"Fictitious" Wealth and Ludwig von Mises: Hoisted from the Archives from 2011

C. Trombley reminds me of: "Fictitious" Wealth and Ludwig von Mises: Over in comments, rootless_e warns:

Attempts to make sense out of right wing Austrian economics can never amount to anything.

Nevertheless, like a moth to a flame--or like a dog to vomit, or like a dog to something worse--whenever I see something like:

Ludwig von Mises: Attempts to carry out economic reforms from the monetary side can never amount to anything but an artificial stimulation of economic activity by an expansion of the circulation, and this, as must constantly be emphasized, must necessarily lead to crisis and depression. Recurring economic crises are nothing but the consequence of attempts, despite all the teachings of experience and all the warnings of the economists, to stimulate economic activity by means of additional credit...

I find myself under a mysterious but inexorable and irresistible compulsion to waste what would otherwise be productive work time trying to make some kind of sense of it--to at least understand wherein lies the error, and how somebody trying very hard to understand the economy (never mind that he is a big fan of the political leadership of Benito Mussolini) can go so pathetically wrong.

It is, of course, not the case that every expansion of the circulation is an "artificial" (and unnatural) "stimulation of economic activity" that must "necessarily lead to crisis an depression". So why does Ludwig von Mises think that it must?

Here is my current guess as to where von Mises is coming from:

  1. Let us start out with a world of publicly-known technology and constant returns to scale in everything. People happily make things and trade them. And everything sells at its resource cost.

  2. One of the things people make is little disks of gold, usually decorated with pictures of bearded men on one side and allegorical female figures on the other, with lettering saying things like: "Fecund Augustae" or "Concordia Militum" or "Fides Exercituum" on them.

  3. These little gold disks trade--like everything else--at their cost of production: the cost of digging the ore out of the ground, extracting the metal from the ore, and stamping the disk into the right shape.

  4. Then somebody has a bright idea: Because these little metal disks are valuable and easy to carry, they are subject to theft. I will offer to perform a service: I will keep everybody's little metal disks in my stronghouse, and let's write out signed declarations that people have little metal disks in my stronghouse and they can trade those rather than the disks directly. And--as long as the circulating medium is backed by gold--everything goes on as before, with everything selling for its cost of production. Here is what one such might look like:NewImage

  5. Then somebody else has a bright idea: They write out a whole bunch of signed declarations that they have little metal disks in the stronghouse even though they actually do not have any such.

  6. They then buy things with these pieces of the circulating medium that they have written out.

These people, Ludwig von Mises says, are thieves pure and simple. They have bought useful things. They have claimed that they have done so by trading valuable little metal disks for useful commodities. But they have lied: they did not have any valuable little metal disks for trade.

And, Ludwig von Mises would say, these lying thieves are governments that print dollar bills without having 100% gold bullion backing for them in Fort Knox. These lying thieves are banks that issue bank notes or allow you to write checks in amounts that exceed the specie reserves they have in their vaults.

The problem, I think Ludwig von Mises would say, is that a certain amount of work has gone into creating the commodities--the food, the clothing, the houses, the little gold disks--and yet people think that there is more wealth in society than their actually is. People count the food as wealth, the housing as wealth, the clothing as wealth, the little gold disks as wealth, the fiat money as wealth, and the bank credit as wealth--and the last two of these aren't wealth at all. They are fictions: false promises that there is somewhere some valuable gold that you have title to.

And, Ludwig von Mises would say, the larger the unbacked circulating medium the bigger the lie and the theft. And it is all guaranteed to end in tears, because if society thinks that it is richer than it is then plans will be inconsistent and unattainable. When that unattainability becomes manifest, that will trigger the crash and the depression.

That is, I think, where he is coming from.

And, of course, this is wrong--so so so so so so so so so unbelievably wrong.

It is simply not the case that we can cheaply and easily buy things with money because it is valuable. It is, instead, the case that money is valuable because we can cheaply and easily buy things with it.

One way into the tangle of understanding why it is wrong is to ask each of us why we are happy accepting money in exchange when we sell useful commodities. Hint: it's not because we are looking forward to going down to the bank, exchanging our bank notes for the little disks of gold usually decorated with pictures of bearded men on one side and allegorical female figures on the other with lettering saying things like "Fecund Augustae" or "Concordia Militum" or "Fides Exercituum" on them, taking our little disks home, and feeling happy looking at them.

