The Economic Mind in America: Essays in the History of American Economics

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

5

IRVING FISHER AS A POLICY ADVOCATE

William J. Barber

Irving Fisher was an inveterate crusader for causes. While the concern of this chapter is with his approach to monetary innovation, it is worthwhile to recall the multifaceted character of his interventions to set the world to rights. In 1925—at a moment when he could relish some extraordinary (though transitory) affluence—he wrote to his son that the financial resources generated by the sale of one of his inventions would enable him to further the “four chief causes…[he] had at heart.” He ranked them in the following order: “the abolition of war, disease, degeneracy, and instability of money.” 1 Whatever the crusade—world peace, health and life extension, eugenics, or stable money—Fisher approached it with missionary zeal.

Fisher’s conception of the policies required for monetary stability underwent considerable modification over the course of his lengthy professional career. The first phase of his policy advocacy on this subject emerged as a byproduct of his work when preparing The Purchasing Power of Money (which appeared in 1911). This study had been conceived as an analytic statement of the quantity theory of money, with supporting documentation intended to demonstrate its empirical validity. And he might well have left it at that, namely, as a scholarly treatise on the conditions under which changes in the quantity of money generated proportionate variations in the general price level. But Fisher was not content to offer only an analytic explanation for fluctuations in the purchasing power of money. Convinced as he was that monetary instability produced distributive injustices through distortions in the relative positions of creditors and debtors, he felt obliged to suggest a corrective. When the book was approaching completion, he wrote to Princeton’s monetary expert, Edwin W. Kemmerer, that he had “restrained himself from putting in [his] remedy until the last moment” and that he would have “felt so dissatisfied having written a book on the problem” if he had failed to provide a solution. 2

This aspect of Fisher’s view of the relationship between analysis and policy had been heavily conditioned by unpleasant personal experience. In his first

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