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Part One: The Nature of Money > Chapter 4. Money and the State

2. The Legal Concept of Money

When both parties to an exchange fulfill their obligations immediately and surrender a commodity for ready cash, there is usually no motive for the judicial intervention of the state. But when the exchange is one of present goods against future goods it may happen that one party fails to fulfill his obligations although the other has carried out his share of the contract. Then the judiciary may be invoked. If the case is one of lending or purchase on credit, to name only the most important examples, the court has to decide how a debt contracted in terms of money can be liquidated. Its task thus becomes that of determining, in accordance with the intent of the contracting parties, what is to be understood by money in commercial transactions. From the legal point of view, money is not the common medium of exchange, but the common medium of payment or debt settlement. But money only becomes a medium of payment by virtue of being a medium of exchange. And it is only because it is a medium of exchange that the law also makes it the medium for fulfilling obligations not contracted in terms of money, but whose literal fulfillment is for some reason or other impossible.

The fact that the law regards money only as a means of canceling outstanding obligations has important consequences for the legal definition of money. What the law understands by money is in fact not the common medium of exchange but the legal medium of payment. It does not come within the scope of the legislator or jurist to define the economic concept of money.

In determining how monetary debts may be effectively paid off there is no reason for being too exclusive. It is customary in business to tender and accept in payment certain money substitutes instead of money itself. If the law refused to recognize the validity of money substitutes that are sanctioned by commercial usage, it would only open the door to all sorts of fraud and deceit. This would offend against the principle malitiis non est indulgendum. Besides this, the payment of small sums would, for technical reasons, hardly be possible without the use of token money. Even ascribing the power of debt settlement to banknotes does not injure creditors or other recipients in any way, so long as the notes are regarded by the businessman as equivalent to money.

But the state may ascribe the power of debt settlement to other objects as well. The law may declare anything it likes to be a medium of payment, and this ruling will be binding on all courts and on all those who enforce the decisions of the courts. But bestowing the property of legal tender on a thing does not suffice to make it money in the economic sense. Goods can become common media of exchange only through the practice of those who take part in commercial transactions; and it is the valuations of these persons alone that determine the exchange ratios of the market. Quite possibly, commerce may take into use those things to which the state has ascribed the power of payment; but it need not do so. It may, if it likes, reject them.

Three situations are possible when the state has declared an object to be a legal means of fulfilling an outstanding obligation. First, the legal means of payment may be identical with the medium of exchange that the contracting parties had in mind when entering into their agreement; or, if not identical, it may yet be of equal value with this medium at the time of payment. For example, the state may proclaim gold as a legal medium for settling obligations contracted in terms of gold, or, at a time when the relative values of gold and silver are as 1 to 15½, it may declare that liabilities in terms of gold may be settled by payment of 15½ times the quantity of silver. Such an arrangement is merely the legal formulation of the presumable intent of the agreement. It damages the interests of neither party. It is economically neutral.

The case is otherwise when the state proclaims as medium of payment something that has a higher or lower value than the contractual medium. The first possibility may be disregarded; but the second, of which numerous historical examples could be cited, is important. From the legal point of view, in which the fundamental principle is the protection of vested rights, such a procedure on the part of the state can never be justified, although it might sometimes be vindicated on social or fiscal grounds. But it always means, not the fulfillment of obligations, but their complete or partial cancellation. When notes that are appraised commercially at only half their face value are proclaimed legal tender, this amounts fundamentally to the same thing as granting debtors legal relief from half of their liabilities.

State declarations of legal tender affect only those monetary obligations that have already been contracted. But commerce is free to choose between retaining its old medium of exchange or creating a new one for itself, and when it adopts a new medium, so far as the legal power of the contracting parties reaches, it will attempt to make it into a standard of deferred payments also, in order to deprive of its validity, at least for the future, the standard to which the state has ascribed complete powers of debt settlement. When, during the last decade of the nineteenth century, the bimetallist party in Germany gained so much power that the possibility of experiment with its inflationist proposals had to be reckoned with, gold clauses began to make their appearance in long-term contracts. The recent period of currency depreciation has had a similar effect. If the state does not wish to render all credit transactions impossible, it must recognize such devices as these and instruct the courts to acknowledge them. And, similarly, when the state itself enters into ordinary business dealings, when it buys or sells, guarantees loans or borrows, makes payments or receives them, it must recognize the common business medium of exchange as money. The legal standard, the particular group of things that are endued with the property of unlimited legal tender, is in fact valid only for the settlement of existing debts, unless business usage itself adopts it as a general medium of exchange.