Why Monetary Expansion Must Stop
[Address delivered at the European Parliament in Brussels on March 16, 2011]
Introduction: The Illusion of Unlimited Resources
The current problems faced by all the world's economies stem, primarily, from one source: the demise of sound money, whose quantity could not be increased without significant cost, and its replacement with fiat money that can be inflated to infinite amounts at almost no cost to the producer.
Expansion of fiat money makes it appear to all market participants, including financial regulators, that there are more resources available than really exist. Thusly, all participants, including governments, embark on programs that cannot be completed; there just are not enough resources in the economy.
Not only does fiat money create the illusion of greater wealth, it makes embarking on new projects irresistible. After all, does it not always appear that lack of money is all that stands between man and the fulfillment of all his dreams? Now, with unlimited quantities of fiat money, the day seems to have arrived when anything is possible. But this is an illusion.
Throughout my talk I will refer to economic laws that act as impenetrable barriers to achieving the goals sought by monetary expansion. These are laws of human nature — to ignore them brings serious adverse consequences.
Economics is a social and not a natural science, because man is a social being. His actions are not governed by physical stimuli but by preferences derived from subjective valuations, all of which are unknowable, undergo constant change, and therefore cannot be predicted. Nevertheless, we do know that man is rational; that he acts to attain goals which he believes will improve his satisfaction; that he employs scarce means to do so and that means imply costs; but since he expects to improve his satisfaction, he expects the costs to be less than the satisfaction to be attained; so man expects to profit from his actions. From this brief explanation of man as a rational being, we can derive irrefutable economic laws.
Two Evils of Monetary Expansion
There are two main evils of monetary expansion: (1) recurring financial crises and (2) expansion of the wealth-destroying welfare-warfare state.
I'll start with why we continue to have recurring and ever more damaging financial crises. Then I will discuss very briefly the expansion of the wealth-destroying welfare-warfare state.
No Societal Benefit from Monetary Expansion
Expansion of fiat money denies the irrefutable economic law that money is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility. This insight was explained by Ludwig von Mises in his 1912 classic, The Theory of Money and Credit. Mises explained that money is not "neutral"; money is a good and is subject to all the laws of economics as are all other goods. Because each new marginal unit conveys less utility than all previous units, and because money is fungible — meaning that each new unit is indistinguishable from monetary units already existing — then the purchasing power of all money is reduced.
The first users of the new money benefit most from the newly created money. This is a tight circle nearest the event of the new money being created. Those furthest away from this event, who are in a wider circle of the general economy, all lose because this new money dilutes the value of each unit of money they are already holding. Think of it as pouring water into milk. Therefore, expansion of the money supply conveys no overall societal benefit.
Money Expansion Is Not Stimulative
Immediately we see that an increase in money cannot be stimulative overall. Although it can stimulate some parts of the economy (those who get the new money first), it can do so only at the expense of all other parts, violating another immutable law of economics, Say's Law, which essentially tells us that we can't get something for nothing. With the creation of new fiat money, wealth has been redistributed from the current holders of money — the rightful owners — to illegitimate new allocators who steal, without getting noticed, other people's money. The first or early receivers of the new money benefit at the expense of those who receive it later, through the market process, or do not receive it at all — for example, retirees living on privately accumulated wealth. The early receivers buy at existing lower prices, while later receivers pay higher prices.
As this newly created money dilutes the existing money's purchasing power, we see this as high prices — later and not immediately. Higher overall prices are the logical consequence of any expansion of money. The price level can be thought of as the result of total monetary spending divided by the total supply of goods and services offered on the market. If the numerator (total spending) goes up or the denominator (total market supply of goods) goes down, the price level increases.
Some may object to this explanation, saying that sometimes the price level remains relatively flat despite an increase in the quantity of money, because the total supply of goods increases enough to offset increases in total spending. My answer is that this is a justification for slow, planned inflation, which ignores damaging structural changes that still occur in the economy. I discuss these changes below.
The Prosperity Illusion Caused by a Rising Gross National Product
Unfortunately, increased spending creates the illusion of increased prosperity, because we measure prosperity by the growth in Gross National Product (GNP), a measure only of total spending, the numerator in the quantity-theory-of-money equation. Under sound money, GNP remains the same, because the quantity of money — and thusly, the quantity of total spending — remains unchanged.
