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Chapter 9 The Nature of Money

The Theory of Money and Credit1

1. The General Economic Conditions for the Use of Money

Where the free exchange of goods and services is unknown, money is not wanted. In a state of society in which the division of labor was a purely domestic matter and production and consumption were consummated within the single household it would be just as useless as it would be for an isolated man. But even in an economic order based on division of labor, money would still be unnecessary if the means of production were socialized, the control of production and the distribution of the finished product were in the hands of a central body, and individuals were not allowed to exchange the consumption goods allotted to them for the consumption goods allotted to others.

The phenomenon of money presupposes an economic order in which production is based on division of labor and in which private property consists not only in goods of the first order (consumption goods), but also in goods of higher orders (production goods). In such a society, there is no systematic centralized control of production, for this is inconceivable without centralized disposal over the means of production. Production is “anarchistic.” What is to be produced, and how it is to be produced, is decided in the first place by the owners of the means of production, who produce, however, not only for their own needs, but also for the needs of others, and in their valuations take into account, not only the use-value that they themselves attach to their products, but also the use-value that these possess in the estimation of the other members of the community. The balancing of production and consumption takes place in the market, where the different producers meet to exchange goods and services by bargaining together. The function of money is to facilitate the business of the market by acting as a common medium of exchange.

2. The Origin of Money

Indirect exchange is distinguished from direct exchange according as a medium is involved or not.

Suppose that A and B exchange with each other a number of units of the commodities m and n. A acquires the commodity n because of the use-value that it has for him. He intends to consume it. The same is true of B, who acquires the commodity m for his immediate use. This is a case of direct exchange.

If there are more than two individuals and more than two kinds of commodity in the market, indirect exchange also is possible. A may then acquire a commodity p, not because he desires to consume it, but in order to exchange it for a second commodity q which he does desire to consume. Let us suppose that A brings to the market two units of the commodity m, B two units of the commodity n, and C two units of the commodity o, and that A wishes to acquire one unit of each of the commodities n and o, B one unit of each of the commodities o and m, and C one unit of each of the commodities m and n. Even in this case a direct exchange is possible if the subjective valuations of the three commodities permit the exchange of each unit of m, n, and o for a unit of one of the others. But if this or a similar hypothesis does not hold good, and in by far the greater number of all exchange transactions it does not hold good, then indirect exchange becomes necessary, and the demand for goods for immediate wants is supplemented by a demand for goods to be exchanged for others.2

Let us take, for example, the simple case in which the commodity p is desired only by the holders of the commodity q, while the commodity q is not desired by the holders of the commodity p but by those, say, of a third commodity r, which in its turn is desired only by the possessors of p. No direct exchange between these persons can possibly take place. If exchanges occur at all, they must be indirect; as, for instance, if the possessors of the commodity p exchange it for the commodity q and then exchange this for the commodity r which is the one they desire for their own consumption. The case is not essentially different when supply and demand do not coincide quantitatively; for example, when one indivisible good has to be exchanged for various goods in the possession of several persons.

Indirect exchange becomes more necessary as division of labor increases and wants become more refined. In the present stage of economic development, the occasions when direct exchange is both possible and actually effected have already become very exceptional. Nevertheless, even nowadays, they sometimes arise. Take, for instance, the payment of wages in kind, which is a case of direct exchange so long on the one hand as the employer uses the labor for the immediate satisfaction of his own needs and does not have to procure through exchange the goods in which the wages are paid, and so long on the other hand as the employee consumes the goods he receives and does not sell them. Such payment of wages in kind is still widely prevalent in agriculture, although even in this sphere its importance is being continually diminished by the extension of capitalistic methods of management and the development of division of labor.3

Thus along with the demand in a market for goods for direct consumption there is a demand for goods that the purchaser does not wish to consume but to dispose of by further exchange. It is clear that not all goods are subject to this sort of demand. An individual obviously has no motive for an indirect exchange if he does not expect that it will bring him nearer to his ultimate objective, the acquisition of goods for his own use. The mere fact that there would be no exchanging unless it was indirect could not induce individuals to engage in indirect exchange if they secured no immediate personal advantage from it. Direct exchange being impossible, and indirect exchange being purposeless from the individual point of view, no exchange would take place at all. Individuals have recourse to indirect exchange only when they profit by it; that is, only when the goods they acquire are more marketable than those which they surrender.

Now all goods are not equally marketable. While there is only a limited and occasional demand for certain goods, that for others is more general and constant. Consequently, those who bring goods of the first kind to market in order to exchange them for goods that they need themselves have as a rule a smaller prospect of success than those who offer goods of the second kind. If, however, they exchange their relatively unmarketable goods for such as are more marketable, they will get a step nearer to their goal and may hope to reach it more surely and economically than if they had restricted themselves to direct exchange.

