Posts tagged with: fiat money

Joe has done us all a real service in putting together his three part (1, 2, 3) primer on Bitcoin (full PDF here).

I am curious, though, what the justification is for referring to Bitcoin as a “commodity” currency. Consider this from Izabella Kaminska at the FT Alphaville blog:

For those who insist that the term “fiat” refers exclusively to government-issued fiat currency, it’s perhaps better to interpret our use in the evolutionary sense.

Meaning that Bitcoin (and other virtual currencies) represent not commodity money, not managed money, nor even old fashioned government-issued fiat money, but a whole new type of super fiat that is rendered valuable by the issuing crowd (made up of independent entities) rather than the state.

The idea is that Bitcoin isn’t “declared” to be valuable by the state, but that it is “declared” to be valuable by common consent of the community of Bitcoin users. Consider this a kind of communal rather than governmental fiat.

This is why I wondered earlier about Bitcoin as “merely fiat money without the pretensions.”

But then again, isn’t this kind of communal agreement or declaration of value what money has always really been? Isn’t that, as Joe relates, what we learn from the example of the rai of Yap? (Their real innovation seems to be that they anticipated something like the “virtualization” of money exchange.)

Here again I’ll invoke the insight of Richard Whately: “It is not that pearls fetch a high price because men have dived for them; but on the contrary, men dive for them because they fetch a high price.” People are mining Bitcoins because they fetch a high price…at least for now.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.

According to the authors,

In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.

The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,

Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.

Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)

In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.

What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability.  Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.

For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at fiat money and how today it “represents the end of a long process of development whereby governments have used their power of legal tender to use money to pursue various policy goals.”

This brief excursion into economic history hints at some of the deeper economic—not to mention moral—problems associated with fiat money. One is, as noted, the greater ease with which it permits governments to devalue currencies, thereby reducing the wealth of those with assets denominated in that currency. This surely constitutes an injustice to those individuals and businesses that have saved and behaved in a fiscally responsible manner while simultaneously letting the fiscally imprudent off the proverbial hook.

This underscores the second problem associated with fiat money: its facilitation of systemic moral hazard throughout entire economies. Moral hazard describes those situations whereby people are encouraged to take excessive risks because of the implied assurance that someone (usually the state) will bail them out if the enterprise or investment fails. From this standpoint, fiat money’s very existence arguably encourages the development of moral hazard throughout every sector of the economy. The high level of the U.S. federal government’s public deficit, for example, is at least partly premised on the unspoken supposition that the Fed (which is, after all, a government institution that operates within legal parameters set by Congress and whose members are nominated by the President) can simply print more money in paper or electronic form if creditors become worried that the U.S. government’s borrowings cannot be covered by anticipated taxation revenues, foreign borrowings, and its existing resources. This in turn encourages more people and governments to buy U.S. government debt in the form of bonds, which permits more deficit-spending, thereby encouraging a cycle of ever-spiraling public debt.

Read “Fiat Money and Public Debt” on Public Discourse.

The extent and persistence of the global economic and financial crisis has caused many people to start asking if there is any alternative to the current monetary system of fiat money overseen by central banks which enjoy varying — and apparently diminishing — degrees of independence from politicians who seem unable to resist meddling with monetary policy in pursuit of short-term goals (such as their reelection).

Most arguments about the respective merits of fiat money, private money, or the gold standard are couched almost entirely in terms of economic efficiency. Over at Public Discourse, however, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg has penned an article outlining the principled case for a return to the classical gold standard. Gregg draws upon economic history and ethical analysis to argue that there is a strong more-than-economic case for the classical gold standard that rarely receives much attention. As Gregg writes:

There were several economic advantages to the gold standard. . . . A number of principled considerations were, however, also operative. The gold standard placed a high premium on economic security by reducing the uncertainty and risk that flows from fluctuations in the value of money that have nothing to do with the relative valuation of different goods and services. . . .

Another commitment at stake was the conviction that stable money meant greater economic prosperity for increasing numbers of people. Greater monetary certainty spurred productivity and investment, not least because many long-term contracts benefited from a confidence that prices would remain relatively constant over time. Then there were the ways in which the gold standard bolstered the economic well-being of particular marginalized groups. Monetary stability helps, for example, those who lack the financial sophistication to navigate the shoals of inflation, or who are on fixed incomes (e.g., the elderly and disabled).

At the same time the gold standard also encouraged governments to promote the common good instead of narrow sectional interests. Within nation-states, for instance, the gold standard diminished opportunities for the state to manipulate monetary policy in order to favor those with an interest in inflationist policies.

Likewise, the gold standard also generated a commitment on the part of governments to promoting the international common good. As the German economist Wilhelm Röpke once wrote, the gold standard relied upon the unwritten agreement of central banks and governments “to behave in matters of monetary and credit policy in such a way that this fixed and free coupling remained an undisputed permanent institution, irrespective of trade fluctuations”. This required central banks and governments to prioritize the global economy’s long-terms needs over the short-term exigencies of national economies. It also entailed a willingness to resist popular pressures to revert to a type of monetary nationalism in the face of the fluctuations in employment and growth sometimes generated by the gold standard’s adjustment mechanisms.

