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Chapter 10 Monetary Theory and Policy
Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises1
“The Main Issues in Present-Day Monetary Controversies”
This is not a systematic presentation of the problems of money and credit. Neither is it a complete exposition of the theories and doctrines dealt with. The aim of this paper is merely to enumerate certain topics that should not be neglected in a discussion of money and credit.
I. The Purchasing Power Controversy
A. Is Money “Neutral”?
The older economists believed that — other things being equal — changes in the supply or demand of money make all commodity prices and wage rates simultaneously rise or fall in exact proportion to these changes. The price “level” changes, but the relations among the prices of individual commodities and services remain the same. Those mathematical economists whose theorizing culminates in the formulation of an equation of exchange still maintain this thesis.
Modern economic analysis rejects this assumption. The changes in the supply or demand of money do not affect all individuals at the same time and to the same extent. In the case of inflation, for instance, the additional quantity of money does not find its way at first into the pockets of all individuals, nor does every individual of those benefited first with the increase in the quantity of money get the same amount; and not every individual reacts to the same additional quantity in the same way. Consequently, the prices of various commodities and services rise neither at the same time nor to the same extent. The nonsimultaneous appearance and unevenness of the price changes brought about by increases in the quantity of money results in a shift of income and wealth from some groups of the population to other groups. Monetary fluctuations are not neutral, even apart from their repercussions on all contracts stipulating some form of deferred payments. Monetary changes are a source of economic and social change.
B. Are Changes in the Purchasing Power of Money Measurable?
Even if we were prepared to leave out consideration of the nonsimultaneous appearance and unevenness of the price changes brought about by changes in the supply of or demand for money, we must realize that the index-number method does not provide a faithful criterion for the measurement of changes in the purchasing power of the monetary unit. Economic conditions are not rigid; they are — also apart from any changes occurring in monetary matters — continuously changing. New commodities appear, old commodities disappear. The quality of the various commodities is subject to change. Tastes, wants, and desires are changing and with them the valuation of the various goods offered on the market. A motorcar of 1920 and a motorcar of 1940 are entirely different things. Twenty-five years ago, where were vitamins, refrigerators, and talking pictures? How different is the role played today in the average American household by canned food, rayon, and radio sets? How much do clothes and shoes change from one year to the next? Even standard foods like milk, butter, meat, and vegetables have in the last decades improved in quality to such an extent that it is impermissible to take them as equivalent with those marketed in the past. A method which tacitly assumes that nothing else had changed in the economic system than the available quantity of money is utterly illusory. The chairman of our committee has provided us with the results of an investigation undertaken in his corporation. According to this information, only a fraction of the products manufactured today are of the same kind as the goods manufactured a few years ago. This is a typical case, more or less representative for all American processing industries.
Besides, mathematics provides us with various methods for the computation of averages from a given set of figures. Each of these methods has, with regard to the problem in question, some merits and some defects. Each of them yields different results. As it is impossible to declare one of these methods as the only adequate one and to discard all the others as manifestly unsuitable, it is obvious that the index-number approach does not provide an indisputable and uncontested solution that could command general acceptance.
C. Is It Possible to Adjust Monetary Manipulation to a Nonarbitrary Standard?
The advocates of a manipulated currency pretend to aim at the stability of the monetary unit’s purchasing power. They fail, however, to realize that in a changing economic world, the concept of a stable purchasing power is devoid of any real meaning.
There are three main objections to be raised against the proposals for a manipulated currency.
1. The various methods suggested for a measurement of changes in the monetary unit’s purchasing power are arbitrary. Their results are contested by all those whose material interests would be hurt if they were to be used as a basis of monetary manipulation. In advocating the application of a certain index-number system, the results of which happen at the moment to provide a quasi-scientific justification of their particular interests, every pressure group and political party will always be in a position to cite the doctrine of some economists and statisticians. On the other hand, their adversaries will quote dissenting opinions of no less renowned experts. There is no means to free a tabular standard from the faults of purely arbitrary and party-ridden bias.
2. It is impossible to know beforehand to what extent and at what date a definite amount of inflation or deflation (an increase or a reduction in the quantity of money and credit) will increase or reduce the prices of various commodities and services.
3. Apart from other deficiencies, the proposals for stabilization are faulty because they are based on the idea of money’s neutrality. They all suggest methods to undo changes in the purchasing power of money that have already had their effects. If there has been an inflation, they wish to deflate to the same extent and vice versa. They do not realize that by this procedure, they do not undo the social consequences of monetary changes (that is, the shift of income and wealth from some groups to others), but simply add to them the social consequences of a new change. If a man has been hurt by being run over by an automobile, it is no remedy to let the car go back over him in the opposite direction.
D. The Case Against Flexible Foreign Exchange Parities
If the purchasing power of an individual country’s domestic currency changes, while the other countries’ currencies do not change at all or not to the same extent, foreign trade is affected. As a rule, foreign exchange rates are adjusted at an early stage of the inflationary or deflationary process to the new state of the domestic money supply, even while the prices of some commodities and services still lag behind and are not fully adjusted for a time. As long as the inflationary or deflationary changes have not exhausted all their effects on the structure of prices, the comparatively low or high state of some prices results — in the case of inflation — in encouraging exports and discouraging imports. From the viewpoint of mercantilist fallacies, a fall of the domestic monetary unit’s purchasing power is, therefore, considered as a very fortunate occurrence.
What really happens is this: The country exports more than it did before, and it gets, as compensation for these increased exports, a smaller amount of foreign products. Exports are, as it were, subsidized and imports penalized to the burden of the natives. The inflation is, by and large, tantamount to a tax imposed upon the domestic consumers in order to cheapen the consumption of domestic products by foreigners.
Nowadays, currency devaluation is mostly advocated as a remedy against the rigidity of wage rates. People are afraid of fighting openly the inappropriate policies of labor unions. They resort to an indirect attack. They hope that currency devaluation will, notwithstanding the rise of domestic commodity prices, not raise money wage rates and thus reduce real wage rates. Lord Keynes believes that “a gradual and automatic lowering or real wages as a result of rising prices” would not be “strongly resisted” by labor. He does not see that wage rates are rigid only on the downside, not on the upside, too.
E. The Case for the Gold Standard
The gold standard is not perfect. No human institution is.
The main argument in favor of the gold standard is that it renders the formation of the monetary unit’s purchasing power independent of arbitrary action on the part of governments, political parties, and pressure groups. It places a check upon inflationary policies, and is the only standard which can possibly become an international, a world standard.
II. The Credit Controversy
A. The Banking Principle
Some economists of the “Banking School” ventured to deny flatly that changes in the quantity of money available can affect prices and interest rates. They introduced into their reasoning the idea of monetary “hoards” as a deus ex machina. The amount of money kept in these mythical hoards changes in such a way as to neutralize automatically changes in the quantity of money. A surplus of money is swallowed by these hoards; a deficiency of money is made good by a restriction of the amount hoarded. This fable has long since been abandoned.
The bulk of the older Banking School economists and all contemporary representatives of this school do not deny that an increase in the quantity of money (metallic money, government paper money, irredeemable bank notes, and deposit currency) must — other things being equal — result in a general rise of prices. The core of their teachings is: Short-term credits granted by commercial banks in the form of bank notes or deposits created for this purpose do not affect prices and interest rates, provided they do not exceed “the needs of trade.” Such loans provide the debtor with the funds required for the production and the marketing of goods. They are self-liquidating. If the purchased raw materials are made up and sold, or if the buyer of products settles his balance, the loan is paid off, and the bank notes or deposits disappear again. An actual need has brought them into existence. With the cessation of this need, they go off the stage. The amount of credit of this type which the market can absorb is determined by the volume of production and business activity. It is beyond the power of the banks to alter this volume. No credit expansion is to be feared if the banks strictly abide by the rule to limit their lending to satisfy the demand of producers or merchants for short-term credit.
The reasoning of the Banking School misses the essential problem. It is obvious that no credit expansion takes place if the banks keep the total amount of their lending at the same level. But if a new bank enters the field or if an existing bank embarks upon the granting of additional credit above the amount of its previous credits, credit expansion results.
It is not true that the volume of credit that the banks are in a position to grant, if strictly abiding by the aforementioned rules, is independent of the bank’s policy. The market is always in a position to absorb a surplus of credit supply. An increase in the supply of credit brings about a tendency toward a lowering of the rate of interest. With the lower rate of interest, many projects appear attractive that did not appear so with a higher rate. The lowering of the rate of interest encourages the expansion of precisely those business activities that — according to the banking doctrine — are viewed as proper instances for the granting of bank credit. Thus the credit expansion automatically increases the “needs of trade.” It stimulates business activities because it cheapens the exchange of future purchasing power for present purchasing power. While the supply of capital goods remained unaltered, there is now a greater demand for them on the part of business. Prices must, consequently, rise. A boom starts.
B. The Currency Principle
The “Currency School” intended to provide an explanation of the recurrence of economic crises. Its proponents first observed that the root cause of the depression is the preceding boom and substituted for the study of crises the study of the trade cycle.
Their reasoning ran this way: If the British banks expanded credit while conditions in the other countries remained unchanged, British prices would begin to rise, and these on the world market would lag behind them. Consequently, there would be an excess of British imports over exports. As the surplus of imported goods could not be paid for by shipping bank notes, the importers would have to export gold. Hence, gold would be withdrawn from the banks; their reserves would dwindle. This “external drain” would force upon the banks a restriction of their lending activities. The artificial boom would come to an end and give way to a depression.
The main fault of the Currency School was that it dealt with bank notes only and did not realize that deposits subject to check are only technically different from bank notes, while their economic significance is equal to that of bank notes. This failure vitiated the British Bank Act of 1844. But it is easy to rectify this error by a simple extension of the theory.
C. Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle
Currency theory did not consider the problem of the consequences of credit expansion within an isolated country or of a synchronous credit expansion in all countries. It did not enter into a discussion of the way in which the market and the whole apparatus of production and distribution react to credit expansion. This task was accomplished by Austrian theory.
The rate of interest established on a market not hampered by credit expansion, says Austrian theory, separates those business projects that can be carried out under the existing state of the supply of capital goods and consumers’ preferences from those that cannot. With the lowering of the rate of interest brought about by credit expansion, the entrepreneurs embark upon projects for the realization of which the available amount of factors of production does not suffice.2 They are deceived by the appearance of a nonexistent richness in the supply of material factors of production. They behave like a master builder who has overestimated the amount of building material available, has used up too much for the foundations and cannot complete his plan on account of a lack of material. Some of the new projects will never be finished; others, when finished, will be useless for lack of the plants producing the required complementary producers’ goods; others will not yield an adequate return on the capital invested.
It is true, the banks (or the governments) are in a position to prolong the boom for some time by injecting progressively increasing quantities of bank notes and deposits into the market. But the artificially created prosperity cannot last forever. Sooner or later it must come to an end. There are only two alternatives:
1. The banks do not stop and go on expanding credit at a progressively accelerated pace. But the spell of inflation breaks once the public has the conviction that the banks and the authorities are resolved not to stop. If no limit of the inflation and, consequently, of the general rise of prices can be foreseen, a general Flucht in die Sachwerte starts. Everybody becomes aware of the fact that to hold cash and deposit balances with the banks involves loss, and that he does better to buy and store goods. Everybody is anxious to get rid of money and to exchange it for some other commodities, no matter how much he must pay for them. Prices are running away, and the purchasing power of the monetary unit drops to zero. The national currency system cracks up.
2. As a rule, the banks do not let things go so far. They stop sooner by restricting credit. Then the day of reckoning dawns. The illusions disappear, people begin again to see reality as it is. The blunders committed in the boom become visible.
