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Part One: The Nature of Money > Chapter 3. The Various Kinds of Money

3. Commodity Money, Credit Money, and Fiat Money

The economic theory of money is generally expressed in a terminology that is not economic but juristic. This terminology has been built up by writers, statesmen, merchants, judges, and others whose chief interests have been in the legal characteristics of the different kinds of money and their substitutes. It is useful for dealing with those aspects of the monetary system that are of importance from the legal point of view; but for purposes of economic investigation it is practically valueless. Sufficient attention has scarcely been devoted to this shortcoming, despite the fact that confusion of the respective provinces of the sciences of law and economics has nowhere been so frequent and so fraught with mischievous consequences as in this very sphere of monetary theory. It is a mistake to deal with economic problems according to legal criteria. The juristic phraseology, like the results of juristic research into monetary problems, must be regarded by economics as one of the objects of its investigations. It is not the task of economics to criticize it, although it is entitled to exploit it for its own purposes. There is nothing to be said against using juristic technical terms in economic argument where this leads to no undesirable consequences. But for its own special purposes, economics must construct its own special terminology.

There are two sorts of thing that may be used as money: on the one hand, physical commodities as such, like the metal gold or the metal silver; and, on the other hand, objects that do not differ technologically from other objects that are not money, the factor that decides whether they are money being not a physical but a legal characteristic. A piece of paper that is specially characterized as money by the imprint of some authority is in no way different, technologically considered, from another piece of paper that has received a similar imprint from an unauthorized person, just as a genuine five-franc piece does not differ technologically from a "genuine replica." The only difference lies in the law that regulates the manufacture of such coins and makes it impossible without authority. (In order to avoid every possible misunderstanding, let it be expressly stated that all that the law can do is to regulate the issue of the coins and that it is beyond the power of the state to ensure in addition that they actually shall become money; that is, that they actually shall be employed as a common medium of exchange. All that the state can do by means of its official stamp is to single out certain pieces of metal or paper from all the other things of the same kind so that they can be subjected to a process of valuation independent of that of the rest. Thus it permits those objects possessing the special legal qualification to be used as a common medium of exchange while the other commodities of the same sort remain mere commodities. It can also take various steps with the object of encouraging the actual employment of the qualified commodities as common media of exchange. But these commodities can never become money just because the state commands it; money can be created only by the usage of those who take part in commercial transactions.)

We may give the name commodity money to that sort of money that is at the same time a commercial commodity; and the name fiat money to money that comprises things with a special legal qualification. A third category may be called credit money, this being that sort of money which constitutes a claim against any physical or legal person. But these claims must not be both payable on demand and absolutely secure; if they were, there could be no difference between their value and that of the sum of money to which they referred, and they could not be subjected to an independent process of val uation on the part of those who dealt with them. In some way or other the maturity of these claims must be postponed to some future time. It can hardly be contested that fiat money in the strict sense of the word is theoretically conceivable. The theory of value proves the possibility of its existence. Whether fiat money has ever actually existed is, of course, another question, and one that cannot offhand be answered affirmatively. It can hardly be doubted that most of those kinds of money that are not commodity money must be classified as credit money. But only detailed historical investigation could clear this matter up.

Our terminology should prove more useful than that which is generally employed. It should express more clearly the peculiarities of the processes by which the different types of money are valued. It is certainly more correct than the usual distinction between metallic money and paper money. Metallic money comprises not only standard money but also token coins and such coins as the German thaler of the period 1873-1907; and paper money, as a rule, comprises not merely such fiat money and credit money as happen to be made of paper, but also convertible notes issued by banks or the state. This terminology is derived from popular usage. Previously, when more often than nowadays "metallic" money really was money and not a money substitute, perhaps the nomenclature was a little less inappropriate than it is now. Furthermore, it corresponded—perhaps still corresponds—to the naive and confused popular conception of value that sees in the precious metals something "intrinsically" valuable and in paper credit money something necessarily anomalous. Scientifically, this terminology is perfectly useless and a source of endless misunderstanding and misrepresentation. The greatest mistake that can be made in economic investigation is to fix attention on mere appearances, and so to fail to perceive the fundamental difference between things whose externals alone are similar, or to discriminate between fundamentally similar things whose externals alone are different.

Admittedly, for the numismatist and the technologist and the historian of art there is very little difference between the five-franc piece before and after the cessation of free coinage of silver, while the Austrian silver gulden even of the period 1879 to 1892 appears to be fundamentally different from the paper gulden. But it is regrettable that such superficial distinctions as this should still play a part in economic discussion.

Our threefold classification is not a matter of mere terminological gymnastics; the theoretical discussion of the rest of this book should demonstrate the utility of the concepts that it involves.

The decisive characteristic of commodity money is the employment for monetary purposes of a commodity in the technological sense. For the present investigation, it is a matter of complete indifference what particular commodity this is; the important thing is that it is the commodity in question that constitutes the money, and that the money is merely this commodity. The case of fiat money is quite different. Here the deciding factor is the stamp, and it is not the material bearing the stamp that constitutes the money, but the stamp itself. The nature of the material that bears the stamp is a matter of quite minor importance. Credit money, finally, is a claim falling due in the future that is used as a general medium of exchange.