By Patrick Barron on Mises.org
What causes the seemingly unfounded confidence in socialism we encounter more and more in the news media and among political activists? In the Extinction Rebellion movement, for example, activists are quite certain they have learned that there is an alternative to markets as the means to economic prosperity. It’s a means that does not involve meeting the legitimate needs of one’s fellow men in the marketplace.
It is likely not a coincidence that most people living today have lived most of their lives in a world dominated by fiat money. It has now been nearly fifty years since the United States broke all ties between the dollar and gold. It’s been even longer since other major currencies were tied to gold at all. Consequently we now live in a world where the creation of wealth is seen by many as requiring little more than the creation of more money.
In this kind of world, why not have socialism? If we run out of money, we can always print more.
Unlimited Money Feeds the Myth of Unlimited Real Resources
The world was on a watered down version of a gold standard until 1971 when the US abandoned its solemn promise — the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement — to back the dollar with gold at $35 per ounce. Gold backing of a currency provided a solid intellectual foundation of reality that few even recognized existed within themselves; (i.e., that we live in a world of scarcity and uncertainty). This reinforced the idea that wealth has to be built. It cannot be conjured out of thin air, just as gold cannot be conjured out of thin air.
But fiat currency can be conjured out of thin air and in enormous amounts. The longer a fiat currency is the coin of the land, the more one is led to believe that nothing should be in short supply, since everything is bought with money and money need not be in short supply. Those who know only unlimited fiat money soon demand free healthcare and free higher education as a right. And why not? Unlimited money will pay for it. Into this never-never land comes demands for scrapping the fossil fuel underpinnings of our modern economy by those who understand nothing of how an economy works. But, apparently one does not need to understand technical limitations, because there are no technical limitations. The “barbarous relic” (gold) had once limited the money supply and thusly seemed to limit the supply of vendible goods. Gold has been replaced by unlimited fiat money. Now it seems that unlimited aggregate demand can be funded by unlimited fiat money, leading to a world of plenty. Designer of the Bretton Woods Agreement Lord Keynes says so in this very insightful short video.
Fiat Money Turns the World Upside Down
The psychological impact of a lifetime within a fiat money economy cannot be overestimated. One’s world is turned upside down. For many, financial success becomes prima facie evidence of exploitation of the masses rather than something to be admired and to which one could aspire also. With more wealth seemingly available at the click of a computer button, only an Ebenezer Scrooge would deny funding the latest demanded government program. If wealth is so easy to create, many conclude only greed and cruelty are what stand between us and far greater prosperity for all.
But that is the very reason that fiat money is so subversive to the social order. In a sound money economy any new spending program can be funded only by an increase in taxes, an increase in debt, or by cutting existing funding. There is a real cost to each of these options. There is a real cost to printing money, too, but the cost is hidden. One does not see malinvestment at the time of money printing. Price increases are delayed and uneven, due to the Cantillon Effect whereby the early receivers of new money are able to purchase goods and services at existing prices. Later receivers or those who do not receive the new money at all suffer higher prices and a reduction in their standard of living. Even then most people do not link higher retail prices with a previous expansion of the money supply.
It would be hard to invent a more effective method for the destruction of modern society. As Pogo would say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”