Understanding The Roots And Causes Of Inflation

And it went on in Germany until exactly November 20, 1923. The masses had believed inflation money to be real money, but then they found out that conditions had changed. At the end of the German inflation, in the fall of 1923, the German factories paid their workers every morning in advance for the day. And the workingman who came to the factory with his wife handed his wages—all the millions he got—over to her immediately. And the lady immediately went to a shop to buy something, no matter what. She realized what most people knew at that time—that overnight, from one day to another, the mark lost 50% of its purchasing power. Money, like chocolate in a hot oven, was melting in the pockets of the people. This last phase of German inflation did not last long; after a few days, the whole nightmare was over: the mark was valueless and a new currency had to be established.

V.

Lord Keynes, the same man who said that in the long run, we are all dead, was one of a long line of inflationist authors of the twentieth century. They all wrote against the gold standard. When Keynes attacked the gold standard, he called it a “barbarous relic.” And most people today consider it ridiculous to speak of a return to the gold standard. In the United States, for instance, you are considered to be more or less a dreamer if you say: “Sooner or later, the United States will have to return to the gold standard.”

Yet the gold standard has one tremendous virtue: the quantity of money under the gold standard is independent of the policies of governments and political parties. This is its advantage. It is a form of protection against spendthrift governments. If under the gold standard, a government is asked to spend money for something new, the minister of finance can say: “And where do I get the money? Tell me, first, how I will find the money for this additional expenditure.”

Under an inflationary system, nothing is simpler for the politicians to do than to order the government printing office to provide as much money as they need for their projects. Under a gold standard, a sound government has a much better chance; its leaders can say to the people and to the politicians: “We can’t do it unless we increase taxes.”

But under inflationary conditions, people acquire the habit of looking upon the government as an institution with limitless means at its disposal: the state, the government, can do anything. If, for instance, the nation wants a new highway system, the government is expected to build it. But where will the government get the money?

One could say that in the United States today—and even in the past, under McKinley—the Republican party was more or less in favor of sound money and of the gold standard, and the Democratic party was in favor of inflation, of course not paper inflation, but silver inflation.

It was, however, a Democratic president of the United States, President Cleveland, who at the end of the 1880s vetoed a decision of Congress, to give a small sum—about $10,000—to help a community that had suffered some disaster. And President Cleveland justified his veto by writing: “While it is the duty of the citizens to support the government, it is not the duty of the government to support the citizens.” This is something which every statesman should write on the wall of his office to show to people who come asking for money.

I am rather embarrassed by the necessity to simplify these problems. There are so many complex problems in the monetary system, and I would not have written volumes about them if they were as simple as I am describing them here. But the fundamentals are precisely these: if you increase the quantity of money, you bring about the lowering of the purchasing power of the monetary unit. This is what people whose private affairs are unfavorably affected do not like. People who do not benefit from inflation are the ones who complain.

If inflation is bad and if people realize it, why has it become almost a way of life in all countries? Even some of the richest countries suffer from this disease. The United States today is certainly the richest country in the world, with the highest standard of living. But when you travel in the United States, you will discover that there is constant talk about inflation and about the necessity to stop it. But they only talk; they do not act.

VI.

To give you some facts: after the First World War, Great Britain returned to the prewar gold parity of the pound. That is, it revalued the pound upward. This increased the purchasing power of every worker’s wages. In an unhampered market, the nominal money wage would have fallen to compensate for this and the workers’ real wage would not have suffered. We do not have time here to discuss the reasons for this. But the unions in Great Britain were unwilling to accept an adjustment of money wage rates downward as the purchasing power of the monetary unit rose. Therefore real wages were raised considerably by this monetary measure. This was a serious catastrophe for England, because Great Britain is a predominantly industrial country that has to import its raw materials, half-finished goods, and foodstuffs in order to live, and has to export manufactured goods to pay for these imports. With the rise in the international value of the pound, the price of British goods rose on foreign markets and sales and exports declined. Great Britain had, in effect, priced itself out of the world market.

The unions could not be defeated. You know the power of a union today. It has the right, practically the privilege, to resort to violence. And a union order is, therefore, let us say, not less important than a government decree. The government decree is an order for the enforcement of which the enforcement apparatus of the government—the police—is ready. You must obey the government decree, otherwise, you will have difficulties with the police.

Unfortunately, we have now, in almost all countries all over the world, a second power that is in a position to exercise force: the labor unions. The labor unions determine wages and then strike to enforce them in the same way in which the government might decree a minimum wage rate. I will not discuss the union question now; I shall deal with it later. I only want to establish that it is the union policy to raise wage rates above the level they would have on an unhampered market. As a result, a considerable part of the potential labor force can be employed only by people or industries that are prepared to suffer losses. And, since businesses are not able to keep on suffering losses, they close their doors and people become unemployed. The setting of wage rates above the level they would have on the unhampered market always results in the unemployment of a considerable part of the potential labor force.

In Great Britain, the result of high wage rates enforced by the labor unions was lasting unemployment, prolonged year after year. Millions of workers were unemployed, production figures dropped. Even experts were perplexed. In this situation, the British government made a move which it considered an indispensable, emergency measure: it devalued its currency.

The result was that the purchasing power of the money wages, upon which the unions had insisted, was no longer the same. The real wages, the commodity wages, were reduced. Now the worker could not buy as much as he had been able to buy before, even though the nominal wage rates remained the same. In this way, it was thought, real wage rates would return to free-market levels and unemployment would disappear.

This measure—devaluation—was adopted by various other countries, by France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. One country even resorted twice to this measure within a period of one year and a half. That country was Czechoslovakia. It was a surreptitious method, let us say, to thwart the power of the unions. You could not call it a real success, however.

After a few years, the people, the workers, even the unions, began to understand what was going on. They came to realize that currency devaluation had reduced their real wages. The unions had the power to oppose this. In many countries they inserted a clause into wage contracts providing that money wages must go up automatically with an increase in prices. This is called indexing. The unions became index conscious. So, this method of reducing unemployment that the government of Great Britain started in 1931—which was later adopted by almost all important governments—this method of “solving unemployment” no longer works today.

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

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