Front Page Titles (by Subject) PART FOUR: MONETARY RECONSTRUCTION - The Theory of Money and Credit
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PART FOUR: MONETARY RECONSTRUCTION - Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit 
The Theory of Money and Credit, trans. H.E. Batson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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(This part was written in 1952 and first appeared in the 1953 American edition of Yale University Press)
The Principle of Sound Money
The Classical Idea of Sound Money
The principle of sound money that guided nineteenth-century monetary doctrines and policies was a product of classical political economy. It was an essential part of the liberal program as developed by eighteenth-century social philosophy and propagated in the following century by the most influential political parties of Europe and America.
The liberal doctrine sees in the market economy the best, even the only possible, system of economic organization of society. Private ownership of the means of production tends to shift control of production to the hands of those best fitted for this job and thus to secure for all members of society the fullest possible satisfaction of their needs. It assigns to the consumers the power to choose those purveyors who supply them in the cheapest way with the articles they are most urgently asking for and thus subjects the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production, namely, the capitalists and the landowners, to the sovereignty of the buying public. It makes nations and their citizens free and provides ample sustenance for a steadily increasing population.
As a system of peaceful cooperation under the division of labor, the market economy could not work without an institution warranting to its members protection against domestic gangsters and external foes. Violent aggression can be thwarted only by armed resistance and repression. Society needs an apparatus of defense, a state, a government, a police power. Its undisturbed functioning must be safeguarded by continuous preparedness to repel aggressors. But then a new danger springs up. How keep under control the men entrusted with the handling of the government apparatus lest they turn their weapons against those whom they were expected to serve? The main political problem is how to prevent the rulers from becoming despots and enslaving the citizenry. Defense of the individual’s liberty against the encroachment of tyrannical governments is the essential theme of the history of Western civilization. The characteristic feature of the Occident is its peoples’ pursuit of liberty, a concern unknown to Orientals. All the marvelous achievements of Western civilization are fruits grown on the tree of liberty.
It is impossible to grasp the meaning of the idea of sound money if one does not realize that it was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights. The demand for constitutional guarantees and for bills of rights was a reaction against arbitrary rule and the nonobservance of old customs by kings. The postulate of sound money was first brought up as a response to the princely practice of debasing the coinage. It was later carefully elaborated and perfected in the age which—through the experience of the American continental currency, the paper money of the French Revolution and the British restriction period—had learned what a government can do to a nation’s currency system.
Modern cryptodespotism, which arrogates to itself the name of liberalism, finds fault with the negativity of the concept of freedom. The censure is spurious as it refers merely to the grammatical form of the idea and does not comprehend that all civil rights can be as well defined in affirmative as in negative terms. They are negative as they are designed to obviate an evil, namely omnipotence of the police power, and to prevent the state from becoming totalitarian. They are affirmative as they are designed to preserve the smooth operation of the system of private property, the only social system that has brought about what is called civilization.
Thus the sound-money principle has two aspects. It is affirmative in approving the market’s choice of a commonly used medium of exchange. It is negative in obstructing the government’s propensity to meddle with the currency system.
The sound-money principle was derived not so much from the Classical economists’ analysis of the market phenomena as from their interpretation of historical experience. It was an experience that could be perceived by a much larger public than the narrow circles of those conversant with economic theory. Hence the sound-money idea became one of the most popular points of the liberal program. Friends and foes of liberalism considered it one of the essential postulates of a liberal policy.
Sound money meant a metallic standard. Standard coins should be in fact a definite quantity of the standard metal as precisely determined by the law of the country. Only standard coins should have unlimited legal-tender quality. Token coins and all kinds of moneylike paper should be, on presentation and without delay, redeemed in lawful standard money.
So far there was unanimity among the supporters of sound money. But then the battle of the standards arose. The defeat of those favoring silver and the unfeasibility of bimetallism eventually made the sound-money principle mean the gold standard. At the end of the nineteenth century there was all over the world unanimity among businessmen and statesmen with regard to the indispensability of the gold standard. Countries which were under a fiat-money system or under the silver standard considered adoption of the gold standard the foremost goal of their economic policy. Those who disputed the eminence of the gold standard were dismissed as cranks by the representatives of the official doctrine—professors, bankers, statesmen, editors of the great newspapers and magazines.
It was a serious blunder of the supporters of sound money to adopt such tactics. There is no use in dealing in a summary way with any ideology however foolish and contradictory it may appear Even a manifestly erroneous doctrine should be refuted by careful analysis and the unmasking of the fallacies implied. A sound doctrine can win only by exploding the delusions of its adversaries.
The essential principles of the sound-money doctrine were and are impregnable. But their scientific support in the last decades of the nineteenth century was rather shaky. The attempts to demonstrate their reasonableness from the point of view of the Classical value theory were not very convincing and made no sense at all when this value concept had to be discarded. But the champions of the new value theory for almost half a century restricted their studies to the problems of direct exchange and left the treatment of money and banking to routinists unfamiliar with economics. There were treatises on catallactics which dealt only incidentally and cursorily with monetary matters, and there were books on currency and banking which did not even attempt to integrate their subject into the structure of a catallactic system.1 Finally the idea evolved that the modern doctrine of value, the subjectivist or marginal utility doctrine, is unable to explain the problems of money’s purchasing power.2
It is easy to comprehend how under such circumstances even the least tenable objections raised by the advocates of inflationism remained unanswered. The gold standard lost popularity because for a very long time no serious attempts were made to demonstrate its merits and to explode the tenets of its adversaries.
The Virtues and Alleged Shortcomings of the Gold Standard
The excellence of the gold standard is to be seen in the fact that it renders the determination of the monetary unit’s purchasing power independent of the policies of governments and political parties. Furthermore, it prevents rulers from eluding the financial and budgetary prerogatives of the representative assemblies. Parliamentary control of finances works only if the government is not in a position to provide for unauthorized expenditures by increasing the circulating amount of fiat money. Viewed in this light, the gold standard appears as an indispensable implement of the body of constitutional guarantees that make the system of representative government function.
When in the 1850s gold production increased considerably in California and Australia, people attacked the gold standard as inflationary. In those days Michel Chevalier, in his book Probable Depreciation of Gold, recommended the abandonment of the gold standard, and Béranger dealt with the same subject in one of his poems. But later these criticisms subsided. The gold standard was no longer denounced as inflationary but on the contrary as deflationary. Even the most fanatical champions of inflation like to disguise their true intentions by declaring that they merely want to offset the contractionist pressure which the allegedly insufficient supply of gold tends to produce.
Yet it is clear that over the last generations there has prevailed a tendency of all commodity prices and wage rates to rise. We may neglect dealing with the economic effects of a general tendency of money prices and money wages to drop.3 For there is no doubt that what we have experienced over the last hundred years was just the opposite, namely, a secular tendency toward a drop in the monetary unit’s purchasing power, which was only temporarily interrupted by the aftermath of the breakdown of a boom intentionally created by credit expansion. Gold became cheaper in terms of commodities, not dearer. What the foes of the gold standard are asking for is not to reverse a prevailing tendency in the determination of prices, but to intensify very considerably the already prevailing upward trend of prices and wages. They simply want to lower the monetary unit’s purchasing power at an accelerated pace.
Such a policy of radical inflationism is, of course, extremely popular. But its popularity is to a great extent due to a misapprehension of its effects. What people are really asking for is a rise in the prices of those commodities and services they are selling while the prices of those commodities and services which they are buying remain unchanged. The potato grower aims at higher prices for potatoes. He does not long for a rise in other prices. He is injured if these other prices rise sooner or in greater proportion than the price of potatoes. If a politician addressing a meeting declares that the government should adopt a policy which makes prices rise, his hearers are likely to applaud. Yet each of them is thinking of a different price rise.
From time immemorial inflation has been recommended as a means to alleviate the burdens of poor worthy debtors at the expense of rich harsh creditors. However, under capitalism the typical debtors are not the poor but the well-to-do owners of real estate, of firms, and of common stock, people who have borrowed from banks, savings banks, insurance companies, and bondholders. The typical creditors are not the rich but people of modest means who own bonds and savings accounts or have taken out insurance policies. If the common man supports anticreditor measures, he does it because he ignores the fact that he himself is a creditor. The idea that millionaires are the victims of an easy-money policy is an atavistic remnant.
For the naive mind there is something miraculous in the issuance of fiat money. A magic word spoken by the government creates out of nothing a thing which can be exchanged against any merchandise a man would like to get. How pale is the art of sorcerers, witches, and conjurors when compared with that of the government’s Treasury Department! The government, professors tell us, “can raise all the money it needs by printing it.”4 Taxes for revenue, announced a chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are “obsolete.”5 How wonderful! And how malicious and misanthropic are those stubborn supporters of outdated economic orthodoxy who ask governments to balance their budgets by covering all expenditures out of tax revenue!
