Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Inflation - Ludwig von Mises

This piece was published in 1979 when the United States and United Kingdom were beginning to recover from a period of high inflation. Yet the text itself was written by Ludwig von Mises more than fifty years earlier.
The source is the fourth of five seminal lectures given by Von Mises on Economic Policy at that time.
The lesson is that the dangers of inflation are relevant in any period. Its causes and the solution have not changed.


If the supply of caviar were as plentiful as the supply of potatoes, the price of caviar that is, the exchange ratio between caviar and money or caviar and other commodities would change considerably. In that case, one could obtain caviar at a much smaller sacrifice than is required today. Likewise, if the quantity of money is increased, the purchasing power of the monetary unit decreases, and the quantity of goods that can be obtained for one unit of this money decreases also. When, in the sixteenth century, American resources of gold and silver were discovered and exploited, enormous quantities of the precious metals were transported to Europe. The result of this increase in the quantity of money was a general tendency toward an upward movement of prices in Europe. In the same way, today, when a government increases the quantity of paper money, the result is that the purchasing power of the monetary unit begins to drop, and so prices rise. This is called inflation.

Unfortunately, in the United States, as well as in other countries, some people prefer to attribute the cause of inflation not to an increase in the quantity of money but, rather, to the rise in prices. However, there has never been any serious argument against the economic interpretation of the relationship between prices and the quantity of money, or the exchange services. Under present day technological conditions there is nothing easier than to manufacture pieces of paper upon which certain monetary amounts are printed. In the United States, where all the notes are of the same size, it does not cost the government more to print a bill of a thousand dollars than it does to print a bill of one dollar. It is purely a printing procedure that requires the same quantity of paper and ink.

In the eighteenth century, when the first attempts were made to issue bank notes and to give these bank notes the quality of legal tender that is, the right to be honored in exchange transactions in the same way that gold and silver pieces were honored the governments and nations believed that bankers had some secret knowledge enabling them to produce wealth out of nothing. When the governments of the eighteenth century were in financial difficulties, they thought all they needed was a clever banker at the head of their financial management in order to get rid of all their difficulties.

Some years before the French Revolution, when the royalty of France was in financial trouble, the king of France sought out such a clever banker, and appointed him to a high position. This man was, in every regard, the opposite of the people who, up to that time, had ruled France. First of all he was not a Frenchman, he was a foreigner a Swiss from Geneva, Jacques Necker. Secondly, he was not a member of the aristocracy, he was a simple commoner. And what counted even more in eighteenth century France, he was not a Catholic, but a Protestant. And so Monsieur Necker, the father of the famous Madame de StaĆ«l, became the minister of finance, and everyone expected him to solve the financial problems of France. But in spite of the high degree of confidence Monsieur Necker enjoyed, the royal cashbox remained empty Necker’s greatest mistake having been his attempt to finance aid to the American colonists in their war of independence against England without raising taxes. That was certainly the wrong way to go about solving France’s financial troubles.

There can be no secret way to the solution of the financial problems of a government; if it needs money, it has to obtain the money by taxing its citizens (or, under special conditions, by borrowing it from people who have the money). But many governments, we can even say most governments, think there is another method for getting the needed money; simply to print it.

If the government wants to do something beneficial if, for example, it wants to build a hospital the way to find the needed money for this project is to tax the citizens and build the hospital out of tax revenues. Then no special “price revolution” will occur, because when the government collects money for the construction of the hospital, the citizens having paid the taxes are forced to reduce their spending. The individual taxpayer is forced to restrict either his consumption, his investments or his savings. The government, appearing on the market as a buyer, replaces the individual citizen: the citizen buys less, but the government buys more. The government, of course, does not always buy the same goods which the citizens would have bought; but on the average there occurs no rise in prices due to the government’s construction of a hospital.

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