In every case, the slump is unavoidable. There is no means to make permanent a boom created by credit expansion and inflation.
The slump does not destroy values, but merely illusions. It does not make people poorer, it merely makes them aware of the impoverishment brought about by the malinvestment of the boom. It is not the depression that is an evil, but the preceding boom. The depression is the process of adjustment of economic conditions to the real market state-of-affairs. The fall in prices and wage rates is the preliminary step toward recovery and future real prosperity. He who wants to prevent the recurrence of economic
crises must prevent the resumption of credit expansion.
In short, credit expansion is doomed to failure at any rate. There is no means to substitute fictitious capital created by monetary and credit manipulation for nonexisting capital goods. The only method to increase a nation’s wealth and income is to save and to accumulate more real capital goods.
The rate of interest is a market phenomenon. In the long run, its height does not depend on the supply of money and credit. It is determined by the difference in the valuation of present goods and future goods. An increase in the supply of money and credit only temporarily lowers the rate of interest. In bringing about malinvestments, it finally results in a reduction in the amount of capital goods available. The economy has to pay heavily for the orgy of the artificial boom.
D. The Socialists’ Rejection of Austrian Theory
In the eyes of the socialists, there is no such thing as a scarcity of material factors of production. Mankind could enjoy a life in plenty. Scarcity is merely an outcome of the capitalist mode of production and distribution. Economic crises are an evil inherent in capitalism. They have nothing at all to do with the endeavors to expand credit and to lower the rate of interest by bank manipulation.
The consistent supporters of these tenets blithely assert that interest is a purely monetary phenomenon that could not exist in a barter economy. (Such were, for instance, the ideas of Silvio Gesell, the minister of finance of the short-lived communist Soviet regime in Munich; Lord Keynes is full of praise for Gesell and calls him an “unduly neglected prophet.”) Others are less outspoken and cling to a more cautious language. But a faulty doctrine does not gain anything from the fact that its advocates lack the courage to profess frankly all the conclusions which must be drawn logically from the principles they have espoused.
Whoever does not share the opinion that the rate of interest is only a monetary phenomenon is under the necessity to demonstrate the mechanism by which that level of the rate of interest, which corresponds to the whole structure of market conditions, reestablishes itself when temporarily disarranged by an easy money policy. The only solution of this problem provided up to now is that of the Austrian theory.
All those economists who want to explain the trade cycle as being caused by factors other than credit expansion must admit that no boom could arise if the amount of money and credit available were not increased. This implies that they cannot help admitting the fundamental thesis of Austrian theory.
E. Salvation Through Credit Manipulation
Consistent supporters of the doctrine that the rate of interest is a monetary phenomenon only and that there is no harm in the endeavors to abolish it by credit manipulation cannot help approving plans to establish the millennium by a reform of the monetary and banking system. The best known of the older projects of this type was that of the French socialist Proudhon, the man who coined the phrase “Property is theft.”
Such ideas are very popular with many successful businessmen. The Belgian Ernest Solvay advocated “social compatabilism,” a system hardly distinguished from that of Proudhon. More than twenty years ago, Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford suggested that the construction of roads be financed by the issue of additional paper money in order to avoid the payment of interest to the banks or the public.
The present-day variety of this old superstition is embodied in the doctrine of unbalanced budgets and government spending. As far as the government procures the means required for spending by taxing the citizens and by borrowing from the public, its spending curtails individuals’ capacity to invest to the same extent that it increases that of the government. As far as the government borrows from the commercial banks or issues additional paper money, it embarks upon credit expansion and inflation.
In the early stages of every instance of credit expansion and inflation, there is always optimism. People do not want to pay attention to the warning voices of economists. They stubbornly insist that their present situation has nothing in common with the boom periods of the past, and that the theorists are wrong in predicting the breakdown of the “prosperity.” But when the crisis comes, people become desperate; then they impeach not the faulty monetary and credit policies but the capitalist system as such.
III. The Foreign Exchange Controversy
A. Purchasing Power Parity Theory
The exchange ratio between two different kinds of money tends to correspond to the exchange ratio between each of them and commodities and services. It is usual to call this ratio the static or natural ratio. If this exchange ratio between two kinds of money is disturbed, people will start operations — buying and selling — in order to profit from existing discrepancies. These transactions tend to reestablish the natural ratio.
It does not make any difference whether the two kinds of money are used in the same country simultaneously (as was the case under the old parallel gold and silver standard) or whether each country uses one of them only. The natural rate of foreign exchange is determined by the purchasing power of each of the two kinds of money.
If a payment has to be effected in a distant place, the transaction is burdened with the cost of shipping the money. These costs are avoided if claims and debts of various people in the two places can be cleared. If complete settlement of all payments due can be achieved in this way, no actual shipping of money is required. If an unsettled surplus turns up, it must be settled by transfers from place to place.
The balance of payments does not determine the exchange ratio. It only determines how much of the cost of shipping money can be saved. If the two places or countries in question use the same precious metal as the standard, the balance of payments determines the fluctuations of the rate-of-exchange within the rigid limits set by the cost of shipping money (gold points or shipping points).
B. Balance of Payment Theory
Balance of payment theory asserts that foreign exchange rates are determined by the balance of payments.
This doctrine fails to realize that the amount of foreign trade depends on the structure of prices. If Atlantis imports from Thule a commodity A, for the unit of which two ducats must be paid in Atlantis, the commodity must be sold in Thule at the equivalent of two ducats in its local currency, that is, ten florins. If, without any inflation in Thule, the price of the ducat goes up to three florins, the importation of A must drop or stop altogether because at the price of fifteen florins, the demand for A in Thule shrinks or disappears altogether. A rise of foreign exchange rates that does not correspond to a rise of domestic prices (a fall of the purchasing power of the domestic currency) thus has the tendency to render the country’s balance of payment “favorable.”
But, object the supporters of balance of payment theory, things are certainly different if A is a vital necessity for the citizens of Thule. Then, they must import A, no matter how much its price goes up. This, too, is a fallacy. If the individual citizens of Thule spend more florins for the purchase of A, they must, if there is no domestic inflation, restrict their buying of other commodities, either domestic or imported. In the first case, the prices of these domestic commodities drop, and they become available for
export. In the second case, the amount of foreign exchange that would have been absorbed by the importation of other goods becomes available for the purchase of A.
If there is domestic inflation in Thule, then — and only then — a rise of the price of A (in florins) will not hinder the importation of A, as soon as the price of A (in Thule) is affected by the general rise of prices.
C. The Requirements of Foreign Exchange Stability
There is but one means to keep a nation’s domestic currency at par with gold and the sound currency of other countries: to abstain from credit expansion and inflation.
The Theory of Money and Credit3
1. Subjective and Objective Factors in the Theory of the Value of Money
The central element in the economic problem of money is the objective exchange value of money, popularly called its purchasing power. This is the necessary starting point of all discussion; for it is only in connection with its objective exchange value that those peculiar properties of money that have differentiated it from commodities are conspicuous.
This must not be understood to imply that subjective value is of less importance in the theory of money than elsewhere. The subjective estimates of individuals are the basis of the economic valuation of money just as of that of other goods. And these subjective estimates are ultimately derived, in the case of money as in the case of other economic goods, from the significance attaching to a good or complex of goods as the recognized necessary condition for the existence of a utility, given certain ultimate aims on the part of some individual.4 Nevertheless, while the utility of other goods depends on certain external facts (the objective use-value of the commodity) and certain internal facts (the hierarchy of human needs), that is, on conditions that do not belong to the category of the economic at all but are partly of a technological and partly of a psychological nature, the subjective value of money is conditioned by its objective exchange value, that is, by a characteristic that falls within the scope of economics.
In the case of money, subjective use-value and subjective exchange value coincide.5 Both are derived from objective exchange value, for money has no utility other than that arising from the possibility of obtaining other economic goods in exchange for it. It is impossible to conceive of any function of money, qua money, that can be separated from the fact of its objective exchange value. As far as the use-value of a commodity is concerned, it is immaterial whether the commodity also has exchange value or not; but for money to have use-value, the existence of exchange value is essential.
This peculiarity of the value of money can also be expressed by saying that, as far as the individual is concerned, money has no use-value at all, but only subjective exchange value. This, for example, is the practice of Rau6 and Böhm-Bawerk.7 Whether the one or the other phraseology is employed, scientific investigation of the characteristic will lead to the same conclusions. There is no reason to enter upon a discussion of this point, especially since the distinction between value in use and value in exchange no longer holds the important place in the theory of value that it used to have.8 All that we are concerned with is to show that the task of economics in dealing with the value of money is a bigger one than its task in dealing with the value of commodities. When explaining the value of commodities, the economist can and must be content to take subjective use-value for granted and leave investigation of its origins to the psychologist; but the real problem of the value of money only begins where it leaves off in the case of commodity values, viz., at the point of tracing the objective determinants of its subjective value, for there is no subjective value of money without objective exchange value. It is not the task of the economist, but of the natural scientist, to explain why corn is useful to man and valued by him; but it is the task of the economist alone to explain the utility of money. Consideration of the subjective value of money without discussion of its objective exchange value is impossible. In contrast to commodities, money would never be used unless it had an objective exchange value or purchasing power. The subjective value of money always depends on the subjective value of the other economic goods that can be obtained in exchange for it. Its subjective value is in fact a derived concept. If we wish to estimate the significance that a given sum of money has, in view of the known dependence upon it of a certain satisfaction, we can do this only on the assumption that the money possesses a given objective exchange value. “The exchange value of money is the anticipated use-value of the things that can be obtained with it.”9 Whenever money is valued by anybody it is because he supposes it to have a certain purchasing power.
It might possibly be objected that the mere possession by money of an undefined amount of objective exchange value is not alone sufficient to guarantee the possibility of using it as a medium of exchange; that it is also necessary that this purchasing power should be present in a certain degree, neither too great nor too small, but such that the proportion between the value of the units of money and that of the units of commodity is a convenient one for carrying through the ordinary exchange transactions of daily life; that even if it were true that half of the money in a country could perform the same service as the whole stock if the value of the monetary unit were doubled, yet it is doubtful if a similar proposition could be asserted of the case in which its value was increased a millionfold, or diminished to one-millionth, in inverse correspondence with changes in the quantity of it, since such a currency would hardly be capable of fulfilling the functions of a common medium of exchange so well as the currencies in actual use; that we should try to imagine a commodity money of which a whole ton, or one of which only a thousandth of a milligram was equivalent to a dollar, and think of the inconveniences, the insuperable obstacles in fact, which the employment of such a medium would inevitably place in the way of commerce.
However true this may be, the question of the actual dimensions of the exchange ratio between money and commodities and of the size of the monetary unit is not an economic problem. It is a question that belongs to discussion of the technical conditions that make any particular good suitable for use as money. The relative scarcity of the precious metals, great enough to give them a high objective exchange value but not so great as that of the precious stones or radium and therefore not great enough to make their exchange value too high, must indeed be reckoned, along with such of their other characteristics as their practically unlimited divisibility, their malleability, and their powers of resistance to destructive external influences, as among the factors that were once decisive in causing them to be recognized as the most marketable goods and consequently to be employed as money. But nowadays, as monetary systems have developed, the particular level of value of the precious metals no longer has any important bearing on their use as money. The modern organization of the clearing system and the institution of fiduciary media have made commerce independent of the volume and weight of the monetary material.
