A Tract on Monetary Reform: Chapter II - II. Currency Depreciation versus Capital Levy by@jmkeynes

A Tract on Monetary Reform: Chapter II - II. Currency Depreciation versus Capital Levy

We have seen in the preceding section the extent to which a Government can make use of currency inflation for the purpose of securing income to meet its outgoings. But there is a second way in which inflation helps a Government to make both ends meet, namely by reducing the burden of its pre-existing liabilities in so far as they have been fixed in terms of money. These liabilities consist, in the main, of the internal debt. Every step of depreciation obviously means a reduction in the real claims of the rentes-holders against their Government.
John Maynard Keynes HackerNoon profile picture

John Maynard Keynes

Creator of Keynesian. English economist whose ideas fundamentally changed the theory and practice of macroeconomics

A Tract on Monetary Reform, by John Maynard Keynes is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Chapter II: II. Currency Depreciation versus Capital Levy

II. Currency Depreciation versus Capital Levy

We have seen in the preceding section the extent to which a Government can make use of currency inflation for the purpose of securing income to meet its outgoings. But there is a second way in which inflation helps a Government to make both ends meet, namely by reducing the burden of its pre-existing liabilities in so far as they have been fixed in terms of money. These liabilities consist, in the main, of the internal debt. Every step of depreciation obviously means a reduction in the real claims of the rentes-holders against their Government.

It would be too cynical to suppose that, in order to secure the advantages discussed in this section, Governments (except, possibly, the Russian Government) depreciate their currencies on purpose. As a rule, they are, or consider themselves to be, driven to it by their necessities. The requirements of the Treasury to meet sudden exceptional outgoings—for a war or to pay the consequences of defeat—are likely to be the original occasion of, at least temporary, inflation. But the most cogent reason for permanent depreciation, that is to say Devaluation, or the policy of fixing the value of the currency permanently at the low level to which a temporary emergency has driven it, is generally to be found in the fact that a restoration of the currency to its former value would raise the recurrent annual burden of the fixed charges of the National Debt to an insupportable level.

There is, nevertheless, an alternative to Devaluation in such cases, provided the opponents of Devaluation are prepared to face it in time, which they generally are not,—namely a Capital Levy. The purpose of this section is to bring out clearly the alternative character of these two methods of moderating the claims of the rentier, when the State’s contractual liabilities, fixed in terms of money, have reached an excessive proportion of the national income.

The active and working elements in no community, ancient or modern, will consent to hand over to the rentier or bond-holding class more than a certain proportion of the fruits of their work. When the piled-up debt demands more than a tolerable proportion, relief has usually been sought in one or other of two out of the three possible methods. The first is Repudiation. But, except as the accompaniment of Revolution, this method is too crude, too deliberate, and too obvious in its incidence. The victims are immediately aware and cry out too loud; so that, in the absence of Revolution, this solution may be ruled out at present, as regards internal debt, in Western Europe.

The second method is Currency Depreciation, which becomes Devaluation when it is fixed and confirmed by law. In the countries of Europe lately belligerent, this expedient has been adopted already on a scale which reduces the real burden of the debt by from 50 to 100 per cent. In Germany the National Debt has been by these means practically obliterated, and the bond-holders have lost everything. In France the real burden of the debt is less than a third of what it would be if the franc stood at par; and in Italy only a quarter. The owners of small savings suffer quietly, as experience shows, these enormous depredations, when they would have thrown down a Government which had taken from them a fraction of the amount by more deliberate but juster instruments.

This fact, however, can scarcely justify such an expedient on its merits. Its indirect evils are many. Instead of dividing the burden between all classes of wealth-owners according to a graduated scale, it throws the whole burden on to the owners of fixed interest bearing stocks, lets off the entrepreneur capitalist and even enriches him, and hits small savings equally with great fortunes. It follows the line of least resistance, and responsibility cannot be brought home to individuals. It is, so to speak, nature’s remedy, which comes into silent operation when the body politic has shrunk from curing itself.

The remaining, the scientific, expedient, the Capital Levy, has never yet been tried on a large scale; and perhaps it never will be. It is the rational, the deliberate method. But it is difficult to explain, and it provokes violent prejudice by coming into conflict with the deep instincts by which the love of money protects itself. Unless the patient understands and approves its purpose, he will not submit to so severe a surgical operation.

