Tuesday, December 1, 2009

North Korea and Inflation

The market is just a network of social relations - social relations which are orchestrated by prices which signal individual abilities, individual needs, individual hopes, and individual ambitions. Make the signals meaningless and social interaction becomes impossible. Induced inflation distorts those signals. Hyper-inflation destroys them. North Korea unleashed this weapon today in an attempt to destroy fledgling private markets.

I've spoken at times on the value of low, constant inflation in a modern economy. I've been meaning to talk about this in more detail, with reference to "inflationist" movements in early America, and in the late nineteenth century. A lot of these sorts of ideas are grounded in the work of Keynes, and consistent with more recent monetarist theories. But it's important to distinguish the argument for a low, constant level of inflation (as opposed to violent inflationary and deflationary episodes) from the argument for high spikes in inflation as a confiscatory tool. Keynes spoke to inflation as a weapon of the state in the months after World War I:

"By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become 'profiteers,' who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose."

- John Maynard Keynes, 1919

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