It was in this way that those goods that were originally the most marketable became common media of exchange; that is, goods into which all sellers of other goods first converted their wares and which it paid every would-be buyer of any other commodity to acquire first. And as soon as those commodities that were relatively most marketable had become common media of exchange, there was an increase in the difference between their marketability and that of all other commodities, and this in its turn further strengthened and broadened their position as media of exchange.4

Thus the requirements of the market have gradually led to the selection of certain commodities as common media of exchange. The group of commodities from which these were drawn was originally large, and differed from country to country; but it has more and more contracted. Whenever a direct exchange seemed out of the question, each of the parties to a transaction would naturally endeavor to exchange his superfluous commodities, not merely for more marketable commodities in general, but for the most marketable commodities; and among these again he would naturally prefer whichever particular commodity was the most marketable of all. The greater the marketability of the goods first acquired in indirect exchange, the greater would be the prospect of being able to reach the ultimate objective without further maneuvering. Thus there would be an inevitable tendency for the less marketable of the series of goods used as media of exchange to be one by one rejected until at last only a single commodity remained, which was universally employed as a medium of exchange; in a word, money.

This stage of development in the use of media of exchange, the exclusive employment of a single economic good, is not yet completely attained. In quite early times, sooner in some places than in others, the extension of indirect exchange led to the employment of the two precious metals gold and silver as common media of exchange. But then there was a long interruption in the steady contraction of the group of goods employed for that purpose. For hundreds, even thousands, of years the choice of mankind has wavered undecided between gold and silver. The chief cause of this remarkable phenomenon is to be found in the natural qualities of the two metals. Being physically and chemically very similar, they are almost equally serviceable for the satisfaction of human wants. For the manufacture of ornaments and jewelry of all kinds the one has proved as good as the other. (It is only in recent times that technological discoveries have been made which have considerably extended the range of uses of the precious metals and may have differentiated their utility more sharply.) In isolated communities, the employment of one or the other metal as sole common medium of exchange has occasionally been achieved, but this short-lived unity has always been lost again as soon as the isolation of the community has succumbed to participation in international trade.

Economic history is the story of the gradual extension of the economic community beyond its original limits of the single household to embrace the nation and then the world. But every increase in its size has led to a fresh duality of the medium of exchange whenever the two amalgamating communities have not had the same sort of money. It would not be possible for the final verdict to be pronounced until all the chief parts of the inhabited earth formed a single commercial area, for not until then would it be impossible for other nations with different monetary systems to join in and modify the international organization.

Of course, if two or more economic goods had exactly the same marketability, so that none of them was superior to the others as a medium of exchange, this would limit the development toward a unified monetary system. We shall not attempt to decide whether this assumption holds good of the two precious metals gold and silver. The question, about which a bitter controversy has raged for decades, has no very important bearings upon the theory of the nature of money. For it is quite certain that even if a motive had not been provided by the unequal marketability of the goods used as media of exchange, unification would still have seemed a desirable aim for monetary policy. The simultaneous use of several kinds of money involves so many disadvantages and so complicates the technique of exchange that the endeavor to unify the monetary system would certainly have been made in any case.

The theory of money must take into consideration all that is implied in the functioning of several kinds of money side by side. Only where its conclusions are unlikely to be affected one way or the other, may it proceed from the assumption that a single good is employed as common medium of exchange. Elsewhere, it must take account of the simultaneous use of several media of exchange. To neglect this would be to shirk one of its most difficult tasks.

3. The “Secondary” Functions of Money

The simple statement, that money is a commodity whose economic function is to facilitate the interchange of goods and services, does not satisfy those writers who are interested rather in the accumulation of material than in the increase of knowledge. Many investigators imagine that insufficient attention is devoted to the remarkable part played by money in economic life if it is merely credited with the function of being a medium of exchange; they do not think that due regard has been paid to the significance of money until they have enumerated half a dozen further “functions” — as if, in an economic order founded on the exchange of goods, there could be a more important function than that of the common medium of exchange.

After Menger’s review of the question, further discussion of the connection between the secondary functions of money and its basic function should be unnecessary.5 Nevertheless, certain tendencies in recent literature on money make it appear advisable to examine briefly these secondary functions — some of them are coordinated with the basic function by many writers — and to show once more that all of them can be deduced from the function of money as a common medium of exchange.

This applies in the first place to the function fulfilled by money in facilitating credit transactions. It is simplest to regard this as part of its function as medium of exchange. Credit transactions are in fact nothing but the exchange of present goods against future goods. Frequent reference is made in English and American writings to a function of money as a standard of deferred payments.6 But the original purpose of this expression was not to contrast a particular function of money with its ordinary economic function, but merely to simplify discussions about the influence of changes in the value of money upon the real amount of money debts. It serves this purpose admirably. But it should be pointed out that its use has led many writers to deal with the problems connected with the general economic consequences of changes in the value of money merely from the point of view of modifications in existing debt relations and to overlook their significance in all other connections.

