Inflation, the creation of money substitutes and credit by the banking system, has so many insidious effects on the economy that it can be difficult to keep all of them in mind. An often overlooked consequence of inflation is the disruption of economic calculation. The importance of economic calculation in the market economy was one of the key aspects of Mises’ contributions to the development of Austrian economics. Indeed, this theme is explored and elaborated by Mises in almost all of his works. In “Inflation“, Chapter 34, Section 8 of Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, Mises eloquently and passionately explains how inflation can disrupt economic calculation to such an extent that market actors unwittingly consume precious capital.
‘Inflation is the last word in destructionism. The Bolshevists, with their inimitable gift for rationalizing their resentments and interpreting defeats as victories, have represented their financial policy as an effort to abolish Capitalism by destroying the institution of money. But although inflation does indeed destroy Capitalism, it does not do away with private property. It effects great changes of fortune and income, it destroys the whole finely organized mechanism of production based on division of labour, it can cause a relapse into an economy without trade if the use of metal money or at least of barter trade is not maintained. But it cannot create anything, not even a socialist order of society.
By destroying the basis of reckoning values—the possibility of calculating with a general denominator of prices which, for short periods at least, does not fluctuate too wildly—inflation shakes the system of calculations in terms of money, the most important aid to economic action which thought has evolved. As long as it is kept within certain limits, inflation is an excellent psychological support of an economic policy which lives on the consumption of capital. In the usual, and indeed the only possible, kind of capitalist book-keeping, inflation creates an illusion of profit where in reality there are only losses. As people start off from the nominal sum of the erstwhile cost price, they allow too little for depreciation on fixed capital, and since they take into account the apparent increases in the value of circulating capital as if these increases were real increases of value, they show profits where accounts in a stable currency would reveal losses. This is certainly not a means of abolishing the effects of an evil etatistic policy, of war and revolution; it merely hides them from the eye of the multitude. People talk of profits, they think they are living in a period of economic progress, and finally they even applaud the wise policy which apparently makes everyone richer.
But the moment inflation passes a certain point the picture changes. It begins to promote destructionism, not merely indirectly by disguising the effects of destructionist policy; it becomes in itself one of the most important tools of destructionism. It leads everyone to consume his fortune; it discourages saving, and thereby prevents the formation of fresh capital. It encourages the confiscatory policy of taxation. The depreciation of money raises the monetary expression of commodity values and this, reacting on the book values of changes in capital—which the tax administration regards as increases in income and capital—becomes a new legal justification for confiscation of part of the owners’ fortune. References to the apparently high profits which entrepreneurs can be shown to be making, on a calculation assuming that the value of money remains stable, offers an excellent means of stimulating popular frenzy. In this way, one can easily represent all entrepreneurial activity as profiteering, swindling, and parasitism. And the chaos which follows, the money system collapsing under the avalanche of continuous issues of additional notes, gives a favourable opportunity for completing the work of destruction.
The destructionist policy of interventionism and Socialism has plunged the world into great misery. Politicians are helpless in the face of the crisis they have conjured up. They cannot recommend any way out except more inflation or, as they call it now, reflation. Economic life is to be “cranked up again” by new bank credits (that is, by additional “circulation” credit) as the moderates demand, or by the issue of fresh government paper money, which is the more radical programme.
But increases in the quantity of money and fiduciary media will not enrich the world or build up what destructionism has torn down. Expansion of credit does lead to a boom at first, it is true, but sooner or later this boom is bound to crash and bring about a new depression. Only apparent and temporary relief can be won by tricks of banking and currency. In the long run they must land the nation in profounder catastrophe. For the damage such methods inflict on national well-being is all the heavier, the longer people have managed to deceive themselves with the illusion of prosperity which the continuous creation of credit has conjured up.‘
Note that such reasoning is absent from mainstream economics. This is one of the many reasons why such economists believe that inflation, albeit a limited inflation such as Friedman’s 2%-4% idea, is beneficial and can only have adverse effects if consumer prices rise “too fast”. It cannot be stressed enough that the importance of understanding the Austrian school of economics prevents one from advocating policies that harm the vast majority of the population.