Once Currency Depreciation has done its work, I should not advocate the unwise, and probably impracticable, policy of retracing the path with the aid of a Capital Levy. But if it has become clear that the claims of the bond-holder are more than the taxpayer can support, and if there is still time to choose between the policies of a Levy and of further Depreciation, the Levy must surely be preferred on grounds both of expediency and of justice. It is an overwhelming objection to the method of Currency Depreciation, as compared with that of the Levy, that it falls entirely upon persons whose wealth is in the form of claims to legal-tender money, and that these are generally, amongst the capitalists, the poorer capitalists. It is entirely ungraduated; it falls on small savings just as hardly as on big ones; and incidentally it benefits the capitalist entrepreneur class for the reasons explained in Chapter I. Unfortunately the small savers who have most to lose by Currency Depreciation are precisely the sort of conservative people who are most alarmed by a Capital Levy; whilst, on the other hand, the entrepreneur class must obviously prefer Depreciation which does not hit them very much and may actually enrich them. It is the combination of these two forces which will generally bring it about that a country will prefer the inequitable and disastrous courses of Currency Depreciation to the scientific deliberation of a Levy.

There is a respectable and influential body of opinion which, repudiating with vehemence the adoption of either expedient, fulminates alike against Devaluations and Levies, on the ground that they infringe the untouchable sacredness of contract; or rather of vested interest, for an alteration of the legal tender and the imposition of a tax on property are neither of them in the least illegal or even contrary to precedent. Yet such persons, by overlooking one of the greatest of all social principles, namely the fundamental distinction between the right of the individual to repudiate contract and the right of the State to control vested interest, are the worst enemies of what they seek to preserve. For nothing can preserve the integrity of contract between individuals, except a discretionary authority in the State to revise what has become intolerable. The powers of uninterrupted usury are too great. If the accretions of vested interest were to grow without mitigation for many generations, half the population would be no better than slaves to the other half. Nor can the fact that in time of war it is easier for the State to borrow than to tax, be allowed permanently to enslave the taxpayer to the bond-holder. Those who insist that in these matters the State is in exactly the same position as the individual, will, if they have their way, render impossible the continuance of an individualist society, which depends for its existence on moderation.

These conclusions might be deemed obvious if experience did not show that many conservative bankers regard it as more consonant with their cloth, and also as economising thought, to shift public discussion of financial topics off the logical on to an alleged “moral” plane, which means a realm of thought where vested interest can be triumphant over the common good without further debate. But it makes them untrustworthy guides in a perilous age of transition. The State must never neglect the importance of so acting in ordinary matters as to promote certainty and security in business. But when great decisions are to be made, the State is a sovereign body of which the purpose is to promote the greatest good of the whole. When, therefore, we enter the realm of State action, everything is to be considered and weighed on its merits. Changes in Death Duties, Income Tax, Land Tenure, Licensing, Game Laws, Church Establishment, Feudal Rights, Slavery, and so on through all ages, have received the same denunciations from the absolutists of contract,—who are the real parents of Revolution.

In our own country the question of the Capital Levy depends for its answer on whether the great increase in the claims of the bond-holder, arising out of the fact that it was easier, and perhaps more expedient, to raise a large part of the current costs of the war by loans rather than by taxes, is more than the taxpayer can be required, in the long run, to support. The high levels of the Death Duties and of the income- and super-taxes on unearned income, by which the net return to the bond-holder is substantially diminished,17 modify the case. Nevertheless, immediately after the war, when it seemed that the normal budget could scarcely be balanced without a level of taxation of which a tax on earned income at a standard rate between 6s. and 10s. in the £ would be typical, a levy seemed to be necessary. At the present time the case is rather more doubtful. It is not yet possible to know how the normal budget will work out, and much depends on the level at which sterling prices are stabilised. If the level of sterling prices is materially lowered, whether in pursuance of a policy of restoring the old gold parity or for any other reason, a levy may be required. If, however, sterling prices are stabilised somewhere between 80 and 100 per cent above the pre-war level—a settlement probably desirable on other grounds—and if the progressive prosperity of the country is restored, then perhaps we may balance our future budgets without oppressive taxation on earned income and without a levy either. A levy is from the practical view perfectly feasible, and is not open to more objection than any other new tax of like magnitude. Nevertheless, like all new taxes, it cannot be brought in without friction, and is, therefore, scarcely worth advocating for its own sake merely in substitution for an existing tax of similar incidence. It is to be regarded as the fairest and most expedient method of adjusting the burden of taxation between past accumulations and the fruits of present efforts, whenever, in the general judgment of the country, the discouragement to the latter is excessive. A levy is to be judged, not by itself, but as against the practicable alternatives. Experience shows with great certainty that the active part of the community will not submit in the long run to pay too much to vested interest, and, if the necessary adjustment is not made in one way, it will be made in another,—probably by the depreciation of the currency.