There is, Gregg notes, bound to be considerable opposition to any move away from fiat money. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, politicians, central banks, or Keynesian-inclined economists being very willing to give up a tool that — or so they believe — is a vital element of macroeconomic management. Gregg points out that there are also plenty of groups with a vested interest in the type of easy money policies (what’s euphemistically called “quantitative easing” these days) which are always an option under fiat money regimes.

Despite this opposition, Gregg says that going back to gold is certainly worth a second look — if only because no one seems especially satisfied with the present system.

For more from Gregg on this subject, see The Gold Standard: A Principled Case.

Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg contributed the article here, one of two Acton commentaries published today. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary to receive new essays, book announcements and the latest news about Acton events.


Money, Deficits, and the Devil: A Cautionary Tale

By Samuel Gregg D.Phil.

Sometimes the best economists aren’t economists.

One of the most famous plays in Western history was penned by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). His two-part drama, Faust, is considered one of the greatest works of German literature. This complicated and sometimes disturbing text tells the story of a young scholar, Faust, who enters into a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles. In return for Mephistopheles’ services to help him realize his ambitions, Faust wagers the devil his soul.

Throughout the play, Faust asks Mephistopheles to help him achieve several ostensibly good ends. But each time he summons up the devil’s power, Faust gets more than he bargains for. In one scene, for example, Faust finds himself living as the landlord of a prosperous estate. His tranquility is disturbed only by an elderly couple who holds a freehold enclave on Faust’s land. Faust asks Mephistopheles to displace them. The devil fulfils his request, but in a way unanticipated by Faust: the elderly couple’s house is incinerated and the couple murdered.

At the beginning of part two, however, the play makes a surprising excursion into economics. Accompanied by Mephistopheles, Faust attends the court of a ruler whose empire is facing financial ruin because of profligate government spending. Rather than urging the emperor to be more fiscally responsible, Mephistopheles—disguised, revealingly, as a court jester—suggests a different approach, one with disturbing parallels to our own age.

Noting that the empire’s currency is gold, Mephistopheles maintains there is surely plenty of undiscovered gold underneath the earth belonging to the emperor. Thus, he argues, the emperor can issue promissory notes for the value of this yet-to-be-found gold, thereby generating fresh monetary resources for the government and solving its debt problems.

Not surprisingly, the emperor and his treasurer are delighted with this idea. It means the monarch can avoid making hard economic choices while simultaneously providing the empire with desperately needed currency. Mephistopheles subsequently deluges the court with paper money, and Faust is praised by emperor and commoner alike.

The results, however, are not what are expected. First, the issuance of paper money does not solve the emperor’s spending problems. Instead the ruler and his court become even more extravagant, knowing they can always print more paper money to cover their ever-growing expenses. Second, the devil has subtly but fundamentally changed the basis of the empire’s currency. Instead of being rooted in the solidity offered by a tangible and valued asset, the currency is now based on flimsy paper promises. Thus long-term monetary stability and powerful restraints on extravagant government spending are sacrificed for short-term gain.

Goethe finished writing the second part of Faust in 1832. Modern economics was then only emerging from its infancy. Yet Goethe’s insights go to the heart of some of our most intractable long-term economic problems.

One concerns the impact of fiat money. Technically speaking, fiat money is a currency that a government declares to be legal tender, even though it has no intrinsic value. Throughout history, fiat money has been the exception rather than the rule. Most currencies have been based on physical commodities, particularly gold. By contrast fiat money is ultimately based upon enough people having faith that a given currency will be accepted for the purpose of economic transactions.

Such faith, however, is easily shaken. The euro’s recent tribulations are a good example of what happens when people begin losing their faith in a fiat currency. The expression “as good as gold” underscores the confidence people have always attached to commodity-backed currencies, especially in difficult economic times.

The second problem concerns the temptation faced by governments as they struggle to solve their deficit problems. In 2009, America’s federal government posted a $1.4 trillion deficit. That’s 10 percent of U.S gross domestic product, a level not witnessed since World War II. Given a choice between cutting spending, borrowing, or inflating the money-supply, the third option appeals to many politicians. Moreover, like Goethe’s emperor, it’s exactly what many Western governments did between 1945 and 1980: short-term relief was bought at the expense of long-term fiscal stability.

But perhaps the biggest lesson from Goethe’s Faust is that self-deception is intrinsic to all foolish acts. Whenever governments choose comforting economic illusions over difficult economic truths, then, like Mephistopheles, they will employ dubious means such as state-engineered inflation or public-sector indebtedness to make ill-conceived economic policies seem less burdensome to those who will in the long term eventually have to pay the price.

There is, some might say, something demonic about that.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, the prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.