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10. Further Applications of the Quantity Theory

In general the quantity theory has not been used for investigating the consequences that would follow a decrease in the demand for money while the stock of money remained the same. There has been no historical motive for such an investigation. The problem has never been a live one; for there has never been even a shadow of justification for attempting to solve controversial questions of economic policy by answering it. Economic history shows us a continual increase in the demand for money. The characteristic feature of the development of the demand for money is its intensification; the growth of division of labor and consequently of exchange transactions, which have constantly become more and more indirect and dependent on the use of money, have helped to bring this about, as well as the increase of population and prosperity. The tendencies which result in an increase in the demand for money became so strong in the years preceding the war that even if the increase in the stock of money had been very much greater than it actually was, the objective exchange value of money would have been sure to increase. Only the circumstance that this increase in the demand for money was accompanied by an extraordinarily large expansion of credit, which certainly exceeded the increase in the demand for money in the broader sense, can serve to explain the fact that the objective exchange value of money during this period not only failed to increase, but actually decreased. (Another factor that was concerned in this is referred to later in this chapter.)

If we were to apply the mechanical version of the quantity theory to the case of a decrease in the demand for money while the stock of money remained unaltered, we should have to conclude that there would be a uniform increase in all commodity prices, arithmetically proportional to the change in the ratio between the stock of money and the demand for it. We should expect the same results as would follow upon an increase of the stock of money while the demand for it remained the same. But the mechanical version of the theory, based as it is upon an erroneous transference of static law to the dynamic sphere, is just as inadequate in this case as in the other It cannot satisfy us because it does not explain what we want to have explained. We must build up a theory that will show us how a decrease in the demand for money while the stock of it remains the same affects prices by affecting the subjective valuations of money on the part of individual economic agents. A diminution of the demand for money while the stock remained the same would in the first place lead to the discovery by a number of persons that their cash reserves were too great in relation to their needs. They would therefore enter the market as buyers with their surpluses. From this point, a general rise in prices would come into operation, a diminution of the exchange value of money. More detailed explanation of what would happen then is unnecessary.

Very closely related to this case is another, whose practical significance is incomparably greater. Even if we think of the demand for money as constantly increasing it may happen that the demand for particular kinds of money diminishes, or even ceases altogether so far as it depends upon their characteristics as general media of exchange, and this is all we have to deal with here. If any given kind of money is deprived of its monetary characteristics, then naturally it also loses the special value that depends on its use as a common medium of exchange, and only retains that value which depends upon its other employment. In the course of history this has always occurred when a good has been excluded from the constantly narrowing circle of common media of exchange. Generally speaking, we do not know much about this process, which to a large extent took place in times about which our information is scanty. But recent times have provided an outstanding example: the almost complete demonetization of silver. Silver, which previously was widely used as money, has been almost entirely expelled from this position, and there can be no doubt that at a time not very far off, perhaps even in a few years only, it will have played out its part as money altogether. The result of the demonetization of silver has been a diminution of its objective exchange value. The price of silver in London fell from 60-9/10d. on an average in 1870 to 23-12/16d. on an average in 1909. Its value was bound to fall, because the sphere of its employment had contracted. Similar examples can be provided from the history of credit money also. For instance, the notes of the southern states in the American Civil War may be mentioned, which as the successes of the northern states increased, lost pari passu their monetary value as well as their value as claims.50

More deeply than with the problem of the consequences of a diminishing demand for money while the stock of it remains the same, which possesses only a small practical importance, the adherents of the quantity theory have occupied themselves with the problem of a diminishing stock of money while the demand for it remains the same and with that of an increasing demand for money while the stock of it remains the same. It was believed that complete answers to both questions could easily be obtained in accordance with the mechanical version of the quantity theory, if the general formula, which appeared to embrace the essence of the problems, was applied to them. Both cases were treated as inversions of the case of an increase in the quantity of money while the demand for it remained the same; and from this the corresponding conclusions were drawn. Just as the attempt was made to explain the depreciation of credit money simply by reference to the enormous increase in the quantity of money, so the attempt was made to explain the depression of the seventies and eighties by reference to an increase of the demand for money while the quantity of money did not increase sufficiently. This proposition lay at the root of most of the measures of currency policy of the nineteenth century. The aim was to regulate the value of money by increasing or diminishing the quantity of it. The effects of these measures appeared to provide an inductive proof of the correctness of this superficial version of the quantity theory, and incidentally concealed the weaknesses of its logic. This supposition alone can explain why no attempt was ever made to exhibit the mechanism of the increase of the value of money as a result of the decrease in the volume of circulation. Here again the old theory needs to be supplemented, as has been done in our argument above.

Normally the increase in the demand for money is slow, so that any effect on the exchange ratio between money and commodities is discernible only with difficulty. Nevertheless, cases do occur in which the demand for money in the narrower sense increases suddenly and to an unusually large degree, so that the prices of commodities drop suddenly. Such cases occur when the public loses faith in an issuer of fiduciary media at a time of crisis, and the fiduciary media cease to be capable of circulation. Many examples of this sort are known to history (one of them is provided by the experiences of the United States in the late autumn of 1907), and it is possible that similar cases may occur in the future.

  • 50. See White, Money and Banking Illustrated by American History (Boston, 1895), pp. 166 ff.