These enthusiasts do not see that the working of inflation is conditioned by the ignorance of the public and that inflation ceases to work as soon as the many become aware of its effects upon the monetary unit’s purchasing power. In normal times, that is in periods in which the government does not tamper with the monetary standard, people do not bother about monetary problems. Quite naively they take it for granted that the monetary unit’s purchasing power is “stable.” They pay attention to changes occurring in the money prices of the various commodities. They know very well that the exchange ratios between different commodities vary. But they are not conscious of the fact that the exchange ratio between money on the one side and all commodities and services on the other side is variable too. When the inevitable consequences of inflation appear and prices soar, they think that commodities are becoming dearer and fail to see that money is getting cheaper. In the early stages of an inflation only a few people discern what is going on, manage their business affairs in accordance with this insight, and deliberately aim at reaping inflation gains. The overwhelming majority are too dull to grasp a correct interpretation of the situation. They go on in the routine they acquired in noninflationary periods. Filled with indignation, they attack those who are quicker to apprehend the real causes of the agitation of the market as “profiteers” and lay the blame for their own plight on them. This ignorance of the public is the indispensable basis of the inflationary policy. Inflation works as long as the housewife thinks: “I need a new frying pan badly. But prices are too high today; I shall wait until they drop again.” It comes to an abrupt end when people discover that the inflation will continue, that it causes the rise in prices, and that therefore prices will skyrocket infinitely. The critical stage begins when the housewife thinks: “I don’t need a new frying pan today; I may need one in a year or two. But I’ll buy it today because it will be much more expensive later.” Then the catastrophic end of the inflation is close. In its last stage the housewife thinks: “I don’t need another table; I shall never need one. But it’s wiser to buy a table than keep these scraps of paper that the government calls money, one minute longer.”
Let us leave the problem of whether or not it is advisable to base a system of government finance upon the intentional deception of the immense majority of the citizenry. It is enough to stress the point that such a policy of deceit is self-defeating. Here the famous dictum of Lincoln holds true: You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Eventually the masses come to understand the schemes of their rulers. Then the cleverly concocted plans of inflation collapse. Whatever compliant government economists may have said, inflationism is not a monetary policy that can be considered as an alternative to a sound-money policy. It is at best a temporary expedient. The main problem of an inflationary policy is how to stop it before the masses have seen through their rulers’ artifices. It is a display of considerable naivety to recommend openly a monetary system that can work only if its essential features are ignored by the public.
The index-number method is a very crude and imperfect means of “measuring” changes occurring in the monetary unit’s purchasing power. As there are in the field of social affairs no constant relations between magnitudes, no measurement is possible and economics can never become quantitative.6 But the index-number method, notwithstanding its inadequacy, plays an important role in the process which in the course of an inflationary movement makes the people inflation-conscious. Once the use of index numbers becomes common, the government is forced to slow down the pace of the inflation and to make the people believe that the inflationary policy is merely a temporary expedient for the duration of a passing emergency, one that will be stopped before long. While government economists still praise the superiority of inflation as a lasting scheme of monetary management, governments are compelled to exercise restraint in its application.
It is permissible to call a policy of intentional inflation dishonest as the effects sought by its application can be attained only if the government succeeds in deceiving the greater part of the people about the consequences of its policy. Many of the champions of interventionist policies will not scruple greatly about such cheating; in their eyes what the government does can never be wrong. But their lofty moral indifference is at a loss to oppose an objection to the economist’s argument against inflation. In the economist’s eyes the main issue is not that inflation is morally reprehensible but that it cannot work except when resorted to with great restraint and even then only for a limited period. Hence resort to inflation cannot be considered seriously as an alternative to a permanent standard such as the gold standard is.
The proinflationist propaganda emphasizes nowadays the alleged fact that the gold standard collapsed and that it will never be tried again: nations are no longer willing to comply with the rules of the gold-standard game and to bear all the costs which the preservation of the gold standard requires.
First of all there is need to remember that the gold standard did not collapse. Governments abolished it in order to pave the way for inflation. The whole grim apparatus of oppression and coercion—policemen, customs guards, penal courts, prisons, in some countries even executioners—had to be put into action in order to destroy the gold standard. Solemn pledges were broken, retroactive laws were promulgated, provisions of constitutions and bills of rights were openly defied. And hosts of servile writers praised what the governments had done and hailed the dawn of the fiat-money millennium.
The most remarkable thing about this allegedly new monetary policy, however, is its complete failure. True, it substituted fiat money in the domestic markets for sound money and favored the material interests of some individuals and groups of individuals at the expense of others. It furthermore contributed considerably to the disintegration of the international division of labor. But it did not succeed in eliminating gold from its position as the international or world standard. If you glance at the financial page of any newspaper you discover at once that gold is still the world’s money and not the variegated products of the divers government printing offices. These scraps of paper are the more appreciated the more stable their price is in terms of an ounce of gold. Whoever today dares to hint at the possibility that nations may return to a domestic gold standard is cried down as a lunatic. This terrorism may still go on for some time. But the position of gold as the world’s standard is impregnable. The policy of “going off the gold standard” did not relieve a country’s monetary authorities from the necessity of taking into account the monetary unit’s price in terms of gold.
What those authors who speak about the rules of the gold-standard game have in mind is not clear. Of course, it is obvious that the gold standard cannot function satisfactorily if to buy or to sell or to hold gold is illegal, and hosts of judges, constables, and informers are busily enforcing the law. But the gold standard is not a game; it is a market phenomenon and as such a social institution. Its preservation does not depend on the observation of some specific rules. It requires nothing else than that the government abstain from deliberately sabotaging it. To refer to this condition as a rule of an alleged game is no more reasonable than to declare that the pres ervation of Paul’s life depends on compliance with the rules of the Paul’s-life game because Paul must die if somebody stabs him to death.
What all the enemies of the gold standard spurn as its main vice is precisely the same thing that in the eyes of the advocates of the gold standard is its main virtue, namely, its incompatibility with a policy of credit expansion. The nucleus of all the effusions of the antigold authors and politicians is the expansionist fallacy.
The expansionist doctrine does not realize that interest, that is, the discount of future goods as against present goods, is an originary category of human valuation, actual in any kind of human action and independent of any social institutions. The expansionists do not grasp the fact that there never were and there never can be human beings who attach to an apple available in a year or in a hundred years the same value they attach to an apple available now. In their opinion interest is an impediment to the expansion of production and consequently to human welfare that unjustified institutions have created in order to favor the selfish concerns of money lenders. Interest, they say, is the price people must pay for borrowing. Its height therefore depends on the magnitude of the supply of money. If laws did not artificially restrict the creation of additional money, the rate of interest would drop, ultimately even to zero. The “contractionist” pressure would disappear, there would no longer be a shortage of capital, and it would become possible to execute many business projects which the “restrictionism” of the gold standard obstructs. What is needed to make everyone prosperous is simply to defy “the rules of the gold-standard game,” the observance of which is the main source of all our economic ills.
These absurd doctrines greatly impressed ignorant politicians and demagogues when they were blended with nationalist slogans. What prevents our country from fully enjoying the advantages of a low-interest-rate policy, says the economic isolationist, is its adherence to the gold standard. Our central bank is forced to keep its rate of discount at a height that corresponds to conditions on the international money market and to the discount rates of foreign central banks. Otherwise “speculators” would withdraw funds from our country for short-term investment abroad and the resulting outflow of gold would make the gold reserves of our central bank drop below the legal ratio. If our central bank were not obliged to redeem its banknotes in gold, no such withdrawal of gold could occur and there would be no necessity for it to adjust the height of the money rate to the situation of the international money market, dominated by the world-embracing gold monopoly.
The most amazing fact about this argument is that it was raised precisely in debtor countries for which the operation of the international money and capital market meant an inflow of foreign funds and consequently the appearance of a tendency toward a drop in interest rates. It was popular in Germany and still more in Austria in the 1870s and 80s, but it was hardly ever seriously mentioned in those years in England or in the Netherlands, whose banks and bankers lent amply to Germany and Austria. It was advanced in England only after World War I, when Great Britain’s position as the world’s banking center had been lost.
Of course, the argument itself is untenable. The inevitable eventual failure of any attempt at credit expansion is not caused by the international intertwinement of the lending business. It is the outcome of the fact that it is impossible to substitute fiat money and a bank’s circulation credit for nonexisting capital goods. Credit expansion initially can produce a boom. But such a boom is bound to end in a slump, in a depression. What bring about the recurrence of periods of economic crises are precisely the reiterated attempts of governments and banks supervised by them to expand credit in order to make business good by cheap interest rates.7
The Full-Employment Doctrine
The inflationist or expansionist doctrine is presented in several varieties. But its essential content remains always the same.
The oldest and most naive version is that of the allegedly insufficient supply of money. Business is bad, says the grocer, because my customers or prospective customers do not have enough money to expand their purchases. So far he is right. But when he adds that what is needed to render his business more prosperous is to increase the quantity of money in circulation, he is mistaken. What he really has in mind is an increase of the amount of money in the pockets of his customers and prospective customers while the amount of money in the hands of other people remains unchanged. He asks for a specific kind of inflation; namely, an inflation in which the additional new money first flows into the cash holdings of a definite group of people, his customers, and thus permits him to reap inflation gains. Of course, everybody who advocates inflation does it because he infers that he will belong to those who are favored by the fact that the prices of the commodities and services they sell will rise at an earlier date and to a higher point than the prices of those commodities and services they buy. Nobody advocates an inflation in which he would be on the losing side.
This spurious grocer philosophy was once and for all exploded by Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say. In our day it has been revived by Lord Keynes, and under the name of full-employment policy is one of the basic policies of all governments which are not entirely subject to the Soviets. Yet Keynes was at a loss to advance a tenable argument against Say’s law. Nor have his disciples or the hosts of economists, pseudo and other, in the offices of the various governments, the United Nations, and divers other national or international bureaus done any better. The fallacies implied in the Keynesian full-employment doctrine are, in a new attire, essentially the same errors which Smith and Say long since demolished.
