Economic Freedom and Interventionism

17. Gold versus Paper

Most people take it for granted that the world will never return to the gold standard. The gold standard, they say, is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. The system of government-issued fiat money provides the treasury with the funds required for an open-handed spending policy that benefits everybody; it forces prices and wages up and the rate of interest down and thereby creates prosperity. It is a system that is here to stay.

Now whatever virtues one may ascribe—undeservedly—to the modern variety of the greenback standard, there is one thing that it certainly cannot achieve. It can never become a permanent, lasting system of monetary management. It can work only as long as people are not aware of the fact that the government plans to keep it.

The Alleged Blessings of Inflation

The alleged advantages that the champions of fiat money expect from the operation of the system they advocate are temporary only. An injection of a definite quantity of new money into the nation’s economy starts a boom as it enhances prices. But once this new money has exhausted all its price-raising potentialities and all prices and wages are adjusted to the increased quantity of money in circulation, the stimulation it provided to business ceases. Thus even if we neglect dealing with the undesired and undesirable consequences and social costs of such inflationary measures and, for the sake of argument, even if we accept all that the harbingers of “expansionism” advance in favor of inflation, we must realize that the alleged blessings of these policies are short-lived. If one wants to perpetuate them, it is necessary to go on and on increasing the quantity of money in circulation and expanding credit at an ever-accelerated pace. But even then the ideal of the expansionists and inflationists, viz., an everlasting boom not upset by any reverse, could not materialize.

A fiat-money inflation can be carried on only as long as the masses do not become aware of the fact that the government is committed to such a policy. Once the common man finds out that the quantity of circulating money will be increased more and more, and that consequently its purchasing power will continually drop and prices will rise to ever higher peaks, he begins to realize that the money in his pocket is melting away. Then he adopts the conduct previously practiced only by those smeared as profiteers; he “flees into real values.” He buys commodities, not for the sake of enjoying them, but in order to avoid the losses involved in holding cash. The knell of the inflated monetary system sounds. We have only to recall the many historical precedents beginning with the Continental Currency of the War of Independence.

Why Perpetual Inflation Is Impossible

The fiat-money system, as it operates today in this country and in some others, could avoid disaster only because a keen critique on the part of a few economists alerted public opinion and forced upon the government cautious restraint in their inflationary ventures. If it had not been for the opposition of these authors, usually labeled orthodox and reactionary, the dollar would long since have gone the way of the German mark of 1923. The catastrophe of the Reich’s currency was brought about precisely because no such opposition was vocal in Weimar Germany.

Champions of the continuation of the easy money scheme are mistaken when they think that the policies they advocate could prevent altogether the adversities they complain about. It is certainly possible to go on for a while in the expansionist routine of deficit spending by borrowing from the commercial banks and supporting the government bond market. But after some time it will be imperative to stop. Otherwise the public will become alarmed about the future of the dollar’s purchasing power and a panic will follow. As soon as one stops, however, all the unwelcome consequences of the aftermath of inflation will be experienced. The longer the preceding period of expansion has lasted, the more unpleasant those consequences will be.

The attitude of a great many people with regard to inflation is ambivalent. They are aware, on the one hand, of the dangers inherent in a continuation of the policy of pumping more and more money into the economic system. But as soon as anything substantial is done to stop increasing the amount of money, they begin to cry out about high interest rates and bearish conditions on the stock and commodity exchanges. They are loath to relinquish the cherished illusion which ascribes to government and central banks the magic power to make people happy by endless spending and inflation.

Full Employment and the Gold Standard

The main argument advanced today against the return to the gold standard is crystallized in the slogan “ full-employment policy.” It is said that the gold standard paralyzes efforts to make unemployment disappear.

On a free labor market the tendency prevails to fix wage rates for every kind of work at such a height that all employers ready to pay these wages find all the employees they want to hire, and all job-seekers ready to work for these wages find employment. But if compulsion or coercion on the part of the government or the labor unions is used to keep wage rates above the height of these market rates, unemployment of a part of the potential labor force inevitably results.

Neither governments nor labor unions have the power to raise wage rates for all those eager to find jobs. All they can achieve is to raise wage rates for the workers employed, while an increasing number of people who would like to work cannot get employment. A rise in the market wage rate—i.e., the rate at which all job-seekers finally find employment—can be brought about only by raising the marginal productivity of labor. Practically, this means by raising the per-capita quota of capital invested. Wage rates and standards of living are much higher today than they were in the past because under capitalism the increase in capital invested by far exceeds the increase in population. Wage rates in the United States are many times higher than in India because the American percapita quota of capital invested is many times higher than the Indian per-capita quota of capital invested.

