Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson – Chapter Twenty-Three: The Mirage of Inflation”
This Classic Work was written by Henry Hazlitt.
Continued from Chapter 22: The Function of Profits
I have found it necessary to warn the reader from time to time that a certain result would necessarily follow from a certain policy “provided there is no inflation.” In the chapters on public works and on credit I said that a study of the complications introduced by inflation would have to be deferred. But money and monetary policy form so intimate and sometimes so inextricable a part of every economic process that this separation, even for expository purposes, was very difficult and in the chapters on the effect of various government or union wage policies on employment, profits and production, some of the effects of differing monetary policies had to be considered immediately.
Before we consider what the consequences of inflation are in specific cases, we should consider what its consequences are in general. Even prior to that, it seems desirable to ask why inflation has been constantly resorted to, why it has had an immemorial popular appeal, and why its siren music has tempted one nation after another down the path to economic disaster.
The most obvious and yet the oldest and most stubborn error on which the appeal of inflation rests is that of confusing “money” with wealth. “That wealth consists in money, or in gold and silver” wrote Adam Smith more than two centuries ago “is a popular notion which naturally arises from the double function of money, as the instrument of commerce, and as the measure of value…. To grow rich is to get money, and wealth and money, in short, are, in common language, considered as in every respect synonymous.
Real wealth, of course, consists in what is produced and consumed: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we livein. It is railways and roads and motor cars; ships and planes and factories; schools and churches and theaters; pianos, paintings and books. Yet so powerful is the verbal ambiguity that confuses money with wealth, that even those who at times recognize the confusion will slide back into it in the course of their reasoning. Each man sees that if he personally had more money he could buy more things from others. If he had twice as much money he could buy twice as many things; if he had three times as much money he would be “worth” three times as much. And to many the conclusion seems obvious that if the government merely issued more money and distributed it to everybody, we should all be that much richer.
These are the most naive inflationists. There is a second group, less naive, who see that if the whole thing were as easy as that the government could solve all our problems merely by printing money. They sense that there must be a catch somewhere; so they would limit in some way the amount of additional money they would have the government issue. They would have it print just enough to make up some alleged “deficiency,” or “gap.”
Purchasing power is chronically deficient, they think, because industry somehow does not distribute enough money to producers to enable them to buy back, as consumers, the product that is made. There is a mysterious “leak” somewhere. One group “proves” it by equations. On one side of their equations they count an item only once; on the other side they unknowingly count the same item several times over. This produces an alarming gap between what they call “A payments” and what they call “A+B payments.” So they found a movement, put on green uniforms, and insist that the government issue money or “credits” to make good the missing B payments.
The cruder apostles of “social credit” may seem ridiculous; but there are an indefinite number of schools of only slightly more sophisticated inflationists who have “scientific” plans to issue just enough additional money or credit to fill some alleged chronic or periodic deficiency, or gap, which they calculate in some other way.
The more knowing inflationists recognize that any substantial increase in the quantity of money will reduce the purchasing power of each individual monetary unit—in other words, that it will lead to an increase in commodity prices. But this does not disturb them. On the contrary, it is precisely why they want the inflation. Some of them argue that this result will improve the position of poor debtors as compared with rich creditors. Others think it will stimulate exports and discourage imports. Still others think it is an essential measure to cure a depression, to “start industry going again, and to achieve “full employment.”[*]
There are innumerable theories concerning the way in which increased quantities of money (including bank credit) affect prices. On the one hand, as we have just seen, are those who imagine that the quantity of money could be increased by almost any amount without affecting prices. They merely see this increased money as a means of increasing everyone’s “purchasing power,” in the sense of enabling everybody to buy more goods than before. Either they never stop to remind themselves that people collectively cannot buy twice as much goods as before unless twice as much goods are produced, or they imagine that the only thing that holds down an indefinite increase in production is not a shortage of manpower, working hours or productive capacity, but merely a shortage of monetary demand: if people want the goods, they assume, and have the money to pay for them, the goods will almost automatically be produced.
On the other hand is the group—and it has included some eminent economists—that holds a rigid mechanical theory of the effect of the supply of money on commodity prices. All the money in a nation, as these theorists picture the matter, will be offered against all the goods. Therefore the value of the total quantity of money multiplied by its “velocity of circulation” must always be equal to the value of the total quantity of goods bought. Therefore, further (assuming no change in velocity of circulation), the value of the monetary unit must vary exactly and inversely with the amount put into circulation. Double the quantity of money and bank credit and you exactly double the “price level”; triple it, and you exactly triple the price level. Multiply the quantity of money n times, in short, and you must multiply the prices of goods n times.
There is not space here to explain all the fallacies in this plausible picture.[†] Instead we shall try to see just why and how an increase in the quantity of money raises prices.
