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much greater depreciation before demanding land, than they will before demanding gold or silver.* l
* Among the schemes of currency to which, strange to say, intelligent writers have been found to give their sanction, one is as follows: that the state should receive, in pledge or mortgage, any kind or amount of property, such as land, stock, &c., and should advance to the owners inconvertible paper money to the estimated value. Such a currency would not even have the recommendations of the imaginary assignats supposed in the text; since those into whose hands the notes were paid by the persons who received them, could not return them to the government, and demand in exchange land or stock which was only pledged, not alienated. There would be no reflux of such assignats as these, and their depreciation would be indefinite.
1 [In the 2nd ed. (1849) was inserted the following section, which did not disappear till the 5th ed. (1862):
"§ 4. One of the most transparent of the fallacies by which the principle of the convertibility of paper money has been assailed, is that which pervades a recent work by Mr. John Gray, Lectures on the Nature and Use of Money: the author of the most ingenious, and least exceptionable plan of an inconvertible currency which I have happened to meet with. This writer has seized several of the leading doctrines of political economy with no ordinary grasp, and among others, the important one, that commodities are the real market for commodities, and that Production is essentially the cause and measure of Demand. But this proposition, true in a state of barter, he affirms to be false under a monetary system regulated by the precious metals, because if the aggregate of goods is increased faster than the aggregate of money, prices must fall, and all producers must be losers; now neither gold nor silver, nor any other valuable thing, * can by any possibility be increased ad libitum, as fast as all other valuable things put together :' a limit, therefore, is arbitrarily set to the amount of production which can take place without loss to the producers: and on this foundation Mr. Gray accuses the existing system of rendering the produce of this country less by at least one hundred million pounds annually, than it would be under a currency which admitted of expansion in exact proportion to the increase of commodities.
"But, in the first place, what hinders gold, orany other commodity whatever, from being 'increased as fast as all other valuable things put together?' If the produce of the world, in all commodities taken together, should come to be doubled, what is to prevent the annual produce of gold from being doubled likewise? for that is all that would be necessary, and not (as might be inferred from Mr. Gray's language) that it should be doubled as many times over as there are other ' valuable things' to compare it with. Unless it can be proved that the production of bullion cannot be increased by the application of increased labour and capital, it is evident that the stimulus of an increased value of the commodity will have the same effect in extending the mining operations, as it is admitted to have in all other branches of production.
"But, secondly, even if the currency could not be increased at all, and if every addition to the aggregate produce of the country must necessarily bo accompanied by a proportional diminution of general prices; it is incomprehensible how any person who has attended to the subject can fail to see that a fall of price, thus produced, is no loss to producers: they receive less money; but the smaller amount goes exactly as far, in all expenditure, whether productive or personal, as the larger quantity did before. The only difference would be in the increased burthen of fixed money payments; and of that (coming, as it would, very gradually) a very small portion would fall on the productive classes, who have rarely any debts of old standing, and who would
§ 4. Another of the fallacies from which the advocates of an inconvertible currency derive support, is the notion that an increase of the currency quickens industry. This idea was set afloat by Hume, in his Essay on Money, and has had many devoted adherents since; witness the Birmingham currency school, of whom Mr. Attwood was at one time the most conspicuous representative. Mr. Attwood maintained that a rise of prices, produced by an increase of paper currency, stimulates every producer to his utmost exertions, and brings all the capital and labour of the country into complete employment; and that this has invariably happened in all periods of rising prices, when the rise was on a sufficiently great scale. I presume, however, that the inducement which, according to Mr. Attwood, excited this unusual ardour in all "Hgrsrms p.no.g.o.p.rj ir> production, must have been the expectation of getting more commodities generally, more real wealth, in exchange for the produce of their labour, and not merely more pieces of paper. This expectation, however, must have been, by the very terms of the supposition, disappointed, since, all prices being supposed to rise equally, no one was really better paid for his goods than before. Those who agree with Mr. Attwood could only succeed in winning people on to these unwonted exertions by a prolongation of what would in fact be a delusion; contriving matters so, that by a progressive rise of money prices, every producer shall always seem to be in the very act of obtaining an increased remuneration which he never, in reality, does obtain. It is unnecessary to advert to any other of the objections to this plan than that of its total impracticability. It calculates on finding the whole world persisting for ever in the belief that more pieces of paper are more riches, and never discovering that, with all their paper, they cannot buy more of anything than they could before. No such mistake was made during any of the periods of high prices, on the experience of which this school lays so much stress. At the periods which Mr. Attwood mistook for times of prosperity, and which were simply (as all periods of high prices, under a convertible currency, must be) times of speculation, the speculators did not think they were growing rich because the high prices would last, but because they would not last, and because whoever contrived to realize while they did last, would find himself, after the recoil, in possession of a greater number of pounds sterling, without their having become of less value. If, at
suffer almost solely in the increased onerousiiess of their contribution to the taxes which pay the interest of the National Debt."]
the close of the speculation, an issue of paper had been made, sufficient to keep prices up to the point which they attained when at the highest, no one would have been more disappointed than the speculators; since the gain which they thought to have reaped by realizing in time (at the expense of their competitors, who bought when they sold, and had to sell after the revulsion) would have faded away in their hands, and instead of it they would have got nothing except a few more paper tickets to count by.