Wage rates are a market phenomenon, are the prices paid for a definite quantity of labor of a definite quality. If a man cannot sell his labor at the price he would like to get for it, he must lower the price he is asking for it or else he remains unemployed. If the government or labor unions fix wage rates at a higher point than the potential rate of the unhampered labor market and if they enforce their minimum-price decree by compulsion and coercion, a part of those who want to find jobs remain unemployed. Such institutional unemployment is the inevitable result of the methods applied by present-day self-styled progressive governments. It is the real outcome of measures falsely labeled prolabor. There is only one efficacious way toward a rise in real wage rates and an improvement of the standard of living of the wage earners: to increase the per-head quota of capital invested. This is what laissez-faire capitalism brings about to the extent that its operation is not sabotaged by government and labor unions.
We do not need to investigate whether the politicians of our age are aware of these facts. In most universities it is not good form to mention them to the students. Books that are skeptical with regard to the official doctrines are not widely bought by the libraries or used in courses, and consequently publishers are afraid to publish them. Newspapers seldom criticize the popular creed because they fear a boycott on the part of the unions. Thus politicians may be utterly sincere in believing that they have won “social gains” for the “people” and that the spread of unemployment is one of the evils inherent in capitalism and is in no way caused by the policies of which they are boasting. However this may be, it is obvious that the reputation and the prestige of the men who are now ruling the countries outside the Soviet bloc and of their professorial and journalistic allies are so inseparably tied up with the “progressive” doctrine that they must cling to it. If they do not want to forsake their political ambitions, they must stubbornly deny that their own policy tends to make mass unemployment a permanent phenomenon and must try to put on capitalism the blame for the undesired effects of their procedures.
The most characteristic feature of the full-employment doctrine is that it does not provide information about the way in which wage rates are determined on the market. To discuss the height of wage rates is taboo for the “progressives.” When they deal with unemployment, they do not refer to wage rates. As they see it, the height of wage rates has nothing to do with unemployment and must never be mentioned in connection with it.
If there are unemployed, says the progressive doctrine, the government must increase the amount of money in circulation until full employment is reached. It is, they say, a serious mistake to call inflation an increase in the quantity of money in circulation effected under these conditions. It is just “full-employment policy.”
We may refrain from frowning upon this terminological oddity of the doctrine. The main point is that every increase in the quantity of money in circulation brings about a tendency of prices and wages to rise. If, in spite of the rise of commodity prices, wage rates do not rise at all or if their rise lags sufficiently behind the rise in commodity prices, the number of people unemployed on account of the height of wage rates will drop. But it will drop merely because such a configuration of commodity prices and wage rates means a drop in real wage rates. In order to attain this result it would not have been necessary to embark upon increasing the amount of money in circulation. A reduction in the height of the minimum-wage rates enforced by the government or union pressure would have achieved the same effect without at the same time starting all the other consequences of an inflation.
It is a fact that in some countries in the 1930s, recourse to inflation was not immediately followed by a rise in the height of money wage rates as fixed by the governments or unions, that this was tantamount to a drop in real wage rates, and that consequently the number of unemployed decreased. But this was merely a passing phenomenon. When in 1936 Lord Keynes declared that a movement of employers to revise money-wage bargains downward would be much more strongly resisted than a gradual and “automatic” lowering of real wage rates as a result of rising prices,8 he had already been outdated and refuted by the march of events. The masses had already begun to see through the artifices of inflation. Problems of purchasing power and index numbers became an important issue in the unions’ dealings with wage rates. The full-employment argument in favor of inflation was already behind the times at the very moment when Keynes and his followers proclaimed it as the fundamental principle of progressive economic policies.
The Emergency Argument in Favor of Inflation
All the economic arguments in favor of inflation are untenable. The fallacies have long since been exploded in an irrefutable way.
There is, however, a political argument in favor of inflation that requires special analysis. This political argument is only rarely resorted to in books, articles, and political speeches. It does not lend itself to such public treatment. But the underlying idea plays an important role in the thinking of statesmen and historians.
Its supporters fully accept all the teachings of the sound-money doctrine. They do not share the errors of the inflationist quacks. They realize that inflationism is a self-defeating policy which must inevitably lead to an economic cataclysm and that all its allegedly beneficial effects are, even from the point of view of the authors of the inflationary policy, more undesirable than the evils which were to be cured by inflation. In full awareness of all this, however, they still believe that there are emergencies which peremptorily require or at least justify recourse to inflation. A nation, they say, can be menaced by evils which are incomparably more disastrous than the effects of inflation. If it is possible to avoid the total annihilation of a nation’s freedom and culture by a temporary abandonment of sound money, no reasonable objection can be raised against such a procedure. It would simply mean preferring a smaller evil to a greater one.
In order to appraise correctly the weight of this emergency argument in favor of inflation, there is need to realize that inflation does not add anything to a nation’s power of resistance, either to its material resources or to its spiritual and moral strength. Whether there is inflation or not, the material equipment required by the armed forces must be provided out of the available means by restricting consumption for nonvital purposes, by intensifying production in order to increase output, and by consuming a part of the capital previously accumulated. All these things can be done if the majority of citizens are firmly resolved to offer resistance to the best of their abilities and are prepared to make such sacrifices for the sake of preserving their independence and culture. Then the legislature will adopt fiscal methods which warrant the achievement of these goals. They will attain what is called economic mobilization or a defense economy without tampering with the monetary system. The great emergency can be dealt with without recourse to inflation.
But the situation those advocating emergency inflation have in mind is of a quite different character. Its characteristic feature is an irreconcilable antagonism between the opinions of the government and those of the majority of the people. The government, in this regard supported by only a minority of the people, believes that there exists an emergency that necessitates a considerable increase in public expenditure and a corresponding austerity in private households. But the majority of the people disagree. They do not believe that conditions are so bad as the government depicts them or they think that the preservation of the values endangered is not worth the sacrifices they would have to make. There is no need to raise the question whether the government’s or the majority’s opinion is right. Perhaps the government is right. However, we deal not with the substance of the conflict but with the methods chosen by the rulers for its solution. They reject the democratic way of persuading the majority. They arrogate to themselves the power and the moral right to circumvent the will of the people. They are eager to win its cooperation by deceiving the public about the costs involved in the measures suggested. While seemingly complying with the constitutional procedures of representative government, their conduct is in effect not that of elected officeholders but that of guardians of the people. The elected executive no longer deems himself the people’s mandatory; he turns into a führer.
The emergency that brings about inflation is this: the people or the majority of the people are not prepared to defray the costs incurred by their rulers’ policies. They support these policies only to the extent that they believe their conduct does not burden themselves. They vote, for instance, only for such taxes as are to be paid by other people, namely, the rich, because they think that these taxes do not impair their own material well-being. The reaction of the government to this attitude of the nation is, at least sometimes, directed by the sincere wish to serve what it believes to be the true interests of the people in the best possible way. But if the government resorts for this purpose to inflation, it is employing methods which are contrary to the principles of representative government, although formally it may have fully complied with the letter of the constitution. It is taking advantage of the masses’ ignorance, it is cheating the voters instead of trying to convince them.
It is not just an accident that in our age inflation has become the accepted method of monetary management. Inflation is the fiscal complement of statism and arbitrary government. It is a cog in the complex of policies and institutions which gradually lead toward totalitarianism.
Western liberty cannot hold its ground against the onslaughts of Oriental slavery if the peoples do not realize what is at stake and are not ready to make the greatest sacrifices for the ideals of their civilization. Recourse to inflation may provide the government with the funds which it could neither collect by taxation nor borrow from the savings of the public because the people and its parliamentary representatives objected. Spending the newly created fiat money, the government can buy the equipment the armed forces need. But a nation reluctant to make the material sacrifices necessary for victory will never display the requisite mental energy. What warrants success in a fight for freedom and civilization is not merely material equipment but first of all the spirit that animates those handling the weapons. This heroic spirit cannot be bought by inflation.
Contemporary Currency Systems
The Inflexible Gold Standard
The mark of all the varieties of the gold standard and the gold-exchange standard as they existed on the eve of World War I was the gold parity of the country’s monetary unit, precisely determined by a duly promulgated law. It was understood that this parity would never be changed. In virtue of the parity law the unit of the national currency system was practically a definite quantity of the metal gold. It was of no consequence whether or not banknotes had been endowed with legal-tender power. They were redeemable in gold, and the central banks really did redeem them fully on demand.
The difference between the standard that was later called the orthodox or the classical gold standard and the gold-exchange standard was a difference of degree. Under the former there were gold coins in the cash holdings of the individual citizens and firms and they were—together with banknotes, checks, and fractional coins—employed in business transactions. Under the gold-exchange standard no gold was used in transacting domestic business. But the central bank sold gold bullion and foreign exchange against domestic currency at rates that did not exceed the legal parity by more than the gold margin would be under the classical gold standard. Thus the countries under the gold-exchange standard were no less integrated into the system of the international gold standard than those under the classical gold standard.
The Flexible Standard
The flexible standard, a development of the period between World War I and World War II, originated from the gold-exchange standard. Its characteristic features are:
1. The domestic standard’s parity as against gold and foreign exchange is not fixed by a law but simply by the government agency entrusted with the conduct of monetary affairs.
