Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: Observations on Some Widespread Errors - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
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2: Observations on Some Widespread Errors - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 2.
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Observations on Some Widespread Errors
The fateful errors of popular monetary doctrines which have led astray the monetary policies of almost all governments would hardly have come into existence if many economists had not themselves committed blunders in dealing with monetary issues and did not stubbornly cling to them.
There is first of all the spurious idea of the supposed neutrality of money.2 An outgrowth of this doctrine was the notion of the “level” of prices that rises or falls proportionately with the increase or decrease in the quantity of money in circulation. It was not realized that changes in the quantity of money can never affect the prices of all goods and services at the same time and to the same extent. Nor was it realized that changes in the purchasing power of the monetary unit are necessarily linked with changes in the mutual relations between those buying and selling. In order to prove the doctrine that the quantity of money and prices rise and fall proportionately, recourse was had in dealing with the theory of money to a procedure entirely different from that modern economics applies in dealing with all its other problems. Instead of starting from the actions of individuals, as catallactics must do without exception, formulas were constructed designed to comprehend the whole of the market economy. Elements of these formulas were the total supply of money available in the Volkswirtschaft; the volume of trade—i.e., the money equivalent of all transfers of commodities and services as effected in the Volkswirtschaft; the average velocity of circulation of the monetary units; and the level of prices. These formulas seemingly provided evidence of the correctness of the price level doctrine. In fact, however, this whole mode of reasoning is a typical cases of arguing in a circle. For the equation of exchange already involves the level doctrines which it tries to prove. It is essentially nothing but a mathematical expression of the—untenable—doctrine that there is proportionality in the movements of the quantity of money and of prices.
In analyzing the equation of exchange one assumes that one of its elements—total supply of money, volume of trade, velocity of circulation—changes, without asking how such changes occur. It is not recognized that changes in these magnitudes do not emerge in the Volkswirtschaft as such, but in the individual actors’ conditions, and that it is the interplay of the reactions of these actors that results in alterations of the price structure. The mathematical economists refuse to start from the various individuals’ demand for and supply of money. They introduce instead the spurious notion of velocity of circulation fashioned according to the patterns of mechanics.
There is at this point of our reasoning no need to deal with the question of whether or not the mathematical economists are right in assuming that the services rendered by money consist wholly or essentially in its turnover, in its circulation. Even if this were true, it would still be faulty to explain the purchasing power—the price—of the monetary unit on the basis of its services. The services rendered by water, whisky, and coffee do not explain the prices paid for these things. What they explain is only why people, as far as they recognize these services, under certain further conditions demand definite quantities of these things. It is always demand that influences the price structure, not the objective value in use.
It is true that with regard to money the task of catallactics is broader than with regard to vendible goods. It is not the task of catallactics, but of psychology and physiology, to explain why people are intent on securing the services which the various vendible commodities can render. It is a task of catallactics, however, to deal with this question with regard to money. Catallactics alone can tell us what advantages a man expects from holding money. But it is not these expected advantages which determine the purchasing power of money. The eagerness to secure these advantages is only one of the factors in bringing about the demand for money. It is demand, a subjective element whose intensity is entirely determined by value judgments, and not any objective fact, any power to bring about a certain effect, that plays a role in the formation of the market’s exchange ratios.
The deficiency of the equation of exchange and its basic elements is that they look at market phenomena from a holistic point of view. They are deluded by their prepossession with the Volkswirtschaft notion. But where there is, in the strict sense of the term, a Volkswirtschaft, there is neither a market nor prices and money. On a market there are only individuals or groups of individuals acting in concert. What motivate these actors are their own concerns, not those of the whole market economy. If there is any sense in such notions as volume of trade and velocity of circulation, then they refer to the resultant of the individuals’ actions. It is not permissible to resort to these notions in order to explain the actions of the individuals. The first question that catallactics must raise with regard to changes in the total quantity of money available in the market system is how such changes affect the various individuals’ conduct. Modern economics does not ask what “iron” or “bread” is worth, but what a definite piece of iron or of bread is worth to an acting individual at a definite date and a definite place. It cannot help proceeding in the same way with regard to money. The equation of exchange is incompatible with the fundamental principles of economic thought. It is a relapse to the thinking of ages in which people failed to comprehend praxeological phenomena because they were committed to holistic notions. It is sterile, as were the speculations of earlier ages concerning the value of “iron” and “bread” in general.
The theory of money is an essential part of the catallactic theory. It must be dealt with in the same manner which is applied to all other catallactic problems.
[2. ]Cf. above, p. 202. Important contributions to the history and terminology of this doctrine are provided by Hayek, Prices and Production (rev. ed. London, 1935), pp. 1 ff., 129 ff.