2. The Objective Exchange Value of Money
It follows from what has been said that there can be no discussion of the problem of the value of money without consideration of its objective exchange value. Under modern conditions, objective exchange value, which Wieser also calls Verkehrswert (or value in business transactions), is the most important kind of value, because it governs the social and not merely the individual aspect of economic life. Except in its explanation of the fundamentals of value theory, economics deals almost exclusively with objective exchange value.10 And while this is true to some extent of all goods, including those which are useful apart from any exchange value which they possess, it is still truer of money.
“The objective exchange value of goods is their objective significance in exchange, or, in other words, their capacity in given circumstances to procure a specific quantity of other goods as an equivalent in exchange.”11 It should be observed that even objective exchange value is not really a property of the goods themselves, bestowed on them by nature, for in the last resort it also is derived from the human process of valuing individual goods. But the exchange ratios that are established between different goods in commercial transactions, and are determined by the collective influence of the subjective valuations of all the persons doing business in the market, present themselves to separate individuals, who usually have an infinitesimal influence on the determination of the ratios, as accomplished facts, which in most cases have to be accepted unconditionally. It has thus been easy for false abstraction from this state of affairs to give rise to the opinion that each good comes to the market endowed with a definite quantity of value independent of the valuations of individuals.12 From this point of view, goods are not exchanged for one another, by human beings; they simply exchange.
Objective exchange value, as it appears in the subjective theory of value, has nothing except its name in common with the old idea developed by the Classical School of a value in exchange inherent in things themselves. In the value theory of Smith and Ricardo, and in that of their successors, value in exchange plays the leading part. These theories attempt to explain all the phenomena of value by starting from value in exchange, which they interpret as labor value or cost-of-production value. For modern value theory their terminology can claim only a historical importance, and a confusion of the two concepts of exchange value need no longer be feared. This removes the objections that have recently been made to the continued use of the expression “objective exchange value.”13
If the objective exchange value of a good is its power to command a certain quantity of other goods in exchange, its price is this actual quantity of other goods. It follows that the concepts of price and objective exchange value are by no means identical. “But it is, nevertheless, true that both obey the same laws. For when the law of price declares that a good actually commands a particular price, and explains why it does so, it of course implies that the good is able to command this price, and explains why it is able to do so. The law of price comprehends the law of exchange value.”14
By “the objective exchange value of money” we are accordingly to understand the possibility of obtaining a certain quantity of other economic goods in exchange for a given quantity of money; and by “the price of money” this actual quantity of other goods. It is possible to express the exchange value of a unit of money in units of any other commodity and speak of the commodity price of money; but in actual life this phraseology and the concept it expresses are unknown. For nowadays money is the sole indicator of prices. ...
1. The Dependence of the Subjective Valuation of Money on the Existence of Objective Exchange Value15
According to modern value theory, price is the resultant of the interaction in the market of subjective valuations of commodities and price-goods. From beginning to end, it is the product of subjective valuations. Goods are valued by the individuals exchanging them, according to their subjective use-values, and their exchange ratios are determined within that range where both supply and demand are in exact quantitative equilibrium. The law of price stated by Menger and Böhm-Bawerk provides a complete and numerically precise explanation of these exchange ratios; it accounts exhaustively for all the phenomena of direct exchange. Under bilateral competition, market price is determined within a range whose upper limit is set by the valuations of the lowest bidder among the actual buyers and the highest offerer among the excluded would-be sellers, and whose lower limit is set by the valuations of the lowest offerer among the actual sellers and the highest bidder among the excluded would-be buyers.
This law of price is just as valid for indirect as for direct exchange. The price of money, like other prices, is determined in the last resort by the subjective valuations of buyers and sellers. But, as has been said already, the subjective use-value of money, which coincides with its subjective exchange value, is nothing but the anticipated use-value of the things that are to be bought with it. The subjective value of money must be measured by the marginal utility of the goods for which the money can be exchanged.16
It follows that a valuation of money is possible only on the assumption that the money has a certain objective exchange value. Such a point d’appui is necessary before the gap between satisfaction and “useless” money can be bridged. Since there is no direct connection between money as such and any human want, individuals can obtain an idea of its utility and consequently of its value only by assuming a definite purchasing power. But it is easy to see that this supposition cannot be anything but an expression of the exchange ratio ruling at the time in the market between the money and commodities.17
Once an exchange ratio between money and commodities has been established in the market, it continues to exercise an influence beyond the period during which it is maintained; it provides the basis for the further valuation of money. Thus the past objective exchange value of money has a certain significance for its present and future valuation. The money prices of today are linked with those of yesterday and before, and with those of tomorrow and after.
But this alone will not suffice to explain the problem of the element of continuity in the value of money; it only postpones the explanation. To trace back the value that money has today to that which it had yesterday, the value that it had yesterday to that which it had the day before, and so on, is to raise the question of what determined the value of money in the first place. Consideration of the origin of the use of money and of the particular components of its value that depend on its monetary function suggests an obvious answer to this question. The first value of money was clearly the value which the goods used as money possessed (thanks to their suitability for satisfying human wants in other ways) at the moment when they were first used as common media of exchange. When individuals began to acquire objects, not for consumption, but to be used as media of exchange, they valued them according to the objective exchange value with which the market already credited them by reason of their “industrial” usefulness, and only as an additional consideration on account of the possibility of using them as media of exchange. The earliest value of money links up with the commodity value of the monetary material. But the value of money since then has been influenced not merely by the factors dependent on its “industrial” uses, which determine the value of the material of which the commodity money is made, but also by those which result from its use as money. Not only its supply and demand for industrial purposes, but also its supply and demand for use as a medium of exchange, have influenced the value of gold from that point of time onward when it was first used as money.18
2. The Necessity for a Value Independent of the Monetary Function Before an Object Can Serve as Money
If the objective exchange value of money must always be linked with a preexisting market exchange ratio between money and other economic goods (since otherwise individuals would not be in a position to estimate the value of the money), it follows that an object cannot be used as money unless, at the moment when its use as money begins, it already possesses an objective exchange value based on some other use. This provides both a refutation of those theories which derive the origin of money from a general agreement to impute fictitious value to things intrinsically valueless19 and a confirmation of Menger’s hypothesis concerning the origin of the use of money.
This link with a preexisting exchange value is necessary not only for commodity money, but equally for credit money and fiat money.20 No fiat money could ever come into existence if it did not satisfy this condition. Let us suppose that, among those ancient and modern kinds of money about which it may be doubtful whether they should be reckoned as credit money or fiat money, there have actually been representatives of pure fiat money. Such money must have come into existence in one of two ways. It may have come into existence because money substitutes already in circulation, that is, claims payable in money on demand, were deprived of their character as claims, and yet still used in commerce as media of exchange. In this case, the starting point for their valuation lay in the objective exchange value that they had at the moment when they were deprived of their character as claims. The other possible case is that in which coins that once circulated as commodity money are transformed into fiat money by cessation of free coinage (either because there was no further minting at all or because minting was continued only on behalf of the Treasury), no obligation of conversion being de jure or de facto assumed by anybody, and nobody having any grounds for hoping that such an obligation ever would be assumed by anybody. Here the starting point for the valuation lies in the objective exchange value of the coins at the time of the cessation of free coinage.
Before an economic good begins to function as money it must already possess exchange value based on some other cause than its monetary function. But money that already functions as such may remain valuable even when the original source of its exchange value has ceased to exist. Its value then is based entirely on its function as common medium of exchange.21
3. The Significance of Preexisting Prices in the Determination of Market Exchange Ratios
From what has just been said, the important conclusion follows that a historically continuous component is contained in the objective exchange value of money.
The past value of money is taken over by the present and transformed by it; the present value of money passes on into the future and is transformed in its turn. In this there is a contrast between the determination of the exchange value of money and that of the exchange value of other economic goods. All preexisting exchange ratios are quite irrelevant so far as the actual levels of the reciprocal exchange ratios of other economic goods are concerned. It is true that if we look beneath the concealing monetary veil to the real exchange ratios between goods we observe a certain continuity. Alterations in real prices occur slowly as a rule. But this stability of prices has its cause in the stability of the price determinants, not in the law of price determination itself. Prices change slowly because the subjective valuations of human beings change slowly. Human needs, and human opinions as to the suitability of goods for satisfying those needs, are no more liable to frequent and sudden changes than are the stocks of goods available for consumption, or the manner of their social distribution. The fact that today’s market price is seldom very different from yesterday’s is to be explained by the fact that the circumstances that determined yesterday’s price have not greatly changed overnight, so that today’s price is a resultant of nearly identical factors. If rapid and erratic variations in prices were usually encountered in the market, the conception of objective exchange value would not have attained the significance that it is actually accorded both by consumer and producer.
In this sense, reference to an inertia of prices is unobjectionable, although the errors of earlier economists should warn us of the real danger that the use of terms borrowed from mechanics may lead to a “mechanical” system, that is, to one that abstracts erroneously from the subjective valuations of individuals. But any suggestion of a causal relationship between past and present prices must be decisively rejected.
It is not disputed that there are institutional forces in operation which oppose changes in prices that would be necessitated by changes in valuations, and which are responsible when changes in prices that would have been caused by changes in supply and demand are postponed and when small or transitory changes in the relations between supply and demand lead to no corresponding change in prices at all. It is quite permissible to speak of an inertia of prices in this sense. Even the statement that the closing price forms the starting point for the transactions of the next market22 may be accepted if it is understood in the sense suggested above. If the general conditions that determined yesterday’s price have altered but little during the night, today’s price should be but little different from that of yesterday, and in practice it does not seem incorrect to make yesterday’s the starting point. Nevertheless, there is no causal connection between past and present prices as far as the relative exchange ratios of economic goods (not including money) are concerned. The fact that the price of beer was high yesterday cannot be of the smallest significance as far as today’s price is concerned — we need only think of the effect upon the prices of alcoholic drinks that would follow a general triumph of the Prohibition movement. Anybody who devotes attention to market activities is daily aware of alterations in the exchange ratios of goods, and it is quite impossible for anybody who is well acquainted with economic phenomena to accept a theory which seeks to explain price changes by a supposed constancy of prices.
It may incidentally be remarked that to trace the determination of prices back to their supposed inertia, as even Zwiedineck in his pleadings for this assumption is obliged to admit, is to resign at the outset any hope of explaining the ultimate causes of prices and to be content with explanations from secondary causes.23 It must unreservedly be admitted that an explanation of the earliest forms of exchange transaction that can be shown to have existed — a task to the solution of which the economic historian has so far contributed but little would show that the forces that counteract sudden changes in prices were once stronger than they are now. But it must positively be denied that there is any sort of connection between those early prices and those of the present day; that is, if there really is anybody who believes it possible to maintain the assertion that the exchange ratios of economic goods (not the money prices) that prevail today on the German stock exchanges are in any sort of causal connection with those that were valid in the days of Hermann or Barbarossa. If all the exchange ratios of the past were erased from human memory, the process of market-price determination might certainly become more difficult, because everybody would have to construct a new scale of valuations for himself; but it would not become impossible. In fact, people the whole world over are engaged daily and hourly in the operation from which all prices result: the decision as to the relative significance enjoyed by specific quantities of goods as conditions for the satisfaction of wants.
It is so far as the money prices of goods are determined by monetary factors, that a historically continuous component is included in them, without which their actual level could not be explained. This component, too, is derived from exchange ratios which can be entirely explained by reference to the subjective valuations of the individuals taking part in the market, even though these valuations were not originally grounded upon the specifically monetary utility alone of these goods. The valuation of money by the market can only start from a value possessed by the money in the past, and this relationship influences the new level of the objective exchange value of money. The historically transmitted value is transformed by the market without regard to what has become its historical content.24 But it is not merely the starting point for today’s objective exchange value of money; it is an indispensable element in its determination. The individual must take into account the objective exchange value of money, as determined in the market yesterday, before he can form an estimate of the quantity of money that he needs today. The demand for money and the supply of it are thus influenced by the value of money in the past; but they in their turn modify this value until they are brought into equilibrium.
