Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mises' "Latest" Book

Bettina Bien Greaves is a living treasure.  She has worked for decades at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and attended just about every lecture that Mises gave at FEE and at NYU.  She would take shorthand notes of all that he said.  Today she is converting those notes back into text.  She has recently come out with a synthesis of several Mises lectures.  It is called: Ludwig von Mises on Money and Inflation: A Synthesis of Several Lectures.  You can find the book here and for sale here.

I am so excited about this that I am posting a short chapter below.  It is called, "The Constitutional Side of Inflation."  Enjoy...

When we talk about these things we must not forget that they do not have only an economic side; they also have a constitutional side. You may say that government is the most important institution. The government is very important in many regards. Perhaps one overrates the importance of the government, but one does not overrate the importance of good government.

Modern constitutions, the political systems of all nations that are not ruled by barbarian despots, are based upon the fact that the government depends financially upon the people, indirectly upon the men that the voters have elected for the constitutional assembly. And this system means that the government has no power to spend anything that has not been given it by the people, through the constitutional procedures which make it possible for the government to collect taxes. This is the fundamental political institution. And it is a fundamental political problem if the government can inflate. If the government has the power to print its own money, then this constitutional procedure becomes absolutely useless.

Our whole political system is based upon the fact that the voters are sovereign, that the voters are electing Congress and other such institutions in the various states that rule the country. We call the United States a democracy because the rule of the country is in the hands of the voters. The voters determine everything. And this distinguishes the system, not only from the despotic systems of other countries, but also from the conditions as they prevailed in earlier days, in countries that already had parliamentary institutions and parliamentary government, at that time. However, there has developed, especially in the last decade, a problem of  constitutional law, that is whether the government must get the approval of the people through Congress when it wants to spend, or whether the government, because it is established and has at its disposal a number of armed men, is free to spend as it wishes, simply by increasing the quantity of money. People must realize that the question is “Who should be supreme? The parliaments elected by the voters, who can restrict government spending by refusing to grant the power to tax? Or institutions that want to override the interests of the people by increasing the quantity of money to expand government spending and so do away with the prerogative and independence of the individual voter?”

If we do not succeed in restoring the monetary system that makes the individual independent to some extent of the interference of government institutions, government banks, government monetary authorities, government price ceilings, and so on, we will lose all the achievements of the free market and of the free initiative of the individuals, whatever methods of constitutional law we follow. If the government can inflate whenever it wants to spend, it can take away from the people without their agreement everything, their purchasing power, their savings, and so on. From this point of view there disappears even the fundamental principle which everybody sees as the difference between a Communist government and a government based on the idea of individual freedom, the preservation of free markets and the ability of the people to control the government.

If you look at the constitutional history of England in the 17th century, you learn that the Stuarts had problems with the British Parliament. The conflict consisted precisely in the fact that the Parliament was not prepared to give to the King of England the money he needed for purposes of which the Parliament didn’t approve. The people disapproved of a great part of the government expenditures and Parliament was not anxious to impose taxes. The Stuart kings wanted to spend more than Parliament was prepared to give them. If the King at that time, in 1630 let us say, had asked one of those who are considered experts today in government finance, “What can I do? I don’t have the money!” the “expert” would have said, “Unfortunately, your family, the Stuarts, came too early to their position as rulers. Two hundred years, three hundred years later, it would be much easier for such a government as you want to rule the country. A printing press would have been sufficient to make it possible for your government to spend all the money it needed to have an army and the other things needed to protect the King against the people.” But the poor Stuarts were living in an age in which the technique of producing paper money had not been developed to a considerable extent. Charles I couldn’t inflate, you know. There was no solution for him; he could not engage in deficit spending. This was the undoing of the Stuart family and the Stuart regime. And in the conflict which originated out of this, one member of the Stuart family lost his life in a very disagreeable way—Charles I lost his head. (fn1) And the Stuart family as such lost the crown of England. What the poor Stuarts didn’t have was the facility of the printing press as it exists today.

The monetary problem we have to struggle with today is the problem of paying for government expenditures which are not accepted or, let us say, not approved, by the people. The conduct of government affairs, public affairs, is not different from the conduct of the financial and monetary conduct of private affairs. If the government wants to spend, it has to collect the money; it must tax the people. If it doesn’t tax, but increases the quantity of money in order to spend more, then it brings about an inflation. The difference between the conditions in 18th century England and the conditions in other countries, let us say for instance in Russia, consisted of the fact that the Russian government was free to take away from its subjects what it wanted while the British government was not. The British government had to comply with the provisions of a set of laws that limited the amount of money the government had the right to collect from its citizens. And it had to spend this money precisely according to the wishes of the people.

