By James Kwak
Have you heard this story before?
The first assets deemed safe were coins made of precious metals. As a technology, coins had many problems: they could be clipped or, debased by the sovereign. They had to be assayed and weighed to determine their value in the best of times; whole currencies would collapse in the worst, when the “fraudulent arts” gained the upper hand. Coins were bulky, too, and vulnerable to theft. But they worked: they were always liquid, their edges could be milled to prevent clipping; and, for long periods of time, coins served as fairly reliable stores of value.
As trade expanded, problems with coins gradually led to the creation of paper money – privately-produced circulating debt in all its early forms: moneys of account; bank notes and bills; goldsmith notes; and merchants’ bills of exchange, all of them convertible on short notice into coins.
That’s David Warsh, paraphrasing Gary Gorton, who’s really just recounting conventional wisdom, handed down from economist to economist since time immemorial.
Except it leaves out the most interesting part of the story.
I’ve been reading Christine Desan’s book Making Money, on the history of money in late medieval and early modern Europe. It’s a fascinating story, full of both meticulous historical detail and compelling conceptual arguments about the relationship between forms of currency, political authority, and the creation of the modern state.
Let’s look at the usual creation story a little more closely. The central assumption of that story is that coins were simply a package in which precious metal traveled. Hence “they had to be assayed and weighed to determine their value in the best of times.” But even that is too optimistic, if the question is whether coins serve as safe assets. Coins did have a metal value, since they could theoretically be converted into bullion, which had its own price, albeit at some cost. But they also had a coin value, which was simply the value dictated by the sovereign, since coins could be used to pay taxes.
The metal value and the coin value were related, but they were related in the sense that the value of a currency today is related to the economic fundamentals of the country that issues it. That is, the relationship between metal value and coin value was managed by the government using a variety of policy instruments. One of those was setting the number of coins that would be minted from a given quantity of metal (and the number of those coins that would be skimmed off the top for the sovereign).
A central principle of late medieval English law, enshrined in the early 17th-century Case of Mixed Money, was that the sovereign had the absolute right to dictate the value of money (p. 272):
the king by his prerogative may make money of what matter and form he pleaseth, and establish the standard of it, so may he change his money in substance and impression, and enhance or debase the value of it, or entirely decry and annul it . . .
If Queen Elizabeth said that worn, clipped coins had the same value as brand-new coins from the mint, even if the former had only half the silver content of the latter, then they had the same value. She could say that because the value of pieces of metal depends on what you can use them for, and so long as you (or someone else) can use them to pay debts and taxes, they have value. Yes, this introduced complications: you would prefer to spend your old pennies and save your new ones, which you might either melt down to be re-minted or sold as bullion overseas. But the overarching point is that money was never simply precious metal in another form, but an instrument of commerce artificially created by kings.
Even in the heyday of coins, they were hardly the only form of money. For one thing, most everyday transactions were conducted using debt—what we would call trade credit, although it was used by consumers as well as businesses—because the smallest coin was simply too big to pay a day’s wages, let alone buy a beer, at least in England. For another, as early as the 14th century, carved sticks of wood known as tallies were circulating as money. Tallies began as records of taxes collected, then became receipts the crown gave to tax collectors for advances of coin (the idea being that, at tax time, the collector could show the tally and say, “I already paid”), and finally evolved into tokens that the government used to pay its suppliers (who could then cash them with tax collectors, who would use them at tax time). In most of the 15th century, a majority of tax receipts came in the form of tallies rather than cash (p. 177). Again, if the government is willing to take take something in payment of taxes, it becomes money.
Similarly, it is true that “problems with coins” led to the development of other forms of money—beginning with trade credit and tallies—but for the most part they were not the transactional problems faced by households and firms, but fiscal and military problems faced by governments. The Bank of England, which issued the first recognizably modern paper currency, was created because William III needed money to fight wars on the Continent, but there simply wasn’t enough coin in the country to both pay the required taxes and keep the economy functioning. Bank notes were able to function as money because the government was willing to accept them in payment of taxes—which was not true of the notes issued by purely private goldsmith-bankers. In other words, what made Bank notes money, rather than simply paper records of debt, was a political decision necessitated by a fiscal crisis.
Yet the Bank of England’s formation also coincided with the reconceptualization of money as simply precious metal in another form—a fable told most prominently by John Locke. In earlier centuries, everyone accepted that kings could reduce the metal content of coins and, indeed, there were good economic reasons to do so. Devaluing coins (raising the nominal price of silver) increased the money supply, a constant concern in the medieval and early modern periods, while revaluing coins (keeping the nominal price of silver but calling in all old coins to be reminted) imposed deflation on the economy. But Locke was the most prominent spokesperson for hard money—maintaining the metal content of coins inviolate. The theory was that money was simply metal by another name, since each could be converted into the other at a constant rate. The practice, however, was that the vast majority of money—Bank of England notes, bills of exchange issued by London banks, and bank notes issued by country banks—could only function as fiat money. This had to be the case because the very policy of a constant mint price had the effect of driving silver out of coin form, vacuuming up the coin supply. If people actually wanted to convert their paper money into silver or gold, a financial crisis could be prevented only through a debt-financed expansion of the money supply by the Bank of England—or by simply suspending convertibility, as England did in the 1790s.
To paraphrase Desan, at the same time that the English political system invented the modern monetary system, liberal theorists like Locke obscured it behind a simplistic fetishization of gold. The fable that money was simply transmutated gold went hand in hand with the fable that the economy was simply a neutral market populated by households and firms seeking material gain. This primacy of the economic over the political—the idea that government policy should simply set the conditions for the operation of private interests—is, of course, one of the central pillars of the capitalist ethos. Among other things, it justified the practice of allowing private banks to make profits by selling liquidity to individuals (that’s what happens when you deposit money at a low or zero interest rate)—a privilege that once belonged to sovereign governments.
Making Money is the most fascinating book about anything, let alone money, I’ve read in a while—thought-provoking like David Graeber’s Debt, but firmly grounded in the minutiae of English history. In these times when everyone from gold bugs (like Ted Cruz, let’s not forget) to Bitcoin enthusiasts is calling for a redefinition of money, it reminds us what a complicated and politically determined thing money always has been.