An increased quantity of money comes into existence in a specific way. Let us say that it comes into existence because the government makes larger expenditures than it can or wishes to meet out of the proceeds of taxes (or from the sale of bonds paid for by the people out of real savings). Suppose, for example, that the government prints money to pay war contractors. Then the first effect of these expenditures will be to raise the prices of supplies used in war and to put additional money into the hands of the war contractors and their employees. (As, in our chapter on price-fixing, we deferred for the sake of simplicity some complications introduced by an inflation, so, in now considering inflation, we may pass over the complications introduced by an attempt at government price-fixing. When these are considered it will be found that they do not change the essential analysis. They lead merely to a sort of backed—up or “repressed” inflation that reduces or conceals some of the earlier consequences at the expense of aggravating the later ones.)
The war contractors and their employees, then, will have higher money incomes. They will spend them for the particular goods and services they want. The sellers of these goods and services will be able to raise their prices because of this increased demand. Those who have the increased money income will be willing to pay these higher prices rather than do without the goods; for they will have more money, and a dollar will have a smaller subjective value in the eyes of each of them.
Let us call the war contractors and their employees group A, and those from whom they directly buy their added goods and services group B. Group B, as a result of higher sales and prices, will now in turn buy more goods and services from a still further group, C. Group C in turn will be able to raise its prices and will have more income to spend on group D, and so on, until the rise in prices and money incomes has covered virtually the whole nation. When the process has been completed, nearly everybody will have a higher income measured in terms of money. But (assuming that production of goods and services has not increased) prices of goods and services will have increased correspondingly. The nation will be no richer than before.
This does not mean, however, that everyone’s relative or absolute wealth and income will remain the same as before. On the contrary, the process of inflation is certain to affect the fortunes of one group differently from those of another. The first groups to receive the additional money will benefit the most. The money incomes of group A, for example, will have increased before prices have increased, so that they will be able to buy almost a proportionate increase in goods. The money incomes of group B will advance later, when prices have already increased somewhat; but group B will be better off in terms of goods. Meanwhile, however, the groups that have still had no advance whatever in their money incomes will find themselves compelled to pay higher prices for the things they buy, which means that they will be obliged to get along on a lower standard of living than before.
We may clarify the process further by a hypothetical set of figures. Suppose we divide the community arbitrarily into four main groups of producers, A, B, C and D, who get the money income benefit of the inflation in that order. Then when money incomes of group A have already increased 30 percent, the prices of the things they purchase have not yet increased at all. By the time money incomes of group B have increased 20 percent, prices have still increased an average of only 10 percent. When money incomes of group C have increased only 10 percent, however, prices have already gone up 15 percent. And when money incomes of group D have not yet increased at all, the average prices they have to pay for the things they buy have gone up 20 percent. In other words, the gains of the first groups of producers to benefit by higher prices or wages from the inflation are necessarily at the expense of the losses suffered (as consumers) by the last groups of producers that are able to raise their prices or wages.
It may be that, if the inflation is brought to a halt after a few years, the final result will be, say, an average increase of 25 percent in money incomes, and an average increase in prices of an equal amount, both of which are fairly distributed among all groups. But this will not cancel out the gains and losses of the transition period. Group D, for example, even though its own incomes and prices have at last advanced 25 percent, will be able to buy only as much goods and services as before the inflation started. It will never compensate for its losses during that period when its income and prices had not risen at all, though it had to pay up to 30 percent more for the goods and services it bought from the other producing groups in the community, A, B and C.
So inflation turns out to be merely one more example of our central lesson. It may indeed bring benefits for a short time to favored groups, but only at the expense of others. And in the long run it brings ruinous consequences to the whole community. Even a relatively mild inflation distorts the structure of production. It leads to the overexpansion of some industries at the expense of others. This involves a misapplication and waste of capital. When the inflation collapses, or is brought to a halt, the misdirected capital investment—whether in the form of machines, factories or office buildings—cannot yield an adequate return and loses the greater part of its value.
Nor is it possible to bring inflation to a smooth and gentle stop, and so avert a subsequent depression. It is not even possible to halt an inflation once embarked upon, at some preconceived point, or when prices have achieved a previously agreed upon level; for both political and economic forces will have got out of hand. You cannot make an argument for a 25 percent advance in prices by inflation without someone’s contending that the argument is twice as good for an advance of 50 percent, and someone else’s adding that it is four times as good for an advance of 100 percent. The political pressure groups that have benefited from the inflation will insist upon its continuance.