There is only one method for a successful “full-employment policy”: let the market determine the height of wage rates. The method that Lord Keynes has baptized “full-employment policy” also aimed at re-establishment of the rate which the free labor market tends to fix. The peculiarity of Keynes’ proposal consisted in the fact that it proposed to eradicate the discrepancy between the decreed and enforced official wage rate and the potential rate of the free labor market by lowering the purchasing power of the monetary unit. It aimed at holding nominal wage rates, i.e., wage rates expressed in terms of the national fiat money, at the height fixed by the government’s decree or by labor union pressure. But as the quantity of money in circulation was increased and consequently a trend toward a drop in the monetary unit’s purchasing power developed, real wage rates, i.e., wage rates expressed in terms of commodities, would fall. Full employment would be reached when the difference between the official rate and the market rate of real wages disappeared.

There is no need to examine anew the question whether the Keynesian scheme could really work. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to admit this, there would be no reason to adopt it. Its final effect upon the conditions of the labor market would not differ from that achieved by the operation of the market factors when left alone. But it attains this end only at the cost of a very serious disturbance in the whole price structure and thereby the entire economic system. The Keynesians refuse to call “inflation” any increase in the quantity of money in circulation that is designed to fight unemployment. But this is merely playing with words. For they themselves emphasize that the success of their plan depends on the emergence of a general rise in commodity prices.

It is, therefore, a fable that the Keynesian full-employment recipe could achieve anything for the benefit of the wage earners that could not be achieved under the gold standard. The full-employment argument is as illusory as all the other arguments advanced in favor of increasing the quantity of money in circulation.

The Specter of an Unfavorable International Balance

A popular doctrine maintains that the gold standard cannot be preserved by a country with what is called an “unfavorable balance of payments.” It is obvious that this argument is of no use to the American opponents of the gold standard. The United States [1953] has a very considerable surplus of exports over imports. This is neither an act of God nor an effect of wicked isolationism. It is the consequence of the fact that this country, under various titles and pretexts, gives financial aid to many foreign nations. These grants alone enable the foreign recipients to buy more in this country than they are selling in its markets. In the absence of such subsidies it would be impossible for any country to buy anything abroad that it could not pay for, either by exporting commodities or by rendering some other service such as carrying foreign goods in its ships or entertaining foreign tourists. No artifices of monetary policy, however sophisticated and however ruthlessly enforced by the police, can in any way alter this fact.

It is not true that the so-called have-not countries have derived any advantage from their abandonment of the gold standard. The virtual repudiation of their foreign debts, and the virtual expropriation of foreign investments that it involved, brought them no more than a momentary respite. The main and lasting effect of abandoning the gold standard, the disintegration of the international capital market, hit these debtor countries much harder than it hit the creditor countries. The falling off of foreign investments is one of the main causes of the calamities they are suffering today.

The gold standard did not collapse. Governments, anxious to spend, even if this meant spending their countries into bankruptcy, intentionally aimed at destroying it. They are committed to an anti-gold policy, but they have lamentably failed in their endeavors to discredit gold. Although officially banned, gold in the eyes of the people is still money, even the only genuine money. The more prestige the legal-tender notes produced by the various government printing offices enjoy, the more stable their exchange ratio is against gold. But people do not hoard paper; they hoard gold. The citizens of this country, of course, are not free to hold, to buy, or to sell gold.1  If they were allowed to do so, they certainly would.

No international agreements, no diplomats, and no supernational bureaucracies are needed in order to restore sound monetary conditions. If a country adopts a non-inflationary policy and clings to it, then the condition required for the return to gold is already present. The return to gold does not depend on the fulfillment of some material condition. It is an ideological problem. It presupposes only one thing: the abandonment of the illusion that increasing the quantity of money creates prosperity.

The excellence of the gold standard is to be seen in the fact that it makes the monetary unit’s purchasing power independent of the arbitrary and vacillating policies of governments, political parties, and pressure groups. Historical experience, especially in the last decades, has clearly shown the evils inherent in a national currency system that lacks this independence.

Reprinted from The Freeman, July 13, 1953.

  • 1This right to own gold was restored to U.S. citizens as of January 1, 1975.