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2. The Interventionist Aspect of Legal Tender Legislation
The simplest and oldest variety of monetary interventionism is debasement of coins or diminution of their weight or size for the sake of debt abatement. The authority assigns to the cheaper currency units the full legal tender power previously granted to the better units. All deferred payments can be legally discharged by payment of the amount due in the meaner coins according to their face value. Debtors are favored at the expense of creditors. But at the same time future credit transactions are made more onerous for debtors. A tendency for gross market rates of interest to rise ensues as the parties take into account the chances for a repetition of such measures of debt abatement. While debt abatement improves the conditions of those who were already indebted at the moment, it impairs the position of those eager or obliged to contract new debts.
The antitype of debt abatement--debt aggravation through monetary measures--has also been practiced, though rarely. However, it has never deliberately been planned as a device to favor the creditors [p. 784] at the expense of the debtors. Whenever it came to pass, it was the unintentional effect of monetary changes considered as peremptory from other points of view. In resorting to such monetary changes governments put up with their effects upon deferred payments either because they considered the measures unavoidable or because they assumed that creditors and debtors, in determining the terms of the contract, had already foreseen these changes and duly taken them into account. The best examples are provided by British events after the Napoleonic wars and again after the first World War. In both instances Great Britain some time after the end of hostilities returned, by means of a deflationary policy, to the prewar gold parity of the pound sterling. The idea of engineering the substitution of the gold standard for the war-time credit-money standard by acquiescing in the change in the market exchange ratio between the pound and gold, which had already taken place, and of adopting this ratio as the new legal parity, was rejected. This second alternative was scorned as a kind of national bankruptcy, as a partial repudiation of the public debt, and as a malicious infringement upon the rights of all those whose claims had originated in the period preceding the suspension of the unconditional convertibility of the banknotes of the Bank of England. People labored under the delusion that the evils caused by inflation could be cured by a subsequent deflation. Yet the return to the prewar gold parity could not indemnify the creditors for the damage they had suffered as far as the debtors had repaid their old debts during the period of money depreciation. Moreover, it was a boon to all those who had lent during this period and a blow to all those who had borrowed. But the statesmen who were responsible for the deflationary policy were not aware of the import of their action. They failed to see consequences which were, even in their eyes, undesirable, and if they had recognized them in time, they would not have known how to avoid them. Their conduct of affairs really favored the creditors at the expense of the debtors, especially the holders of the government bonds at the expense of the taxpayers. In the 'twenties of the nineteenth century it aggravated seriously the distress of British agriculture and a hundred years later the plight of British export trade. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to call these two British monetary reforms the consummation of an interventionism intentionally aiming at debt aggravation. Debt aggravation was merely the unintentional outcome of a policy aiming at other ends.
Whenever debt abatement is resorted to, its authors protest that the measure will never be repeated. They emphasize that extraordinary [p. 785] conditions which will never again present themselves have created an emergency which makes indispensable recourse to noxious devices absolutely reprehensible under any other circumstances. Once and never again, they declare. It is easy to conceive why the authors and supporters of debt abatement are compelled to make such promises. If total or partial nullification of the creditors' claims becomes a regular policy, lending of money will stop altogether. The stipulation of deferred payments depends on the expectation that no such nullification will be decreed.
It is therefore not permissible to look upon debt abatement as a device of a system of economic policies which could be considered as an alternative to any other system of society's permanent economic organization. It is by no means a tool of constructive action. It is a bomb that destroys and can do nothing but destroy. If it is applied only once, a reconstruction of the shattered credit system is still possible. But if the blows are repeated, total destruction results.
It is not correct to look upon inflation and deflation exclusively from the point of view of their effects upon deferred payments. It has been shown that cash-induced changes in purchasing power do not affect the prices of the various commodities and services at the same time and to the same extent, and what role this unevenness plays in the market.1 But if one regards inflation and deflation as means of rearranging the relations between creditors and debtors, one cannot fail to realize that the ends sought by the government resorting to them are attained only in a very imperfect degree and that, besides, consequences appear which, from the government's point of view, are highly unsatisfactory. As is the case with every other variety of government interference with the price structure, the results obtained not only are contrary to the intentions of the government but produce a state of affairs which, in the opinion of the government, is more undesirable than conditions on the unhampered market.
As far as a government resorts to inflation in order to favor the debtors at the expense of the creditors, it succeeds only with regard to those deferred payments which were stipulated before. Inflation does not make it cheaper to contract new loans; it makes it, on the contrary, more expensive by the appearance of a positive price premium. If inflation is pushed to its ultimate consequences, it makes any stipulation of deferred payments in terms of the inflated currency cease altogether. [p. 786]
- 1. See above, pp. 411-413.