The functions of money as a transmitter of value through time and space may also be directly traced back to its function as medium of exchange. Menger has pointed out that the special suitability of goods for hoarding, and their consequent widespread employment for this purpose, has been one of the most important causes of their increased marketability and therefore of their qualification as media of exchange.7 As soon as the practice of employing a certain economic good as a medium of exchange becomes general, people begin to store up this good in preference to others. In fact, hoarding as a form of investment plays no great part in our present stage of economic development, its place having been taken by the purchase of interest-bearing property.8 On the other hand, money still functions today as a means for transporting value through space.9

This function again is nothing but a matter of facilitating the exchange of goods. The European farmer who emigrates to America and wishes to exchange his property in Europe for a property in America, sells the former, goes to America with the money (or a bill payable in money), and there purchases his new homestead. Here we have an absolute textbook example of an exchange facilitated by money.

Particular attention has been devoted, especially in recent times, to the function of money as a general medium of payment. Indirect exchange divides a single transaction into two separate parts which are connected merely by the ultimate intention of the exchangers to acquire consumption goods. Sale and purchase thus apparently become independent of each other Furthermore, if the two parties to a sale-and-purchase transaction perform their respective parts of the bargain at different times, that of the seller preceding that of the buyer (purchase on credit), then the settlement of the bargain, or the fulfillment of the seller’s part of it (which need not be the same thing), has no obvious connection with the fulfillment of the buyer’s part. The same is true of all other credit transactions, especially of the most important sort of credit transaction — lending. The apparent lack of a connection between the two parts of the single transaction has been taken as a reason for regarding them as independent proceedings, for speaking of the payment as an independent legal act, and consequently for attributing to money the function of being a common medium of payment. This is obviously incorrect. “If the function of money as an object which facilitates dealings in commodities and capital is kept in mind, a function that includes the payment of money prices and repayment of loans ... there remains neither necessity nor justification for further discussion of a special employment, or even function of money, as a medium of payment.”

The root of this error (as of many other errors in economics) must be sought in the uncritical acceptance of juristical conceptions and habits of thought. From the point of view of the law, outstanding debt is a subject which can and must be considered in isolation and entirely (or at least to some extent) without reference to the origin of the obligation to pay. Of course, in law as well as in economics, money is only the common medium of exchange. But the principal, although not exclusive, motive of the law for concerning itself with money is the problem of payment. When it seeks to answer the question, What is money? it is in order to determine how monetary liabilities can be discharged. For the jurist, money is a medium of payment. The economist to whom the problem of money presents a different aspect, may not adopt this point of view if he does not wish at the very outset to prejudice his prospects of contributing to the advancement of economic theory.

 

Money, Method, and the Market Process11

“Senior’s Lectures on Monetary Problems”

When people today generally assert that things have so radically changed since the time in which the classical theory of money and foreign exchanges was expounded, that one cannot apply their results to modern conditions, they unfortunately do not give any proof. It is totally wrong to pretend that raising the rate of discount would not have any effect today on the flow of gold and on the exchange rate, or an insufficient effect. There is no proof that discount policy of the old type is inapplicable to the present situation. The fact is that the ruling parties prefer the consequences of a depreciation of the national currency to the consequences resulting from non-interference in the market’s money rate.

Let us consider separately the different recent cases of departure from the old gold parity. There was the case of England in 1931. Britain had to choose between a policy of defending the gold standard by raising the rate of discount, as has been done over and over again, and a policy of depreciation. She decided for the second because it made it possible to maintain unchanged the British level of prices and wages in the midst of a world of falling gold prices. Opinions differ on the soundness of this policy, and there is no doubt that it was very unsound from the point of view of [Nassau William] Senior’s ideas. But there was nothing in the situation which could not be explained from the point of view of Senior’s theoretical teaching. It is true that his decision would have been very different from that of Great Britain’s rulers in 1931. He would have believed that nominal wages had to fall pari passu with prices, and that there was nothing alarming in a situation where the prices of raw materials which England buys fall more rapidly than the prices of the manufactures which England exports. But Senior in discussing these problems with Mr. Norman and Mr. Keynes would at the end of the conversation have said: “I see, gentlemen, that you follow other aims.” But he would have had no reason to say: “You have to cope with a situation which my theory does not cover.”

Yet in another respect a radical change in the financial situation has been accomplished. In the modern banking system the short-term debts play a dominating role. The banks of the lending countries have lent enormous sums to the banks of the borrowing countries. Literally they had the right to withdraw this money at short notice. But in fact such withdrawals could not be affected at once, as the borrowing banks had lent this money to business which could not pay it back at all or at least only after some delay. The international credit relations were based on a fallacious assumption of liquidity. The moment the lenders tried to exert their right of withdrawal there were only two alternatives: open declaration of bankruptcy by the debtor banks or intervention of the government which suspended payments to foreign countries. The introduction of foreign exchange control in some continental countries in the summer of 1931 was a makeshift for a formal moratorium.