4. The Applicability of the Marginal-Utility Theory to Money
Demonstration of the fact that search for the determinants of the objective exchange value of money always leads us back to a point where the value of money is not determined in any way by its use as a medium of exchange, but solely by its other functions, prepares the way for developing a complete theory of the value of money on the basis of the subjective theory of value and its peculiar doctrine of marginal utility.
Until now the subjective school has not succeeded in doing this. In fact, among the few of its members who have paid any attention at all to the problem there have been some who have actually attempted to demonstrate its insolubility. The subjective theory of value has been helpless in face of the task here confronting it.
There are two theories of money which, whatever else we may think of them, must be acknowledged as having attempted to deal with the whole problem of the value of money.
The objective theories of value succeeded in introducing a formally unexceptionable theory of money into their systems, which deduces the value of money from its cost of production.25 It is true that the abandonment of this monetary theory is not merely to be ascribed to those shortcomings of the objective theory of value in general which led to its supersession by the theory of the modern school. Apart from this fundamental weakness, the cost-of-production theory of the value of money exhibited one feature that was an easy target for criticism. While it certainly provided a theory of commodity money (even if only a formally correct one), it was unable to deal with the problem of credit money and fiat money. Nevertheless, it was a complete theory of money insofar as it did at least attempt to give a full explanation of the value of commodity money.
The other similarly complete theory of the value of money is that version of the quantity theory associated with the name of Davanzati.26 According to this theory, all the things that are able to satisfy human wants are conventionally equated with all the monetary metal. From this, since what is true of the whole is also true of its parts, the exchange ratios between commodity units and units of money can be deduced. Here we are confronted with a hypothesis that is not in any way supported by facts. To demonstrate its untenability once more would nowadays be a waste of time. Nevertheless, it must not be overlooked that Davanzati was the first who attempted to present the problem as a whole and to provide a theory that would explain not merely the variations in an existing exchange ratio between money and other economic goods, but also the origin of this ratio.
The same cannot be said of other versions of the quantity theory. These all tacitly assume a certain value of money as given, and absolutely refuse to investigate further into the matter. They overlook the fact that what is required is an explanation of what determines the exchange ratio between money and commodities, and not merely of what causes changes in this ratio. In this respect, the quantity theory resembles various general theories of value (many versions of the doctrine of supply and demand, for example), which have not attempted to explain price as such but have been content to establish a law of price variations.27 These forms of the quantity theory are in fact nothing but the application of the law of supply and demand to the problem of the value of money. They introduce into monetary theory all the strong points of this doctrine; and of course all its weak points as well.28
The revolution in economics since 1870 has not yet been any more successful in leading to an entirely satisfactory solution of this problem. Of course, this does not mean that the progress of the science has left no trace on monetary theory in general and on the theory of the value of money in particular. It is one of the many services of the subjective theory of value to have prepared the way for a deeper understanding of the nature and value of money. The investigations of Menger have placed the theory on a new basis. But till now one thing has been neglected. Neither Menger nor any of the many investigators who have tried to follow him have even so much as attempted to solve the fundamental problem of the value of money. Broadly speaking, they have occupied themselves with checking and developing the traditional views and here and there expounding them more correctly and precisely, but they have not provided an answer to the question: What are the determinants of the objective exchange value of money? Menger and Jevons have not touched upon the problem at all. Carver29 and Kinley30 have contributed nothing of real importance to its solution. Walras31 and Kemmerer32 assume a given value of money and develop what is merely a theory of variations in the value of money. Kemmerer, it is true, approaches very close to a solution of the problem but passes it by.
Wieser expressly refers to the incomplete nature of the previous treatment. In his criticism of the quantity theory he argues that the law of supply and demand in its older form, the application of which to the problem of money constitutes the quantity theory, has a very inadequate content, since it gives no explanation at all of the way in which value is really determined or of its level at any given time, but confines itself without any further explanation merely to stating the direction in which value will move in consequence of variations in supply or demand; that is, in an opposite direction to changes in the former and in the same direction as changes in the latter. He further argues that it is no longer possible to rest content with a theory of the economic value of money which deals so inadequately with the problem; that since the supersession of the old law of supply and demand as applied to commodities, the case for which it was originally constructed, a more searching law must also be sought to apply to the case of money.33 But Wieser does not deal with the problem whose solution he himself states to be the object of his investigation, for in the further course of his argument he declares that the concepts of supply of money and demand for money as a medium of exchange are useless for his purpose and puts forward a theory which attempts to explain variations in the objective exchange value of money (objektive innere Tauschwert des Geldes)34 by reference to the relationship that exists in an economic community between money income and real income. For while it is true that reference to the ratio between money income and real income may well serve to explain variations in the objective exchange value of money, Wieser nowhere makes the attempt to evolve a complete theory of money — an attempt which, admittedly, the factors of supply and demand being excluded from consideration, would be certain to fail. The very objection that he raises against the old quantity theory, that it affirms nothing concerning the actual determination of value or the level at which it must be established at any time, must also be raised against his own doctrine; and this is all the more striking inasmuch as it was Wieser who, by revealing the historical element in the purchasing power of money, laid the foundation for the further development of the subjective theory of the value of money.
The unsatisfactory results offered by the subjective theory of value might seem to justify the opinion that this doctrine and especially its proposition concerning the significance of marginal utility must necessarily fall short as a means of dealing with the problem of money. Characteristically enough, it was a representative of the new school, Wicksell, who first expressed this opinion. Wicksell considers that the principle which lies at the basis of all modern investigation into the theory of value, namely, the concept of marginal utility, may well be suited to explaining the determination of exchange ratios between one commodity and another, but that it has practically no significance at all, or at most an entirely secondary significance, in explaining the exchange ratios between money and other economic goods. Wicksell, however, does not appear to detect any sort of objection to the marginal-utility theory in this assertion. According to his argument, the objective exchange value of money is not determined at all by the processes of the market in which money and the other economic goods are exchanged. If the money price of a single commodity or group of commodities is wrongly assessed in the market, then the resulting maladjustments of the supply and demand and the production and consumption of this commodity or group of commodities will sooner or later bring about the necessary correction. If, on the other hand, all commodity prices, or the average price level, should for any reason be raised or lowered, there is no factor in the circumstances of the commodity market that could bring about a reaction. Consequently, if there is to be any reaction at all against a price assessment that is either too high or too low it must in some way or other originate outside the commodity market. In the further course of his argument, Wicksell arrives at the conclusion that the regulator of money prices is to be sought in the relations of the commodity market to the money market, in the broadest sense of the term. The cause which influences the demand for raw materials, labor, the use of land, and other means of production, and thus indirectly determines the upward or downward movement of commodity prices, is the ratio between the money rate of interest (Darlehnszins) and the “natural” or equilibrium rate of interest (natürliche Kapitalzins), by which we are to understand that rate of interest which would be determined by supply and demand if real capital was itself lent directly without the intermediation of money.35
Wicksell imagines that this argument of his provides a theory of the determination of the objective exchange value of money. In fact, however, all that he attempts to prove is that forces operate from the loan market on the commodity market which prevent the objective exchange value of money from rising too high or falling too low. He never asserts that the rate of interest on loans determines the actual level of this value in any way; in fact, to assert this would be absurd. But if we are to speak of a level of money prices that is “too high” or “too low,” we must first state how the ideal level with which the actual level is compared has been established. It is in no way sufficient to show that the position of equilibrium is returned to after any disturbance, if the existence of this position of equilibrium is not first explained. Indubitably, this is the primary problem, and its solution leads directly to that of the other; without it, further inquiry must remain unfruitful, for the state of equilibrium can only be maintained by those forces which first established it and continue to reestablish it. If the circumstances of the loan market can provide no explanation of the genesis of the exchange ratio subsisting between money and other economic goods, then neither can they help to explain why this ratio does not alter. The objective exchange value of money is determined in the market where money is exchanged for commodities and commodities for money. To explain its determination is the task of the theory of the value of money. But Wicksell is of the opinion that “the laws of the exchange of commodities contain in themselves nothing that could determine the absolute level of money prices.”36 This amounts to a denial of all possibility of scientific investigation in this sphere.
Helfferich also is of the opinion that there is an insurmountable obstacle in the way of applying the marginal-utility theory to the problem of money; for while the marginal-utility theory attempts to base the exchange value of goods on the degree of their utility to the individual, the degree of utility of money to the individual quite obviously depends on its exchange value, since money can have utility only if it has exchange value, and the degree of the utility is determined by the level of the exchange value. Money is valued subjectively according to the amount of consumable goods that can be obtained in exchange for it, or according to what other goods have to be given in order to obtain the money needed for making payments. The marginal utility of money to any individual, that is, the marginal utility derivable from the goods that can be obtained with the given quantity of money or that must be surrendered for the required money, presupposes a certain exchange value of the money; so the latter cannot be derived from the former.37
Those who have realized the significance of historically transmitted values in the determination of the objective exchange value of money will not find great difficulty in escaping from this apparently circular argument. It is true that valuation of the monetary unit by the individual is possible only on the assumption that an exchange ratio already exists in the market between the money and other economic goods. Nevertheless, it is erroneous to deduce from this that a complete and satisfactory explanation of the determination of the objective exchange value of money cannot be provided by the marginal-utility theory. The fact that this theory is unable to explain the objective exchange value of money entirely by reference to its monetary utility; that to complete its explanation, as we were able to show, it is obliged to go back to that original exchange value which was based not on a monetary function at all but on other uses of the object that was to be used as money — this must not in any way be reckoned to the discredit of the theory, for it corresponds exactly to the nature and origin of the particular objective exchange value under discussion. To demand of a theory of the value of money that it should explain the exchange ratio between money and commodities solely with reference to the monetary function, and without the assistance of the element of historical continuity in the value of money, is to make demands of it that run quite contrary to its nature and its proper task.
The theory of the value of money as such can trace back the objective exchange value of money only to that point where it ceases to be the value of money and becomes merely the value of a commodity. At this point the theory must hand over all further investigation to the general theory of value, which will then find no further difficulty in the solution of the problem. It is true that the subjective valuation of money presupposes an existing objective exchange value; but the value that has to be presupposed is not the same as the value that has to be explained; what has to be presupposed is yesterday’s exchange value, and it is quite legitimate to use it in an explanation of that of today. The objective exchange value of money which rules in the market today is derived from day’s under the influence of the subjective valuations of the individuals frequenting the market, just as yesterday’s in its turn was derived under the influence of subjective valuations from the objective exchange value possessed by the money the day before yesterday.
If in this way we continually go farther and farther back we must eventually arrive at a point where we no longer find any component in the objective exchange value of money that arises from valuations based on the function of money as a common medium of exchange; where the value of money is nothing other than the value of an object that is useful in some other way than as money. But this point is not merely an instrumental concept of theory; it is an actual phenomenon of economic history, making its appearance at the moment when indirect exchange begins.
Before it was usual to acquire goods in the market, not for personal consumption, but simply in order to exchange them again for the goods that were really wanted, each individual commodity was only accredited with that value given by the subjective valuations based on its direct utility. It was not until it became customary to acquire certain goods merely in order to use them as media of exchange that people began to esteem them more highly than before, on account of this possibility of using them in indirect exchange. The individual valued them in the first place because they were useful in the ordinary sense, and then additionally because they could be used as media of exchange. Both sorts of valuation are subject to the law of marginal utility. Just as the original starting point of the value of money was nothing but the result of subjective valuations, so also is the present-day value of money.