 The net return to the French rentier is more than 6 per cent; to the British not much above 3 per cent.

In several countries the existing burden of the internal debt renders Devaluation inevitable and certain sooner or later. It will be sufficient to illustrate the case by reference to the situation of France,—the home of absolutism of all kinds, and hence, sooner or later, of bouleversement. The finances of Humpty Dumpty are as follows:

At the end of 1922 the internal debt of France, excluding altogether her external debt, exceeded 250 milliard francs. Further borrowing budgeted for in the ensuing period, together with loans on reconstruction account guaranteed by the Government, may bring this total to the neighbourhood of 300 milliards by the end of 1923. The service of this debt will absorb nearly 18 milliards per annum. The total normal receipts under the provisional18 Budget for 1923 are estimated at round 23 milliards. That is to say, the service of the debt will shortly absorb, at the value of the franc current early in 1923, almost the entire yield of taxation. Since other Government expenditure in the ordinary budget (i.e., excluding war pensions and future expenditure on reconstruction) cannot be put below 12 milliards a year, it follows that, even on the improbable hypothesis that further expenditure in the extraordinary budget after 1923 will be paid for by Germany, the yield of taxation must be increased permanently by 30 per cent to make both ends meet. If, however, the franc were to depreciate to (say) 100 to the pound sterling, the ordinary budget could be balanced by taking little more of the real income of the country than in 1922.

 The forecasts of the final outcome of the year are frequently changed and may be somewhat different from the above,—though not sufficiently to affect the argument. M. de Lasteyrie has lately pointed out with pride how the further depreciation of the franc, since he first introduced his budget, is already improving the receipts measured in terms of francs.

In these circumstances it will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the subtle assistance of a further depreciation. What, then, is to be said of those who still discuss seriously the project of restoring the franc to its former parity? In such an event the already intolerable burden of the rentier’s claims would be about trebled. It is unthinkable that the French taxpayer would submit. Even if the franc were put back to par by a miracle, it could not stay there. Fresh inflation due to the inadequacy of tax receipts must drive it anew on its downward course. Yet I have assumed the cancellation of the whole of France’s external debt, and the assumption by Germany of the burdens of the extraordinary budget after 1923, an assumption which is not justified by present expectations. These facts alone render it certain that the franc cannot be restored to its former value.

France must come in due course to some compromise between increasing taxation, and diminishing expenditure, and reducing what they owe their rentiers. I have not much doubt that the French public, as they have hitherto, will consider a further dose of depreciation—attributing it to the “bad will” of Germany or to financial Machiavellism in London and New York—as far more conservative, orthodox, and in the interest of small savers, than a justly constructed Capital Levy, the odium of which could be less easily escaped by the French Ministry of Finance.

If we look ahead, averting our eyes from the ups and downs which can make and unmake fortunes in the meantime, the level of the franc is going to be settled in the long run not by speculation or the balance of trade, or even the outcome of the Ruhr adventure, but by the proportion of his earned income which the French taxpayer will permit to be taken from him to pay the claims of the French rentier. The level of the franc exchange will continue to fall until the commodity-value of the francs due to the rentier has fallen to a proportion of the national income, which accords with the habits and mentality of the country.

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Keynes, John Maynard. 2021. A Tract on Monetary Reform. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/65278/65278-h/65278-h.htm#sec_7

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