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Beware the alchemists

Fiat money is alchemy. Alchemists make fiat gold.Last night, I found a neatly printed-out and stapled copy of Beware the Alchemists, by Ludwig von Mises. Detritus of good intentions some time past.

Transcribed by Bettina Bien Greaves from notes taken during a lecture tour in the 1960, the style is somewhat clunky, somewhat simplistic, somewhat imprecise, and somewhat repetitive. But although she says Mises didn’t like being quoted for that reason, I found his informal style a strength, not a weakness. Mises was the 20th century intellectual giant of the Austrian School of economics. He wrote his first major work as early as 1912, and died in 1973. Reading this, however, brings the old man alive again. You can picture him speaking in somewhat clumsy English, patiently explaining the blindingly obvious, throwing up his hands with an exasperated sigh or sardonic grin as he points out the economic blunders of one government after another.

Beware the Alchemists is surprisingly accessible. It takes what appears to be a complex topic, encrusted with 100 years of Keynesian pollution and toxic government waste, and turns it into something simple and intuitive. I wish I had learned what I understand today about interest rates, monetary policy and inflation from this text. I wish I had been around in the 1960s to attend these New York lectures, so that I could have spent the four decades since going, “See? He told ya so.”

Today’s food price crisis? The oil price? The credit crisis? The weak dollar? St Alan “this was an accident waiting to happen” Greenspan? Mises explained all of these many years ago. And Greenspan, for all his claims to understand why Keynes was wrong (as a proponent of Hayek and Friedman’s Chicago School), not only waited for it to happen, but drove the bus to the scene of the accident.

Some quotations to pique your interest, perhaps:

Ludwig von MisesThe market is precisely the freedom of people to produce, to consume, to determine what has to be produced, in whatever quantity, in whatever quality, and to whomever these products are to go. Such a free system without a market is impossible; such a free system is the market.

We have the idea that the institutions of men are either (1) the market, exchange between individuals, or (2) the government, an institution which, in the minds of the many people, is something superior to the market and could exist in the absence of the market. The truth is that the government — that is the recourse to violence, necessarily the recourse to violence — cannot produce anything. Everything that is produced is produced by the activities of individuals and is used on the market in order to receive something in exchange for it.

It is important to remember that everything that is done, everything that man has done, everything that society does, is the result of such voluntary cooperation and agreements. Social cooperation among men — and this means the market — is what brings about civilization and it is what has brought about all the improvements in human conditions we are enjoying today.

Money is a market phenomenon. What does that mean? It means that money developed on the market, and that its development and its functioning have nothing to do with the government, the state, or with the violence exercised by governments.

The problem (that human action seeks to solve) is not to increase the quantity of money. The problem is to increase the quantity of those things which can be bought with money. And if you are increasing the quantity of money, and you are not increasing the quantity of things which can be bought with money, you are only increasing the prices which are paid for them. And in time, if the increase in money continues, the whole system becomes a system without any meaning… Prices are going up because there is an additional quantity of money, asking, searching for a not–increased quantity of commodities. And the newspapers or the theorists call the higher prices, “inflation.” But the inflation is not the higher prices; the inflation is the new money pumped into the market. It is this new money that then inflates the prices. And the government asks, “What happened? How should one man know? …” The government is very innocent. … And the governments try to find somebody who is responsible — but not the government. They consider the man who asks for higher prices responsible. But he must ask for higher prices because there are now more people wanting to buy his produce, you know. Now we have the inflation.

Everything that is done by a government against the purchasing power of the monetary unit is, under present conditions, done against the middle classes and the working classes of the population. Only these people don’t know it. And this is the tragedy. The tragedy is that the unions and all these people are supporting a policy that makes all their savings valueless. And this is the great danger of the whole situation.

The book isn’t long. It’s an evening’s read. It’s an excellent way to spend the May Day holiday weekend, and is a lot easier than reading Mises’s magnum opus, Human Action (though the latter also comes highly recommended, for the philosophical grounding it gives economics).

An accessible introduction to elementary economics, as Mises offers in Beware the Alchemists, should be required reading for anyone hoping to serve in, vote for, or write about government. Sadly, those are the three occupations for which no qualification or experience is required at all.

(First published on my own blog.)