2. This parity is subject to sudden changes without previous notice to the public. It is flexible. But this flexibility is practically always employed for lowering the domestic currency’s exchange value as against gold and those foreign currencies which did not drop against gold. If the downward jump of parity was rather conspicuous, it was called a devaluation. If it was slight only, it was usual to speak of a newly manifested weakness of the currency concerned.
3. The only method available for preventing a currency’s exchange value from dropping below the parity chosen is unconditional redemption of any amount offered. But the term redemption has in the ears of the self-styled unorthodox statesman an unpleasant connotation. It reminds him of the past when the holder of a banknote had a legally warranted right to redemption at par. The modern bureaucrat prefers the term pegging. In fact, in this connection pegging and redeeming mean exactly the same thing. They mean that the currency concerned is prevented from dropping below a certain point by the fact that any amount offered for sale is bought at this price by the redeeming or pegging agency.
Of course, this point—the parity—is not fixed by a law under the flexible standard, and the agency is free to decline to buy an amount offered at this rate. Then the price of foreign exchange begins to rise as against this parity. If the government does not intend to adopt the freely vacillating standard, the pegging is soon resumed at a lower level, that is, the price of foreign exchange is now higher in terms of the domestic currency. Such an event is sometimes referred to as raising the price of gold.
4. In some countries the conduct of pegging operations is entrusted to the central bank, in others to a special agency called foreign-exchange equalization account or a similar name.9
The Freely Vacillating Currency
If the government practices restraint in the issuance of additional amounts of its credit or fiat money and if public opinion assumes that the inflationary policy will be stopped altogether in a not too distant future, an inflationary currency system can prevail for a series of years. The country experiences all the effects resulting from a currency the unit of which vacillates in exchange value as against the international gold standard. With regard to these effects the freely vacillating currency may be called a bad currency. But it can last and is not inevitably headed for a breakdown.
The characteristic mark of this freely vacillating currency is that the owner of any amount of it has no claim whatever against the Treasury, a bank, or any other agency. There is no redemption either de jure or de facto. The pieces are not money substitutes but money proper in themselves.
It sometimes happened, especially in the European inflations of the 1920s, that the government, frightened by a speedy decline in its currency’s price in terms of gold or foreign exchange, tried to counteract the decline by selling on the market a certain amount of gold and foreign exchange against domestic currency. It was a rather nonsensical operation. It would have been much simpler and much more effective if the government had never issued those amounts which it later bought back on the market. Such ventures did not affect the course of events. The only reason they must be mentioned is that governments and their agents sometimes falsely referred to them as pegging.
The outstanding instance of a freely vacillating currency today is the United States dollar, the New Deal dollar. It is not redeemable in gold or any foreign exchange. The administration is committed to an inflationary policy, increasing more and more the amount of notes in circulation and of bank deposits subject to check. If the Treasury had been permitted to act according to the designs of its advisers, the dollar would have long since gone the way of the German mark of 1923. But lively protests on the part of a few economists alarmed the nation and enjoined restraint on the Treasury. The speed of the inflation was slowed down. Yet the future of the dollar is precarious, dependent on the vicissitudes of the continuing struggle between a small minority of economists on the one hand and hosts of ignorant demagogues and their “unorthodox” allies on the other hand.
The Illusive Standard
The illusive standard is based on a falsehood. The government decrees that there exists a parity between the domestic currency and gold or foreign exchange. It is fully aware of the fact that on the market there prevail exchange ratios lower than the illusory parity it is pleased to ordain. It knows that nothing is done to make the illusory parity an effective parity. It knows that there is no convertibility. But it clings to its pretense and forbids transactions at a ratio deviating from its fictitious exchange rate. He who sells or buys at any other ratio is guilty of a crime and severely punished.
Strict enforcement of such a decree would make all monetary transactions with foreign countries cease. Therefore the government goes a step further. It expropriates all foreign exchange owned by its subjects and indemnifies the expropriated by paying them the amount of domestic currency which according to the official decree is the equivalent of the confiscated foreign-exchange holdings. These confiscations convey to the government the national monopoly of dealing with foreign exchange. It is now the only seller of foreign exchange in the country. In compliance with its own decree it should sell foreign exchange at the official rate.
On the market not hampered by government interference there prevails a tendency to establish and to maintain such an exchange ratio between the domestic currency (A) and foreign exchange (B) that it does not make any difference whether one buys or sells merchandise against A or against B. As long as it is possible to make a profit buying a definite commodity against B and selling it against A, there will be a specific demand for amounts of B originating from merchants selling amounts of A. This specific demand will cease only when no further profits can be reaped on account of price discrepancies between prices expressed in terms of each of these two currencies. The market rate is maintained by the fact that there is no longer an advantage for anybody in paying a higher price for foreign exchange. Buying either of A against B or of B against A at a higher price (expressed in the first case in terms of B and in the second in terms of A) than the market price would not bring specific profits. Arbitrage operations tend to cease at this price. This is the process that the purchasing-power-parity theory of foreign exchange describes.
The policy pretentiously called foreign-exchange control tries to counteract the operation of the purchasing-power-parity principle and fails lamentably. Confiscating foreign exchange against an indemnity below its market price is tantamount to an export duty. It tends to lower exports and thus the amount of foreign exchange that the government can seize. On the other hand, selling foreign exchange below its market price is tantamount to subsidizing imports and thereby to increasing the demand for foreign exchange. The illusive standard and its main tool, foreign-exchange control, result in a state of affairs which is—rather inappropriately—called shortage of foreign exchange.
Scarcity is the essential feature of an economic good. Goods which are not scarce in relation to the demand for them are not economic goods but free goods. Human action is not concerned with them, and economics does not deal with them. No prices are paid for such free goods and nothing can be obtained in exchange for them. To establish the fact that gold or dollars are in short supply is to pronounce a truism.
The state of affairs which those talking of a scarcity of dollars want to describe is this: At the fictitious parity, arbitrarily fixed by the government and enforced by the whole governmental apparatus of oppression and compulsion, demand for dollars exceeds the supply of dollars offered for sale. This is the inescapable consequence of every attempt on the part of a government or other agency to enforce a maximum price below the height at which the unhampered market would have determined the market price.
The Ruritanians would like to consume more foreign goods than they can buy by exporting Ruritanian products. It is a rather clumsy way of describing this situation to declare that the Ruritanians suffer from a shortage of foreign exchange. Their plight is brought about by the fact that they are not producing more and better things either for domestic or for foreign consumption. If the dollar buys at the free market 100 Ruritanian rurs and the government fixes a fictitious parity of 50 rurs and tries to enforce it by foreign-exchange control, things become worse. Ruritanian exports drop and the demand for foreign goods increases.
Of course, the Ruritanian government will then resort to various measures allegedly devised to “improve” the balance of payments. But no matter what is tried, the “scarcity” of dollars does not disappear.
Foreign-exchange control is today primarily a device for the virtual expropriation of foreign investments. It has destroyed the international capital and money market. It is the main instrument of policies aiming at the elimination of imports and thereby at the economic isolation of the various countries. It is thus one of the most important factors in the decline of Western civilization. Future historians will have to deal with it circumstantially. In referring to the actual monetary problems of our day it is enough to stress the point that it is an abortive policy.
The Return to Sound Money
Monetary Policy and the Present Trend Toward All-round Planning
The people of all countries agree that the present state of monetary affairs is unsatisfactory and that a change is highly desirable. However, ideas about the kind of reform needed and about the goal to be aimed at differ widely. There is some confused talk about stability and about a standard which is neither inflationary nor deflationary. The vagueness of the terms employed obscures the fact that people are still committed to the spurious and self-contradictory doctrines whose very application has created the present monetary chaos.
The destruction of the monetary order was the result of deliberate actions on the part of various governments. The government-controlled central banks and, in the United States, the government-controlled Federal Reserve System were the instruments applied in this process of disorganization and demolition. Yet without exception all drafts for an improvement of currency systems assign to the governments unrestricted supremacy in matters of currency and design fantastic images of superprivileged superbanks. Even the manifest futility of the International Monetary Fund does not deter authors from indulging in dreams about a world bank fertilizing mankind with floods of cheap credit.
The inanity of all these plans is not accidental. It is the logical outcome of the social philosophy of their authors.
Money is the commonly used medium of exchange. It is a market phenomenon. Its sphere is that of business transacted by individuals or groups of individuals within a society based on private ownership of the means of production and the division of labor. This mode of economic organization—the market economy or capitalism—is at present unanimously condemned by governments and political parties. Educational institutions, from universities down to kindergartens, the press, the radio, the legitimate theater as well as the screen, and publishing firms are almost completely dominated by people in whose opinion capitalism appears as the most ghastly of all evils. The goal of their policies is to substitute “planning” for the alleged planlessness of the market economy. The term planning as they use it means, of course, central planning by the authorities, enforced by the police power. It implies the nullification of each citizen’s right to plan his own life. It converts the individual citizens into mere pawns in the schemes of the planning board, whether it is called Politburo, Reichswirtschaftsministerium, or some other name. Planning does not differ from the social system that Marx advocated under the names of socialism and communism. It transfers control of all production activities to the government and thus eliminates the market altogether. Where there is no market, there is no money either.
Although the present trend of economic policies leads toward socialism, the United States and some other countries have still preserved the characteristic features of the market economy. Up to now the champions of government control of business have not yet succeeded in attaining their ultimate goal.
