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III. Government Meddling With Money

10. Going off the Gold Standard

The establishment of Central Banking removes the checks of bank credit expansion, and puts the inflationary engine into operation. It does not remove all restraints, however. There is still the problem of the Central Bank itself. The citizens can conceivably make a run on the Central Bank, but this is most improbable. A more formidable threat is the loss of gold to foreign nations. For just as the expansion of one bank loses gold to the clients of other, non-expanding banks, so does monetary expansion in one country cause a loss of gold to the citizens of other countries. Countries that expand faster are in danger of gold losses and calls upon their banking system for gold redemption. This was the classic cyclical pattern of the nineteenth century; a country's Central Bank would generate bank credit expansion; prices would rise; and as the new money spread from domestic to foreign clientele, foreigners would more and more try to redeem the currency in gold. Finally, the Central Bank would have to call a halt and enforce a credit contraction in order to save the monetary standard.

There is one way that foreign redemption can be avoided: inter-Central Bank cooperation. If all Central Banks agree to inflate at about the same rate, then no country would lose gold to any other, and all the world together could inflate almost without limit. With every government jealous of its own power and responsive to different pressures, however, such goose-step cooperation has so far proved almost impossible. One of the closest approaches was the American Federal Reserve agreement to promote domestic inflation in the 1920s in order to help Great Britain and prevent it from losing gold to the United States.

In the twentieth century, governments, rather than deflate or limit their own inflation, have simply "gone off the gold standard" when confronted with heavy demands for gold. This, of course, insures that the Central Bank cannot fail, since its notes now become the standard money. In short, government has finally refused to pay its debts, and has virtually absolved the banking system from that onerous duty. Pseudo-receipts to gold were first issued without banking and then, when the day of reckoning drew near, the bankruptcy was shamelessly completed by simply eliminating gold redemption. The severance of the various national currency names (dollar, pound, mark) from gold and silver is now complete.

At first, governments refused to admit that this was a permanent measure. They referred to the "suspension of specie payments," and it was always understood that eventually, after the war or other "emergency" had ended, the government would again redeem its obligations. When the Bank of England went off gold at the end of the eighteenth century, it continued in this state for twenty years, but always with the understanding that gold payment would be resumed after the French wars were ended.

Temporary "suspensions," however, are primrose paths to outright repudiation. The gold standard, after all, is no spigot that can be turned on or off as government whim decrees. Either a gold-receipt is redeemable or it is not; once redemption is suspended the gold standard is itself a mockery.

Another step in the slow extinction of gold money was the establishment of the "gold bullion standard." Under this system, the currency is no longer redeemable in coins; it can only be redeemed in large, highly valuable, gold bars. This, in effect, limits gold redemption to a handful of specialists in foreign trade. There is no longer a true gold standard, but governments can still proclaim their adherence to gold. The European "gold standards" of the 1920s were pseudo-standards of this type.14

Finally, governments went "off gold" officially and completely, in a thunder of abuse against foreigners and "unpatriotic gold hoarders." Government paper now becomes the fiat standard money. Sometimes, Treasury rather than Central Bank paper has been the fiat money, especially before the development of a central banking system. The American Continentals, the Greenbacks, and Confederate notes of the Civil War period, the French assignats, were all fiat currencies issued by the Treasuries. But whether Treasury or Central Bank, the effect of fiat issue is the same: the monetary standard is now at the mercy of the government, and bank deposits are redeemable simply in government paper.

  • 14. See Melchior Palyi, "The Meaning of the Gold Standard," The Journal of Business (July 1941) pp. 299-304.
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