The Virtues and Alleged Shortcomings of the Gold Standard
by Ludwig von Mises
The excellence of the gold standard is to be seen in the fact that it renders the determination of the monetary unit’s purchasing power independent of the policies of governments and political parties. Furthermore, it prevents rulers from eluding the financial and budgetary prerogatives of the representative assemblies. Parliamentary control of finances works only if the government is not in a position to provide for unauthorized expenditures by increasing the circulating amount of fiat money. Viewed in this light, the gold standard appears as an indispensable implement of the body of constitutional guarantees that make the system of representative government function.
When in the ‘fifties of the nineteenth century gold production increased considerably in California and Australia, people attacked the gold standard as inflationary. In those days Michel Chevalier, in his book Probable Depreciation of Gold, recommended the abandonment of the gold standard, and Béranger dealt with the same subject in one of his poems. But later these criticisms subsided. The gold standard was no longer denounced as inflationary but on the contrary as deflationary. Even the most fanatical champions of inflation like to disguise their true intentions by declaring that they merely want to offset the contractionist pressure which the allegedly insufficient supply of gold tends to produce.
Yet it is clear that over the last generations there has prevailed a tendency of all commodity prices and wage rates to rise. We may neglect dealing with the economic effects of a general tendency of money prices and money wages to drop. For there is no doubt that what we have experienced over the last hundred years was just the opposite, namely, a secular tendency toward a drop in the monetary unit’s purchasing power, which was only temporarily interrupted by the aftermath of the breakdown of a boom intentionally created by credit expansion. Gold became cheaper in terms of commodities, not dearer. What the foes of the gold standard are asking for is not to reverse a prevailing tendency in the determination of prices, but to intensify very considerably the already prevailing upward trend of prices and wages. They simply want to lower the monetary unit’s purchasing power at an accelerated pace.
Such a policy of radical inflationism is, of course, extremely popular. But its popularity is to a great extent due to a misapprehension of its effects. What people are really asking for is a rise in the prices of those commodities and services they are selling while the prices of those commodities and services which they are buying remain unchanged. The potato grower aims at higher prices for potatoes. He does not long for a rise in other prices. He is injured if these other prices rise sooner or in greater proportion than the price of potatoes. If a politician addressing a meeting declares that the government should adopt a policy which makes prices rise, his hearers are likely to applaud. Yet each of them is thinking of a different price rise.
“It is impossible to grasp the meaning of the idea of sound money if one does not realize that it was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments.”
From time immemorial inflation has been recommended as a means to alleviate the burdens of poor worthy debtors at the expense of rich harsh creditors. However, under capitalism the typical debtors are not the poor but the well-to-do owners of real estate, of firms, and of common stock, people who have borrowed from banks, savings banks, insurance companies, and bondholders. The typical creditors are not the rich but people of modest means who own bonds and savings accounts or have taken out insurance policies. If the common man supports anti-creditor measures, he does it because he ignores the fact that he himself is a creditor. The idea that millionaires are the victims of an easy-money policy is an atavistic remnant.
For the naive mind there is something miraculous in the issuance of fiat money. A magic word spoken by the government creates out of nothing a thing which can be exchanged against any merchandise a man would like to get. How pale is the art of sorcerers, witches, and conjurors when compared with that of the government’s Treasury Department! The government, professors tell us, “can raise all the money it needs by printing it.” Taxes for revenue, announced a chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are “obsolete.” How wonderful! And how malicious and misanthropic are those stubborn supporters of outdated economic orthodoxy who ask governments to balance their budgets by covering all expenditures out of tax revenue!