The Fair Deal party has maintained that it is the duty of the government to determine what prices, wage rates, and profits are fair and what not, and then to enforce its rulings by the police power and the courts. It further maintains that it is a function of the government to keep the rate of interest at a fair level by means of credit expansion. Finally, it urges a system of taxation that aims at the equalization of incomes and wealth. Full application of either the first or the last of these principles would by itself consummate the establishment of socialism. But things have not yet moved so far in this country. The resistance of the advocates of economic freedom has not yet been broken entirely. There is still an opposition that has prevented the permanent establishment of direct control of all prices and wages and the total confiscation of all incomes above a height deemed fair by those whose income is lower. In the countries on this side of the Iron Curtain the battle between the friends and the foes of totalitarian all-round planning is still undecided.
In this great conflict the advocates of public control cannot do without inflation. They need it in order to finance their policy of reckless spending and of lavishly subsidizing and bribing the voters. The undesirable but inevitable consequence of inflation, the rise in prices, provides them with a welcome pretext to establish price control and thus step by step to realize their scheme of all-round planning. The illusory profits which the inflationary falsification of economic calculation makes appear are dealt with as if they were real profits; in taxing them away under the misleading label of excess profits, parts of the capital invested are confiscated. In spreading discontent and social unrest, inflation generates favorable conditions for the subversive propaganda of the self-styled champions of welfare and progress. The spectacle that the political scene of the last two decades has offered has been really amazing. Governments without any hesitation have embarked upon vast inflation and government economists have proclaimed deficit spending and “expansionist” monetary and credit management as the surest way toward prosperity, steady progress, and economic improvement. But the same governments and their henchmen have indicted business for the inevitable consequences of inflation. While advocating high prices and wage rates as a panacea and praising the administration for having raised the “national income” (of course, expressed in terms of a depreciating currency) to an unprecedented height, they blamed private enterprise for charging outrageous prices and profiteering. While deliberately restricting the output of agricultural products in order to raise prices, statesmen have had the audacity to contend that capitalism creates scarcity and that but for the sinister machinations of big business there would be plenty of everything. And millions of voters have swallowed all this.
There is need to realize that the economic policies of self-styled progressives cannot do without inflation. They cannot and never will accept a policy of sound money. They can abandon neither their policies of deficit spending nor the help their anticapitalist propaganda receives from the inevitable consequences of inflation. It is true they talk about the necessity of doing away with inflation. But what they mean is not to end the policy of increasing the quantity of money in circulation but to establish price control, that is, futile schemes to escape the emergency arising inevitably from their policies.
Monetary reconstruction, including the abandonment of inflation and the return to sound money, is not merely a problem of financial technique that can be solved without change in the structure of general economic policies. There cannot be stable money within an environment dominated by ideologies hostile to the preservation of economic freedom. Bent on disintegrating the market economy, the ruling parties will certainly not consent to reforms that would deprive them of their most formidable weapon, inflation. Monetary reconstruction presupposes first of all total and unconditional rejection of those allegedly progressive policies which in the United States are designated by the slogans New Deal and Fair Deal.
The Integral Gold Standard
Sound money still means today what it meant in the nineteenth century: the gold standard.
The eminence of the gold standard consists in the fact that it makes the determination of the monetary unit’s purchasing power independent of the measures of governments. It wrests from the hands of the “economic tsars” their most redoubtable instrument. It makes it impossible for them to inflate. This is why the gold standard is furiously attacked by all those who expect that they will be benefited by bounties from the seemingly inexhaustible government purse.
What is needed first of all is to force the rulers to spend only what, by virtue of duly promulgated laws, they have collected as taxes. Whether governments should borrow from the public at all and, if so, to what extent are questions that are irrelevant to the treatment of monetary problems. The main thing is that the government should no longer be in a position to increase the quantity of money in circulation and the amount of checkbook money not fully—that is, 100 percent—covered by deposits paid in by the public. No backdoor must be left open where inflation can slip in. No emergency can justify a return to inflation. Inflation can provide neither the weapons a nation needs to defend its independence nor the capital goods required for any project. It does not cure unsatisfactory conditions. It merely helps the rulers whose policies brought about the catastrophe to exculpate themselves.
One of the goals of the reform suggested is to explode and to kill forever the superstitious belief that governments and banks have the power to make the nation or individual citizens richer, out of nothing and without making anybody poorer. The shortsighted observer sees only the things the government has accomplished by spending the newly created money. He does not see the things the nonperformance of which provided the means for the government’s success. He fails to realize that inflation does not create additional goods but merely shifts wealth and income from some groups of people to others. He neglects, moreover, to take notice of the secondary effects of inflation: malinvestment and decumulation of capital.
Notwithstanding the passionate propaganda of the inflationists of all shades, the number of people who comprehend the necessity of entirely stopping inflation for the benefit of the public treasury is increasing. Keynesianism is losing face even at the universities. A few years ago governments proudly boasted of the “unorthodox” methods of deficit spending, pump-priming, and raising the “national income.” They have not discarded these methods but they no longer brag about them. They even occasionally admit that it would not be such a bad thing to have balanced budgets and mon etary stability. The political chances for a return to sound money are still slim, but they are certainly better than they have been in any other period since 1914.
Yet most of the supporters of sound money do not want to go beyond the elimination of inflation for fiscal purposes. They want to prevent any kind of government borrowing from banks issuing banknotes or crediting the borrower on an account subject to check. But they do not want to prevent in the same way credit expansion for the sake of lending to business. The reform they have in mind is by and large bringing back the state of affairs prevailing before the inflations of World War I. Their idea of sound money is that of the nineteenth-century economists with all the errors of the British Banking School that disfigured it. They still cling to the schemes whose application brought about the collapse of the European banking systems and currencies and discredited the market economy by generating the almost regular recurrence of periods of economic depression.
There is no need to add anything to the treatment of these problems as provided in part three of this volume and also in my book Human Action. If one wants to avoid the recurrence of economic crises, one must avoid the expansion of credit that creates the boom and inevitably leads into the slump.
Even if for the sake of argument we neglect to refer to these issues, one must realize that conditions are no longer such as the nineteenth-century champions of bank-credit expansion had in mind.
These statesmen and authors regarded the government’s financial needs as the main and practically the only threat to the privileged bank’s or banks’ solvency. Ample historical experience had proved that the government could and did force the banks to lend to them. Suspension of the banknotes’ convertibility and legal-tender provisions had transformed the “hard” currencies of many countries into questionable paper money. The logical conclusion to be drawn from these facts would have been to do away with privileged banks altogether and to subject all banks to the rule of common law and the commercial codes that oblige everybody to perform contracts in full faithfulness to the pledged word. Free banking would have spared the world many crises and catastrophes. But the tragic error of nineteenth-century bank doctrine was the belief that lowering the rate of interest below the height it would have on an unhampered market is a blessing for a nation and that credit expansion is the right means for the attainment of this end. Thus arose the characteristic duplicity of the bank policy. The central bank or banks must not lend to the government but should be free, within certain limits, to expand credit to business. The idea was that in this way one could make the central banking function independent of the government.
Such an arrangement presupposes that government and business are two distinct realms of the conduct of affairs. The government levies taxes but it does not interfere with the way the various enterprises operate. If the government meddles with central-bank affairs, its objective is to borrow for the treasury and not to induce the banks to lend more to business. In making bank loans to the government illegal, the bank’s management is enabled to gauge its credit transactions in accordance with the needs of business only.
Whatever the merits or demerits of this point of view may have been in older days,10 it is obvious that it is no longer of any consequence. The main inflationary motive of our day is the so-called full-employment policy, not the treasury’s incapacity to fill its empty vaults from sources other than bank loans. Monetary policy is regarded—wrongly, of course—as an instrument for keeping wage rates above the height they would have reached on an unhampered labor market. Credit expansion is subservient to the unions. If a hundred or seventy years ago the government of a Western nation had ventured to extort a loan from the central bank, the public would unanimously have sided with the bank and thwarted the plot. But for many years there has been little opposition to credit expansion for the sake of “creating jobs,” that is, for providing business with the money needed for the payment of the wage rates which the unions, strongly aided by the government, force business to grant. Nobody took notice of warning voices when England in 1931 and the United States in 1933 entered upon the policy for which Lord Keynes, a few years later in his General Theory, tried to concoct a justification, and when in 1936 Blum, in imposing upon the French employers the so-called Matignon agreements, ordered the Bank of France to lend freely the sums business needed for complying with the dictates of the unions.
Inflation and credit expansion are the means to obfuscate the fact that there prevails a nature-given scarcity of the material things on which the satisfaction of human wants depends. The main concern of capitalist private enterprise is to remove this scarcity as much as possible and to provide a continuously improving standard of living for an increasing population. The historian cannot help noting that laissez-faire and rugged individualism have to an unprecedented extent succeeded in their endeavors to supply the common man more and more amply with food, shelter, and many other amenities. But however remarkable these improvements may be, there will always be a strict limit to the amount that can be consumed without reducing the capital available for the continuation and, even more, the expansion of production.