But Helfferich manages to bring forward yet another argument for the inapplicability of the marginal-utility theory to money. Looking at the economic system as a whole, it is clear that the notion of marginal utility rests on the fact that, given a certain quantity of goods, only certain wants can be satisfied and only a certain set of utilities provided. With given wants and a given set of means, the marginal degree of utility is determined also. According to the marginal-utility theory, this fixes the value of the goods in relation to the other goods that are offered as an equivalent in exchange, and fixes it in such a manner that that part of the demand that cannot be satisfied with the given supply is excluded by the fact that it is not able to offer an equivalent corresponding to the marginal utility of the good demanded. Now Helfferich objects that while the existence of a limited supply of any goods except money is in itself sufficient to imply the limitation of their utility also, this is not true of money. The utility of a given quantity of money depends directly upon the exchange value of the money, not only from the point of view of the individual, but also for society as a whole. The higher the value of the unit in relation to other goods, the greater will be the quantity of these other goods that can be paid for by means of the same sum of money. The value of goods in general results from the limitation of the possible utilities that can be obtained from a given supply of them, and while it is usually higher according to the degree of utility which is excluded by the limitation of supply, the total utility of the supply itself cannot be increased by an increase in its value; but in the case of money, the utility of a given supply can be increased at will by an increase in the value of the unit.38
The error in this argument is to be found in its regarding the utility of money from the point of view of the community instead of from that of the individual. Every valuation must emanate from somebody who is in a position to dispose in exchange of the object valued. Only those who have a choice between two economic goods are able to form a judgment as to value, and they do this by preferring the one to the other. If we start with valuations from the point of view of society as a whole, we tacitly assume the existence of a socialized economic organization in which there is no exchange and in which the only valuations are those of the responsible official body. Opportunities for valuation in such a society would arise in the control of production and consumption, as, for example, in deciding how certain production goods were to be used when there were alternative ways of using them. But in such a society there would be no room at all for money. Under such conditions, a common medium of exchange would have no utility and consequently no value either. It is therefore illegitimate to adopt the point of view of the community as a whole when dealing with the value of money. All consideration of the value of money must obviously presuppose a state of society in which exchange takes place and must take as its starting point individuals acting as independent economic agents within such a society,39 that is to say, individuals engaged in valuing things.
Money, Method, and the Money Process40
“The Non-Neutrality of Money”
The monetary economists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries succeeded in dissipating the popular fallacies concerning an alleged stability of money. The old error disappeared, but a new one originated, the illusion of money’s neutrality.
Of course, classical economics did its best to dispose of these mistakes. David Hume, the founder of British Political Economy, and John Stuart Mill, the last in the line of classical economists, both dealt with the problem in a masterful way. And then we should not forget Cairnes, who in his essay on the course of depreciation paved the way for a realistic view of the issue involved.
Notwithstanding these first steps towards a more correct grasp, modern economists incorporated the fallacy of money neutrality into their system of thought.
The reasoning of modern marginal utility economics begins from the assumption of a state of pure barter. The mechanism of exchanging commodities and of market transactions is considered on the supposition that direct exchange alone prevails. The economists depict a purely hypothetical entity, a market without indirect exchange, without a medium of exchange, without money. There is no doubt that this method is the only possible one, that the elimination of money is necessary and that we cannot do without this concept of a market with direct exchange only. But we have to realize that it is a hypothetical concept which has no counterpart in reality. The actual market is necessarily a market of indirect exchange and money transactions.
From this assumption of a market without money, the fallacious idea of neutral money is derived. The economists were so fond of the tool which this hypothetical concept provided that they overestimated the extent of its applicability. They began to believe that all problems of catallactics could be analyzed by means of this fictitious concept. In accordance with this view, they considered that the main work of economic analysis was the study of direct exchange. After that all that was left was to introduce the monetary terms into the formulas obtained. But this was, in their eyes, a work of only secondary importance, because, as they were convinced, the introduction of monetary terms did not affect the substantial operation of the mechanism they had described. The functioning of the market mechanism as demonstrated by the concept of pure barter was not affected by monetary factors.
Of course, the economists knew that the exchange ratio between money and commodities was subject to change. But they believed — and this is exactly the essence of the fallacy of money’s neutrality — that these changes in purchasing power were brought about simultaneously in the whole market and that they affected all commodities to the same extent. The most striking expression of this point of view is to be found in the current metaphorical use of the term “level” in reference to prices. Changes in the supply or demand of money — other things remaining equal — make all prices and wages simultaneously rise or fall. The purchasing power of the monetary unit changes, but the relations among the prices of individual commodities remain the same.
Of course, economists have developed for more than a hundred years the method of index numbers in order to measure changes in purchasing power in a world where the ratios between the prices of individual commodities are in continuous transition. But in doing so, they did not give up the assumption that the consequences of a change in the supply or demand of money were a proportional and simultaneous modification of prices. The method of index numbers was designed to provide them with a means of distinguishing between the consequences of those changes in prices which take their origins from the side of the demand for or supply of individual commodities and those which start from the side of demand for or supply of money.
The erroneous assumption of money neutrality is at the root of all endeavors to establish the formula of a so-called equation of exchange. In dealing with such an equation the mathematical economist assumes that something— one of the elements of the equation — changes and that corresponding changes in the other values must needs follow. These elements of the equation are not items in the individual’s economy, but items of the whole economic system, and consequently the changes occur not with individuals but with the whole economic system, with the Volkswirtschaft as a whole. Proceeding thus, the economists apply unawares for the treatment of monetary problems a method radically different from the modern catallactic method. They revert to the old manner of reasoning which doomed to failure the work of older economists. In those early days philosophers dealt in their speculations with universal concepts, such as mankind and other generic notions. They asked: What is the value of gold or of iron, that is: value in general, for all times and for all people, and again gold or iron in general, all the gold or iron available or even not yet mined. They could not succeed in this way; they discovered only alleged autinomies which were insoluble for them.
All the successful achievements of modern economic theory have to be ascribed to the fact that we have learned to proceed in a different way. We realize that individuals acting in the market are never presented with the choice between all the gold existing and all the iron existing. They do not have to decide whether gold or iron is more useful for mankind as a whole, but they have to choose between two limited quantities both of which they cannot have together. They decide which of these two alternatives is more favorable for them under the conditions and at the moment when they make their decision. These acts of choice performed by individuals faced with alternatives are the ultimate causes of the exchange ratios established in the market. We have to direct our attention to these acts of choice and are not at all interested in the metaphysical and purely academic, nay, vain question of which commodity in general appears more useful in the eyes of a superhuman intelligence surveying earthly conditions from a transcendental point of view.
Monetary problems are economic problems and have to be dealt with in the same way as all other economic problems. The monetary economist does not have to deal with universal entities like volume of trade meaning total volume of trade or quantity of money meaning all the money current in the whole economic system. Still less can he make use of the nebulous metaphor “velocity of circulation.” He has to realize that the demand for money arises from the preferences of individuals within a market society. Because everybody wishes to have a certain amount of cash, sometimes more, sometimes less, there is a demand for money. Money is never simply in the economic system, in the Volkswirtschaft, money is never simply circulating. All the money available is always in the cash holdings of somebody. Every piece of money may one day — sometimes oftener, sometimes more seldom — pass from one man’s cash holding to another man’s. But at every moment it is owned by somebody and is a part of his cash holdings. The decisions of individuals regarding the magnitude of their cash holdings constitute the ultimate factor in the formation of purchasing power.
Changes in the quantity of money and in the demand for money for cash holding do not occur in the economic system as a whole if they do not occur in the households of individuals. These changes in the households of individuals never occur for all individuals at the same time and to the same degree and they therefore never affect their judgments of value to the same extent and at the same time. It is exactly the merit of Hume and Mill that they tried to construct a hypothetical case where the changes in the supply of money could affect all individuals in such a way that the prices of all commodities would rise or fall at the same time and in the same proportion. The failure of their attempts provided a negative proof, and modern economics has added to this the positive proof that the prices of different commodities are not influenced at the same time and to the same extent. The oversimple formula both of the old quantity theory and of contemporary mathematical economists according to which prices, that is all prices, rise or fall in the proportion of the increase or decrease in the quantity of money, is disproved.
To simplify and to shorten our analysis let us look at the case of inflation only. The additional quantity of money does not find its way at first into the pockets of all individuals; not every individual of those benefited first gets the same amount and not every individual reacts to the same additional quantity in the same way. Those first benefited — in the case of gold, the owners of the mines, in the case of government paper money, the treasury — now have greater cash holdings and they are now in a position to offer more money on the market for goods and services they wish to buy. The additional amount of money offered by them on the market makes prices and wages go up. But not all the prices and wages rise, and those which do rise do not rise to the same degree. If the additional money is spent for military purposes, the prices of some commodities only and the wages of only some kinds of labor rise, others remain unchanged or may even temporarily fall. They may fall because there are now on the market some groups of men whose incomes have not risen but who nevertheless are obliged to pay more for some commodities, namely for those asked by the men first benefited by the inflation. Thus, price changes which are the result of the inflation start with some commodities and services only, and are diffused more or less slowly from one group to the others. It takes time till the additional quantity of money has exhausted all its price changing possibilities. But even in the end the different commodities are not affected to the same extent. The process of progressive depreciation has changed the income and the wealth of the different social groups. As long as this depreciation is still going on, as long as the additional quantity of money has not yet exhausted all its possibilities of influencing prices, as long as there are still prices left unchanged at all or not yet changed to the extent that they will be, there are in the community some groups favored and some at a disadvantage. Those selling the commodities or services whose prices rise first are in a position to sell at the new higher prices and to buy what they want to buy at the old still unchanged prices. On the other hand, those who sell commodities or services whose prices remain for some time unchanged are selling at the old prices whereas they already have to buy at the new higher prices. The former are making a specific gain, they are profiteers, the latter are losing, they are the losers, out of whose pockets the extra-gains of the profiteers must come. As long as the inflation is in progress, there is a perpetual shift in income and wealth from some social group, to other social groups. When all price consequences of the inflation are consummated, a transfer of wealth between social groups has taken place. The result is that there is in the economic system a new dispersion of wealth and income and in this new social order the wants of individuals are satisfied to different relative degrees, than formerly. Prices in this new order cannot simply be a multiple of the previous prices.
The social consequences of a change in the purchasing power of money are twofold: first, as money is the standard of deferred payments, the relations between creditors and debtors is changed. Second, as the changes in purchasing power do not affect all prices and wages at the same moment and to the same extent, there is a shift of wealth and income between different social groups. It was one of the errors of all proposals to stabilize purchasing power that they did not take into account this second consequence. We may say that economic theory in general did not pay enough attention to this matter. As far as it did, it principally considered it only in reference to the reaction of a change in a country’s currency on its foreign trade. But this is only a special application of a problem which has a much wider scope.
What is fundamental for economic theory is that there is no constant relation between changes in the quantity of money and in prices. Changes in the supply of money affect individual prices and wages in different ways. The metaphorical use of the term price level is misleading.
The erroneous opinion to the contrary was based on a consideration which may be represented thus: let us think of two absolutely independent systems of static equilibrium A and B. Both are in every respect alike except that to the total quantity of money (M) in A and to every individual cash holding (m) in A there correspond in B a total quantity of Mn and individual cash holdings mn. On these assumptions of course all the prices and wages in B are n times those in A. But they are exactly thus because these are our hypothetical assumptions. But nobody can devise a way by which the system A can be transformed into the system B. Of course it is unpermissible to operate with static equilibrium if we wish to approach a dynamic problem.
