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11. Money and Its Purchasing Power

4. Utility of the Stock of Money

In the case of consumers’ goods, we do not go behind their subjective utilities on people's value scales to investigate why they were preferred; economics must stop once the ranking has been made. In the case of money, however, we are confronted with a different problem. For the utility of money (setting aside the nonmonetary use of the money commodity) depends solely on its prospective use as the general medium of exchange. Hence the subjective utility of money is dependent on the objective exchange-value of money, and we must pursue our analysis of the demand for money further than would otherwise be required.5 The diagrams above in which we connected the demand for money and its PPM are therefore particularly appropriate. For other goods, demand in the market is a means of routing commodities into the hands of their consumers. For money, on the other hand, the “price” of money is precisely the variable on which the demand schedule depends and to which almost the whole of the demand for money is keyed. To put it in another way: without a price, or an objective exchange-value, any other good would be snapped up as a welcome free gift; but money, without a price, would not be used at all, since its entire use consists in its command of other goods on the market. The sole use of money is to be exchanged for goods, and if it had no price and therefore no exchange-value, it could not be exchanged and would no longer be used.

We are now on the threshold of a great economic law, a truth that can hardly be overemphasized, considering the harm its neglect has caused throughout history. An increase in the supply of a producers’ good increases, ceteris paribus, the supply of a consumers’ good. An increase in the supply of a consumers’ good (when there has been no decrease in the supply of another good) is demonstrably a clear social benefit; for someone's “real income” has increased and no one's has decreased.6

Money, on the contrary, is solely useful for exchange purposes. Money, per se, cannot be consumed and cannot be used directly as a producers’ good in the productive process. Money per se is therefore unproductive; it is dead stock and produces nothing. Land or capital is always in the form of some specific good, some specific productive instrument. Money always remains in someone's cash balance.

Goods are useful and scarce, and any increment in goods is a social benefit. But money is useful not directly, but only in exchanges. And we have just seen that as the stock of money in society changes, the objective exchange-value of money changes inversely (though not necessarily proportionally) until the money relation is again in equilibrium. When there is less money, the exchange-value of the monetary unit rises; when there is more money, the exchange-value of the monetary unit falls. We conclude that there is no such thing as “too little” or “too much” money, that, whatever the social money stock, the benefits of money are always utilized to the maximum extent. An increase in the supply of money confers no social benefit whatever; it simply benefits some at the expense of others, as will be detailed further below. Similarly, a decrease in the money stock involves no social loss. For money is used only for its purchasing power in exchange, and an increase in the money stock simply dilutes the purchasing power of each monetary unit. Conversely, a fall in the money stock increases the purchasing power of each unit.

David Hume's famous example provides a highly oversimplified view of the effect of changes in the stock of money, but in the present context it is a valid illustration of the absurdity of the belief that an increased money supply can confer a social benefit or relieve any economic scarcity. Consider the magical situation where every man awakens one morning to find that his monetary assets have doubled. Has the wealth, or the real income, of society doubled? Certainly not. In fact, the real income—the actual goods and services supplied—remains unchanged. What has changed is simply the monetary unit, which has been diluted, and the purchasing power of the monetary unit will fall enough (i.e., prices of goods will rise) to bring the new money relation into equilibrium.

One of the most important economic laws, therefore, is: Every supply of money is always utilized to its maximum extent, and hence no social utility can be conferred by increasing the supply of money.

Some writers have inferred from this law that any factors devoted to gold mining are being used unproductively, because an increased supply of money does not confer a social benefit. They deduce from this that the government should restrict the amount of gold mining. These critics fail to realize, however, that gold, the money-commodity, is used not only as money but also for nonmonetary purposes, either in consumption or in production. Hence, an increase in the supply of gold, although conferring no monetary benefit, does confer a social benefit by increasing the supply of gold for direct use.

  • 5. See Mises, Theory of Money and Credit, p. 98. The entire volume is indispensable for the analysis of money. Also see Mises, Human Action, chap. xvii and chap. xx.
  • 6. See chapter 12 below for a discussion of the concept of social benefit or social utility.