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The Government and the Currency

Mises Daily: Monday, February 20, 2012 by

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[Human Action (1949)]

Media of exchange and money are market phenomena. What makes a thing a medium of exchange or money is the conduct of parties to market transactions. An occasion for dealing with monetary problems appears to the authorities in the same way in which they concern themselves with all other objects exchanged, namely, when they are called upon to decide whether or not the failure of one of the parties to an act of exchange to comply with his contractual obligations justifies compulsion on the part of the government apparatus of violent oppression. If both parties discharge their mutual obligations instantly and synchronously, as a rule no conflicts arise which would induce one of the parties to apply to the judiciary. But if one or both parties' obligations are temporally deferred, it may happen that the courts are called to decide how the terms of the contract are to be complied with. If payment of a sum of money is involved, this implies the task of determining what meaning is to be attached to the monetary terms used in the contract.

Thus it devolves upon the laws of the country and upon the courts to define what the parties to the contract had in mind when speaking of a sum of money and to establish how the obligation to pay such a sum is to be settled in accordance with the terms agreed upon. They have to determine what is and what is not legal tender. In attending to this task the laws and the courts do not create money. A thing becomes money only by virtue of the fact that those exchanging commodities and services commonly use it as a medium of exchange. In the unhampered market economy the laws and the judges in attributing legal tender quality to a certain thing merely establish what, according to the usages of trade, was intended by the parties when they referred in their deal to a definite kind of money. They interpret the customs of the trade in the same way in which they proceed when called to determine what is the meaning of any other terms used in contracts.

Mintage has long been a prerogative of the rulers of the country. However, this government activity had originally no objective other than the stamping and certifying of weights and measures. The authority's stamp placed upon a piece of metal was supposed to certify its weight and fineness. When later princes resorted to substituting baser and cheaper metals for a part of the precious metals while retaining the customary face and name of the coins, they did it furtively and in full awareness of the fact that they were engaged in a fraudulent attempt to cheat the public. As soon as people found out these artifices, the debased coins were dealt with at a discount as against the old better ones. The governments reacted by resorting to compulsion and coercion. They made it illegal to discriminate in trade and in the settlement of deferred payments between "good" money and "bad" money and decreed maximum prices in terms of "bad" money. However, the result obtained was not that which the governments aimed at. Their decrees failed to stop the process which adjusted commodity prices (in terms of the debased currency) to the actual state of the money relation. Moreover, the effects appeared which Gresham's law describes.

The history of government interference with currency is, however, not merely a record of debasement practices and of abortive attempts to avoid their inescapable catallactic consequences. There were governments that did not look upon their mintage prerogative as a means of cheating that part of the public who placed confidence in their rulers' integrity and who, out of ignorance, were ready to accept the debased coins at their face value. These governments considered the manufacturing of coins not as a source of surreptitious fiscal lucre but as a public service designed to safeguard a smooth functioning of the market. But even these governments — out of ignorance and dilettantism — often resorted to measures which were tantamount to interference with the price structure, although they were not deliberately planned as such. As two precious metals were used side by side as money, the authorities naively believed that it was their task to unify the currency system by decreeing a rigid exchange ratio between gold and silver. The bimetallic system proved a complete failure. It did not bring about bimetallism, but an alternating standard. That metal which, compared with the instantaneous state of the fluctuating market exchange rate between gold and silver, was overvalued in the legally fixed ratio, predominated in domestic circulation, while the other metal disappeared. Finally the governments abandoned their vain attempts and acquiesced to monometallism. The present silver purchase policy of the American government is not seriously a device of monetary policy. It is merely a device for raising the price of silver for the benefit of the owners of silver mines, their employees, and the states within whose boundaries the mines are located. It is a hardly disguised subsidy. Its monetary significance consists exclusively in the fact that it is financed by issuing additional dollar notes whose legal tender quality does not differ essentially from that of the Federal Reserve notes, although they bear the practically meaningless imprint "Silver Certificate."

Yet economic history also provides instances of well-designed and successful monetary policies on the part of governments whose only intention was to equip their countries with a smoothly working currency system. Laissez-faire liberalism did not abolish the traditional government prerogative of mintage. But in the hands of the liberal governments the character of this state monopoly was completely altered. The ideas which considered it an instrument of interventionist policies were discarded. No longer was it used for fiscal purposes or for favoring some groups of the people at the expense of other groups. The government's monetary activities aimed at one objective only: to facilitate and to simplify the use of the medium of exchange which the conduct of the people had made money. A nation's currency system, it was agreed, should be sound. The principle of soundness meant that the standard coins — i.e., those to which unlimited legal tender power was assigned by the laws — should be properly assayed and stamped bars of bullion coined in such a way as to make the detection of clipping, abrasion, and counterfeiting easy. To the government's stamp no function was attributed other than to certify the weight and the fineness of the metal contained. Pieces worn by usage or in any other way reduced in weight beyond the very narrow limits of tolerated allowance lost their legal tender quality; the authorities themselves withdrew such pieces from circulation and reminted them. For the receiver of an undefaced coin there was no need to resort to the scales and to the melting pot in order to know its weight and content. On the other hand, individuals were entitled to bring bullion to the mint and to have it transformed into standard coins either free of charge or against payment of a seigniorage generally not surpassing the actual expenses of the process. Thus the various national currencies became genuine gold currencies. Stability in the exchange ratio between the domestic legal tender and that of all other countries which had adopted the same principles of sound money was thus brought about. The international gold standard came into being without intergovernmental treaties and institutions.

In many countries the emergence of the gold standard was effected by the operation of Gresham's law. The role that government policies played in the process in Great Britain consisted merely in ratifying the results brought about by the operation of Gresham's law; it transformed a de facto state of affairs into a legal state. In other countries the governments deliberately abandoned bimetallism just at the moment when the change in the market ratio between gold and silver would have brought about a substitution of a de facto silver currency for the then prevailing de facto gold currency. With all these nations the formal adoption of the gold standard required no other contribution on the part of the administration and the legislature than the enactment of laws.

It was different in those countries which wanted to substitute the gold standard for a — de facto or de jure — silver or paper currency. When the German Reich in the 1870s wanted to adopt the gold standard, the nation's currency was silver. It could not realize its plan by simply imitating the procedure of those countries in which the enactment of the gold standard was merely a ratification of the actual state of affairs. It had to exchange the silver standard coins in the hands of the public against gold coins. This was a time-absorbing and complicated financial operation involving vast government purchases of gold and sales of silver. Conditions were similar in those countries which aimed at the substitution of gold for credit money or fiat money.

It is important to realize these facts because they illustrate the difference between conditions as they prevailed in the liberal age and those prevailing today in the age of interventionism.