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Carl Menger's Theory of the Origin of Money

October 12, 2009

Tags Free MarketsHistory of the Austrian School of EconomicsPhilosophy and MethodologyPraxeology

[This article is excerpted from chapter 17 of Human Action.]


Carl Menger has not only provided an irrefutable praxeological theory of the origin of money. He has also recognized the import of his theory for the elucidation of fundamental principles of praxeology and its methods of research.[1]

There were authors who tried to explain the origin of money by decree or covenant. The authority, the state, or a compact between citizens has purposively and consciously established indirect exchange and money. The main deficiency of this doctrine is not to be seen in the assumption that people of an age unfamiliar with indirect exchange and money could design a plan of a new economic order, entirely different from the real conditions of their own age, and could comprehend the importance of such a plan. Neither is it to be seen in the fact that history does not afford a clue for the support of such statements. There are more substantial reasons for rejecting it.

If it is assumed that the conditions of the parties concerned are improved by every step that leads from direct exchange to indirect exchange and subsequently to giving preference for use as a medium of exchange to certain goods distinguished by their especially high marketability, it is difficult to conceive why one should, in dealing with the origin of indirect exchange, resort in addition to authoritarian decree or an explicit compact between citizens. A man who finds it hard to obtain in direct barter what he wants to acquire renders better his chances to acquire what he is asking for in later acts of exchange by the procurement of a more marketable good. Under these circumstances there was no need of government interference or of a compact between the citizens. The happy idea of proceeding in this way could strike the shrewdest individuals, and the less resourceful could imitate the former's method. It is certainly more plausible to take for granted that the immediate advantages conferred by indirect exchange were recognized by the acting parties than to assume that the whole image of a society trading by means of money was conceived by a genius and, if we adopt the covenant doctrine, made obvious to the rest of the people by persuasion.

If, however, we do not assume that individuals discovered the fact that they fare better through indirect exchange than through waiting for an opportunity for direct exchange, and, for the sake of argument, admit that the authorities or a compact introduced money, further questions are raised. We must ask what kind of measures were applied in order to induce people to adopt a procedure the utility of which they did not comprehend and which was technically more complicated than direct exchange. We may assume that compulsion was practiced. But then we must ask, further, at what time and by what occurrences indirect exchange and the use of money later ceased to be procedures troublesome or at least indifferent to the individuals concerned and became advantageous to them.

The praxeological method traces all phenomena back to the actions of individuals. If conditions of interpersonal exchange are such that indirect exchange facilitates the transactions, and if and as far as people realize these advantages, indirect exchange and money come into being. Historical experience shows that these conditions were and are present. How, in the absence of these conditions, people could have adopted indirect exchange and money and clung to these modes of exchanging is inconceivable.

The historical question concerning the origin of indirect exchange and money is after all of no concern to praxeology. The only relevant thing is that indirect exchange and money exist because the conditions for their existence were and are present. If this is so, praxeology does not need to resort to the hypothesis that authoritarian decree or a covenant invented these modes of exchanging. The étatists may if they like continue to ascribe the "invention" of money to the state, however unlikely this may be. What matters is that a man acquires a good not in order to consume it or to use it in production, but in order to give it away in a further act of exchange. Such conduct on the part of people makes a good a medium of exchange and, if such conduct becomes common with regard to a certain good, makes it money. All theorems of the catallactic theory of media of exchange and of money refer to the services which a good renders in its capacity as a medium of exchange. Even if it were true that the impulse for the introduction of indirect exchange and money was provided by the authorities or by an agreement between the members of society, the statement remains unshaken that only the conduct of exchanging people can create indirect exchange and money.

History may tell us where and when for the first time media of exchange came into use and how, subsequently, the range of goods employed for this purpose was more and more restricted. As the differentiation between the broader notion of a medium of exchange and the narrower notion of money is not sharp, but gradual, no agreement can be reached about the historical transition from simple media of exchange to money. This is a matter of historical understanding. But, as has been mentioned, the distinction between direct exchange and indirect exchange is sharp and everything that catallactics establishes with regard to media of exchange refers categorially to all goods which are demanded and acquired as such media.

Murphy's Guide to Mises

As far as the statement that indirect exchange and money were established by decree or by covenant is meant to be an account of historical events, it is the task of historians to expose its falsity. As far as it is advanced merely as a historical statement, it can in no way affect the catallactic theory of money and its explanation of the evolution of indirect exchange. But if it is designed as a statement about human action and social events, it is useless because it states nothing about action. It is not a statement about human action to declare that one day rulers or citizens assembled in convention were suddenly struck by the inspiration that it would be a good idea to exchange indirectly and through the intermediary of a commonly used medium of exchange. It is merely pushing back the problem involved.

It is necessary to comprehend that one does not contribute anything to the scientific conception of human actions and social phenomena if one declares that the state or a charismatic leader or an inspiration which descended upon all the people have created them. Neither do such statements refute the teachings of a theory showing how such phenomena can be acknowledged as "the unintentional outcome, the resultant not deliberately designed and aimed at by specifically individual endeavors of the members of a society."[2]


[1] Cf. Carl Mender's books Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre (Vienna, 1871). pp. 250 ff.; ibid. (2d ed. Vienna, 1923), pp. 241 ff.; Untersuchungen über die Methode der Sozialwissenschaften (Leipzig, 1883), pp. 171 ff.

[2] Cf. Menger, Untersuchungen, i.e., p. 178.



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