Banking today is not sounder when considered from the point of view of the home situation. Deposits subject to cheques and saving deposits are two entirely different things. The saver wishes to entrust his money for a longer period; he wishes to get interest. The bank which receives his money has to lend it to business. A withdrawal of the money entrusted to it by the saver can only take place in the same measure as the bank is able to get back the money it has lent. As the total amount of the saving deposits is working in the country’s business, a total withdrawal is not possible. The individual saver can get back his money from the bank, but not all savers at the same time. That does not mean that banking is unsound. It does not become unsound until the banks explicitly or tacitly promise what they cannot perform: to pay back the savings at call or at short notice.

The deposits subject to cheques have a different purpose. They are the business man’s cash like coins and bank notes. The depositor intends to dispose of them day by day. He does not demand interest, or at least he would entrust the money to the bank even without interest. The bank, to be sure, could not earn anything if it were to hold the whole amount of these deposits available. It has to lend the money at short notice to business. If all depositors simultaneously were to ask their deposits back, it could not meet the demand. This fact that a bank which issues notes or receives deposits subject to cheque cannot hold the total amount corresponding to the notes in circulation and to the deposits in its vaults, and therefore can never redeem at once the total amount of its liabilities of this kind, is the knotty problem of banking policy. It is the consideration of this difficulty which has to govern the credit policy of the banks which issue notes or receive deposits subject to cheque. It is this consideration that led to the legislation which limits the issue of bank notes and imposes on the central banks the retention of a reserve fund of a certain magnitude.

But the case of the saving deposits is different. Since the saver does not need the deposited sum at call or short notice it is not necessary that the saving banks and the other banks which take over such deposits should promise repayment at call or at short notice. Nevertheless, this is what they did. And so they became exposed to the dangers of a panic. They would not have run this danger, if they had accepted the saving deposits only on condition that withdrawal must be notified some months ahead.

Public opinion assumes that the real danger to maintenance of monetary stability lies in the flight of capital. This assumption is not correct. Capital invested in real estate or in industrial plants or in shares of companies holding property of this nature cannot fly. You can sell such property and leave the country with the proceeds. But — unless there is no expansion of credit — the buyer simply replaces you. If he is a foreigner, then the capital flight of the native is compensated by the immigration of capital from abroad. If the buyer is another native, then he can provide the means — when additional credit is not granted by credit expansion — merely by selling his property, and so the case with him is the same. One person or another can withdraw his capital from a country, but this can never be a mass movement. There is only one apparent exception, i.e., the saving deposit which can be withdrawn from the bank at once or at short notice. When the saving deposits are subject to instant withdrawal and the bank of issue renders the immediate withdrawal possible by advancing credits for these savings to be withdrawn, then credit expansion and inflation cause the exchange ratio to rise. It is obvious that not the flight of capital but the credit expansion in favor of the saving banks is the root of the evil.

The pith of the problem lies in the deposit policy. Banks which promise no more than they can fulfill without extraordinary assistance from the central bank, never jeopardize the stability of the country’s currency. And even the other banks who have been imprudent enough to assume liabilities which they cannot meet are only a danger when the central bank tries to assist them. If the Central Bank were to leave them to their fate, their peculiar embarrassment would not have any effect on foreign exchanges. That the additional issue of great amounts of bank notes for the sake of the repayment of the total amount or of a great portion of the country’s saving deposits makes the foreign exchange go up is easy to understand. It is not simply the wish of the capitalists to fly with their capital, but the expansion of the circulation, that imperils monetary stability.

Had the central banks not believed that it was their duty to cover up the consequences of the deposit banks’ wrong policy they would have not only maintained without artificial and, at the same time, ineffective measures of the stability of the exchange ratio, but would have forced the deposit banks to make agreements with their clients concerning the payments due. By such agreements they would have adjusted the payments due to the payments receivable. The Standstill Agreements would have been made definitively and for all debts, foreign, and domestic.

To sum up, we are not entitled to say that Senior in his writings on money and monetary subjects had to deal with problems other than those which we have today. The task of monetary and banking theory is in principle not different today from Senior’s time. Different, of course, are the conditions of our banking organization, the institutions, and the considerations which politicians keep in mind. Different are the data, but not the mechanism of exchange and social cooperation. All the questions of principles which Senior had to face are identical with those which our theory has to answer. We may differ from Senior in regard to the treatment of the fundamental items of value and exchange, but we have still the same problems to solve. And notwithstanding all changes in economic thought and reasoning, in social conditions and political aspects, in banking organization and in business life generally, no one can read these old pamphlets without profit.


 “The Position of Money among Economic Goods”12

Karl Knies has recommended to replace the traditional division of economic goods into consumer goods and producer goods with a threefold classification: producer goods, consumer goods, and means of exchange.13 Terminological questions of this kind, however, should be decided solely on the basis of their usefulness for furthering scientific work; definitions, concepts, and the taxonomy of phenomena have to prove their usefulness in the results of the research which makes use of them. When these criteria are applied to the classification and terminology suggested by Knies, it becomes apparent that they are extremely appropriate. Indeed, there is no theory of catallactics which does not make use of them. The theory of the value of money is always reserved for special treatment and separated for the explanation of the price formation of producer goods as well as consumer goods, although it is obviously part of a uniform theory of value and price. Even if we do not use the Kniesian terminology and classification consciously, in all significant discussions we act as if we had adopted them completely.

