The Goldenbar Report
Gold Standards, the State, and Free Banking
Monthly Economics Commentary
"The gold standard has been destroyed chiefly because it was an obstacle to inflation" - Friedrich Hayek, Can We Still Avoid Inflation? (From a 1970 lecture before the Trustees and guests of the Foundation for Economic Education at Tarrytown, New York)
"Proponents of the gold standard do not suffer from a mysterious "gold fetish." They simply recognize that gold has always been selected by the market as money throughout history" - Murray Rothbard, Mystery of Banking (1983); pp 11
Mises too had already told us why the gold standard failed. More accurately, he hinted at why it was going to fail.
In different wording, and with regard to the policy of hoarding gold in order to prevent commodity prices from rising (remember, the dollar was fixed to gold at the time, so this was really dollar policy) followed by the Federal Reserve System between 1914 and 1924 he said:
In the underlined part of the passage above he was effectively saying that gold no longer was a sound money, according to the Sound Money principle, because the Federal Reserve managed its fluctuations (uh, manipulation?).
The sound money principle does not mean the unattainable idea of stable money. It simply means the market decides on what money is, and what it's worth. In this way, the Austrian School argues, money would be more stable than it is when inflation is allowed to expand unchecked. Sound money simply excludes government in both money and banking affairs.
At best, the gold standard can probably be no more than a pragmatic application of the sound money principle. At worst, it can be the wolf in shepherds clothing, or a Trojan horse; a deceitful compromise by the powerful.
Imagine it like a front in an illicit drug operation.
Only One Good Gold Standard, But Several
Understandably, many were puzzled. For they thought that President Nixon took America off the gold standard in 1971 (actually, the window officially closed in 1973, but with hindsight the case is frequently made that at the time most people knew the 1971 suspension was probably going to be permanent). But the gold standard that Richard Nixon abandoned was a "gold-exchange" standard.
The 1946-1971 Bretton Woods monetary system was modeled after the gold exchange standards that existed in Europe between the two World Wars. Under the typical gold exchange standard, the nation outlaws gold coinage, and restricts convertibility.
For instance, Britain in the 1920's allegedly returned to the gold standard it abandoned in 1914, but made the pound convertible only into bullion (as opposed to coins), so that only large traders had the privilege of convertibility. It was a debased form of a gold standard if you will.
Moreover, it returned to the gold standard at the prewar (overvalued) rate for the pound. Instead of solving the attendant problems with monetary deflation, or by applying sound money principles to increase the Pound's value:
Later, when the United States abandoned its government guaranteed gold standard, it adopted this model. The Bretton Woods monetary system was premised on just such a recycling (pyramiding) scheme, except with more members and the reserves this time were Federal Reserve Notes.
The world had their currencies pegged to the dollar, and the dollar was redeemable in gold. But what made the Bretton Woods system a gold-exchange standard was that gold coins weren't allowed in circulation; individuals in the United States were restricted in owning both bullion and coins (from 1934 until 1973/75).
The same kind of centralized pyramiding of Federal Reserve Notes goes on today, except there isn't even a phony gold standard in place to deceive people. It isn't necessary. For, inflation is indeed the true opium of the people...
It's only necessary if the people are opposed to inflation. Then you've got to fool them somehow if you want to keep it going. Ludwig von Mises said this about the gold-exchange standard:
We call such gold standards clunky government rig jobs. Or I like to call them the Trojan Horses. Awarding the government the ability to regulate money and to award banking monopolies is as Gary North (popular contemporary Austrian economist) recently put it:
In his essay, however, North didn't differentiate between the classical gold standard (which existed in the US between 1896 and 1933) and the gold exchange standard (which the Bretton Woods system effectively was).
He differentiated between a market determined gold standard and a government guaranteed gold standard. If I may be so bold, the world has rarely, if ever, been witness to the former.
The classical gold standard in the United States was a government guaranteed (or traditional) gold standard. It differed from the gold-exchange standard, but it also differed from the ideal free market established gold standard.
Consider Gary North's conclusion:
Thus, while I often refer to the traditional gold standard in America (1896-1933) as the last gold standard, I only mean to differentiate between the traditional gold standard and the gold-exchange standards. By no means do I mean to imply that particular gold standard was sound.
On the contrary, as North says, and as history has shown: "The State's gold standard is a preliminary to eventual confiscation or debasement. The State's promise of redemption on demand should not be trusted."