It is impossible, moreover, to control the value of money under inflation. For, as we have seen, the causation is never a merely mechanical one. You cannot, for example, say in advance that a 100 percent increase in the quantity of money will mean a 50 percent fall in the value of the monetary unit. The value of money, as we have seen, depends upon the subjective valuations of the people who hold it. And those valuations do not depend solely on the quantity of it that each person holds. They depend also on the quality of the money. In wartime the value of a nation’s monetary unit, not on the gold standard, will rise on the foreign exchanges with victory and fall with defeat, regardless of changes in its quantity. The present valuation will often depend upon what people expect the future quantity of money to be. And, as with commodities on the speculative exchanges, each person’s valuation of money is affected not only by what he thinks its value is but by what he thinks is going to be eveiybody else’s valuation of money.
All this explains why, when hyperinflation has once set in, the value of the monetary unit drops at a far faster rate than the quantity of money either is or can be increased. When this stage is reached, the disaster is nearly complete; and the scheme is bankrupt.
Yet the ardor for inflation never dies. It would almost seem as if no country is capable of profiting from the experience of another and no generation of learning from the sufferings of its forebears. Each generation and country follows the same mirage. Each grasps for the same Dead Sea fruit that turns to dust and ashes in its mouth. For it is the nature of inflation to give birth to a thousand illusions.
In our own day the most persistent argument put forward for inflation is that it will “get the wheels of industry turning,” that it will save us from the irretrievable losses of stagnation and idleness and bring “full employment.” This argument in its cruder form rests on the immemorial confusion between money and real wealth. It assumes that new “purchasing power” is being brought into existence, and that the effects of this new purchasing power multiply themselves in ever-widening circles, like the ripples caused by a stone thrown into a pond. The real purchasing power for goods, however, as we have seen, consists of other goods. It cannot be wondrously increased merely by printing more pieces of paper called dollars. Fundamentally what happens in an exchange economy is that the things that A produces are exchanged for the things that B produces. [**]
What inflation really does is to change the relationships of prices and costs. The most important change it is designed to bring about is to raise commodity prices in relation to wage rates, and so to restore business profits, and encourage a resumption of output at the points where idle resources exist, by restoring a workable relationship between prices and costs of production.
It should be immediately clear that this could be brought about more directly and honestly by a reduction in unworkable wage rates. But the more sophisticated proponents of inflation believe that this is now politically impossible. Sometimes they go further, and charge that all proposals under any circumstances to reduce particular wage rates directly in order to reduce unemployment are “antilabor.” But what they are themselves proposing, stated in bald terms, is to deceive labor by reducing real wage rates (that is, wage rates in terms of purchasing power) through an increase in prices.
What they forget is that labor has itself become sophisticated; that the big unions employ labor economists who know about index numbers, and that labor is not deceived. The policy, therefore, under present conditions, seems unlikely to accomplish either its economic or its political aims. For it is precisely the most powerful unions, whose wage rates are most likely to be in need of correction, that will insist that their wage rates be raised at least in proportion to any increase in the cost-of-living index. The unworkable relationships between prices and key wage rates, if the insistence of the powerful unions prevails, will remain. The wage rate structure, in fact, may become even more distorted; for the great mass of unorganized workers, whose wage rates even before the inflation were not out of line (and may even have been unduly depressed through union exclusionism), will be penalized further during the transition by the rise in prices.
The more sophisticated advocates of inflation, in brief, are disingenuous. They do not state their case with complete candor; and they end by deceiving even themselves. They begin to talk of paper money, like the more naive inflationists, as if it were itself a form of wealth that could be created at will on the printing press. They even solemnly discuss a “multiplier,” by which every dollar printed and spent by the government becomes magically the equivalent of several dollars added to the wealth of the country.
In brief, they divert both the public attention and their own from the real causes of any existing depression. For the real causes, most of the time, are maladjustments within the wage-cost-price structure: maladjustments between wages and prices, between prices of raw materials and prices of finished goods, or between one price and another or one wage and another. At some point these maladjustments have removed the incentive to produce, or have made it actually impossible for production to continue; and through the organic interdependence of our exchange economy, depression spreads. Not until these maladjustments are corrected can full production and employment be resumed.
True, inflation may sometimes correct them; but it is a heady and dangerous method. It makes its corrections not openly and honestly, but by the use of illusion. Inflation, indeed, throws a veil of illusion over every economic process. It confuses and deceives almost everyone, including even those who suffer by it. We are all accustomed to measuring our income and wealth in terms of money. The mental habit is so strong that even professional economists and statisticians cannot consistently break it. It is not easy to see relationships always in terms of real goods and real welfare. Who among us does not feel richer and prouder when he is told that our national income has doubled (in terms of dollars, of course) compared with some preinflationary period? Even the clerk who used to get $75 a week and now gets $120 thinks that he must be in some way better off, though it costs him twice as much to live as it did when he was getting $75. He is of course not blind to the rise in the cost of living. But neither is he as fully aware of his real position as he would have been if his cost of living had not changed and if his money salary had been reduced to give him the same reduced purchasing power that he now has, in spite of his salary increase, because of higher prices. Inflation is the autosuggestion, the hypnotism, the anesthetic, that has dulled the pain of the operation for him. Inflation is the opium of the people.