These enthusiasts do not see that the working of inflation is conditioned by the ignorance of the public and that inflation ceases to work as soon as the many become aware of its effects upon the monetary unit’s purchasing power. In normal times, that is in periods in which the government does not tamper with the monetary standard, people do not bother about monetary problems. Quite naively they take it for granted that the monetary unit’s purchasing power is “stable.” They pay attention to changes occurring in the money prices of the various commodities. They know very well that the exchange ratios between different commodities vary. But they are not conscious of the fact that the exchange ratio between money on the one side and all commodities and services on the other side is variable too. When the inevitable consequences of inflation appear and prices soar, they think that commodities are becoming dearer and fail to see that money is getting cheaper. In the early stages of an inflation only a few people discern what is going on, manage their business affairs in accordance with this insight, and deliberately aim at reaping inflation gains. The overwhelming majority are too dull to grasp a correct interpretation of the situation. They go on in the routine they acquired in non-inflationary periods. Filled with indignation, they attack those who are quicker to apprehend the real causes of the agitation of the market as “profiteers” and lay the blame for their own plight on them. This ignorance of the public is the indispensable basis of the inflationary policy. Inflation works as long as the housewife thinks: “I need a new frying pan badly. But prices are too high today; I shall wait until they drop again.” It comes to an abrupt end when people discover that the inflation will continue, that it causes the rise in prices, and that therefore prices will skyrocket infinitely. The critical stage begins when the housewife thinks: “I don’t need a new frying pan today; I may need one in a year or two. But I’ll buy it today because it will be much more expensive later.” Then the catastrophic end of the inflation is close. In its last stage the housewife thinks: “I don’t need another table; I shall never need one. But it’s wiser to buy a table than keep these scraps of paper that the government calls money, one minute longer.”
Let us leave the problem of whether or not it is advisable to base a system of government finance upon the intentional deception of the immense majority of the citizenry. It is enough to stress the point that such a policy of deceit is self-defeating. Here the famous dictum of Lincoln holds true: You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Eventually the masses come to understand the schemes of their rulers. Then the cleverly concocted plans of inflation collapse. Whatever compliant government economists may have said, inflationism is not a monetary policy that can be considered as an alternative to a sound-money policy. It is at best a temporary expedient. The main problem of an inflationary policy is how to stop it before the masses have seen through their rulers’ artifices. It is a display of considerable naivete to recommend openly a monetary system that can work only if its essential features are ignored by the public.
“The excellence of the gold standard is to be seen in the fact that it renders the determination of the monetary unit’s purchasing power independent of the policies of governments and political parties.”
The index-number method is a very crude and imperfect means of “measuring” changes occurring in the monetary unit’s purchasing power. As there are in the field of social affairs no constant relations between magnitudes, no measurement is possible and economics can never become quantitative. But the index-number method, notwithstanding its inadequacy, plays an important role in the process which in the course of an inflationary movement makes the people inflation-conscious. Once the use of index numbers becomes common, the government is forced to slow down the pace of the inflation and to make the people believe that the inflationary policy is merely a temporary expedient for the duration of a passing emergency, one that will be stopped before long. While government economists still praise the superiority of inflation as a lasting scheme of monetary management, governments are compelled to exercise restraint in its application.
It is permissible to call a policy of intentional inflation dishonest as the effects sought by its application can be attained only if the government succeeds in deceiving the greater part of the people about the consequences of its policy. Many of the champions of interventionist policies will not scruple greatly about such cheating; in their eyes what the government does can never be wrong. But their lofty moral indifference is at a loss to oppose an objection to the economist’s argument against inflation. In the economist’s eyes the main issue is not that inflation is morally reprehensible but that it cannot work except when resorted to with great restraint and even then only for a limited period. Hence resort to inflation cannot be considered seriously as an alternative to a permanent standard such as the gold standard is.
The pro-inflationist propaganda emphasizes nowadays the alleged fact that the gold standard collapsed and that it will never be tried again: nations are no longer willing to comply with the rules of the gold-standard game and to bear all the costs which the preservation of the gold standard requires.
First of all there is need to remember that the gold standard did not collapse. Governments abolished it in order to pave the way for inflation. The whole grim apparatus of oppression and coercion – policemen, customs guards, penal courts, prisons, in some countries even executioners – had to be put into action in order to destroy the gold standard. Solemn pledges were broken, retroactive laws were promulgated, provisions of constitutions and bills of rights were openly defied. And hosts of servile writers praised what the governments had done and hailed the dawn of the fiat-money millennium.