Setting aside all qualms about the use of the terms dynamic and static, I wish to say: money is necessarily a dynamic agent and it was a mistake to deal with monetary problems in a static way.
Of course there is no room left for money in a concept of static equilibrium. In forming the concept of a static society we assume that no changes are taking place. Everything is going on in the same old manner. Today is like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today. But under these conditions nobody needs a cash holding. Cash holding is necessary only when the individual does not know what situation he will have to face in an uncertain future. If everybody knows when and what he will have to buy, he does not need a private cash holding and can entrust all his money to the central bank as time deposits due on the dates and in the amounts necessary for his future payments. As everybody would proceed in the same way, the central bank does not need any reserves to meet its obligations. Of course, the total amount which it has to pay out to the buyers every day exactly balances the amount which it receives as deposits from the sellers. If we assume that in this world of static equilibrium once, before the equilibrium was attained, there was metallic currency only, let us say gold, we have to assume that with the gradual approach towards conditions of equilibrium the citizens deposited more and more of their gold and that the bank, which had no need for it, sold the gold to jewelers and others for industrial consumption. With the advent of equilibrium there is no more metallic money, there is in fact no more money at all, but an unsubstantial and immaterial clearing system, which cannot be considered as money in the ordinary sense. It is rather an unrealizable and even unthinkable system of accounting, a numeraire as some economists believed ideal money ought to be. This, if it could be called money, would be neutral money. But we should never forget, that the state of equilibrium is purely hypothetical, that this concept is nothing but a tool for our mental work. Not being able to make experiments, the social sciences have to forge such tools. But we must be very careful in their use. We have to be aware that the state of static equilibrium can never be attained in real life. Still more important is the fact, that in this hypothetical state the individual does not make choices, does not act and does not have to decide between incompatible alternatives. Life in this hypothetical state is therefore robbed of its essential element. In constructing this hypothetical state we want merely to understand the incentives of action, which always implies change, by conceiving conditions, in which no action takes place. But a changeless world would be a dead world. We do not just have to deal with death, but with life, action, and change. In a living world there is no room for neutrality of money.
Money, of course, is a dynamic factor and as such cannot be discussed in terms of static equilibrium.
Let me now briefly point out some of the major conclusions derived from an insight into the non-neutrality of money.
First we have to realize that the abandonment of the fallacious concept of neutral money destroys the last stronghold of the advocates of quantitative economics. For a very long time eminent economists have believed that it will be possible one day to replace qualitative economics by quantitative economics. What renders these hopes vain, is the fact, that in economic quantities we never have any constant ratios among magnitudes. What the economist discovers when he studies relations between demand and prices is not comparable with the work of the natural scientist who determines by experiments in his laboratory constant relations, e.g., the specific gravity of different substances. What the economist determines is of historical value only; he is in his statistical work a historian, but not an experimenter. The work of the late lamented Henry Schultz was economic history; what we learn from his research is what happened with some commodities in a limited period of the past in the United States and Canada. It tells us nothing about what happened with the same commodities elsewhere or in another period or what will happen in the future.
But there still has remained the belief that it is different with money. I may cite, for example, Professor Fisher’s book on the Purchasing Power of Money, which is founded on the assumption that the purchasing power of the monetary unit changes in inverse proportion to the quantity of money. I think that this assumption is arbitrary and fallacious.
The second conclusion which we have to draw is the futility of all endeavors to make money stable in purchasing power. It is beyond the scope of my short address to explain the advantages of a sound money policy and the disadvantages of both inflation and deflation. But we should not confuse the political concept of sound money with the theoretical concept of stable money. I do not wish to discuss the inner contradictions of this stability concept. From the point of view of the present subject it is more important to emphasize that all proposals for stabilization, apart from other deficiencies, are based on the idea of money’s neutrality. They all suggest methods to undo changes in purchasing power already effected if there has been an inflation they wish to deflate to the same extent and vice versa. They do not realize that by this procedure they do not undo the social consequences of the first change, but simply add to it the social consequences of a new change. If a man has been hurt by being run over by an automobile, it is no remedy to let the car go back over him in the opposition direction.
The popularity of all schemes for stabilization invites us to a philosophical consideration. It is a general weakness of the human mind to regard the state of rest and absence of change as more perfect than the state of motion. The absolute, that old phantom of misguided philosophical speculation, is still with us; its modern name is stability. But stability, e.g., absence of change, is, we have to repeat, absence of life.
The third conclusion which we may draw is the futility of the distinction between statics and dynamics and between short-run and long-run economics. The way in which we have to study monetary changes provides us with the best evidence that every correct economic consideration has to be dynamic and that static concepts are only instrumental. And at the same time we have to realize that all correct economic theorizing is a gradual progress from short-run to long-run effects.
But the most important value of the theory of money’s dynamism is its use for the development of the monetary theory of the trade cycle. The old British Currency-Theory was already in a restricted sense a monetary explanation of the cycle. It studied the consequences of credit expansion on the assumption only that there is credit expansion in one country whereas in the rest of the world things are left unchanged. This seemed to be enough for the explanation of the business cycle in Great Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. But the explanation of an external drain does not provide an answer to the question what may happen in a completely isolated country or in the case of a simultaneous credit expansion all over the world. But only the answer to this second question could be considered satisfactory under the conditions prevailing in the twentieth century. Only the answer to this second question is important, if we have to consider the proposals for eliminating the cyclical changes either by loosening the international ties of the national economy or by making credit expansion international in the way the Bretton Woods Agreements provide. It is the boast of the monetary theory of the trade cycle that it provides us with a satisfactory answer to these and to some other serious problems.
I do not wish to infringe more upon your time and so I wish only to add some remarks on the treatment of the problem by certain younger economists. I myself am not responsible for the term “neutral money.” I have developed a theory of the changes in purchasing power and its social consequences. I have demonstrated that money acts as a dynamic agent and that the assumption that the changes in purchasing power are inversely proportional to the changes in the relation of demand for to the supply of money is fallacious. The term “neutral money” was coined by later authors. I do not wish to consider the question of whether it was a happy choice. But in any case I must protest against the belief that it has to be a goal of monetary policy to make money neutral and that it is the duty of the economists to determine a method of doing so. I wish to emphasize that in a living and changing world, in a world of action, there is no room left for a neutral money. Money is non-neutral or it does not exist.
Economic Policy: Thoughts for Tomorrow and Today41
If the supply of caviar were as plentiful as the supply of potatoes, the price of caviar — that is, the exchange ratio between caviar and money or caviar and other commodities — would change considerably. In that case, one could obtain caviar at a much smaller sacrifice than is required today. Likewise, if the quantity of money is increased, the purchasing power of the monetary unit decreases, and the quantity of goods that can be obtained for one unit of this money decreases also.
When, in the sixteenth century, American resources of gold and silver were discovered and exploited, enormous quantities of the precious metals were transported to Europe. The result of this increase in the quantity of money was a general tendency toward an upward movement of prices in Europe. In the same way, today, when a government increases the quantity of paper money, the result is that the purchasing power of the monetary unit begins to drop, and so prices rise. This is called inflation.
Unfortunately, in the United States, as well as in other countries, some people prefer to attribute the cause of inflation not to an increase in the quantity of money but, rather, to the rise in prices.
However, there has never been any serious argument against the economic interpretation of the relationship between prices and the quantity of money, or the exchange ratio between money and other goods, commodities, and services. Under present day technological conditions there is nothing easier than to manufacture pieces of paper upon which certain monetary amounts are printed. In the United States, where all the notes are of the same size, it does not cost the government more to print a bill of a thousand dollars than it does to print a bill of one dollar. It is purely a printing procedure that requires the same quantity of paper and ink.
In the eighteenth century, when the first attempts were made to issue bank notes and to give these bank notes the quality of legal tender — that is, the right to be honored in exchange transactions in the same way that gold and silver pieces were honored — the governments and nations believed that bankers had some secret knowledge enabling them to produce wealth out of nothing. When the governments of the eighteenth century were in financial difficulties, they thought all they needed was a clever banker at the head of their financial management in order to get rid of all their difficulties.
Some years before the French Revolution, when the royalty of France was in financial trouble, the king of France sought out such a clever banker, and appointed him to a high position. This man was, in every regard, the opposite of the people who, up to that time, had ruled France. First of all he was not a Frenchman, he was a foreigner — a Swiss from Geneva, Jacques Necker. Secondly, he was not a member of the aristocracy, he was a simple commoner. And what counted even more in eighteenth century France, he was not a Catholic, but a Protestant. And so Monsieur Necker, the father of the famous Madame de Staël, became the minister of finance, and everyone expected him to solve the financial problems of France. But in spite of the high degree of confidence Monsieur Necker enjoyed, the royal cashbox remained empty — Necker’s greatest mistake having been his attempt to finance aid to the American colonists in their war of independence against England without raising taxes. That was certainly the wrong way to go about solving France’s financial troubles.
There can be no secret way to the solution of the financial problems of a government; if it needs money, it has to obtain the money by taxing its citizens (or, under special conditions, by borrowing it from people who have the money). But many governments, we can even say most governments, think there is another method for getting the needed money; simply to print it.
If the government wants to do something beneficial — if, for example, it wants to build a hospital — the way to find the needed money for this project is to tax the citizens and build the hospital out of tax revenues. Then no special “price revolution” will occur, because when the government collects money for the construction of the hospital, the citizens — having paid the taxes — are forced to reduce their spending. The individual taxpayer is forced to restrict either his consumption, his investments or his savings. The government, appearing on the market as a buyer, replaces the individual citizen: the citizen buys less, but the government buys more. The government, of course, does not always buy the same goods which the citizens would have bought; but on the average there occurs no rise in prices due to the government’s construction of a hospital.
I choose this example of a hospital precisely because people sometimes say: “It makes a difference whether the government uses its money for good or for bad purposes.” I want to assume that the government always uses the money which it has printed for the best possible purposes-purposes with which we all agree. For it is not the way in which the money is spent, it is the way in which the government obtains this money that brings about those consequences we call inflation and which most people in the world today do not consider as beneficial.
For example, without inflating, the government could use the tax-collected money for hiring new employees or for raising the salaries of those who are already in government service. Then these people, whose salaries have been increased, are in a position to buy more. When the government taxes the citizens and uses this money to increase the salaries of government employees, the taxpayers have less to spend, but the government employees have more. Prices in general will not increase.
But if the government does not use tax money for this purpose, if it uses freshly printed money instead, it means that there will be people who now have more money while all other people still have as much as they had before. So those who received the newly-printed money will be competing with those people who were buyers before. And since there are no more commodities than there were previously, but there is more money on the market — and since there are now people who can buy more today than they could have bought yesterday — there will be an additional demand for that same quantity of goods. Therefore prices will tend to go up. This cannot be avoided, no matter what the use of this newly-issued money will be.
And more importantly, this tendency for prices to go up will develop step by step; it is not a general upward movement of what has been called the “price level.” The metaphorical expression “price level” must never be used.
When people talk of a “price level,” they have in mind the image of a level of a liquid which goes up or down according to the increase or decrease in its quantity, but which, like a liquid in a tank, always rises evenly. But with prices, there is no such thing as a “level.” Prices do not change to the same extent at the same time. There are always prices that are changing more rapidly, rising or falling more rapidly than other prices. There is a reason for this.
