Books / Digital Text

Part Two: The Value of Money > Chapter 13. Monetary Policy

7. Excursus: The Concepts, Inflation and Deflation

Observant readers may perhaps be struck by the fact that in this book no precise definition is given of the terms inflation and deflation (or restriction or contraction); that they are in fact hardly employed at all, and then only in places where nothing in particular depends upon their precision. Only inflationism and deflationism (or restrictionism) are spoken of, and an exact definition is given of the concepts implied by these expressions.11 Obviously this procedure demands special justification.

I am by no means in agreement with those unusually influential voices that have been raised against the employment of the expression inflation altogether.12 But I do think that it is an expression that it is possible to do without, and that it would be highly dangerous, on account of a serious difference between its meaning in the pure economic theory of money and banking and its meaning in everyday discussions of currency policy, to make use of it where a sharp scientific precision of the words employed is desirable.

In theoretical investigation there is only one meaning that can rationally be attached to the expression inflation: an increase in the quantity of money (in the broader sense of the term, so as to include fiduciary media as well), that is not offset by a corresponding increase in the need for money (again in the broader sense of the term), so that a fall in the objective exchange value of money must occur Again, deflation (or restriction, or contraction) signifies a diminution of the quantity of money (in the broader sense) which is not offset by a corresponding diminution of the demand for money (in the broader sense), so that an increase in the objective exchange value of money must occur If we so define these concepts, it follows that either inflation or deflation is constantly going on, for a situation in which the objective exchange value of money did not alter could hardly ever exist for very long. The theoretical value of our definition is not in the least reduced by the fact that we are not able to measure the fluctuations in the objective exchange value of money, or even by the fact that we are not able to discern them at all except when they are large.

If the variations in the objective exchange value of money that result from these causes are so great that they can no longer remain unobserved, it is usual in discussions of economic policy to speak of inflation and deflation (or restriction, or contraction). Now in these discussions, whose practical significance is extraordinarily great, it would be very little to the purpose to use those precise concepts which alone come up to a strictly scientific standard. It would be ridiculous pedantry to attempt to provide an economist's contribution to the controversy as to whether in this or the other country inflation has occurred since 1914 by saying: "Excuse me, there has probably been inflation throughout the whole world since 1896, although on a small scale." In politics, the question of degree is sometimes the whole point, not, as in theory, the question of principle.

But once the economist has acknowledged that it is not entirely nonsensical to use the expressions inflation and deflation to indicate such variations in the quantity of money as evoke big changes in the objective exchange value of money, he must renounce the employment of these expressions in pure theory. For the point at which a change in the exchange ratio begins to deserve to be called big is a question for political judgment, not for scientific investigation.

It is incontrovertible that ideas are bound up with the popular usage of the terms inflation and deflation that must be combated as altogether inappropriate when they creep into economic investigation. In everyday usage, these expressions are based upon an entirely untenable idea of the stability of the value of money, and often also on conceptions that ascribe to a monetary system in which the quantity of money increases and decreases pari passu with the increase and decrease of the quantity of commodities the property of maintaining the value of money stable. Yet however worthy of condemnation this mistake may be, it cannot be denied that the first concern of those who wish to combat popular errors with regard to the causes of the recent tremendous variations in prices should not so much be the dissemination of correct views on the problems of the nature of money in general, as the contradiction of those fundamental errors which, if they continue to be believed, must lead to catastrophic consequences. Those who in the years 1914-24 contested the balance-of-payments theory in Germany in order to oppose the continuation of the policy of inflation may claim the indulgence of their contemporaries and successors if they were not always quite strictly scientific in their use of the word inflation. In fact, it is this very indulgence that we are bound to exercise toward the pamphlets and articles dealing with monetary problems that obliges us to refrain from using these misleading expressions in scientific discussion.

  • 11. Cp. pp. 219 and 231 above.
  • 12. Especially Pigou, The Economics of Welfare (London, 1921), pp. 665 ff.