Liberty vs. Leviathan

Chronicling Liberty's battle against Leviathan

Röpke on inflation

Wilhelm Röpke‘s Economics of the Free Society was first published in 1937 in Germany. The English translation that we have was, regrettably, not published until 1963, based on the 9th German edition. Nevertheless, Röpke still has given us ample warning of what may lie ahead if the present administration and the Federal Reserve continue with current economic shenanigans.

Röpke had a front row seat of Germany’s hyperinflation in the ‘20s, Hitler’s rise to power in the ‘30s (he eventually fled Germany for his life) and the rebuilding of Germany in the late ‘40s. We ignore his warning at our own peril.

From a section on inflation in Chapter IV – Money and Credit (all emphasis added)…

Our generation, which recalls the despair caused by the inflations in the post World War I era and which was required to undergo the self-same catastrophes following World War II, needs no instruction concerning the fact that the worst disease with which a monetary system can be afflicted is that kind of inflation which is caused by a deficit of the government budget. The German inflation of the years 1920-23 will always remain as a horrible example of what happens when a government attempts to cover its budget deficits by resorting to the deceitful and irresponsible expedient of the printing press. What in Germany began as “deficit financing” ended in a series of catastrophic price rises which caused the shameless enrichment of some at the cost of the hopeless  impoverishment of others, and in a serious undermining of the whole economic and social structure. But the inflationary creation of money caused by the budget deficits of government need not necessarily lead to the economic and social disorders attendant on an open inflation of the kind that followed World War I. Beginning in 1933, National Socialist Germany demonstrated that a determined government can change an open into a repressed inflation by placing the country in the economic strait jacket of a command economy. Rationing, the imposition of stringent controls on wages, consumption, capital investment, rates of interest, and similar measures aimed at restricting the free use of the increasing amount of purchasing power may succeed in containing for an indefinite period the mounting inflationary pressure on prices, wages, exchange rates, stock prices, etc.

Since Hitler has shown how far and how long a government can neutralize an inflation by means of the command economy, we may well ask ourselves whether from now on there will be any government which will not follow the same road when it disposes of a functioning coercive apparatus. The greater the inflationary pressure the stronger will be the counterpressure of the command economy needed to repress it. By the same token, the command economy must resort to ever more comprehensive and ruthless controls if it is to effectively contain the mounting forces of inflation. This leads logically to the question of whether such a command economy is possible without totalitarian slavery (of which the Third Reich was such a repellent example).

The experience of Germany demands that we consider a little more closely this peculiar phenomenon of repressed inflation. As we have seen, it consists, fundamentally, in the fact that a government first promotes inflation but then seeks to interdict its influence on prices and rates of exchange by imposing the now familiar wartime devices of rationing and fixed prices, together with the requisite enforcement measures.  As inflationary pressures force up prices, costs, and exchange rates, the ever more comprehensive and elaborate apparatus of the command economy seeks to repress this upward movement with the countermeasures of the police state. The repressed inflation can be conceived of, then, as the deliberate maintenance of a system of coercive and fictitious values in which, economically speaking, there is neither rhyme nor reason. Such a system is an inevitable feature of a collectivist economic regime and is to be encountered wherever socialism has gained control of influence (Soviet Union, National Socialist Germany, Austria, Great Britain, Sweden, and some other European countries). Where this repressed inflation leads was shown with tragic incisiveness in the complete disintegration of the German economy, a process which was arrested only by the comprehensive economic and monetary reform which restored a free price system in which actual rather than fictitious supply-demand relationships were reflected (Summer, 1948). The prolongation of a policy of repressed inflation means that all economic values become increasingly fictitious, and this in a twofold sense: (1) stated values correspond less and less to actual scarcity relationships and (2) fewer and fewer transactions are completed on the basis of such values. The distortion of all value relationships which accompany the division of the economy into “official” and “black” markets, and the struggle between the directives of the market and those of the administrative authorities finally lead to chaos, to a situation in which any kind of order, whether of the collectivist or the market economy type, is lacking.

We see, then, that a repressed inflation is worse than an open one because, in the end, money loses not only its function as a medium of exchange and as a measure of value (as happens in the last stages of an open inflation), but also its even more important function as a stimulus to the production and distribution of maximum quantities of goods. Repressed inflation is a road which ends inevitably in chaos and paralysis. The more values are raised by inflation, the more will the authorities feel compelled to use their machinery of compulsion. But the more fictitious the system of compulsory values, the greater will be the economic chaos and the public discontent and the more threadbare either the authority of the government or its claim to be democratic. If the repressed inflation is not stopped in time it will, drawing strength from its own momentum, lead to the dissolution of economic activity and perhaps even of the state itself. This modern economic disease is one of the most serious of all; it is doubly pernicious since it tends to be recognized only when it is in an advanced stage.

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