That's not why we accept money.

We accept money because if we don't have any money we have to buy commodities with other commodities, and when we do so we are unlikely to receive the cost of production for what we sell. Have you ever tried to buy a latte at Peets with a copy of Ludwig von Mises's Money and Credit? It does not go well.

The fact is that your wealth is only worth its cost of production if you are liquid--if you can wait to sell until somebody willing to pay full cost of production comes along, which is not every minute. The use value of money is that it allows you to time your other transactions so that you can realize the full exchange value of what you sell, rather than having to sell it at a discount.

Thus there is no paradox: no sense in which the existence of fiat money creates a situation in which society must necessarily think that it is richer than it is, with claims to total wealth valued at more than the value of total wealth itself. You think--correctly--that your fiat money has value, and that value is just equal to the discount from its cost of production that your other wealth incurs because it is illiquid.

But what if the government prints more fiat money than the illiquidity gap in your other wealth? Well, then people will say: "I don't need to hold all this extra money. I would be liquid enough with less." Everybody will try to run down their money balances, and so the price level will rise until the real money stock is just what people think covers the illiquidity gap between their other wealth and its cost of production.

And what von Mises misses completely is that the size of this illiquidity gap can and does change suddenly and drastically--and it is the business of the central bank and of the government to alter the quantity of money to keep such changes from disrupting the real economy.

Ludwig von Mises: Liberalism, 1:10: "The Argument of Fascism...

...Only when the Marxist Social Democrats had gained the upper hand and taken power in the belief that the age of liberalism and capitalism had passed forever did the last concessions disappear that [social democracy] had still been thought necessary to make to the liberal ideology.

The parties of the Third International consider any means as permissible.... The frank espousal of a policy of annihilating opponents and the murders committed in the pursuance of it have given rise to an opposition movement.... The militaristic and nationalistic enemies of the Third International felt themselves cheated by liberalism. Liberalism, they thought, stayed their hand when they desired to strike a blow against the revolutionary parties while it was still possible to do so....

The fundamental idea of these movements—which, from the name of the most grandiose and tightly disciplined among them, the Italian, may, in general, be designated as Fascist—consists in the proposal to make use of the same unscrupulous methods in the struggle against the Third International as the latter employs against its opponents. The Third International seeks to exterminate its adversaries and their ideas in the same way that the hygienist strives to exterminate a pestilential bacillus.... The Fascists, at least in principle, profess the same intentions....

Only under the fresh impression of the murders and atrocities perpetrated by the supporters of the Soviets were Germans and Italians able to block out the remembrance of the traditional restraints of justice and morality and find the impulse to bloody counteraction. The deeds of the Fascists and of other parties corresponding to them were emotional reflex actions evoked by indignation at the deeds of the Bolsheviks and Communists. As soon as the first flush of anger had passed, their policy took a more moderate course and will probably become even more so with the passage of time....

Now it cannot be denied that the only way one can offer effective resistance to violent assaults is by violence. Against the weapons of the Bolsheviks, weapons must be used in reprisal, and it would be a mistake to display weakness before murderers. No liberal has ever called this into question.... The great danger threatening domestic policy from the side of Fascism lies in its complete faith in the decisive power of violence.... What happens, however, when one's opponent... acts just as violently? The result must be a battle, a civil war. The ultimate victor to emerge from such conflicts will be the faction strongest in number....

The decisive question, therefore, always remains: How does one obtain a majority for one's own party? This, however, is a purely intellectual matter. It is a victory that can be won only with the weapons of the intellect, never by force. The suppression of all opposition by sheer violence is a most unsuitable way to win adherents to one's cause. Resort to naked force—that is, without justification in terms of intellectual arguments accepted by public opinion—merely gains new friends for those whom one is thereby trying to combat. In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails.

Fascism can triumph today because universal indignation at the infamies committed by the socialists and communists has obtained for it the sympathies of wide circles. But when the fresh impression of the crimes of the Bolsheviks has paled, the socialist program will once again exercise its power of attraction on the masses.... There is... only one idea that can be effectively opposed to socialism, viz., that of liberalism....

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error...