In older ages social reformers believed that all that was needed to improve the material conditions of the poorer strata of society was to confiscate the surplus of the rich and to distribute it among those having less. The falsehood of this formula, despite the fact that it is still the ideological principle guiding present-day taxation, is no longer contested by any reasonable man. One may neglect stressing the point that such a distribution can add only a negligible amount to the income of the immense majority. The main thing is that the total amount produced in a nation or in the whole world over a definite period of time is not a magnitude independent of the mode of society’s economic organization. The threat of being deprived by confiscation of a considerable or even the greater part of the yield of one’s own activities slackens the individual’s pursuit of wealth and thus results in a diminution of the national product. The Marxian socialists once indulged in reveries concerning a fabulous increase in riches to be expected from the socialist mode of production. The truth is that every infringement of property rights and every restriction of free enterprise impairs the productivity of labor. One of the foremost concerns of all parties hostile to economic freedom is to withhold this knowledge from the voters. The various brands of socialism and interventionism could not retain their popularity if people were to discover that the measures whose adoption is hailed as social progress curtail production and tend to bring about capital decumulation. To conceal these facts from the public is one of the services inflation renders to the so-called progressive policies. Inflation is the true opium of the people and it is administered to them by anticapitalist governments and parties.
Currency Reform in Ruritania
When compared with conditions in the United States or in Switzerland, Ruritania appears a poor country. The average income of a Ruritanian is below the average income of an American or a Swiss.
Once, in the past, Ruritania was on the gold standard. But the government issued little sheets of printed paper to which it assigned legal-tender power in the ratio of one paper rur to one gold rur. All residents of Ruritania were made to accept any amount of paper rurs as the equivalent of the same nominal amount of gold rurs. The government alone did not comply with the rule it had decreed. It did not convert paper rurs into gold rurs in accordance with the ratio 1 : 1. As it went on increasing the quantity of paper rurs, the effects resulted which Gresham’s law describes. The gold rurs disappeared from the market. They were either hoarded by Ruritanians or sold abroad.
Almost all the nations of the earth have behaved in the way the Ruritanian government did. But the rates of the inflationary increase of the quantities of their national fiat money have been different. Some nations were more moderate in issuing additional quantities, some less. The result is that the exchange ratios between the various nations’ local fiat-money currencies are no longer the same ratios that prevailed between their currencies in the period before they went off the gold standard. In those old days five gold rurs were equal to one gold dollar. Although today’s dollar is no longer the equivalent of the weight of gold it represented under the gold standard, that is, before 1933, 100 paper rurs are needed to buy one of these depreciated dollars. A short time ago eighty paper rurs could buy one dollar. If the present rates of inflation both in the United States and in Ruritania do not change, the paper rur will drop more and more in terms of dollars.
The Ruritanian government knows very well that all it has to do in order to prevent a further depreciation of the paper rur as against the dollar is to slow down the deficit spending it finances by continued inflation. In fact, in order to maintain a stable exchange rate against the dollar, it would not be forced to abandon inflation altogether. It would only have to reduce it to a rate in due proportion to the extent of American inflation. But, government officials say, it is impossible for Ruritania, being a poor country, to balance its budget with a smaller amount of inflation than the present one. For such a reduction would enjoin upon it the necessity of undoing some of the results of social progress and of relapsing into the conditions of “social backwardness” of the United States. The government has nationalized railroads, telegraphs, and telephones and operates various plants, mines, and branches of industry as national enterprises. Every year the conduct of affairs of almost all the public undertakings produces a deficit that must be covered by taxes collected from the shrinking group of nonnationalized and nonmunicipalized businesses. Private business is a source of the treasury’s revenue. Nationalized industry is a drain upon the government’s funds. But these funds would be insufficient in Ruritania if not swelled by more and more inflation.
From the point of view of monetary technique the stabilization of a national currency’s exchange ratio as against foreign, less-inflated currencies or against gold is a simple matter. The preliminary step is to abstain from any further increase in the quantity of domestic currency. This will at the outset stop the further rise in foreign-exchange rates and the price of gold. After some oscillations a somewhat stable exchange rate will appear, the height of which depends on the purchasing-power parity. At this rate it no longer makes any difference whether one buys or sells against currency A or currency B.
But this stability cannot last indefinitely. While an increase in the production of gold or an increase in the issuance of dollars continues abroad, Ruritania now has a currency the quantity of which is rigidly limited. Under these conditions there can no longer prevail full correspondence between the movements of commodity prices on the Ruritanian markets and those on foreign markets. If prices in terms of gold or dollars are rising, those in terms of rurs will lag behind them or even drop. This means that the purchasing-power parity is changing. A tendency will emerge toward an enhancement of the price of the rur as expressed in gold or dollars. When this trend becomes manifest, the propitious moment for the completion of the monetary reform has arrived. The exchange rate that prevails on the market at this juncture is to be promulgated as the new legal parity between the rur and either gold or the dollar. Unconditional convertibility at this legal rate of every paper rur against gold or dollars and vice versa is henceforward to be the fundamental principle.
The reform thus consists of two measures. The first is to end inflation by setting an insurmountable barrier to any further increase in the supply of domestic money. The second is to prevent the relative deflation that the first measure will, after a certain time, bring about in terms of other currencies the supply of which is not rigidly limited in the same way. As soon as the second step has been taken, any amount of rurs can be converted into gold or dollars without any delay and any amount of gold or dollars into rurs. The agency, whatever its appellation may be, that the reform law entrusts with the performance of these exchange operations needs for technical reasons a certain small reserve of gold or dollars. But its main concern is, at least in the initial stage of its functioning, how to provide the rurs necessary for the exchange of gold or foreign currency against rurs. To enable the agency to perform this task, it has to be entitled to issue additional rurs against a full—100 percent—coverage by gold or foreign exchange bought from the public.
It is politically expedient not to charge this agency with any responsibilities and duties other than those of buying and selling gold or foreign exchange according to the legal parity. Its task is to make this legal parity an effective real market rate, preventing, by unconditional redemption of rurs, a drop of their market price against legal parity, and, by unconditional buying of gold or foreign exchange, an enhancement of the price of rurs as against legal parity.
At the very start of its operations the agency needs, as has been mentioned, a certain reserve of gold or foreign exchange. This reserve has to be lent to it either by the government or by the central bank, free of interest and never to be recalled. No business other than this preliminary loan must be negotiated between the govern ment and any bank or institution dependent on the government on the one hand and the agency on the other hand.11 The total amount of rurs issued before the start of the new monetary regime must not be increased by any operations on the part of the government; only the agency is free to issue additional new rurs, rigidly complying in such issuance with the rule that each of these new rurs must be fully covered by gold or foreign exchange paid in by the public in exchange for them.
The government’s mint may go on to coin and to issue as many fractional or subsidiary coins as seem to be needed by the public. In order to prevent the government from misusing its monopoly of mintage for inflationary ventures and flooding the market, under the pretext of catering to peoples’ demand for “change,” with huge quantities of such tokens, two provisions are imperative. To these fractional coins only a strictly limited legal-tender power should be given for payments to any payee but the government. Against the government alone they should have unlimited legal-tender power, and the government, moreover, must be obliged to redeem in rurs, without any delay and without any cost to the bearer, any amount presented, either by any private individual, firm, or corporation or by the agency. Unlimited legal-tender power must be reserved to the various denominations of banknotes of one rur and upward, issued either before the reform or, if after the reform, against full coverage in gold or foreign exchange.
Apart from this exchange of fractional coins against legal-tender rurs the agency deals exclusively with the public and not with the government or any of the institutions dependent on it, especially not with the central bank. The agency serves the public and deals exclusively with that part of the public that wants to avail itself, of its own free accord, of the agency’s services. But no privileges are accorded to the agency. It does not get a monopoly for dealing in gold or foreign exchange. The market is perfectly free from any restriction. Everybody is free to buy or sell gold or foreign exchange. There is no centralization of such transactions. Nobody is forced to sell gold or foreign exchange to the agency or to buy gold or foreign exchange from it.
When these measures are once achieved, Ruritania is either on the gold-exchange standard or on the dollar-exchange standard. It has stabilized its currency as against gold or the dollar. This is enough for the beginning. There is no need for the moment to go further. No longer threatened by a breakdown of its currency, the nation can calmly wait to see how monetary affairs in other countries will develop.
The reform suggested would deprive the government of Ruritania of the power to spend any rur above the sums collected by taxing the citizens or by borrowing from the public, whether domestic or foreign. Once this is achieved, the specter of an unfavorable balance of payment fades away. If Ruritanians want to buy foreign products, they must export domestic products. If they do not export, they cannot import.
But, says the inflationist, what about the flight of capital? Will not unpatriotic citizens of Ruritania and foreigners who have invested capital within the country try to transfer their capital to other countries offering better prospects for business?
John Badman, a Ruritanian, and Paul Yank, an American, have invested in Ruritania in the past. Badman owns a mine, Yank a factory. Now they realize that their investments are unsafe. The Ruritanian government is committed to a policy that confiscates not only all the yields of their investments but step by step the substance too. Badman and Yank want to salvage what still can be salvaged; they want to sell against rurs and to transfer the proceeds by buying dollars and exporting them. But their problem is to find a buyer. If all those who have the funds needed for such a purchase think like them, it will be absolutely impossible to sell even at the lowest price. Badman and Yank have missed the right moment. Now it is too late.