Legal Tender Laws, Central Banking are
Obstacles to Sound Money
But to understand why the State's gold standard fails Sound Money doctrine and leads to confiscation/debasement, I think the reader needs to understand that the real conflict is between free decentralized banking and monopoly / centralized banking, as both Mises and Rothbard showed, rather than simply a matter of discipline. The State, through granting legal tender privileges (i.e. the government decides what constitutes a legal unit of account, which means that all creditors and merchants are legally forced to accept a specific fiat currency in exchange for their labor, goods, and/or in settlement of all debts), always endorses the latter. And the latter is inflationary.
Mises argued that:
Murray Rothbard, a Mises student, went on to write several books on the subject of money and banking. He discussed this conflict (centralized versus decentralized) at great lengths. He built on what Mises discovered.
Rothbard argued that central banking began in England in the 17th century as a "crooked deal between a near-bankrupt government and a corrupt clique of financial promoters," and specifically that it wasn't the product of a natural market evolution.
In the Mystery of Banking, he says, "On the contrary, it was the result, as Bagehot put it, 'of an accumulation of legal privileges on a single bank.'"
Rothbard too focussed on Peel's Act as a pivotal moment in the conflict.
Peel's Act was a controversial restrictionist measure; controversial because Sir Robert Peel and his clique were from the leading opposition to Inflationism, yet the act simply awarded the Bank of England more legal power over note issue.
As Rothbard said:
The other main Rothbard-Misesean criticism of Peel's Act was that the British Currency school (dominated by Peel at the time) stubbornly refused to acknowledge demand deposits, or anything but the central bank's notes as money. So banks were able to issue demand deposits beyond the restrictions, and inflation reigned.
The sound money principle was upended.
The failure of Peel's Act became the academic world's example of why a man made restrictionist policy can't work to check inflation, and in the more extreme interpretation, why central banking can't work. But in reality it became the pivotal point inducing the unbridled growth of central banking, and the abandonment of sound money doctrine, which as many Austrian School economists argue occurred in the late 19th century.
The reason restrictionist measures can't work in the context of a centralized banking system is, "a monopoly bank privileged by the State could not, in practice, be held to a restrictive 100% rule. Monopoly power, once created and sustained by the State, will be used and therefore abused." Forget about theory. That's the reality of it all.
Several times after Peel's Act was enacted, the Bank of England suspended it (1847, 1857, 1866, and 1914) when the inflation induced booms busted, and its banks didn't have enough cash reserves to settle redemption demands.
What this means in lay terms is that any claims by a central bank that it could restrict the growth of money has been proven absurd by the failure of one of the strictest attempts in recent history, let alone events of the recent past. A central bank's reputation as a regulator of a free banking system is ironically limp, or outright deceptive at worst. Its independence from the government is not even theoretically valid so long as it is the government which grants it its monopoly.
Yet there are those who argue that a central bank is the product of the natural evolution of a free banking system. For, everywhere there was free banking, there is now a central bank!
Rothbard pointed out two things in the "Mystery of Banking."
First, banking in Scotland was free between 1727 and 1845 - until it ended when the British Government ratified Peel's Act in 1845. Second, he made the controversial contention that banking in the United States even before the Civil War was never really free (i.e. decentralized).
Since we're not discussing the Fed's origins we'll put aside the second point except to the extent the reader understands my main point here: the Federal Reserve was not the creation of a free decentralized banking system. On the contrary, Rothbard showed it was a State system, which led to the National Bank Acts after the Civil War, which resulted in the centralized banking structure that in the end required a lender of last resort.
Free Banking in Scotland, however, was free in the sense that it was decentralized, and each bank checked the other by calling on it to redeem in each others notes. Rothbard found:
In a footnote he added:
Scottish bank notes became so prominent that they were frequently used in the North of Britain in the early 19th century, while the British notes never made it into circulation in Scotland.
The structure of the Scottish banking system wasn't centralized.
So what happened. How did they fall prey to this debauchery? Or are the central bankers right? Is central banking simply the natural progression of a free banking system?
Rothbard said of the Bank of England's new powers in Scotland at the time:
When people become rich and successful, I suppose it's just human instinct for them to want to protect their livelihoods. That's what seemed to happen here. The Scottish bankers that survived the discipline of the market no longer wanted to compete. They were seduced by the Bank of England. They were offered a cartel.
It's the same in any industry. Few people want market discipline today, yet that's our only real challenge in society. To serve the market!
There can be no discipline in banking so long as there is a central bank, awarded the power to issue notes at will. And there can be no free banking so long as governments can enforce legal tender laws (which support the centralized structure).