Consider the case of the government employee who received the new money added to the money supply. People do not buy today precisely the same commodities and in the same quantities as they did yesterday. The additional money which the government has printed and introduced into the market is not used for the purchase of all commodities and services. It is used for the purchase of certain commodities, the prices of which will rise, while other commodities will still remain at the prices that prevailed before the new money was put on the market. Therefore, when inflation starts, different groups within the population are affected by this inflation in different ways. Those groups who get the new money first gain a temporary benefit.
When the government inflates in order to wage a war, it has to buy munitions, and the first to get the additional money are the munitions industries and the workers within these industries. These groups are now in a very favorable position. They have higher profits and higher wages; their business is moving. Why? Because they were the first to receive the additional money. And having now more money at their disposal, they are buying. And they are buying from other people who are manufacturing and selling the commodities that these munitions makers want.
These other people form a second group. And this second group considers inflation to be very good for business. Why not? Isn’t it wonderful to sell more? For example, the owner of a restaurant in the neighborhood of a munitions factory says: “It is really marvelous! The munitions workers have more money; there are many more of them now than before; they are all patronizing my restaurant; I am very happy about it.” He does not see any reason to feel otherwise.
The situation is this: those people to whom the money comes first now have a higher income, and they can still buy many commodities and services at prices which correspond to the previous state of the market, to the condition that existed on the eve of inflation. Therefore, they are in a very favorable position. And thus inflation continues step by step, from one group of the population to another. And all those to whom the additional money comes at the early state of inflation are benefited because they are buying some things at prices still corresponding to the previous stage of the exchange ratio between money and commodities.
But there are other groups in the population to whom this additional money comes much, much later. These people are in an unfavorable position. Before the additional money comes to them they are forced to pay higher prices than they paid before for some — or for practically all — of the commodities they wanted to purchase, while their income has remained the same, or has not increased proportionately with prices.
Consider for instance a country like the United States during the Second World War; on the one hand, inflation at that time favored the munitions workers, the munitions industries, the manufacturers of guns, while on the other hand it worked against other groups of the population. And the ones who suffered the greatest disadvantages from inflation were the teachers and the ministers.
As you know, a minister is a very modest person who serves God and must not talk too much about money. Teachers, likewise, are dedicated persons who are supposed to think more about educating the young than about their salaries. Consequently, the teachers and ministers were among those who were most penalized by inflation, for the various schools and churches were the last to realize that they must raise salaries. When the church elders and the school corporations finally discovered that after all, one should also raise the salaries of those dedicated people, the earlier losses they had suffered still remained.
For a long time, they had to buy less than they did before, to cut down their consumption of better and more expensive foods, and to restrict their purchase of clothing — because prices had already adjusted upward, while their incomes, their salaries, had not yet been raised. (This situation has changed considerably today, at least for teachers.)
There are therefore always different groups in the population being affected differently by inflation. For some of them, inflation is not so bad; they even ask for a continuation of it because they are the first to profit from it. We will see, in the next lecture, how this unevenness in the consequences of inflation vitally affects the politics that lead toward inflation.
Under these changes brought about by inflation, we have groups who are favored and groups who are directly profiteering. I do not use the term “profiteering” as a reproach to these people, for if there is someone to blame, it is the government that established the inflation. And there are always people who favor inflation, because they realize what is going on sooner than other people do. Their special profits are due to the fact that there will necessarily be unevenness in the process of inflation.
The government may think that inflation — as a method of raising funds — is better than taxation, which is always unpopular and difficult. In many rich and great nations, legislators have often discussed, for months and months, the various forms of new taxes that were necessary because the parliament had decided to increase expenditures. Having discussed various methods of getting the money by taxation, they finally decided that perhaps it was better to do it by inflation.
But of course, the word “inflation” was not used. The politician in power who proceeds toward inflation does not announce: “I am proceeding toward inflation.” The technical methods employed to achieve the inflation are so complicated that the average citizen does not realize inflation has begun.
One of the biggest inflations in history was in the German Reich after the First World War. The inflation was not so momentous during the war; it was the inflation after the war that brought about the catastrophe. The government did not say: “We are proceeding toward inflation.” The government simply borrowed money very indirectly from the central bank. The government did not have to ask how the central bank would find and deliver the money. The central bank simply printed it.
Today the techniques for inflation are complicated by the fact that there is checkbook money. It involves another technique, but the result is the same. With the stroke of a pen, the government creates fiat money, thus increasing the quantity of money and credit. The government simply issues the order, and the fiat money is there.
The government does not care, at first, that some people will be losers, it does not care that prices will go up. The legislators say: “This is a wonderful system!” But this wonderful system has one fundamental weakness: it cannot last. If inflation could go on forever, there would be no point in telling governments they should not inflate. But the certain fact about inflation is that, sooner or later, it must come to an end. It is a policy that cannot last.
In the long run, inflation comes to an end with the breakdown of the currency; it comes to a catastrophe, to a situation like the one in Germany in 1923. On August 1, 1914, the value of the dollar was four marks and twenty pfennigs. Nine years and three months later, in November 1923, the dollar was pegged at 4.2 trillion marks. In other words, the mark was worth nothing. It no longer had any value.
Some years ago, a famous author, John Maynard Keynes, wrote: “In the long run we are all dead.” This is certainly true, I am sorry to say. But the question is, how short or long will the short run be? In the eighteenth century there was a famous lady, Madame de Pompadour, who is credited with the dictum: “Après nous le déluge” (“After us will come the flood”). Madame de Pompadour was happy enough to die in the short run. But her successor in office, Madame du Barry, outlived the short run and was beheaded in the long run. For many people the “long run” quickly becomes the “short run” — and the longer inflation goes on the sooner the “short run.”
How long can the short run last? How long can a central bank continue an inflation? Probably as long as people are convinced that the government, sooner or later, but certainly not too late, will stop printing money and thereby stop decreasing the value of each unit of money.
When people no longer believe this, when they realize that the government will go on and on without any intention of stopping, then they begin to understand that prices tomorrow will be higher than they are today. Then they begin buying at any price, causing prices to go up to such heights that the monetary system breaks down.
I refer to the case of Germany, which the whole world was watching. Many books have described the events of that time. (Although I am not a German, but an Austrian, I saw everything from the inside: in Austria, conditions were not very different from those in Germany; nor were they much different in many other European countries.) For several years, the German people believed that their inflation was just a temporary affair, that it would soon come to an end. They believed it for almost nine years, until the summer of 1923. Then, finally, they began to doubt. As the inflation continued, people thought it wiser to buy anything available, instead of keeping money in their pockets. Furthermore, they reasoned that one should not give loans of money, but on the contrary, that it was a very good idea to be a debtor. Thus inflation continued feeding on itself.
And it went on in Germany until exactly November 20, 1923. The masses had believed inflation money to be real money, but then they found out that conditions had changed. At the end of the German inflation, in the fall of 1923, the German factories paid their workers every morning in advance for the day. And the workingman who came to the factory with his wife, handed his wages — all the millions he got — over to her immediately. And the lady immediately went to a shop to buy something, no matter what. She realized what most people knew at that time-that overnight, from one day to another, the mark lost 50% of its purchasing power. Money, like chocolate in a hot oven, was melting in the pockets of the people. This last phase of German inflation did not last long; after a few days, the whole nightmare was over: the mark was valueless and a new currency had to be established.
Lord Keynes, the same man who said that in the long run we are all dead, was one of a long line of inflationist authors of the twentieth century. They all wrote against the gold standard. When Keynes attacked the gold standard, he called it a “barbarous relic.” And most people today consider it ridiculous to speak of a return to the gold standard. In the United States, for instance, you are considered to be more or less a dreamer if you say: “Sooner or later, the United States will have to return to the gold standard.”
Yet the gold standard has one tremendous virtue: the quantity of money under the gold standard is independent of the policies of governments and political parties. This is its advantage. It is a form of protection against spendthrift governments. If, under the gold standard, a government is asked to spend money for something new, the minister of finance can say: “And where do I get the money? Tell me, first, how I will find the money for this additional expenditure.”
Under an inflationary system, nothing is simpler for the politicians to do than to order the government printing office to provide as much money as they need for their projects. Under a gold standard, sound government has a much better chance; its leaders can say to the people and to the politicians: “We can’t do it unless we increase taxes.”
But under inflationary conditions, people acquire the habit of looking upon the government as an institution with limitless means at its disposal: the state, the government, can do anything. If, for instance, the nation wants a new highway system, the government is expected to build it. But where will the government get the money?
One could say that in the United States today — and even in the past, under McKinley — the Republican party was more or less in favor of sound money and of the gold standard, and the Democratic party was in favor of inflation, of course not a paper inflation, but a silver inflation.
It was, however, a Democratic president of the United States, President Cleveland, who at the end of the 1880s vetoed a decision of Congress, to give a small sum — about $10,000 — to help a community that had suffered some disaster. And President Cleveland justified his veto by writing: “While it is the duty of the citizens to support the government, it is not the duty of the government to support the citizens.” This is something which every statesman should write on the wall of his office to show to people who come asking for money.
I am rather embarrassed by the necessity to simplify these problems. There are so many complex problems in the monetary system, and I would not have written volumes about them if they were as simple as I am describing them here. But the fundamentals are precisely these: if you increase the quantity of money, you bring about the lowering of the purchasing power of the monetary unit. This is what people whose private affairs are unfavorably affected do not like. People who do not benefit from inflation are the ones who complain.
If inflation is bad and if people realize it, why has it become almost a way of life in all countries? Even some of the richest countries suffer from this disease. The United States today is certainly the richest country in the world, with the highest standard of living. But when you travel in the United States, you will discover that there is constant talk about inflation and about the necessity to stop it. But they only talk; they do not act.
To give you some facts: after the First World War, Great Britain returned to the prewar gold parity of the pound. That is, it revalued the pound upward. This increased the purchasing power of every worker’s wages. In an unhampered market the nominal money wage would have fallen to compensate for this and the workers’ real wage would not have suffered. We do not have time here to discuss the reasons for this. But the unions in Great Britain were unwilling to accept an adjustment of money wage rates downward as the purchasing power of the monetary unit rose. Therefore real wages were raised considerably by this monetary measure. This was a serious catastrophe for England, because Great Britain is a predominantly industrial country that has to import its raw materials, half-finished goods, and food stuffs in order to live, and has to export manufactured goods to pay for these imports. With the rise in the international value of the pound, the price of British goods rose on foreign markets and sales and exports declined. Great Britain had, in effect, priced itself out of the world market.
The unions could not be defeated. You know the power of a union today. It has the right, practically the privilege, to resort to violence. And a union order is, therefore, let us say, not less important than a government decree. The government decree is an order for the enforcement of which the enforcement apparatus of the government — the police — is ready. You must obey the government decree, otherwise you will have difficulties with the police.
Unfortunately, we have now, in almost all countries all over the world, a second power that is in a position to exercise force: the labor unions. The labor unions determine wages and then strike to enforce them in the same way in which the government might decree a minimum wage rate. I will not discuss the union question now; I shall deal with it later. I only want to establish that it is the union policy to raise wage rates above the level they would have on an unhampered market. As a result a considerable part of the potential labor force can be employed only by people or industries that are prepared to suffer losses. And, since businesses are not able to keep on suffering losses, they close their doors and people become unemployed. The setting of wage rates above the level they would have on the unhampered market always results in the unemployment of a considerable part of the potential labor force.
In Great Britain, the result of high wage rates enforced by the labor unions was lasting unemployment, prolonged year after year. Millions of workers were unemployed, production figures dropped. Even experts were perplexed. In this situation the British government made a move which it considered an indispensable, emergency measure: it devalued its currency.
