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11. Fiat Money and the Gold Problem
When a country goes off the gold standard and onto the fiat standard, it adds to the number of "moneys" in existence. In addition to the commodity moneys, gold and silver, there now flourish independent moneys directed by each government imposing its fiat rule. And just as gold and silver will have an exchange rate on the free market, so the market will establish exchange rates for all the various moneys. In a world of fiat moneys, each currency, if permitted, will fluctuate freely in relation to all the others. We have seen that for any two moneys, the exchange rate is set in accordance with the proportionate purchasing-power parities, and that these in turn are determined by the respective supplies and demands for the various currencies. When a currency changes its character from gold-receipt to fiat paper, confidence in its stability and quality is shaken, and demand for it declines. Furthermore, now that it is cut off from gold, its far greater quantity relative its former gold backing now becomes evident. With a supply greater than gold and a lower demand, its purchasing-power, and hence its exchange rate, quickly depreciate in relation to gold. And since government is inherently inflationary, it will keep depreciating as time goes on.
Such depreciation is highly embarrassing to the government—and hurts citizens who try to import goods. The existence of gold in the economy is a constant reminder of the poor quality of the government paper, and it always poses a threat to replace the paper as the country's money. Even with the government giving all the backing of its prestige and its legal tender laws to its fiat paper, gold coins in the hands of the public will always be a permanent reproach and menace to the government's power over the country's money.
In America's first depression, 1819-1821, four Western states (Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri) established state-owned banks, issuing fiat paper. They were backed by legal tender provisions in the states, and sometimes by legal prohibition against depreciating the notes. And yet, all these experiments, born in high hopes, came quickly to grief as the new paper depreciated rapidly to negligible value. The projects had to be swiftly abandoned. Later, the greenbacks circulated as fiat paper in the North during and after the Civil War. Yet, in California, the people refused to accept the greenbacks and continued to use gold as their money. As a prominent economist pointed out:
"In California, as in other states, the paper was legal tender and was receivable for public dues; nor was there any distrust or hostility toward the federal government. But there was a strong feeling ... in favor of gold and against paper ... Every debtor had the legal right to pay off his debts in depreciated paper. But if he did so, he was a marked man (the creditor was likely to post him publicly in the newspapers) and he was virtually boycotted. Throughout this period paper was not used in California. The people of the state conducted their transactions in gold, while all the rest of the United States used convertible paper."15
It became clear to governments that they could not afford to allow people to own and keep their gold. Government could never cement its power over a nation's currency, if the people, when in need, could repudiate the fiat paper and turn to gold for its money. Accordingly, governments have outlawed gold holding by their citizens. Gold, except for a negligible amount permitted for industrial and ornamental purposes, has generally been nationalized. To ask for return of the public's confiscated property is now considered hopelessly backward and old-fashioned.16
- 15. Frank W. Taussig, Principles of Economics, 2nd Ed. (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1916) I, 312. Also see J.K. Upton, Money in Politics, 2nd Ed. (Boston: Lothrop Publishing Company, 1895) pp. 69 ff.
- 16. For an incisive analysis of the steps by which the American government confiscated the people's gold and went off the gold standard in 1933, see Garet Garrett, The People's Pottage (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, 1953) pp. 15-41.