Free banking means every bank has to keep appropriate quantities of "specie reserves," and is subject to "calls for redemption in specie by other, competing banks as well as by the general public." It is a decentralized form of banking, as opposed to today's "centralized banking system, able to inflate the supply of money and credit in a uniform manner."
Smarter people than me say so. The problem today is the modern financial man refuses to believe that the subject of money is as simple as disciplining banks and governments through a market determined gold standard.
Indeed, the traditional gold standard is no more viable than Peel's Act was in its aim, so long as the banking system retains its monopoly over money; so long as it remains centralized.
Thus, legal tender laws are the main barrier to a viable gold standard because they are responsible for creating the need for a centralized structure to begin with. A centralized structure is needed to ensure the inflation is controlled.
In this regard, Rothbard noted that the Federal Reserve System was not simply a lender of last resort, but a powerful, proactive engine of inflation, as its creation was the last piece of the centralized structure in America's banking system put in place:
Controlled and uniform.
It is the key advantage of a centralizing banking system. Not to prevent inflation. But to "inflate the currency in a smooth, controlled, and uniform manner throughout the nation."
That might help you understand what they mean today when they say "inflation is under control." They realize they can't say there isn't any inflation, so they say things like that, or that deflation risks are larger than inflation risks, or they discuss inflation expectations, or they redefine inflation as the rate of change in certain prices.
But they never say there is no inflation in money and credit. At least I've never heard them say it that way. The main point is that the repeal of legal tender laws would in all likelihood lead to a decentralized free banking system, one which a gold standard could more easily check.
Will They Confiscate Gold This Time?
The answer to this question is simple: they can't blame the gold standard this time around.
You see, gold isn't the problem. Inflation is. When gold is going up, it simply means the public is losing confidence in the State's money.
The problem is that capitalism can't work well when the inflation alters the economy's price structure. In the thirties, the banks and government could have blamed the gold standard because it failed to check the inflation. But they probably realized that it really failed because they didn't want the market's discipline. So instead, they blamed the gold standard for restricting their ability to stimulate the economy.
Today, there is only central banking to blame. Diane Francis might be more correct to ask, why wouldn't we abandon central banking?
The Demise of Private Property and America's
I believe when way future historians look back on mankind's current struggles they'll say something like this:
For millenniums mankind struggled to overcome tyrannical rule by other men, but failed to see how easy it really was. They needed only to understand how such despotic inroads into their individual freedoms would never be possible had they subjected their kings, governments, and banks to the same kind of market discipline most all other businessmen were. In other words, they only needed to understand how inflation undermines the institution of private property. With inflation gone and out of our lives forever now, we have ingeniously eradicated the one factor most responsible for social injustices, capital depravation/decumulation, moral decay, unemployment, growing taxes, too much government, financial volatility, and even war. There's been peace for over 2000 years since the great...
I know, my optimism knows no bounds.
Congressman Paul is an optimist too (press release below). But he's also a true warrior for liberty. His aim is correct: to repeal the legal tender laws. His timing may be premature. But if only there were more like him, America could one day recover its powerful economic position in the world, rather than succumb to the decline marked by all other empires through history.
See, gold bugs aren't pessimists. We would be if we believed the world will be subject to inflation forever. Maybe then gold would be dead. The thing is, I left the concluding futuristic remark above open because it seems that throughout history, progress was only made after great tragedies... after a crisis materialized.
So where will the Inflationists take us exactly this time?
Obviously, our lesson hasn't been learned despite the many wars such polices have arguaby caused over the past 200 years alone.
When historians write the rise and fall of the American Empire (I sincerely hope they never do; I'm just roughing readers up a little), I hope they get it right: that people didn't realize how the sound money principle was the most effective way to protect their property from confiscation, and their freedom from tyrants.
Maybe America won't ever end up with a tyrant. Maybe the bureaucracy will just keep growing, like it has in Canada, or Japan. Socialism surely will grow.
But then, the Austrian School has shown how socialism has often led to fascism in the modern progressive era. I don't want to make that argument though. Indeed, my main point is that it could very well be different this time, but it probably won't be good.
If the institution of private property is at root the best explanation for America's relative prosperity, the demise of the sound money principle is the best explanation for its fall. And it began more than 100 years ago.
Either our generation is going to make the sacrifice voluntarily, or the next generation, our children, or theirs, will live our legacy of moral turpitude. Certainly, there is great cost involved in going to a gold standard today. But the cost of rejecting one grows as each decade passes.
Please don't mistake me for an expert or guru. I'm merely a passionate student of money.
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