The result was that the purchasing power of the money wages, upon which the unions had insisted, was no longer the same. The real wages, the commodity wages, were reduced. Now the worker could not buy as much as he had been able to buy before, even though the nominal wage rates remained the same. In this way, it was thought, real wage rates would return to free market levels and unemployment would disappear.
This measure — devaluation — was adopted by various other countries, by France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. One country even resorted twice to this measure within a period of one year and a half. That country was Czechoslovakia. It was a surreptitious method, let us say, to thwart the power of the unions. You could not call it a real success, however.
After a few years, the people, the workers, even the unions, began to understand what was going on. They came to realize that currency devaluation had reduced their real wages. The unions had the power to oppose this. In many countries they inserted a clause into wage contracts providing that money wages must go up automatically with an increase in prices. This is called indexing. The unions became index conscious. So, this method of reducing unemployment that the government of Great Britain started in 1931 — which was later adopted by almost all important governments — this method of “solving unemployment” no longer works today.
In 1936, in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Lord Keynes unfortunately elevated this method — the emergency measures of the period between 1929 and 1933 — to a principle, to a fundamental system of policy. And he justified it by saying, in effect: “Unemployment is bad. If you want unemployment to disappear you must inflate the currency.”
He realized very well that wage rates can be too high for the market, that is, too high to make it profitable for an employer to increase his work force, thus too high from the point of view of the total working population, for with wage rates imposed by unions above the market only a part of those anxious to earn wages can obtain jobs.
And Keynes said, in effect: “Certainly mass unemployment prolonged year after year, is a very unsatisfactory condition.” But instead of suggesting that wage rates could and should be adjusted to market conditions, he said, in effect: “If one devalues the currency and the workers are not clever enough to realize it, they will not offer resistance against a drop in real wage rates, as long as nominal wage rates remain the same.” In other words, Lord Keynes was saying that if a man gets the same amount of sterling today as he got before the currency was devalued, he will not realize that he is, in fact, now getting less.
In old fashioned language, Keynes proposed cheating the workers. Instead of declaring openly that wage rates must be adjusted to the conditions of the market — because, if they are not, a part of the labor force will inevitably remain unemployed — he said, in effect: “Full employment can be reached only if you have inflation. Cheat the workers.” The most interesting fact, however, is that when his General Theory was published, it was no longer possible to cheat, because people had already become index conscious. But the goal of full employment remained.
What does “full employment” mean? It has to do with the unhampered labor market, which is not manipulated by the unions or by the government. On this market, wage rates for every type of labor tend to reach a point at which everybody who wants a job can get one and every employer can hire as many workers as he needs. If there is an increase in the demand for labor, the wage rate will tend to be greater, and if fewer workers are needed, the wage rate will tend to fall.
The only method by which a “full employment” situation can be brought about is by the maintenance of an unhampered labor market. This is valid for every kind of labor and for every kind of commodity.
What does a businessman do who wants to sell a commodity for five dollars a unit? When he cannot sell it at that price, the technical business expression in the United States is, “the inventory does not move.” But it must move. He cannot retain things because he must buy something new; fashions are changing. So he sells at a lower price. If he cannot sell the merchandise at five dollars, he must sell it at four. If he cannot sell it at four, he must sell it at three. There is no other choice as long as he stays in business. He may suffer losses, but these losses are due to the fact that his anticipation of the market for his product was wrong.
It is the same with the thousands and thousands of young people who come every day from the agricultural districts into the city trying to earn money. It happens so in every industrial nation. In the United States they come to town with the idea that they should get, say, a hundred dollars a week. This may be impossible. So if a man cannot get a job for a hundred dollars a week, he must try to get a job for ninety or eighty dollars, and perhaps even less. But if he were to say — as the unions do — “one hundred dollars a week or nothing,” then he might have to remain unemployed. (Many do not mind being unemployed, because the government pays unemployment benefits — out of special taxes levied on the employers — which are sometimes nearly as high as the wages the man would receive if he were employed.)
Because a certain group of people believes that full employment can be attained only by inflation, inflation is accepted in the United States. But people are discussing the question: Should we have a sound currency with unemployment, or inflation with full employment? This is in fact a very vicious analysis.
To deal with this problem we must raise the question: How can one improve the condition of the workers and of all other groups of the population? The answer is: by maintaining an unhampered labor market and thus achieving full employment. Our dilemma is, shall the market determine wage rates or shall they be determined by union pressure and compulsion? The dilemma is not “shall we have inflation or unemployment?”
This mistaken analysis of the problem is argued in England, in European industrial countries and even in the United States. And some people say: “Now look, even the United States is inflating. Why should we not do it also.”
To these people one should answer first of all: “One of the privileges of a rich man is that he can afford to be foolish much longer than a poor man.” And this is the situation of the United States. The financial policy of the United States is very bad and is getting worse. Perhaps the United States can afford to be foolish a bit longer than some other countries.
The most important thing to remember is that inflation is not an act of God; inflation is not a catastrophe of the elements or a disease that comes like the plague. Inflation is a policy — a deliberate policy of people who resort to inflation because they consider it to be a lesser evil than unemployment. But the fact is that, in the not very long run, inflation does not cure unemployment.
Inflation is a policy. And a policy can be changed. Therefore, there is no reason to give in to inflation. If one regards inflation as an evil, then one has to stop inflating. One has to balance the budget of the government. Of course, public opinion must support this; the intellectuals must help the people to understand. Given the support of public opinion, it is certainly possible for the people’s elected representatives to abandon the policy of inflation.
We must remember that, in the long run, we may all be dead and certainly will be dead. But we should arrange our earthly affairs, for the short run in which we have to live, in the best possible way. And one of the measures necessary for this purpose is to abandon inflationary policies.
- 1. [In Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, vol. 3: The Political Economy of International Reform and Reconstruction, ed. Richard M. Ebeling (1946; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2000), pp. 119–32.]
- 2. It is necessary to keep in mind that interest rates, in the course of a credit expansion, are — with the exception of the very beginning of the process — not always low when compared with the level which business used to consider as normal. But they are always low when measured by the standard that they would have to reach in a period of progressive inflation and its corollary, a general rise of prices, since they would have to include at such a time a compensation for the depreciation of the money unit going on in the period of the loan.
- 3. [Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit (1952; Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyClassics, 1980), chap. 7: “The Concept of the Value of Money,” pp. 117–22.]
- 4. See [Eugen von] Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, 3d ed. (Innsbruck, 1909–12], pp. 211 ff.
- 5. See [Correa Moylan] Walsh, The Fundamental Problem in Monetary Science (New York, 1903), p. 11; and in like manner, [Arthur] Spiethoff, “Die Quantitätstheorie insbesondere in ihrer Verwertbarkeit als Haussetheorie,” Festgaben für Adolf Wagner (Leipzig, 1905), p. 256.
- 6. See [Karl Heinrich]Rau, Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre, 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1855), p. 80.
- 7. See Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, Part II, p. 275. And similarly in [Friedrich von] Wieser, Der natürliche Wert, p. 45; “Der Geldwert und seine Veränderungen,” Schriften des Vereins für Sozialpolitik 132: 507.
- 8. See Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, Part II, pp. 273 ff.; [Joseph] Schumpeter, Wesen und Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie (Leipzig, 1908), p. 108.
- 9. Wieser, Der natürliche Wert, p. 46.
- 10. Ibid., p. 52.
- 11. Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, Part II, pp. 214 f.
- 12. See [Karl] Helfferich, Das Geld, 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1923), pp. 301 f.
- 13. Thus Schumpeter, Wesen und Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie, p. 109.
- 14. See Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, Part II, p. 217.
- 15. [Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, chap. 8: “The Determinants of the Objective Exchange Value, or Purchasing Power of Money,” pp. 129–44.]
- 16. See pp. 99. Also Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, Part II, p. 274; Wieser, Der natürliche Wert, p. 46. (Eng. trans. The Theory of Natural Value.)
- 17. See Wieser, “Der Geldwert und seine Veränderungen,” Schriften des Vereins für Sozialpolitik 132:513 ff.
- 18. See [Karl] Knies, Geld und Kredit (Berlin, 1885), vol. 1, p. 324.
- 19. Thus [John] Locke, Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money, 2d ed. (London, 1696), p. 31.
- 20. See [Guillermo] Subercaseaux, Essai sur la nature du papier monnaie (Paris, 1909), pp. 17 f.
- 21. See [Georg] Simmel, Philosophie des Geldes, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1907), pp. 115 f.; but, above all, Wieser, “Der Geldwert und seine Veränderungen,” p. 513.
- 22. See [Gustav von] Schmoller, Grundriss der allgemeinen Volkswirtschaftslehre (Leipzig, 1902), vol. 2, p. 110.
- 23. See [Otto von] Zwiedineck, “Kritisches und Positives zur Preislehre,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft, Vol. 65, pp. 200 ff.
- 24. See Wieser, “Der Geldwert und seine Veränderungen,” p. 513.
- 25. See [Nassau William] Senior, Three Lectures on the Value of Money (London, 1840; 1931), pp. 1 ff.; Three Lectures on the Cost of Obtaining Money (London, 1830; 1931), pp. 1 ff.
- 26. See [Bernardo] Davanzati, Lezioni delle monete, 1588 (in Scrittori classici italiani di economia politica, Parte Antica (Milan, 1804), vol. 2, p. 32. Locke and, above all, Montesquieu (De l’Ësprit des lois, edition Touquet [Paris, 1821], vol. 2, pp. 458 f.) share this view. See [H. Parker] Willis, “The History and Present Application of the Quantity Theory,” Journal of Political Economy 4 (1896): 419 ff.
- 27. See [Emil] Zuckerkandl, Zur Theorie des Preises (Leipzig, 1889), p. 124.
- 28. See Wieser, “Der Geldwert und seine Veränderungen,” p. 514.
- 29. See [T. N.] Carver, “The Value of the Money Unit,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 11 (1897): 429 f.
- 30. See [David] Kinley, Money (New York, 1909), pp. 123 ff.
- 31. See [Léon] Walras, Théorie de la Monnaie (Lausanne, 1886), pp. 25 ff.
- 32. See [Edwin] Kemmerer, Money and Credit Instruments in Their Relation to General Prices (New York, 1907), pp. 11ff.
- 33. See Wieser, “Der Geldwert und seine Veränderungen,” pp. 514 ff.
- 34. [See p. 124 n. H.E.B.]
- 35. See [Knut] Wicksell, Geldzins und Güterpreise (Jena, 1898), pp. iv ff, 16 ff.
- 36. Ibid., p. 35.
- 37. See [Karl] Helfferich, Das Geld, 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1923), p. 577.
- 38. Ibid., p. 578.
- 39. Dr. B. M. Anderson, pp. 100–10 of his excellent work The Value of Money (New York, 1917), has objected to the theory set forth above that instead of a logical analysis it provides merely a temporal regressus. Nevertheless, all the acute objections that he manages to bring forward are directed only against the argument that finds a historical component in the exchange ratios subsisting between commodities, an argument with which I also [see pp. 133ff. above] am in definite disagreement. But Dr. Anderson recognizes the logical foundation of my theory when he declares, “I shall maintain that value from some source other than the monetary employment is an essential precondition of the monetary employment” (p. 126).
- 40. [Ludwig von Mises, Money, Method, and the Market Process: Essays by Ludwig von Mises, ed. Richard M. Ebeling (1938; Boston: Kluwer, 1990), chap. 5, pp. 69–77.]
- 41. [Ludwig von Mises, Economic Policy: Thoughts for Tomorrow and Today (1979; Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2006), Lecture 4, pp. 55–73.]