All our constitutional laws and our system of government are based upon the fact the government is not permitted to do anything that violates this system of laws representing the moral and actual ideas and philosophies of our people. But if the government is in a position to increase the quantity of money, all these provisions become absolutely meaningless and useless. If it is said that the government has to spend, is entitled to spend, a definite amount of money for keeping people in prisons, this means something. There is a definite reason for its spending. All our legal provisions are influenced to some extent by the fact that this is the amount of money which is given to the government for this purpose. But if the government is in a position to increase the quantity of money to use for its own purposes, then all these things become merely a theoretical expression of something which has practically no meaning at all. We must not forget that all the protection given to individuals through constitutions and laws disappears if the government is in a position to  destroy the meaning of every inter-human relation by undermining the system of indirect exchange and money which is called the market. And this is much more importantthan any other problems we talk about today. It is the interference of the government with violence that has spoiled money, that has destroyed money in the past, and that is perhaps destroying it again today.

Some years ago you could frequently read quotations saying that Lenin said that the best method to destroy the free enterprise system would be to destroy the monetary system. Now a professor in Germany has demonstrated that Lenin never said this. But if Lenin had said this, it would have been the only correct thing that he ever said.

The monetary problem which we have in this country, which you have in every country today, is the same—to keep the budget in equilibrium, to balance income and outgo, revenue and expenditure without printing an additional quantity of banknotes, without increasing the quantity of the monetary units. This is not only a problem of economics. It is also the fundamental problem of constitutional government, you know.  Constitutional government is based upon the fact that the government can only spend what it has collected in taxes. And it can only tax the people if the people accept it by the vote of their representatives in parliament. And in this way the voters are the sovereigns. The problem of monetary management in a modern country cannot, therefore, be separated from the constitutional problem, from the doctrine that says that all problems of government, all governmental matters are decided ultimately by the vote of the people. Whether you call this democracy or popular government doesn’t make any difference. But there is no monetary or budgetary problem that can be separated from the constitutional problem of who rules the country, who determines ultimately what has to be done in the country.

Fn 1 Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649.


Chad Medlin said...

The problem I find with this post is that it makes to many references to democracy. The United States is a representative republic not a true democracy. The people elect representatives to do our business. The US Constitution is to guide our representatives but I submit that many of them have never read the document. Some states do have referendum elections which are a straight form of democray but the judicial branch has trumped the people in many recent cases. The Arizona immigration law comes to mind first. The representative form of govenment is good in my opinion but people must hold their representatives feet to the fire with regard to obeying the constitution. This post speaks of monetary policy but that is one area where the federal govenment does have proper authority in my opinion. Article one section 8 states that the Congress has the right to coin money and regulate value. The section also states that the congress can borrow money. The fact that the govenment can do this and whether or not it is wise are two different questions. Representatives are no longer careful with the peoples money and spending has expanded into so many unconstitutional areas. Article one section 8 is also the section that is used to justify all entitlement programs. The provide for the general welfare statement has gotten this country into all sorts of financial trouble. The individuals that see the constitution as a "living document" have the founders turning over in their grave in my opinion. The constitution does have a process for making it a living document and its called the amendment process. A balanced budget amendment would answer many monetary concerns but the politicians are in charge of the amendment process. A super majority of state legislatures must ratify the amendments after they pass congress. A straight vote of the people would be a better way to amend in my opinion. That form of straight democracy would be an asset for the people. That vote would also need a 2/3 majority in my opinion. The founders wanted the constitution to limit the government but it does have stated authority such as defense, taxation, and monetary policy. Those of us that want limited government are not anit-government as portrayed. One example of a great government project was the Eisenhower interstate highway project. Everyone has seen the development around interstate highways and millions of jobs have been created. Towns have formed around interstate highways just like they did around railroads in the 1800s. In todays world the interstate highway system would have never taken hold. The EPA would have needed 50 years to study the environmental impact of every section of highway. I am on the verge of rambling so I will draw to a close. Lets hold those in power accountable and maybe one day we will see a return to limited government where our elected representatives have the countries intrest at heart. Good monetary policy will follow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this!

Back in the early eighties, before the internet, Bettina Bien Greaves spent hours helping me search out the homeschooling laws for New York state. She made countless photocopies, which she then mailed to me. My subsequent nine-page letter to the local school board established homeschooling policy for that district, which is still followed today. I owe her a great deal.

And this chapter is amazing! He had this amazing gift of boiling all the rhetoric down to the bottom line.

Thanks again for posting. You made my day.

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