In the conservative imagination, inflation is a violation of the sacred property rights that bind civilized society together. If fears of unemployment and the possible return of the Great Depression shaped the postwar period of growth and stability known as the Golden Age of Capitalism, it is inflation paranoia that has been the hallmark of the world we live in since the crisis of the 1970s, dubbed analogously the Great Inflation. In this view, inflation is caused by government overspending, financed by money printing. State power and the excesses of democracy, defined simply as the rule of the majority, along with the inevitable demands for higher welfare spending, would bring down Western civilization, or at least American hegemonic power. The great priests of neoliberalism thought the problem should be dealt with at the root. Milton Friedman wanted an independent central bank that followed monetary rules, taming monetary expansion,1 while Friedrich Hayek wanted to privatize money. Adherents believe markets should impose limits on the demands of the masses.2
These ideas are alive and well in right-wing circles, where a return to the gold standard, balanced budget amendments on fiscal policy, and private digital currencies like Bitcoin are touted as panaceas for the problems of modern society. Restrictions on democratic participation, particularly where minorities are a large part of the franchise, are also part of the accepted canon on the right side of the political spectrum. With the rise of inflation during the last economic crisis caused by a pandemic in which we are still submerged, it should not be a surprise that government action — in particular the fiscal rescue packages to keep the economy afloat and those more vulnerable out of poverty — is the main cause of conservative anxieties and loud condemnation.
The possibility of the resurgence of Keynesian ideas is conservative intellectuals’ worst nightmare. Stoking inflation fears will bring any plans for the expansion of the welfare state to an end. The liberal and progressive camps remain more ambiguous about the resurgence of inflation. Many see it as a necessary consequence of the pandemic but would not disagree with the conservative diagnosis that excess demand, in part caused by a rapid recovery related to state action, is behind the inflationary resurgence.3 Some progressives have suggested that the real cause of inflationary pressures is large and ubiquitous corporations with vast oligopolistic power that have increased their profit margins during the pandemic. If corporate power is the bogeyman behind the acceleration of inflation in the alternative discourse, then rather than curtailing spending, stabilization would require regulation of monopolies and price controls.