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Appendix A: On the Classification of Monetary Theories

4. "Metallism"

It is no longer necessary to continue to argue against the nominalistic theory of money. For theoretical economics it has long been finished with. Nevertheless, the nominalist controversy has propagated errors in the history of doctrine that need to be weeded out.

First of all, there is the use of the term metallism. The expression comes from Knapp. "Those writers who start from weight and fineness and see in the stamp nothing but an attestation of these properties," Knapp christens metallists. "The metallist defines the unit of value as a certain quantity of metal."13

This definition of metallism given by Knapp is by no means a clear one. It should be pretty well known that there can hardly have been a single writer worth mentioning who has thought of the unit of value as consisting of a quantity of metal. But it must be remembered that, with the exception of the nominalists, there has never been a school so easily satisfied in the interpretation of the concept of value as that of Knapp, for whom the unit of value "is nothing but the unit in which the amount of payments is expressed."14

But it is easy to see what Knapp means by metallism even if he does not explicitly say it. For Knapp metallism is all the theories of money that are not nominalistic;15 and since he formulates the nominalistic doctrine with precision, it is clear what he understands by metallism. That those theories of money which are not nominalistic have no uniform characteristic, that there are catallactic and acatallactic theories among them, that each of these two groups is again divided into various opposed doctrines, is either unknown to Knapp, or willfully overlooked by him. For him, all nonnominalistic theories of money are but one. Nowhere in his writing is there anything to suggest that he knows of the existence of other monetary doctrines than that which regards metallic money as material valuable "in itself." He even completely ignores the existence of economic theories of value—not merely the existence of any particular theory but the existence of all of them. He invariably polemizes against the only theory of money known to him, which he believes to be the only theory opposed to nominalism, and which he calls metallism. His arguments are useless because they apply only to this one acatallactic doctrine which, with all other acatallactic theories, including nominalism, was long ago overthrown by economic science.

All controversial writers have to set themselves limits. In any field that has been much worked over it is impossible to confute all opposing views. The most important opposing opinions, the typical ones, those which seem to threaten most one's own point of view, must be selected, and the rest passed over in silence. Knapp writes for the German public of the present day, which, under the influence of the etatistic version of political economy, acquainted only with acatallactic theories of money, and even among these only with those which he calls metallistic. The success that he has met with here shows that he was right in directing his criticism only against this version, which is hardly represented in literature, and on the other hand in ignoring Bodin, Law, Hume, Senior, Jevons, Menger, Walras, and everybody else.

Knapp makes no attempt at all to determine what economics says about money. He only asks, "What does the educated man think of when he is asked about the nature of money?"16 He then criticizes the views of the "educated man," that is, apparently, the layman. Nobody will deny him the right to do this. But it is not permissible, having done it, to set up these views of the educated man as those of scientific economics. Nevertheless, this is what Knapp does when he describes the monetary theory of Adam Smith and David Ricardo as "entirely metallistic" and adds: "This theory teaches that the unit of value (the pound sterling) is definable as a certain weight of metal."17 The mildest thing that can be said about this assertion of Knapp's is that it is entirely unfounded. It most bluntly contradicts the views of Smith and Ricardo on the theory of value, and it does not find the least support in any of their writings. It will be obvious to all who have even only a superficial acquaintance with the value theory of the Classicals and their theory of money that Knapp has here committed an incomprehensible error.

But neither were the Classicals "metallists" in the sense that their only contribution to the problems of paper money was "indignation."18 Adam Smith expounded the social advantages arising from the "substitution of paper in the room of gold and silver money" in a manner that has hardly been equaled by any writer before or after him.19 But it was Ricardo, in his pamphlet "Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency," published in 1816, who elaborated this point of view and recommended a monetary system under which precious-metal money should be entirely eliminated from actual domestic circulation. This suggestion of Ricardo's was the basis of that monetary system, first established at the end of the last century in India, then in the Straits Settlements, then in the Philippines, and finally in Austria-Hungary, that is usually known nowadays as the gold-exchange standard. Knapp and his fellow enthusiasts for "modern monetary theory" could easily have avoided the mistakes they made in explaining the policy followed by the Austro-Hungarian Bank between 1900 and 1911, if they had taken note of what Smith and Ricardo had said in these passages.20

  • 13. Knapp, op. cit., p. 281; "Die Beziehungen Oesterreichs zur staatlichen Theorie des Geldes," Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft, &c. 17: 440.
  • 14. Knapp, Staatliche Theorie, pp. 6 f.
  • 15. "Alle unsere Nationalökonomen sind Metallisten," Knapp, "Über die Theorien des Geldwesens," Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, &c. 33: 432.
  • 16. Knapp, "Die Währungsfrage vom Staat aus betrachtet," Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, &c. 41: 1528.
  • 17. Knapp, "Über die Theorien des Geldwesens," p. 430.
  • 18. Ibid., p. 432.
  • 19. See also pp. 298 f.
  • 20. From the pamphlet of Ricardo's referred to above it may suffice to quote the following passage only: "A well-regulated paper currency is so great an improvement in commerce that I should greatly regret if prejudice should induce us to return to a system of less utility. The introduction of the precious metals for the purposes of money may with truth be considered as one of the most important steps toward the improvement of commerce and the arts of civilized life; but it is no less true, that, with the advancement of knowledge and science, we discover that it would be another improvement to banish them again from the employment to which, during a less enlightened period, they had been so advantageously applied" (Works, 2d ed. [London, 1852], p. 404). Thus the real appearance of Ricardo's "metallistic indignation.