The most remarkable thing about this allegedly new monetary policy, however, is its complete failure. True, it substituted fiat money in the domestic markets for sound money and favored the material interests of some individuals and groups of individuals at the expense of others. It furthermore contributed considerably to the disintegration of the international division of labor. But it did not succeed in eliminating gold from its position as the international or world standard. If you glance at the financial page of any newspaper you discover at once that gold is still the world’s money and not the variegated products of the diverse government printing offices. These scraps of paper are the more appreciated the more stable their price is in terms of an ounce of gold. Whoever today dares to hint at the possibility that nations may return to a domestic gold standard is cried down as a lunatic. This terrorism may still go on for some time. But the position of gold as the world’s standard is impregnable. The policy of “going off the gold standard” did not relieve a country’s monetary authorities from the necessity of taking into account the monetary unit’s price in terms of gold.
“What people are really asking for is a rise in the prices of those commodities and services they are selling while the prices of those commodities and services which they are buying remain unchanged.”
What those authors who speak about the rules of the gold-standard game have in mind is not clear. Of course, it is obvious that the gold standard cannot function satisfactorily if to buy or to sell or to hold gold is illegal, and hosts of judges, constables, and informers are busily enforcing the law. But the gold standard is not a game; it is a market phenomenon and as such a social institution. Its preservation does not depend on the observation of some specific rules. It requires nothing else than that the government abstain from deliberately sabotaging it. To refer to this condition as a rule of an alleged game is no more reasonable than to declare that the preservation of Paul’s life depends on compliance with the rules of the Paul’s-life game because Paul must die if somebody stabs him to death.
What all the enemies of the gold standard spurn as its main vice is precisely the same thing that in the eyes of the advocates of the gold standard is its main virtue, namely, its incompatibility with a policy of credit expansion. The nucleus of all the effusions of the anti-gold authors and politicians is the expansionist fallacy.
The expansionist doctrine does not realize that interest, that is, the discount of future goods as against present goods, is an originary category of human valuation, actual in any kind of human action and independent of any social institutions. The expansionists do not grasp the fact that there never were and there never can be human beings who attach to an apple available in a year or in a hundred years the same value they attach to an apple available now. In their opinion interest is an impediment to the expansion of production and consequently to human welfare that unjustified institutions have created in order to favor the selfish concerns of money lenders. Interest, they say, is the price people must pay for borrowing. Its height therefore depends on the magnitude of the supply of money. If laws did not artificially restrict the creation of additional money, the rate of interest would drop, ultimately even to zero. The “contractionist” pressure would disappear, there would no longer be a shortage of capital, and it would become possible to execute many business projects which the “restrictionism” of the gold standard obstructs. What is needed to make everyone prosperous is simply to defy “the rules of the gold-standard game,” the observance of which is the main source of all our economic ills.
These absurd doctrines greatly impressed ignorant politicians and demagogues when they were blended with nationalist slogans. What prevents our country from fully enjoying the advantages of a low-interest-rate policy, says the economic isolationist, is its adherence to the gold standard. Our central bank is forced to keep its rate of discount at a height that corresponds to conditions on the international money market and to the discount rates of foreign central banks. Otherwise “speculators” would withdraw funds from our country for short-term investment abroad and the resulting outflow of gold would make the gold reserves of our central bank drop below the legal ratio. If our central bank were not obliged to redeem its banknotes in gold, no such withdrawal of gold could occur and there would be no necessity for it to adjust the height of the money rate to the situation of the international money market, dominated by the world-embracing gold monopoly.
The most amazing fact about this argument is that it was raised precisely in debtor countries for which the operation of the international money and capital market meant an inflow of foreign funds and consequently the appearance of a tendency toward a drop in interest rates. It was popular in Germany and still more in Austria in the 1870s and 80s, but it was hardly ever seriously mentioned in those years in England or in the Netherlands, whose banks and bankers lent amply to Germany and Austria. It was advanced in England only after World War I, when Great Britain’s position as the world’s banking center had been lost.
Of course, the argument itself is untenable. The inevitable eventual failure of any attempt at credit expansion is not caused by the international intertwinement of the lending business. It is the outcome of the fact that it is impossible to substitute fiat money and a bank’s circulation credit for non-existing capital goods. Credit expansion initially can produce a boom. But such a boom is bound to end in a slump, in a depression. What bring about the recurrence of periods of economic crises are precisely the reiterated attempts of governments and banks supervised by them to expand credit in order to make business good by cheap interest rates.
Editor’s Note: Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was dean of the Austrian School. This article was excerpted from Chapter 21 of The Theory of Money and Credit.