But it is also necessary to note that the special role of money among economic goods has, if anything, been over-emphasized. The problems of the determination of the purchasing power of money have mostly been treated as if they had nothing or very little in common with the problems of non-monetary exchange. This led to a special status of monetary theory and has been detrimental to the development of economic understanding. Even today, we continually encounter attempts to defend certain unjustified peculiarities of monetary theory.

Roscher’s often quoted remark, “[that] the wrong definitions of money can be divided into two main groups: Those which think of it as more and those which think of it as less than the most saleable good,”14 applies not only to the question of the definition of money. Even a number of those who consider the theory of money a part of catallactics go too far in emphasizing its special position. This branch of our science offers plenty of difficulties and it is not necessary to construct artificial problems; the existing ones provide enough challenge.

1. Monetary Services and the Value of Money

It is clear that the naive conception of the layman that things have value in themselves, i.e., intrinsic value, necessarily leads to a position which draws the dividing line between money and money substitutes differently from the position according to which the value of a thing is derived from its usefulness. Those who conceive of value as the result of properties inherent in things must necessarily make a distinction between physically valuable money and means of exchange which provide monetary services but are without material value. This approach inescapably leads to a contrasting of normal money with bad and abnormal money, which, in reality, is not money at all.

Today there is no need to deal with this theory. For the modern subjective theory of value, the question has long been decided. No one would still openly defend a concept according to which the whole or a portion of value and price theory was based upon intrinsic exchange value, i.e., independent of the valuations of acting men. Once this is admitted, one has already adopted the fundamental principle of subjective value theory, i.e., the theory of marginal utility.

For prescientific economists — the predecessors of the Physiocrats and the Classical Economists — it was a significant problem to integrate the theory of the value of money with that of the value of other goods. Holding a crudely materialistic bias, they saw the source of value in the “objective” usefulness of goods. From this point of view, it is obvious why bread, which can still hunger, and cloth, which can protect from the cold, will have value. But from where does money, which can neither nourish people nor keep them warm, derive its value? Some responded that it arose “from convention” and others maintained that the value of money was “imaginary.”

The error in this view was discovered early. John Law had put it most succinctly. If all value is derived from usefulness, then it must be true that the adoption of the precious metals as means of exchange must generate a value for it. If one wishes to call the value of the metal used as money, insofar as it is derived from its monetary services, imaginary, one has to regard all value as imaginary,

Car aucune chose n’a de valeur que par l’usage auquel on l’applique, et a raison des demandes qu’on en fait, proportionellement a sa quantite.15

With these words, Law anticipated the subjective theory of value; he should not be denied the place he deserves in the history of our science. The importance of his accomplishment is not reduced by his inability to develop all the implications from his fundamental idea or that he got lost in the impenetrable thicket of error or, perhaps, even of guilt.

Researchers who came after him were also unable to make full use of the content of the clearly developed fundamental idea advanced by Law. In three respects we still encounter misconceptions.

First, some writers categorically deny that the service provided by money can generate value. Unfortunately, they do not provide a justification why monetary services should be different from the services provided by food and clothing. The difficulty posed by “paper money” is circumvented by viewing “paper money” as a claim on genuine, i.e., “materially” valuable, metallic money. Fluctuations in the rate of exchange of “paper money” are explained by changes in the probability of payment in species. In view of the development of monetary theory during the last decades, I consider it superfluous to challenge this theory. I have attempted an empirical refutation and have not encountered adequate opposition.16

In a way, the second error is connected with the first: the denial of the possibility of there being a money whose “substance” only produces monetary services and nothing else. It is usually granted that monetary services can generate value, just as every other service, in general. Without reservation, we have to agree with Knies when he argues, “[that] gold and silver would have been as unsuitable for the purpose of performing the functions of money as any other commodity, if they had not previously — before their adoption for monetary services — served as economic goods for the satisfaction of human wants, a ‘general’ economic need, a need that was widely felt and persistent.”17 But Knies is in error when he continues, “it is not sufficient that this primary use of the precious metals has preceded their use for monetary services; it is necessary that this use continues, lest the pieces of precious metal lose their usefulness as money. ... If people ceased to use gold and silver to satisfy their desire for jewelry or ornamentation, etc., then the other use of the precious metals, their use as a means of exchange, would be eliminated, also.”18 Knies did not succeed in proving the validity of this assertion. It is by no means evident why an economic good, which performs the services of a commonly used means of exchange, should lose its ability to serve as money simply because its use for other purposes are gradually discontinued.