But perhaps there are buyers. Bill Sucker, an American, and Peter Simple, a Ruritanian, believe that the prospects of the investments concerned are more propitious than Badman and Yank assume. Sucker has dollars ready; he buys rurs and against these rurs Yank’s factory. Yank buys the dollars Sucker has sold to the agency. Simple has saved rurs and invests his savings in purchasing Badman’s mine. It would have been possible for him to employ his savings in a different way, to buy producers’ or consumers’ goods in Ruritania. The fact that he does not buy these goods brings about a drop in their prices or prevents a rise which would have occurred if he had bought them. It disarranges the price structure on the domestic market in such a way as to make exports possible that could not be effected before or to prevent imports which were effected before. Thus it produces the amount of dollars which Badman buys and sends abroad.
A specter that worries many advocates of foreign-exchange control is the assumption that the Ruritanians engaged in export trade could leave the foreign-exchange proceeds of their business abroad and thus deprive their country of a part of its foreign exchange.
Miller is such an exporter He buys commodity A in Ruritania and sells it abroad. Now he chooses to go out of business and to transfer all his assets to a foreign country. But this does not stop Ruritania’s exporting A. As according to our assumption there can be profits earned by buying A in Ruritania and selling it abroad, the trade will go on. If no Ruritanian has the funds needed for engaging in it, foreigners will fill the gap. For there are always people in markets not entirely destroyed by government sabotage who are eager to take advantage of any opportunity to earn profits.
Let us emphasize this point again: If people want to consume what other people have produced, they must pay for it by giving the sellers something they themselves have produced or by rendering them some services. This is true in the relation between the people of the state of New York and those of Iowa no less than in the relation between the people of Ruritania and those of Laputania. The balance of payments always balances. For if the Ruritanians (or New Yorkers) do not pay, the Laputanians (or Iowans) will not sell.
The United States’ Return to a Sound Currency
With Washington politicians and Wall Street pundits the problem of a return to the gold standard is taboo. Only imbecile or ignorant people, say the professorial and journalistic apologists of inflation, can nurture such an absurd idea.
These gentlemen would be perfectly right if they were merely to assert that the gold standard is incompatible with the methods of deficit spending. One of the main aims of a return to gold is precisely to do away with this system of waste, corruption, and arbitrary government. But they are mistaken if they would have us believe that the reestablishment and preservation of the gold standard is Economically and technically impossible.
The first step must be a radical and unconditional abandonment of any further inflation. The total amount of dollar bills, whatever their name or legal characteristic may be, must not be increased by further issuance. No bank must be permitted to expand the total amount of its deposits subject to check or the balance of such deposits of any individual customer, be he a private citizen or the U.S. Treasury, otherwise than by receiving cash deposits in legal-tender banknotes from the public or by receiving a check payable by another domestic bank subject to the same limitations. This means a rigid 100 percent reserve for all future deposits; that is, all deposits not already in existence on the first day of the reform.
At the same time all restrictions on trading and holding gold must be repealed. The free market for gold is to be reestablished. Everybody, whether a resident of the United States or of any foreign country, will be free to buy and to sell, to lend and to borrow, to import and to export, and, of course, to hold any amount of gold, whether minted or not minted, in any part of the nation’s territory as well as in foreign countries.
It is to be expected that this freedom of the gold market will result in the inflow of a considerable quantity of gold from abroad. Private citizens will probably invest a part of their cash holdings in gold. In some foreign countries the sellers of this gold exported to the United States may hoard the dollar bills received and leave the balances with American banks untouched. But many or most of these sellers of gold will probably buy American products.
In this first period of the reform it is imperative that the American government and all institutions dependent upon it, including the Federal Reserve System, keep entirely out of the gold market. A free gold market could not come into existence if the administration were to try to manipulate the price by underselling. The new monetary regime must be protected against malicious acts by officials of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve System. There cannot be any doubt that officialdom will be eager to sabotage a reform whose main purpose is to curb the power of the bureaucracy in monetary matters.
The unconditional prohibition of the further issuance of any piece of paper to which legal-tender power is granted refers also to the issuance of the type of bills called silver certificates. The constitutional prerogative of Congress to decree that the United States is bound to buy definite quantities of a definite commodity, whether silver or potatoes or something else, at a definite price exceeding the market price and to store or to dump the quantities purchased must not be infringed. But such purchases are henceforth to be paid out of funds collected by taxing the people or by borrowing from the public.
It is probable that the price of gold established after some oscillations on the American market will be higher than $35 per ounce, the rate of the Gold Reserve Act of 1934. It may be somewhere between $36 and $38, perhaps even somewhat higher. Once the market price has attained some stability, the time will have come to decree this market rate as the new legal parity of the dollar and to secure its unconditional convertibility at this parity.
A new agency is to be established, the Conversion Agency. The United States government lends to it a certain amount, let us say one billion dollars, in gold bullion (computed at the new parity), free of interest and never to be recalled. The Conversion Agency has two functions only: First, to sell gold bullion at the parity price to the public against dollars without any restriction. After a short time, when the mint will have coined a sufficient quantity of new American gold coins, the Conversion Agency will be obliged to hand out such gold pieces against paper dollars and checks drawn upon a solvent American bank. Second, to buy, against dollar bills at the legal parity, any amount of gold offered to it. To enable the Conversion Agency to execute this second task it is to be entitled to issue dollar bills against a 100 percent reserve in gold.
The Treasury is bound to sell gold—bullion or new American coins—to the Conversion Agency at legal parity against any kind of American legal-tender bills issued before the start of the reform, against American token coins, or against checks drawn upon a member bank. To the extent that such sales reduce the government’s gold holdings, the total amount of all varieties of legal-tender paper sheets, issued before the start of the reform, and of member-bank deposits subject to check is to be reduced. How this reduction is to be distributed among the various classes of these types of currency can be left, apart from the problem of the banknotes of small denominations, to be dealt with later,12 to the discretion of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board.
It is essential for the reform suggested that the Federal Reserve System should be kept out of its way. Whatever one may think about the merits or demerits of the Federal Reserve legislation of 1913, the fact remains that the system has been abused by the most reckless inflationary policy. No institution and no man connected in any way with the blunders and sins of the past decades must be permitted to influence future monetary conditions.
The Federal Reserve System is saddled with an awkward problem, namely, the huge amount of government bonds held by the member banks. Whatever solution may be adopted for this question, it must not affect the purchasing power of the dollar Government finance and the nation’s medium of exchange have in the future to be two entirely separate things.
The banknotes issued by the Federal Reserve System as well as the silver certificates may remain in circulation. Unconditional convertibility and the strict prohibition of any further increase of their amount will have radically changed their catallactic character It is this alone that counts.
However, a very important change concerning the denomination of these notes is indispensable. What the United States needs is not the gold-exchange standard but the classical old gold standard, decried by the inflationists as orthodox. Gold must be in the cash holdings of everybody. Everybody must see gold coins changing hands, must be used to having gold coins in his pockets, to receiving gold coins when he cashes his paycheck, and to spending gold coins when he buys in a store.
This state of affairs can be easily achieved by withdrawing all bills of the denominations of five, ten, and perhaps also twenty dollars from circulation. There will be under the suggested new monetary regime two classes of legal-tender paper bills: the old stock and the new stock. The old stock consists of all those paper sheets that at the start of the reform were in circulation as legal-tender paper, without regard to their appellation and legal quality other than legal-tender power. It is strictly forbidden to increase this stock by the further issuance of any additional notes of this class. On the other hand, it will decrease to the extent that the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board decree that the reduction in the total amount of legal-tender notes of this old stock plus bank deposits subject to check, existing at the start of the reform, has to be effected by the final withdrawal and destruction of definite quantities of such old-stock legal-tender notes. Moreover, the Treasury is bound to withdraw from circulation, against the new gold coins, and to destroy, within a period of one year after the promulgation of the new legal gold parity of the dollar, all notes of five, ten, and perhaps also twenty dollars.
It does not require any special mention that the new-stock legal-tender notes to be issued by the Conversion Agency must be issued only in denominations of one dollar or fifty dollars and upward.
Old British banking doctrine banned small banknotes (in their opinion, notes smaller than £5) because it wanted to protect the poorer strata of the population, supposed to be less familiar with the conditions of the banking business and therefore more liable to be cheated by wicked bankers. Today the main concern is to protect the nation against a repetition of the inflationary practices of governments. The gold-exchange standard, whatever argument may be advanced in its favor, is vitiated by an incurable defect. It offers to governments an easy opportunity to embark upon inflation unbeknown to the nation. With the exception of a few specialists, nobody becomes aware in time of the fact that a radical change in monetary matters has occurred. Laymen, that is 9,999 out of 10,000 citizens, do not realize that it is not commodities that are becoming dearer but their tender that is becoming cheaper.
What is needed is to alarm the masses in time. The workingman in cashing his paycheck should learn that some foul trick has been played upon him. The President, Congress, and the Supreme Court have clearly proved their inability or unwillingness to protect the common man, the voter, from being victimized by inflationary machinations. The function of securing a sound currency must pass into new hands, into those of the whole nation. As soon as Gres ham’s law begins to come into play and bad paper drives good gold out of the pockets of the common man, there should be a stir. Perpetual vigilance on the part of the citizens can achieve what a thousand laws and dozens of alphabetical bureaus with hordes of employees never have and never will achieve: the preservation of a sound currency.
The classical or orthodox gold standard alone is a truly effective check on the power of the government to inflate the currency. Without such a check all other constitutional safeguards can be rendered vain.
