Inflation never affects everybody simultaneously and equally. It begins at a specific point, with a specific group. When the government puts more money into circulation, it may do so by paying defense contractors, or by increasing subsidies to farmers or social security benefits to special groups. The incomes of those who receive this money go up first. Those who begin spending the money first buy at the old level of prices. But their additional buying begins to force up prices. Those whose money incomes have not been raised are forced to pay higher prices than before; the purchasing power of their incomes has been reduced. Eventually, through the play of economic forces, their own money-incomes may be increased. But if these incomes are increased either less or later than the average prices of what they buy, they will never fully make up the loss they suffered from the inflation.
Inflation, in brief, essentially involves a redistribution of real incomes. Those who benefit by it do so, and must do so, at the expense of others. The total losses through inflation offset the total gains. This creates class or group divisions, in which the victims resent the profiteers from inflation, and in which even the moderate gainers from inflation envy the bigger gainers. There is general recognition that the new distribution of income and wealth that goes on during an inflation is not the result of merit, effort, or productiveness, but of luck, speculation, or political favoritism. It was in the tremendous German inflation of 1923 that the seeds of Nazism were sown.
An inflation tends to demoralize those who gain by it even more than those who lose by it. The gainers become used to an “unearned increment.” They want to keep their relative gains. Those who have made money from speculation prefer to continue this way of making money instead of working for it. I remember once, early in 1929, a conversation between two friends, both of whom held prominent posts as book reviewers but both of whom were heavily in the stock market. They were exchanging stories about their profits. “Today your salary,” they agreed, “is just a tip.” People do not like to work full time just for a tip. The long-term trend in an inflation is toward less work and production, and more speculation and gambling.
The profiteers from inflation tend to spend freely, frivolously, and ostentatiously. This increases the resentment of those who have been less favored. The incentive to ordinary saving, in the form of savings accounts, insurance, bonds, or other fixed-income obligations, tends to disappear. The
spectacle of quick and easy returns increases the temptations to corruption and crime.
It is not merely that inflation breeds the gambling spirit and corruption and dishonesty in a nation. Inflation is itself an immoral act on the part of government. When modern governments inflate by increasing the paper-money supply, directly or indirectly, they do in principle what kings once did when they clipped the coins. Diluting the money supply with paper is the moral equivalent of diluting the milk supply with water. Notwithstanding all the pious pretenses of governments that inflation is some evil visitation from without, inflation is practically always the result of deliberate governmental policy.
This was recognized in 1776 by Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations.” Though I have quoted the passage before, it bears repeating: “When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid. The liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about at all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.”
(…) Adam Smith went on: “The honor of a state is surely very poorly provided for, when, in order to cover the disgrace of a real bankruptcy, it has recourse to a juggling trick of this kind, so easily seen through, and at the same time so extremely pernicious.”