But fiat-money inflationary spending, caused by planned inflation of the money supply, is described as economic "growth." The more government inflates the quantity of money, the greater economic growth appears to be as measured by GNP. But this is an illusion. It is not growth at all. It is just a consequence of measuring higher prices.
So far we have seen that fiat money does not stimulate the economy overall; it merely rewards some at the expense of others and creates higher overall prices. But the main structural damage, to which I earlier referred, occurs in the structure of production as manifested by recurring boom/bust cycles. Here is where fiat money and credit expansion cause pure capital consumption, robbing the future productive capability of the economy.
Malinvestment and the Austrian Business Cycle
In the mistaken belief that the economy can be stimulated into a higher level of production by more money, central bankers lower interest rates below the natural, market rate. The ultimate result of such intervention is destruction of capital through what Austrian economists call malinvestment. Capital is devoted to lines of production, primarily into longer-term investments, that will never be profitably completed.
We must address this most pressing question: Why do so many businesses fail at the same time? Can it be that a mass incompetence spreads through the economy so that we experience a large-scale bust from time to time? Governments and central bankers focus on this bust and try to postpone it, thinking that this bust is the problem.
But, ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that the bust is not the problem. The problem is the boom and what created it in the first place. Fortunately this business-cycle phenomenon has been very well explained by Austrian economics. For those of you who have the time, I will be happy to explain the details of this after my talk. Suffice it to say that it is the intervention of the central bank that puts into motion the culprit of "artificial interest rates." These are false signals to businesses that there are new, real resources for investing in longer-term, capital-expansion projects. But there are no new, real resources for the successful and profitable completion of all new boom-time projects.
Coercion Is No Solution
Rather than cease its monetary intervention, government counters these consequences with coercion in the form of increasing bureaucratic oversight of banks, mandatory increases in bank capital requirements, and the creation of bailout funds.
Increasing bureaucratic oversight rests on two false ideas — that bureaucrats can discern potential problems to which bankers are blinded and that, unlike bankers, bureaucrats are not greedy by nature, so they will not take on increased risk. But government bureaucrats can no more detect errors, culpable or otherwise, than can the financial community they are supposed to regulate. The normal economic cues are hidden by expansion of money and manipulation of the interest rate. Regulators and systemic-risk analysts are no more able to detect these errors than anyone else. All the oversight boards will accomplish is adding cost to the banking system and possibly creating what Wilhelm Röpke called repressed inflation (what we today call stagflation), whereby production declines and employment falls while prices rise.
Bailout funds are the culprits behind any increased risk taking by greedy bankers. These funds create moral hazard, whereby market participants know that some or all of the cost of increased risk will be borne by others but that benefits will not be shared. In addition, due to the law of diminishing marginal utility of money, the funds themselves continue, rather than cure, the problem initially caused by money expansion, for the funds are formed by even more money expansion.
All of this intervention leads back to the evils of redistribution of wealth, higher prices, and more malinvestment — a vicious and destructive cycle.
The Cognitive Dissonance of Money Expansion Followed by Increased Coercion
This entire process creates a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance; that is, holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time. Expansion of the money supply and lowering of interest rates in order to stimulate the economy is not compatible with increased bank capital requirements and oversight boards to detect systemic risk.
The government expects that a lower rate of interest will promote more economic activity through increased lending. Yet the law of diminishing marginal utility applies also to lending . The only way to make more loans is to lend to less creditworthy customers. Yet this is the situation that more oversight attempts to prevent. Therefore, even if the government's oversight boards could detect less creditworthy borrowers, the very purpose of lower interest rates is to make loans to such people.
This makes no sense from an economic or financial point of view, but it does make sense from a political, command-and-control point of view. So lower interest rates and increased government oversight become nothing more than full employment for bureaucrats, who enjoy the perks of power and who bear none of the responsibility for their actions.
The choice is clear: either more of the same — that is, more fiat-money pumping and more regulation, with increasingly worse outcomes — or an abandonment of monetary expansion and bank oversight by government along with their replacement by sound money and the normal checks and balances of the free market.
Expansion of the Welfare-Warfare State
I'll now discuss the second main evil of fiat-money growth: expansion of the wealth-destroying welfare-warfare state.