And this is precisely its political function. It is because inflation confuses everything that it is so consistently resorted to by our modern “planned economy” governments. We saw in chapter four, to take but one example, that the belief that public works necessarily create new jobs is false. If the money was raised by taxation, we saw, then for every dollar that the government spent on public works one less dollar was spent by the taxpayers to meet their own wants, and for every public job created one private job was destroyed.
But suppose the public works are not paid for from the proceeds of taxation? Suppose they are paid for by deficit financing—that is, from the proceeds of government borrowing or from resort to the printing press? Then the result just described does not seem to take place. The public works seem to be created out of “new” purchasing power. You cannot say that the purchasing power has been taken away from the taxpayers. For the moment the nation seems to have got something for nothing.
But now, in accordance with our lesson, let us look at the longer consequences. The borrowing must some day be repaid. The government cannot keep piling up debt indefinitely; for if it tries, it will some day become bankrupt. As Adam Smith observed in 1776:
When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid. The liberation of the public revenue, if it has even been brought about at all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.
Yet when the government comes to repay the debt it has accumulated for public works, it must necessarily tax more heavily than it spends. In this later period, therefore, it must necessarily destroy more jobs than it creates. The extra-heavy taxation then required does not merely take away purchasing power; it also lowers or destroys incentives to production, and so reduces the total wealth and income of the country.
The only escape from this conclusion is to assume (as of course the apostles of spending always do) that the politicians in power will spend money only in what would otherwise have been depressed or “deflationary” periods, and will promptly pay the debt off in what would otherwise have been boom or “inflationary” periods. This is a beguiling fiction, but unfortunately the politicians in power have never acted that way. Economic forecasting, moreover, is so precarious, and the political pressures at work are of such a nature, that governments are unlikely ever to act that way. Deficit spending, once embarked upon, creates powerful vested interests which demand its continuance under all conditions.
If no honest attempt is made to pay off the accumulated debt, and resort is had to outright inflation instead, then the results follow that we have already described. For the country as a whole cannot get anything without paying for it. Inflation itself is a form of taxation. It is perhaps the worst possible form, which usually bears hardest on those least able to pay. On the assumption that inflation affected everyone and everything evenly (which, we have seen, is never true), it would be tantamount to a flat sales tax of the same percentage on all commodities, with the rate as high on bread and milk as on diamonds and furs. Or it might be thought of as equivalent to a flat tax of the same percentage, without exemptions, on everyone’s income. It is a tax not only on every individual’s expenditures, but on his savings account and life insurance. It is, in fact, a flat capital levy, without exemptions, in which the poor man pays as high a percentage as the rich man.
But the situation is even worse than this, because, as we have seen, inflation does not and cannot affect everyone evenly. Some suffer more than others. The poor are usually more heavily taxed by inflation, in percentage terms, than the rich, for they do not have the same means of protecting themselves by speculative purchases of real equities. Inflation is a kind of tax that is out of control of the tax authorities. It strikes wantonly in all directions. The rate of tax imposed by inflation is not a fixed one: it cannot be determined in advance. We know what it is today; we do not know what it will be tomorrow; and tomorrow we shall not know what it will be on the day after.
Like every other tax, inflation acts to determine the individual and business policies we are all forced to follow. It discourages all prudence and thrift. It encourages squandering, gambling, reckless waste of all kinds. It often makes it more profitable to speculate than to produce. It tears apart the whole fabric of stable economic relationships. Its inexcusable injustices drive men toward desperate remedies. It plants the seeds of fascism and communism. It leads men to demand totalitarian controls. It ends invariably in bitter disillusion and collapse.
* Stripped down to its essentials, this is the theory of the Keynesians. In The Failure of the “New Economics” (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1959) I analyze this theory in detail.
† The reader interested in an analysis of them should consult B. M. Anderson, The Value of Money (‘917; new edition, 1936); Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit (American editions, 1935, 1953), or the present writer’s The Inflation Crisis, and How to Resolve It (New Rochelle, NY,: Arlington House, 1978).
** Cf. John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (Book 3, Chap. 14, par. 2); Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics (Book VI, Chap. XIII, sec. 10); Benjamin M. Anderson, “A Refutation of Keynes’ Attack on the Doctrine that Aggregate Supply Creates Aggregate Demand,” in Financing American Prosperity by a symposium of economists. Cf. also the symposium edited by the present author: The Critics of Keynesian Economics (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1960).
Continue to Chapter 24: The Assault on Saving