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Ludwig von Mises lays out five fundamental truths of monetary expansion (1949)

The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), in the chapter "The Inflationist View of History" in his masterwork Human Action (1949), criticises the popular view that a policy of inflation (or a general rise in prices of all goods and services) is good for economic development

Economics recommends neither inflationary nor deflationary policy. It does not urge the governments to tamper with the market’s choice of a medium of exchange. It establishes only the following truths: 1. By committing itself to an inflationary or deflationary policy a government does not promote the public welfare, the commonweal, or the interests of the whole nation. It merely favors one or several groups of the population at the expense of other groups. 2. It is impossible to know in advance which group will be favored by a definite inflationary or deflationary measure and to what extent. These effects depend on the whole complex of the market data involved. They also depend largely on the speed of the inflationary or deflationary movements and may be completely reversed with the progress of these movements. 3. At any rate, a monetary expansion results in misinvestment of capital and overconsumption. It leaves the nation as a whole poorer, not richer. These problems are dealt with in Chapter 20. 4. Continued inflation must finally end in the crack-up boom, the complete breakdown of the currency system. 5. Deflationary policy is costly for the treasury and unpopular with the masses. But inflationary policy is a boon for the treasury and very popular with the ignorant. Practically, the danger of deflation is but slight and the danger of inflation tremendous.

In the conduct of business, reflections concerning the secular trend of prices do not play any role whatever. Entrepreneurs and investors do not bother about secular trends. What guides their actions is their opinion about the movement of prices in the coming weeks, months, or at most years. They do not heed the general movement of all prices. What matters for them is the existence of discrepancies between the prices of the complementary factors of production and the anticipated prices of the products. No businessman embarks upon a definite production project because he believes that the prices, i.e., the prices of all goods and services, will rise. He engages himself if he believes that he can profit from a difference between the prices of goods of various orders. In a world with a secular tendency toward falling prices, such opportunities for earning profit will appear in the same way in which they appear in a world with a secular trend toward rising prices. The expectation of a general progressive upward movement of all prices does not bring about intensified production and improvement in well-being. It results in the “flight to real values,” in the crack-up boom and the complete breakdown of the monetary system.

If the opinion that the prices of all commodities will drop becomes general, the short-term market rate of interest is lowered by the amount of the negative price premium. Thus the entrepreneur employing borrowed funds is secured against the consequences of such a drop in prices to the same extent to which, under conditions of rising prices, the lender is secured through the price premium against the consequences of falling purchasing power.

A secular tendency toward a rise in the monetary unit’s purchasing power would require rules of thumb on the part of businessmen and investors other than those developed under the secular tendency toward a fall in its purchasing power. But it would certainly not influence substantially the course of economic affairs. It would not remove the urge of people to improve their material well-being as far as possible by an appropriate arrangement of production. It would not deprive the economic system of the factors making for material improvement, namely, the striving of enterprising promoters after profit and the readiness of the public to buy those commodities which are apt to provide them the greatest satisfaction at the lowest costs.

Such observations are certainly not a plea for a policy of deflation. They imply merely a refutation of the ineradicable inflationist fables. They unmask the illusiveness of Lord Keynes’s doctrine that the source of poverty and distress, of depression of trade, and of unemployment is to be seen in a “contractionist pressure.” It is not true that “a deflationary pressure … would have … prevented the development of modern industry.” It is not true that credit expansion brings about the “miracle … of turning a stone into bread.”

Economics recommends neither inflationary nor deflationary policy. It does not urge the governments to tamper with the market’s choice of a medium of exchange. It establishes only the following truths:

1. By committing itself to an inflationary or deflationary policy a government does not promote the public welfare, the commonweal, or the interests of the whole nation. It merely favors one or several groups of the population at the expense of other groups.
2. It is impossible to know in advance which group will be favored by a definite inflationary or deflationary measure and to what extent. These effects depend on the whole complex of the market data involved. They also depend largely on the speed of the inflationary or deflationary movements and may be completely reversed with the progress of these movements.
3. At any rate, a monetary expansion results in misinvestment of capital and overconsumption. It leaves the nation as a whole poorer, not richer. These problems are dealt with in Chapter 20.
4. Continued inflation must finally end in the crack-up boom, the complete breakdown of the currency system.
5. Deflationary policy is costly for the treasury and unpopular with the masses. But inflationary policy is a boon for the treasury and very popular with the ignorant. Practically, the danger of deflation is but slight and the danger of inflation tremendous.

About this Quotation:

We continue our exploration of Austrian monetary theory in Liberty Fund’s “Library of the Works of Ludwig von Mises”. In his magnum opus Human Action Mises has a chapter with the puzzling title “The Inflationist View of History”. Here he debunks the popular notion that government policy to lower the cost of money has had a beneficial effect on the course of history and economic development. In the process he formulates 5 “truths” concerning inflation and monetary expansion: it favors one group at the expence of all others; it is not possible to predict which group will benefit from a particular period of inflation; it always results in malinvestment of capital which must be liquidated in the following collapse; an economic collapse is inevitable and cannot be avoided; and inflation is a boon to the treasury but very dangerous for ordinary people.

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