Because the wealth-generating sector of society has nothing to gain and everything to lose by the expansion of the welfare-warfare state, under a sound-money environment these wealth-destroying activities would be vigorously opposed. But under a fiat-money system, many of those who benefit from the unhampered market economy are blinded by the money illusion and believe that government spending does not come out of their own pockets. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the Progressive movement in the late-19th and early-20th centuries coincided with both increased government spending and an increase in the money supply to be provided by central banks.
Like all unsustainable enterprises, the welfare-warfare state depends upon ever-increasing injections of fiat money; otherwise, its programs collapse rather quickly. Ever-larger increases in fiat money merely delay the day of reckoning, because the ordinary cues of higher taxes and higher interest rates are avoided for a time. So fiat money leads government to make promises that it ultimately cannot deliver.
When government finally becomes aware that it is limited in what it can accomplish, it is faced with a stark choice. If it scraps programs, it risks civil unrest from the program constituents. The alternative is to continue the programs in name only, resorting to price controls and rationing. National healthcare systems are the best examples of this phenomenon. Not only is demand for healthcare services greatly increased — a true tragedy of the commons, whereby commonly held resources are plundered to extinction — but the quantity and quality of services actually decline.
The Medicare system in America tries to solve this problem by underpaying for services and then forcing providers, via threats to pull their business licenses, to absorb Medicare losses in the hopes of making up the difference with private-pay patients. To avoid losses and remain in business, medical practices counter with lower service quality and delays. Our neighbor to the north rations care to those who can live and suffer long enough to advance to the front of long waiting lists. In a recent suit brought by a Canadian patient, a Canadian judge stated that "access to a waiting list is not access to healthcare."
The Long-Term Solution: Liberate Money and the Economy from Government Control
A free-market economy, which includes money freely chosen by the market, does not suffer disequilibria, periodic booms and busts, or high unemployment. The constant search of market participants to better themselves will result in cooperation, rather than confrontation, with all peoples everywhere. The liberal order, as envisioned by scholars such as Ludwig von Mises, can expand to encompass the entire world, resulting in peace and ever-expanding prosperity for all cooperating men everywhere.
Sound money is essential; therefore, the first order of business for Europe is to stabilize the euro. Stop inflating its supply. Stop purchasing sovereign debt. Anchor the euro in gold and/or silver. Try to gain international cooperation when doing so, in order to prevent large swings in gold and silver imports and exports when other nations see that they must emulate Europe. Nevertheless, if this is not possible, anchor the euro in gold or silver anyway.
Then begin the process of privatizing money by eliminating legal-tender laws. Let the market use whatever money it chooses, even multiple monies. Some Austrian economists believe that eliminating legal-tender laws is all that is required of government, that the free market will choose the money that it finds best suits its purposes. This may be the case; the attempt is certainly worth the effort. A practical step would be to relax legal-tender laws in one or both of two ways: the nonenforcement of legal-tender laws or the decriminalization of private money production. Nonprosecution would open the door to private, competing monies.
End all regulation of banking, including deposit guarantees, which only cause moral hazard. But enforce 100 percent reserves against money certificates and demand deposits. Reform the commercial code to provide legal protections for bank depositors just as is the case with any warehouse bailment.
But allow complete freedom of loan banking, whereby the banker takes legal ownership of funds for some set period of time, with a promise to return the funds, plus interest, at the end of the contract. This form of loan banking can be risk free, as when customer loans to the bank are less than the bank's capital account. It is also noninflationary, because the bank lends only funds that have been transferred to it and it alone — the depositor gives up his claim to the funds for the length of the contract. Undoubtedly, under such legal protections and known risks, the public would be better served than by the current, fractional-reserve system of constant expansion and contraction of the money supply via bank lending.
Rules for the Statesman
Those in positions of power, such as all of you here, must be guided by reason and not emotion. Adopt as your motto Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. Pass only laws that are universally applicable — that benefit all men at all times and in all places. Treat men as ends in themselves rather than as means to other ends, such as national or regional pride.
Not many laws will meet these high standards. Certainly, printing money, which reduces the purchasing power of money already in circulation and benefits some at the expense of others, fails this test, as does buying sovereign debt at subsidized interest rates. Both of these practices lead not to freedom and security but to suffering and conflict. I ask you to lead as statesmen always do: based on principles that work, are true, and are real.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.