Hume's version of the doctrine differed in a slight degree from Mr. Attwood's. He thought that all commodities would not rise in price simultaneously, and that some persons therefore would obtain a real gain, by getting more money for what they had to sell, while the things which they wished to buy might not yet have risen. And those who would reap this gain would always be (he seems to think) the first comers. It seems obvious, however, that for every person who thus gains more than usual, there is necessarily some other person who gains less. The loser, if things took place as Hume supposes, would be the seller of the commodities which are slowest to rise; who, by the supposition, parts with his goods at the old prices, to purchasers who have already benefited by the new. This seller has obtained for his commodity only the accustomed quantity of money, while there are already some things of which that money will no longer purchase as much as before. If, therefore, he knows what is going on, he will raise his price, and then the buyer will not have the gain, which is supposed to stimulate his industry. But if, on the contrary, the seller does not know the state of the case, and only discovers it when he finds, in laying his money out, that it does not go so far, he then obtains less than the ordinary remuneration for his labour and capital; and if the other dealer's industry is encouraged, it should seem that his must, from the opposite cause, be impaired.
§ 5. There is no way in which a general and permanent rise of prices, or in other words, depreciation of money, can benefit anybody, except at the expense of somebody else. The substitution of paper for metallic currency is a national gain: any further increase of paper beyond this is but a form of robbery.
An issue of notes is a manifest gain to the issuers, who, until the notes are returned for payment, obtain the use of them as if they were a real capital: and so long as the notes are no permanent addition to the currency, but merely supersede gold or silver to the same amount, the gain of the issuer is a loss to no one; it is obtained by saving to the community the expense of the more costly material. But if there is no gold or silver to be superseded —if the notes are added to the currency, instead of being substituted for the metallic part of it—all holders of currency lose, by the depreciation of its value, the exact equivalent of what the issuer gains. A tax is virtually levied on them for his benefit. It will be objected by some, that gains are also made by the producers and dealers who, by means of the increased issue, are accommodated with loans. Theirs, however, is not an additional gain, but a portion of that which is reaped by the issuer at the expense of all possessors of money. The profits arising from the contribution levied upon the public, he does not keep to himself, but divides with his customers. But besides the benefit reaped by the issuers, or by others through them, at the expense of the public generally, there is another unjust gain obtained by a larger class, namely by those who are under fixed pecuniary obligations. All such persons are freed, by a depreciation of the currency, from a portion of the burthen of their debts or other engagements: in other words, part of the property of their creditors is gratuitously transferred to them. On a superficial view it may be imagined that this is an advantage to industry; since the productive classes are great borrowers, and generally owe larger debts to the unproductive (if we include among the latter all persons not actually in business) than the unproductive classes owe to them; especially if the national debt be included. It is only thus that a general rise of prices can be a source of benefit to producers and dealers; by diminishing the pressure of their fixed burthens. And this might be accounted an advantage, if integrity and good faith were of no importance to the world, and to industry and commerce in particular. Not many, however, have been found to say that the currency ought to be depreciated on the simple ground of its being desirable to rob the national creditor and private creditors of a part of what is in their bond. The schemes which have tended that way have almost always had some appearance of special and circumstantial justification, such as the necessity of compensating for a prior injustice committed in the contrary direction.
§ 6. Thus in England, for many years subsequent to 1819, it was pertinaciously contended, that a large portion of the national debt and a multitude of private debts still in existence, were contracted between 1797 and 1819, when the Bank of England was exempted from giving cash for its notes; and that it is grossly unjust to borrowers (that is, in the case of the national debt, to all tax-payers) that they should be paying interest on the same nominal sums in a currency of full value, which were borrowed in a depreciated one.1 The depreciation, according to the views and objects of the particular writer, was represented to have averaged thirty, fifty, or even more than fifty per cent: and the conclusion was, that either we ought to return to this depreciated currency, or to strike off from the national debt, and from mortgages or other private debts of old standing, a percentage corresponding to the estimated amount of the depreciation.
To this doctrine, the following was the answer usually made. Granting that, by returning to cash payments without lowering the standard, an injustice was done to debtors, in holding them liable for the same amount of a currency enhanced in value, which they had borrowed while it was depreciated; it is now too late to make reparation for this injury. The debtors and creditors of to-day are not the debtors and creditors of 1819: the lapse of years has entirely altered the pecuniary relations of the community; and it being impossible now to ascertain the particular persons who were either benefited or injured, to attempt to retrace our steps would not be redressing a wrong, but superadding a second act of wide-spread injustice to the one already committed. This argument is certainly conclusive on the practical question; but it places the honest conclusion on too narrow and too low a ground. It concedes that the measure of 1819, called Peel's Bill, by which cash payments were resumed at the original standard of 3/. 17s. 10Jc£., was really the injustice it was said to be. This is an admission wholly opposed to the truth. Parliament had no alternative; it was absolutely bound to adhere to the acknowledged standard; as may be shown on three distinct grounds, two of fact, and one of principle.
The reasons of fact are these. In the first place, it is not true that the debts, private or public, incurred during the Bank restriction, were contracted in a currency of lower value than that in which the interest is now paid. It is indeed true that the suspension of the obligation to pay in specie did put it in the power of the Bank to depreciate the currency. It is true also that the Bank really exercised
1 [Until the 5th ed. (1862) the text ran: "from 1819 to the present time, it has been . . . contended," and " the answer " was spoken of in the present tense.]