Uncle Murray himself. Go to 23:20 to hear Rothbard talking about the Keynes book review described above:
So keep up the great work, Steven. If only you had been around a century ago! :-)
Comments are closed.