That the adoption of a good as a medium of exchange requires the goods’ previous use or consumption for other purposes results from the fact that the specific demand for its services as a means of exchange presupposes an already existing objective exchange value. This objective exchange value, which subsequently will be modified by the demand for the good as a medium of exchange in addition to the demand for it in its “other” use, will be based exclusively upon its “other” use when it begins to be used as a means of exchange. But once an economic good has become money, then the specific demand for money can tie into an already existing exchange relationship between money and goods in the market, even if the demand for the money-good, as motivated by the other use, disappears.

Only very slowly and with difficulty has the human spirit freed itself from the crude materialistic mode of thought that has resulted in a prolonged resistance to the idea that the use of a good as a medium of exchange, like any other possible use for the good, generates a demand that establishes a price and is capable of changing that price. If the ability of a thing to satisfy a human need, as well as the recognition of this ability, are made the prerequisites for establishing the goods-quality of a thing,19 then one comes close to distinguishing between “real” and “unreal” goods among the objects of economic action. As soon as the economist steps upon this ground, he loses his footing and slides unintentionally out of the domain of scientific objectivity; he enters the realm of ethical valuations, morality, and policy. There, he will compare the “objectively useful” things to those which are merely “thought to be useful.” He will examine whether and to what extent the things which are thought to be useful (and therefore are treated accordingly) are indeed so in an “objective” sense. As soon as one has come this far, it is only logical to ask whether the usefulness provided by a good satisfies a genuine need or merely a fictitious one. This way of thinking may subsequently lead to the view that the value of precious metals (which serve “only” the desire for jewelry and do not satisfy a physiological need as, e.g., food and clothing undeniably do from a crude materialistic point-of-view) is entirely imaginary, a result of inappropriate social institutions and human vanity. On the other hand, the result can be that the value of precious metals is admitted as legitimate since even the desire for jewelry is “genuine” and “justified.” The objective utility of the precious metals is not denied; rather, the general validity of the requirement for the services of money is questioned since society had once existed without money and, in any case, such a society is imaginable. It is an untenable assumption that the “goods-quality” requires a “natural” utility not limited to the particular requirements of any presupposed social order.

But an even cruder materialism was the view which wanted to deny monetary services their value-creating power because money in its performance of this service did not lose its ability to serve other purposes; in other words, because its “substance” was not used up in its services as money.

All of those who denied the ability of the services of money to determine its exchange value failed to recognize that the only decisive element is demand. The fact that there exists a demand for money — the most marketable (most saleable) good, for which the owners of other goods are prepared to exchange — means that the monetary function is capable of creating value.

2. Money Supply and Money Demand: The “Velocity of Circulation” of Money

The most disastrous of the unjustified deviations of monetary theory from the theory of direct exchange was the failure to base the analysis of the fundamental problem of the theory of the value of money on the relation between the stock of money and the demand for it by the individual economic units, or between the demand for money and the supply of money on the market. Rather, the analysis began with the objective usefulness of the monetary unit for the aggregate economy, which was expressed as the velocity of money relative to the money stock and which was then compared to the sum of transactions.

The old tendency, taken over from the Cameralists, to base the analysis of economic problems of the “national economy,” on the “totality” and not on the acting human subjects, seems hard to eradicate. In spite of all the warnings of the subjective economists, we continue to observe relapses. It is one of the lesser evils that ethical judgments regarding phenomena are presented under the guise of scientific objectivity. For example, productive activity (i.e., activity carried out in an imagined socialist community led by the critic) is contrasted with profit-seeking activity (i.e., the activity of individuals in a society based on private property in the means of production). The former will be viewed as the “just” and the latter as the “unjust” mode of production. Much more important is the fact that if one thinks in terms of the totality of a society’s economy, one can never understand the operation of a society based on private property in the means of production. It is erroneous to maintain that the necessity for the collectivist method can be proved by showing that actions of the individuals can only be understood within the framework of that individual’s environment. This is so because economic analysis does not depend on the psychological understanding of the motives of action, but only an understanding of action itself. It is unimportant for catallactics why bread, clothes, books, cannons or religious items are desired on the market; it is only important that a certain demand does exist. The mechanism of the market and, therefore, the laws of the capitalistic economy can only be grasped if one begins with the forces operating on the market. But on the market there are only individuals acting as buyers and sellers, never the “totality.” In economic theory, the totality can be taken only in the sense of an economic collective where the means of production are entirely outside the orbit of exchange and, therefore, cannot be sold for money. Here there is neither room for price theory nor a theory of money. But if we wish to grasp the value problems of a collective economy, we can — ironically — only use that method of analysis which has come to be known as the “individualistic method.”

The attempts to solve the problem of the value of money with reference to the aggregate economy, rather than through market factors, culminated in a tautological equation without any epistemological value. Only a theory which shows how subjective value judgments of buyers and sellers are influenced by changes in the different elements of the equation of exchange can legitimately be called a theory of the value of money.

