Sunday, July 15, 2012

Inflation as theft

Noah Smith writes a somewhat facile post targeting internet Austrians. They're too easy of a target - and I doubt that thinkers like Mises, Menger, or Hayek would disagree with any of Smith's facts and calculations.

They might disagree with the spirit of his post. His post paints a somewhat benign view of inflation. For instance, he pokes fun at the idea that inflation is akin to stealing by pointing out that a large component of the public (those with large debts) actually benefit from inflation.

The "inflation as stealing" meme is a very old one that predates Austrian thinkers, as I pointed out in my comment:
On a superficial level I agree with you.
On a deeper note, the idea that altering the value of money can be equated to stealing is a very old idea that predates Austrian economics, and in attacking Austrians you're also attacking thinkers like Adam Smith, ARJ Turgot, and Richard Cantillon who wrote along similar lines and were reacting to very real circumstances.
In medieval Europe, the sovereign was often the realm's biggest financial actor, controlled the mint, and by corollary set the definition of what constituted the unit of account. Debts were payable in these units. Prior to paying off its debts, the sovereign had a huge incentive to "cry up" the coin - reduce the amount of gold in the unit of account, thereby reducing the real amount the sovereign owed its creditors. On the other hand, when the sovereign was creditor and expecting payment, they had a huge incentive to "cry down" the coin, thereby increasing the amount of gold in the unit of account and increasing the real value of what they were to receive.
In short, there have been situations in which inflation and deflation "steal" the public's resources (the public being anyone who is not the sovereign). I would be hesitant to apply this to the modern western situation, but in analyzing the economics of modern third world dictatorships, it is important to understand how the dictator - much like a medieval king - might utilize the monetary system to redistribute resources from the public to his/her circle of cronies and thereby maintain a grip on power. I would strongly recommend most people from these sorts of nations to ignore your somewhat facile and euro-centric description of the effects of inflation and other forms of monetary confiscation, but I doubt they need my advice as they are probably more well-versed in the specifics than I.
In short, when the entity that is the largest debtor is also the entity that defines the nation's unit of account, and also controls the balance sheet of the nation's central bank, you have a significant conflict of interest. That doesn't mean that something conflicted will necessarily occur... but you might want to keep the potential for shenanigans in mind. In times past, conflicted sovereigns haven't always been hesitant to use their control over the monetary system to steal from non-sovereigns, and thus the meme "inflation is theft" has survived over the decades.

Here is Adam Smith, who in pointing out why the coin of the realm was below the original standard in weight, ascribed it to:
...the temporary and fraudulent views of the government, who found their interest at times to diminish the coin by adding a greater quantity of alloy, in order to pay off their various debts with a small quantity of silver and gold... in the 1st place, the creditors of the government are cheated of their money; if the coin be one half less they have but one half of the value that was given to the government, though they have in appearance the whole. To screen themselves also it is necessary that all debts in the kingdom should be paid by this money in the same manner as by the old money. So that all the creditors in the kingdom are in this manner defrauded of their just debts.
Two sources which are quite good on the method of augmentation and diminution of the coin of the realm. The first is from this chapter from Richard Cantillon's Essai sur la Nature du Commerce in Général, the second is excellent paper called Chronicle of a Deflation Unforetold by Francois Velde. The latter has another paper with Rolnick that describes the terminology of augmentation and diminution.

Here is a key for understanding the terminology:

Augmentation =  a way for the prince to reduce the real value of his debts owed by reducing the amount of gold in the nation's unit of account. An alternative way of thinking about this, the number of units of account that each coin could "purchase" was augmented.

Diminution =  a way for the prince to increase real income from debtors by increasing the amount of gold in the nation's unit of account

Debasement is a different term - it means to changing the physical constitution of the coin by reducing its gold content. The opposite of debasement is enhancement - adding precious metals to the coinage.  

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