Understanding The Roots And Causes Of Inflation

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 ratio between money and other goods, commodities, and 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.

I.

In the eighteenth century, when the first attempts were made to issue banknotes and to give these banknotes 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 Staël, 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 average there occurs no rise in prices due to the government’s construction of a hospital.

I choose this example of a hospital precisely because people sometimes say: “It makes a difference whether the government uses its money for good or for bad purposes.” I want to assume that the government always uses the money which it has printed for the best possible purposes—purposes with which we all agree. For it is not the way in which the money is spent, it is the way in which the government obtains this money that brings about those consequences we call inflation and which most people in the world today do not consider as beneficial.

For example, without inflating, the government could use the tax-collected money for hiring new employees or for raising the salaries of those who are already in government service. Then these people, whose salaries have been increased, are in a position to buy more. When the government taxes the citizens and uses this money to increase the salaries of government employees, the taxpayers have less to spend, but the government employees have more. Prices, in general, will not increase.

But if the government does not use tax money for this purpose, if it uses freshly printed money instead, it means that there will be people who now have more money while all other people still have as much as they had before. So those who received the newly-printed money will be competing with those people who were buyers before. And since there are no more commodities than there were previously, but there is more money on the market—and since there are now people who can buy more today than they could have bought yesterday—there will be an additional demand for that same quantity of goods. Therefore prices will tend to go up. This cannot be avoided, no matter what the use of this newly-issued money will be.

II.

And more importantly, this tendency for prices to go up will develop step by step; it is not a general upward movement of what has been called the “price level.” The metaphorical expression “price level” must never be used.

When people talk of a “price level,” they have in mind the image of a level of a liquid which goes up or down according to the increase or decrease in its quantity, but which, like a liquid in a tank, always rises evenly. But with prices, there is no such thing as a “level.” Prices do not change to the same extent at the same time. There are always prices that are changing more rapidly, rising or falling more rapidly than other prices. There is a reason for this.

Consider the case of the government employee who received the new money added to the money supply. People do not buy today precisely the same commodities and in the same quantities as they did yesterday. The additional money which the government has printed and introduced into the market is not used for the purchase of all commodities and services. It is used for the purchase of certain commodities, the prices of which will rise, while other commodities will still remain at the prices that prevailed before the new money was put on the market. Therefore, when inflation starts, different groups within the population are affected by this inflation in different ways. Those groups who get the new money first gain a temporary benefit.

When the government inflates in order to wage a war, it has to buy munitions, and the first to get the additional money are the munitions industries and the workers within these industries. These groups are now in a very favorable position. They have higher profits and higher wages; their business is moving. Why? Because they were the first to receive the additional money. And having now more money at their disposal, they are buying. And they are buying from other people who are manufacturing and selling the commodities that these munitions makers want.

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This is the fourth lecture from Mises's "Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and ...

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