Books / Digital Text

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

4. The Commodity Money of the Past and of the Present

Even when the differentiation of commodity money, credit money, and fiat money is accepted as correct in principle and only its utility disputed, the statement that the freely mintable currency of the present day and the metallic money of previous centuries are examples of commodity money is totally rejected by many authorities and by still more of the public at large. It is true that as a rule nobody denies that the older forms of money were commodity money. It is further generally admitted that in earlier times coins circulated by weight and not by tale. Nevertheless, it is asserted, money changed its nature long ago. The money of Germany and England in 1914, it is said, was not gold, but the mark and the pound. Money nowadays consists of "specified units with a definite significance in terms of value, that is assigned to them by law" (Knapp). "By 'the standard' we mean the units of value (florins, francs, marks, etc.) that have been adopted as measures of value, and by 'money' we mean the tokens (coins and notes) that represent the units that function as a measure of value. The controversy as to whether silver or gold or both together should function as a standard and as currency is an idle one, because neither silver nor gold ever has performed these functions or ever could have done so" (Hammer).10

Before we proceed to test the truth of these remarkable assertions, let us make one brief observation on their genesis—although it would really be more correct to say renascence than to say genesis, since the doctrines involved exhibit a very close relationship with the oldest and most primitive theories of money. Just as these were, so the nominalistic monetary theories of the present day are, characterized by their inability to contribute a single word toward the solution of the chief problem of monetary theory—one might in fact simply call it the problem of monetary theory—namely that of explaining the exchange ratios between money and other economic goods. For their authors, the economic problem of value and prices simply does not exist. They have never thought it necessary to consider how market ratios are established or what they signify. Their attention is accidentally drawn to the fact that a German thaler (since 1873), or an Austrian silver florin (since 1879), is essentially different from a quantity of silver of the same weight and fineness that has not been stamped at the government mint. They notice a similar state of affairs with regard to "paper money." They do not understand this, and endeavor to find an answer to the riddle. But at this point, just because of their lack of acquaintance with the theory of value and prices, their inquiry takes a peculiarly unlucky turn. They do not inquire how the exchange ratios between money and other economic goods are established. This obviously seems to them quite a self-evident matter. They formulate their problem in another way: How does it come about that three twenty-mark pieces are equivalent to twenty thalers despite the fact that the silver contained in the thalers has a lower market value than the gold contained in the marks? And their answer runs: Because the value of money is determined by the state, by statute, by the legal system. Thus, ignoring the most important facts of monetary history, they weave an artificial network of fallacies; a theoretical construction that collapses immediately the question is put: What exactly are we to understand by a unit of value? But such impertinent questions can only occur to those who are acquainted with at least the elements of the theory of prices. Others are able to content themselves with references to the "nominality" of the unit of value. No wonder, then, that these theories should have achieved such popularity with the man in the street, especially since their kinship with inflationism was bound to commend them strongly to all "cheap-money" enthusiasts.

It may be stated as an assured result of investigation into monetary history that at all times and among all peoples the principal coins have been tendered and accepted, not by tale without consideration of their quantity and quality, but only as pieces of metal of specific degrees of weight and fineness. Where coins have been accepted by tale, this has always been in the definite belief that the stamp showed them to be of the usual fineness of their kind and of the correct weight. Where there were no grounds for this assumption, weighing and testing were resorted to again.

Fiscal considerations have led to the promulgation of a theory that attributes to the minting authority the right to regulate the purchasing power of the coinage as it thinks fit. For just as long as the minting of coins has been a government function, governments have tried to fix the weight and content of the coins as they wished. Philip VI of France expressly claimed the right "to mint such money and give it such currency and at such rate as we desire and seems good to us"11 and all medieval rulers thought and did as he in this matter. Obliging jurists supported them by attempts to discover a philosophical basis for the divine right of kings to debase the coinage and to prove that the true value of the coins was that assigned to them by the ruler of the country.

Nevertheless, in defiance of all official regulations and prohibitions and fixing of prices and threats of punishment, commercial practice has always insisted that what has to be considered in valuing coins is not their face value but their value as metal. The value of a coin has always been determined, not by the image and superscription it bears nor by the proclamation of the mint and market authorities, but by its metal content. Not every kind of money has been accepted at sight, but only those kinds with a good reputation for weight and fineness. In loan contracts, repayment in specific kinds of money has been stipulated for, and in the case of a change in the coinage, fulfillment in terms of metal required.12 In spite of all fiscal influences, the opinion gradually gained general acceptance, even among the jurists, that it was the metal value—the bonitas intrinseca as they called it—that was to be considered when repaying money debts.13

Debasement of the coinage was unable to force commercial practice to attribute to the new and lighter coins the same purchasing power as the old and heavier coins.14 The value of the coinage fell in proportion to the diminution of its weight and quality. Even price regulations took into account the diminished purchasing power of money due to its debasement. Thus the Schöffen or assessors of Schweidnitz in Silesia used to have the newly minted pfennigs submitted to them, assess their value, and then in consultation with the city council and elders fix the prices of commodities accordingly. There has been handed down to us from thirteenth-century Vienna a forma institutionis que fit per civium arbitrium annuatim tempore quo denarii renovantur pro rerum venalium qualibet emptione in which the prices of commodities and services are regulated in connection with the introduction of a new coinage in the years 1460 to 1474. Similar measures were taken on similar occasions in other cities.15