The Controversy Concerning the Choice of the New Gold Parity
Some advocates of a return to the gold standard disagree on an important point with the scheme designed in the preceding section. In the opinion of these dissenters there is no reason to deviate from the gold price of $35 per ounce as decreed in 1934. This rate, they assert, is the legal parity, and it would be iniquitous to devalue the dollar in relation to it.
The controversy between the two groups, those advocating the return to gold at the previous parity (whom we may call the restorers) and those recommending the adoption of a new parity consonant with the present market value of the currency that is to be put upon a gold basis (we may call them the stabilizers), is not new. It has flared up whenever a currency depreciated by inflation has had to be returned to a sound basis.
The restorers look upon money primarily as the standard of deferred payments. A consistent restorer would have to argue in this way: People have in the past, that is, before 1933, made contracts in virtue of which they promised to pay a definite amount of dollars which at that time meant standard dollars, containing 25.8 grains of gold, nine-tenths fine. It would be manifestly unfair to the creditors to give the debtors the right to fulfill such contracts by the payment of the same nominal number of dollars containing a smaller weight of gold.
However, the reasoning of such consistent restorers would be correct only if all existing claims to deferred payments had been contracted before 1933 and if the present creditors of such contracts were the same people (or their heirs) who had originally made the contracts. Both these assumptions are contrary to fact. Most of the pre-1933 contracts have already been settled in the two decades that have elapsed. There are, of course, also government bonds, corporate bonds, and mortgages of pre-1933 origin. But in many or even in most cases these claims are no longer held by the same people who held them before 1933. Why should a man who in 1951 bought a corporate bond issued in 1928 be indemnified for losses which not he himself but one of the preceding owners of this bond suffered? And why should a municipality or a corporation that borrowed depreciated dollars in 1945 be liable to pay back dollars of greater gold weight and purchasing power?
In fact there are in present-day America hardly any consistent restorers who would recommend a return to the old pre-Roosevelt dollar. There are only inconsistent restorers who advocate a return to the Roosevelt dollar of 1934, the dollar of 15 5/21 grains of gold, nine-tenths fine. But this gold content of the dollar, fixed by the President in virtue of the Gold Reserve Act of January 30, 1934, was never a legal parity. It was, as far as the domestic affairs of the United States are concerned, merely of academic value. It was without any legal-tender validity. Legal tender under the Roosevelt legislation was only various sheets of printed paper. These sheets of paper could not be converted into gold. There was no longer any gold parity of the dollar. To hold gold was a criminal offense for the residents of the United States. The Roosevelt gold price of $35 per ounce (instead of the old price of $20.67 per ounce) had validity only for the government’s purchases of gold and for certain transactions between the American Federal Reserve and foreign governments and central banks. Those juridical considerations that the consistent restorers could possibly advance in favor of a return to the pre-Roosevelt dollar parity are of no avail when advanced in favor of the rate of 1934 that was not a parity.
It is paradoxical indeed that the inconsistent restorers try to justify their proposal by referring to honesty. For the role the gold content of the dollar they want to restore played in American monetary history was certainly not honest in the sense in which they employ this term. It was a makeshift in a scheme which these very restorers themselves condemn as dishonest.
However, the main deficiency of any form of the restorers’ arguments, whether they consistently advocate the McKinley dollar or inconsistently the Roosevelt dollar, is to be seen in the fact that they look upon money exclusively from the point of view of its function as the standard of deferred payments. As they see it, the main fault or even the only fault of an inflationary policy is that it favors the debtors at the expense of the creditors. They neglect the other more general and more serious effects of inflation.
Inflation does not affect the prices of the various commodities and services at the same time and to the same extent. Some prices rise sooner, some lag behind. While inflation takes its course and has not yet exhausted all its price-affecting potentialities, there are in the nation winners and losers. Winners—popularly called profiteers if they are entrepreneurs—are people who are in the fortunate position of selling commodities and services the prices of which are already adjusted to the changed relation of the supply of and the demand for money while the prices of commodities and services they are buying still correspond to a previous state of this relation. Losers are those who are forced to pay the new higher prices for the things they buy while the things they are selling have not yet risen at all or not sufficiently. The serious social conflicts which inflation kindles, all the grievances of consumers, wage earners, and salaried people it originates, are caused by the fact that its effects appear neither synchronously nor to the same extent. If an increase in the quantity of money in circulation were to produce at one blow proportionally the same rise in the prices of every kind of commodities and services, changes in the monetary unit’s purchasing power would, apart from affecting deferred payments, be of no social consequence; they would neither benefit nor hurt anybody and would not arouse political unrest. But such an evenness in the effects of inflation—or, for that matter, of deflation—can never happen.
The great Roosevelt-Truman inflation has, apart from depriving all creditors of a considerable part of principal and interest, gravely hurt the material concerns of a great number of Americans. But one cannot repair the evil done by bringing about a deflation. Those favored by the uneven course of the deflation will only in rare cases be the same people who were hurt by the uneven course of the inflation. Those losing on account of the uneven course of the deflation will only in rare cases be the same people whom the inflation has benefited. The effects of a deflation produced by the choice of the new gold parity at $35 per ounce would not heal the wounds inflicted by the inflation of the two last decades. They would merely open new sores.
Today people complain about inflation. If the schemes of the restorers are executed, they will complain about deflation. As for psychological reasons, the effects of deflation are much more unpopular than those of inflation; a powerful proinflation movement would spring up under the disguise of an antideflation program and would seriously jeopardize all attempts to reestablish a sound-money policy.
Those questioning the conclusiveness of these statements should study the monetary history of the United States. There they will find ample corroborating material. Still more instructive is the monetary history of Great Britain.
When, after the Napoleonic wars, the United Kingdom had to face the problem of reforming its currency it chose the return to the prewar gold parity of the pound and gave no thought to the idea of stabilizing the exchange ratio between the paper pound and gold as it had developed on the market under the impact of the inflation. It preferred deflation to stabilization and to the adoption of a new parity consonant with the state of the market. Calamitous economic hardships resulted from this deflation; they stirred social unrest and begot the rise of an inflationist movement as well as the anticapitalistic agitation from which after a while Engels and Marx drew their inspiration.
After the end of World War I England repeated the error committed after Waterloo. It did not stabilize the actual gold value of the pound. It returned in 1925 to the old prewar and preinflation parity of the pound. As the labor unions would not tolerate an adjustment of wage rates to the increased gold value and purchasing power of the pound, a crisis of British foreign trade resulted. The government and the journalists, both terrorized by the union leaders, timidly refrained from making any allusion to the height of wage rates and the disastrous effects of the union tactics. They blamed a mysterious overvaluation of the pound for the decline in British exports and the resulting spread of unemployment. They knew only one remedy, inflation. In 1931 the British government adopted it.
There cannot be any doubt that British inflationism got its strength from the conditions that had developed out of the deflationary currency reform of 1925. It is true that but for the stubborn policy of the unions the effects of the deflation would have been absorbed long before 1931. Yet the fact remains that in the opinion of the masses, conditions gave an apparent justification to the Keynesian fallacies. There is a close connection between the 1925 reform and the popularity that inflationism enjoyed in Great Britain in the thirties and forties.
The inconsistent restorers advance in favor of their plans the fact that the deflation they would bring about would be small, since the difference between a gold price of $35 and a gold price of $37 or $38 is rather slight. Now whether this difference is to be regarded as slight or not is a matter of an arbitrary judgment. Let us for the sake of argument accept its qualification as slight. It is certainly true that a smaller deflation has less undesirable effects than a bigger one. But this truism is no valid argument in favor of a deflationary policy the inexpediency of which is undeniable.
The present unsatisfactory state of monetary affairs is an outcome of the social ideology to which our contemporaries are committed and of the economic policies which this ideology begets. People lament over inflation, but they enthusiastically support policies that could not go on without inflation. While they grumble about the inevitable consequences of inflation, they stubbornly oppose any attempt to stop or to restrict deficit spending.
The suggested reform of the currency system and the return to sound monetary conditions presuppose a radical change in economic philosophies. There cannot be any question of the gold standard as long as waste, capital decumulation, and corruption are the foremost characteristics of the conduct of public affairs.
Cynics dispose of the advocacy of a restitution of the gold standard by calling it utopian. Yet we have only the choice between two utopias: the utopia of a market economy, not paralyzed by government sabotage on the one hand, and the utopia of totalitarian all-round planning on the other hand. The choice of the first alternative implies the decision in favor of the gold standard.
[1. ]See Mises, Human Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), pp. 204-6.
[2. ]See pp. 139-44 above.
[3. ]About this problem, see Human Action, pp. 463-68.
[4. ]See A. B. Lerner, The Economics of Control (New York, 1944), pp. 307-8.
[5. ]See B. Ruml, “Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete,” American Affairs 8 (1946): 35-36.
[6. ]See chap. 11 above; Human Action, pp. 55-57, 347-49.
[7. ]Part 3 of this book is entirely devoted to the exposition of the trade-cycle theory, the doctrine that is called the monetary- or circulation-credit theory, sometimes also the Austrian theory. See also Human Action, pp. 535-83, 787-94.
[8. ]See Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London, 1936), p. 264.
[9. ]For the reasons that led to the establishment of such foreign-exchange equalization accounts, see Human Action, pp. 458-59.
[10. ]About the fundamental error of this point of view, see chap. 19 above.
[11. ]For the only exception to this rule, see next paragraph below.
[12. ]See pp. 493-94 below.