Buyers and sellers on the market never concern themselves with the elements in the equation of exchange, of which two — velocity of circulation and the price level — do not even exist before market parties act and the other two — the quantity of money (in the whole economy) and the sum of transactions — could not possibly be known to the parties in the market. Only the importance which the various actors in the market attach, on the one hand, to the maintenance of a cash balance of a certain magnitude and, on the other hand, to the ownership of the various goods in question determines the formation of the exchange relationship between money and goods.

Connected with the concept of the velocity of circulation of money is the mental image that money generates its usefulness only at the instant of transaction, but is “idle” and useless at other times. A distinction between active and idle money is also made when one speaks of money hoarding and proceeds to a comparison between the “hoarded” quantity of money and the quantity of money that would be necessary to perform the monetary services; what distinguishes this from the previous case is the way in which the boundary between active and idle money is drawn. Both distinctions must be rejected.

The service of money is not confined to transactions. It fulfills its task not only at the moment it passes from one hand to the next. It also performs services when it rests in the till, as the most marketable good, in anticipation of its future use in trade as a generally used means of exchange. The demand for money of individuals, as well as the entire economy, is determined by the desire to maintain a cash balance and not by the aggregate of transactions to be carried out during a certain time period.20

It is an arbitrary procedure to divide the money stock into two parts: that which is designated to perform money services proper and that which serves as a money hoard. Of course, no damage will be done if, on the one hand, the demand for money is separated into a demand for hoarding and a demand to perform the monetary service proper. But a formula which portrays and solves only an arbitrarily delineated part of the problem must be rejected if we are able to show another one which will deal with and solve the whole problem in a uniform fashion.

3. Fluctuations in the Value of Money

One of the most peculiar phenomena in the history of monetary theory is the stubborn resistance encountered by the quantity theory. The imperfect formulation given to it by many of its advocates inevitably ran into opposition, with many — as, for example, Benjamin Anderson21 — ascribing to the concept a meaning quite different from that commonly accepted. As a result, what they call the quantity theory, and oppose as such, is not the theory itself but only a variation of it. This is not particularly astonishing. But what is quite surprising is that an attempt was made and sometimes is still made today to deny that changes in the relation between money supply and money demand will modify the purchasing power of the monetary unit. It is not sufficient to base an explanation on the special interests of inflationists, statists and socialists, of civil servants and politicians who would be harmed by a spreading of knowledge concerning monetary policy. We will never arrive at an answer by following the path of the Historical-Realistic School, which (following the Marxian example) explains all ideas by ideologies. It had never been a problem to explain why a particular ideology is developed and advocated by certain classes who believe they can benefit from it directly (even if this direct advantage is more than outweighed by indirect disadvantages). What has to be explained, however, is rather how incorrect theories come about and find followers. How does it come about that many people, without justification, come to assume that a certain policy benefits either the entire society or many groups in that society?

However, the theory of money as such is not interested in these psychological aspects which explain the reasons for the unpopularity of the quantity theory and the tendency to adopt other explanations for the value of money. Rather, it is interested in the question: which elements of the doctrines opposing the quantity theory could be useful? Since it was equally inadmissible to deny the importance of changes in supply for the formation of exchange relations in the area of indirect exchange as it was in the area of direct exchange, one could oppose the quantity theory only by admitting its correctness in principle, but arguing that notwithstanding its general validity another principle would regularly eliminate its effectiveness. This attempt was made by the Banking School with its famous theory of hoarding, and its offshoot, the theory of the automatic adjustment of the circulation of money substitutes to the demand for money in the broader sense. Today, both theories are overthrown.

As is the case with so many theories, the advocates of the quantity theory have harmed it more than its enemies. We have already mentioned the inadequacy of those theories based on the concept of the velocity of circulation of money. It was not any less erroneous to interpret the quantity theory as saying that the changes in the quantity of money resulted in proportional changes in the prices of goods. It was overlooked that every change in the relationship between the supply of money and the demand for money would necessarily bring about a shift in the distribution of wealth and income and that, therefore, the prices of the different goods and services could not be effected proportionally and simultaneously.

Nowhere has the practice of working with formulas modeled after mechanics, instead of paying attention to the problem of the influence of market factors, taken a greater toll than in this case. Economists wanted to operate with the equation of exchange without noticing that the changes in the volume of money and the demand for money can come about in only one way: at first, the evaluations and with them the actions of only a few economic subjects will be influenced, with the resulting changes in the purchasing power of the monetary unit only spreading through the economy in a step-by-step pattern. In other words, the problem of changes in the value of money have been treated with the method of “statics,” although there should never have been any doubt concerning the dynamic character of the problem.

4. Money Substitutes

The most difficult and most important special problem of monetary theory is that of money substitutes. The fact that money services can also be rendered by secure money claims redeemable on demand, presents considerable difficulties to the monetary theorists’ attempt to define the supply of money and the demand for money. This difficulty could not be overcome as long as money substitutes were not clearly defined and separated into money certificates and fiduciary media, in order to treat the granting of credit through the issue of fiduciary media separately from all other types of credit.