Wherever disorganization of the coinage had advanced so far that the presence of a stamp on a piece of metal was no longer any help in determining its actual content, commerce ceased entirely to rely on the official monetary system and created its own system of measuring the precious metals. In large transactions, ingots and trade tokens were used. Thus, the German merchants visiting the fair at Geneva took ingots of refined gold with them and made their purchases with these, employing the weights used at the Paris market, instead of using money. This was the origin of the Markenskudo or scutus marcharum, which was nothing but the merchants' usual term for 3.765 grams of refined gold. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the Geneva trade was gradually being transferred to Lyons, the gold mark had become such a customary unit of account among the merchants that bills of exchange expressed in terms of it were carried to and from the market. The old Venetian lire di grossi had a similar origin.16 In the giro banks that sprang up in all big commercial centers at the beginning of the modern era we see a further attempt to free the monetary system from the authorities' abuse of the privilege of minting. The clearinghouse business of these banks was based either on coins of a specific fineness or on ingots. This bank money was commodity money in its most perfect form.

The nominalists assert that the monetary unit, in modern countries at any rate, is not a concrete commodity unit that can be defined in suitable technical terms, but a nominal quantity of value about which nothing can be said except that it is created by law. Without touching upon the vague and nebulous nature of this phraseology, which will not sustain a moment's criticism from the point of view of the theory of value, let us simply ask: What, then, were the mark, the franc, and the pound before 1914? Obviously, they were nothing but certain weights of gold. Is it not mere quibbling to assert that Germany had not a gold standard but a mark standard? According to the letter of the law, Germany was on a gold standard, and the mark was simply the unit of account, the designation of 1/2790 kg. of refined gold. This is in no way affected by the fact that nobody was bound in private dealings to accept gold ingots or foreign gold coins, for the whole aim and intent of state intervention in the monetary sphere is simply to release individuals from the necessity of testing the weight and fineness of the gold they receive, a task which can only be undertaken by experts and which involves very elaborate precautionary measures. The narrowness of the limits within which the weight and fineness of the coins are legally allowed to vary at the time of minting, and the establishment of a further limit to the permissible loss by wear of those in circulation, are much better means of securing the integrity of the coinage than the use of scales and nitric acid on the part of all who have commercial dealings. Again, the right of free coinage, one of the basic principles of modern monetary law, is a protection in the opposite direction against the emergence of a difference in value between the coined and uncoined metal. In large-scale international trade, where differences that are negligible as far as single coins are concerned have a cumulative importance, coins are valued, not according to their number, but according to their weight; that is, they are treated not as coins but as pieces of metal. It is easy to see why this does not occur in domestic trade. Large payments within a country never involve the actual transfer of the amounts of money concerned, but merely the assignment of claims, which ultimately refer to the stock of precious metal of the central bank.

The role played by ingots in the gold reserves of the banks is a proof that the monetary standard consists in the precious metal, and not in the proclamation of the authorities.

Even for present-day coins, so far as they are not money substitutes, credit money, or fiat money, the statement is true that they are nothing but ingots whose weight and fineness are officially guaranteed.17 The money of those modern countries where metal coins with no mint restrictions are used is commodity money just as much as that of ancient and medieval nations.

  • 10. See esp. Hammer, Die Hauptprinzipien des Geld-und Währungswesens und die Lösung der Valutafrage (Vienna, 1891), pp. 7 ff.; Gesell, Die Anpassung des Geldes und seiner Verwaltung an die Bedürfnisse des modernen Verkehres (Buenos Aires, 1897), pp. 21 ff.; Knapp, Staatliche Theorie des Geldes, 3d ed. (Munich, 1921), pp. 20 ff.
  • 11. See Luschin, Allgemeine Münzkunde und Geldgeschichte des Mittelalters und der neureren Zeit (Munich, 1904), P. 215; Babelon, La théorie féodale de la monnaie (Extrait des mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, vol. 38, Part I [Paris, 1908], p. 35).
  • 12. For important references, see Babelon, op. cit., p. 35.
  • 13. See Seidler, "Die Schwankungen des Geldwertes und die juristische Lehre von dem Inhalt der Geldschulden," Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik (1894), 3d. Series, vol. 7, p. 688.
  • 14. For earlier conditions in Russia, see Gelesnoff, Grundzüge der Volkswirtschaftslehre, trans. into German by Altschul (Leipzig, 1918), p. 357.
  • 15. See Luschin, op. cit., pp. 221 f.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 155; Endemann, Studien in der romanisch-kanonistischen Wirtschafts-und Rechtslehre bis gegen Ende des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1874), vol. 1, pp. 180 ff.
  • 17. Chevalier, Cours d'économie politique, III., La monnaie (Paris, 1850), pp. 21 ff; Goldschmidt, Handbuch des Handelsrechts (Erlangen, 1868), vol. 1, Part II, pp. 1073 ff.