Loans which do not involve the issuing of fiduciary media (i.e., bank notes or deposits which are not backed by money) is of no consequence for the volume of money. The demand for money can be influenced by lending as much as by any other institution of the economic order. Without knowledge of the data of the specific case, we cannot say in which direction this influence will operate. The widely-held opinion that an expansion of credit will always lead to a reduction in the demand for money is not correct. If many of the loan contracts provide for large repayments on certain days (for example, at the end of the month or quarter), the result will be an increase and not a reduction in the demand for money. The consequences of this increase in the demand for money will be expressed in prices, if it were not for clearing arrangements, on the one hand, and the practice of banks to increase the volume of fiduciary media on critical days, on the other hand.

Everything depends on the clear separation of money from money substitutes and within the category of money substitutes a distinction between money certificates (a money substitute fully backed by money) and the fiduciary medium (the money substitute not backed by money). But this is above all a question of terminological appropriateness. However, this question gains in importance in view of the difficulty and complexity of the problems. It is not — as so often is still maintained — the “granting of credit” but the issuing of fiduciary media which causes those effects on prices, wages, and interest rates, which banking theory has to deal with. It is, therefore, not inappropriate to refer to banking theory as the theory of fiduciary media.

  • 1. [Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit (1934; Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyClassics, 1980), chap. 1: “The Function of Money,” pp. 29–37.]
  • 2. See [Knut] Wicksell, Über Wert, Kapital und Rente (Jena, 1893; London, 1933), pp. 50 f.
  • 3. The conclusion that indirect exchange is necessary in the majority of cases is extremely obvious. As we should expect, it is among the earliest discoveries of economics. We find it clearly expressed in the famous fragment of the Pandects of Paulus: “Quia non semper nec facile concurrebat, ut, cum tu haberas, quod ego desiderarem, invicem haberem, quod tu accipere velles” (Paulus, lib. 33 ad edictum 1.I pr. D. de contr. empt. 18, I).
         Schumpeter is surely mistaken in thinking that the necessity for money can be proved solely from the assumption of indirect exchange (see his Wesen und Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie [Leipzig, 1908], pp. 273 ff.). On this point, cf. Weiss, Die moderne Tendenz in der Lehre vom Geldwert, Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft, Sozialpolitik und Verwaltung, vol. 19, pp. 518 ff.
  • 4. See [Carl] Menger, Untersuchungen über die Methode der Sozialwissenschaften und der politischen Okonomie insbesondere (Leipzig, 1883), pp. 172 ff.; Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre, 2d ed. (Vienna, 1923), pp. 247 ff.
  • 5. See Menger, Grundsätze, pp. 278 ff.
  • 6. See [J. Shield] Nicholson, A Treatise on Money and Essays on Present Monetary Problems (Edinburgh, 1888), pp. 22 ff.; [Laurence] Laughlin, The Principles of Money (London, 1903), pp. 22 f.
  • 7. Cf. Menger, Grundsätze, pp. 284 ff.
  • 8. That is, apart from the exceptional propensity to hoard gold, silver, and foreign bills, encouraged by inflation and the laws enacted to further it.
  • 9. [Karl] Knies in particular (Geld und Kredit, 2d ed. [Berlin, 1885], vol. 1, pp. 233 ff.) has laid stress upon the function of money as interlocal transmitter of value.
  • 11. [Ludwig von Mises, Money, Method, and the Market Process: Essays by Ludwig von Mises, ed. Richard M. Ebeling (1933; Norwell, Mass. and Auburn, Ala.: Kluwer Academic Publishers and Mises Institute, 1990), chap. 8, pp. 106–09.]
  • 12. [Mises, Money, Method, and the Market Process (1932), chap. 4, pp. 55–64.]
  • 13. Karl Knies, Geld und Kredit, 2d. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1885), pp. 20 ff.
  • 14. Wilhelm Roscher, Gundlagen der Nationalökonomie, 25th ed. (Stuttgart and Berlin: J.G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung Nachtfolger, 1918), p. 340.
  • 15. John Law, Considerations sur le Numeraire et le Commerce (Paris: Buisson, 1851), pp. 447 ff. The passage translates as: The value of a thing is only in the use we make of it and the expectations we put into it, proportional to its quantity.
  • 16. See [Ludwig von] Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, pp. 146–53.
  • 17. Knies, Geld und Kredit, p. 322.
  • 18. Ibid., pp. 322 ff.
  • 19. This is even done by [Carl] Menger; see, his Principles of Economics (1871) (New York: New York University Press, 1981), pp. 52–53.
  • 20. Also see, Edwin Cannan, Money, 4th ed. (Westminster: P.S. King and Son, 1932), pp. 72 ff.
  • 21. Benjamin Anderson, The Value of Money (New York: Macmillan, 1917).
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