Those Things Called Money
JANUARY 01, 1975 by LEONARD E. READ
What this country needs is a good five cent nickel. –Ed Wynn
Nearly everyone at this moment of money madness will agree with Wynn’s statement — humorous but sound. H. B. Bohn remarked: "Of money, wit, and virtue, believe one-fourth of what you hear." As to wit and virtue, Bohn may be right. But I doubt that as much as a fourth of what we hear about money is worth serious consideration, for most of the pronouncements stem from a premise that it is a function of government to issue money and regulate the value thereof. The premise seems wrong to me. I believe that if money is to be useful to traders as a medium of exchange then the decisions as to what shall serve as money must be worked out by traders in the market, voluntarily, rather than by governmental edict.
If you are further interested in what I believe, reflect for a moment on the various commodities and other things that have been used for money: wampum, sea shells, salt, fur, dried fish, ivory, cigarettes, silk stockings, gold and other metals — the list is long. These are some of the things called money, but note that of those listed thus far, all are commodities that, at the time, were in common use in trade — so common that they were useful as a medium of exchange.
But things of a different category, "non-commodities," also are called money — and thereby hangs our tale. German marks are things; in 1923 five billion of these things wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread. Paper dollars also are things called money — legal tender — government money which the law requires a creditor to accept in payment of a debt. Or to put it another way, government money, if created out of thin air by edict, is in no sense a scarce and valuable resource useful to traders but is rather a means of taxing or taking scarce resources from the market without offering anything useful in exchange. Such "money" may be a clever form of taxation, but it is far worse than useless as a medium of exchange.
Not Worth a Continental?
Am I arguing that government money never has been "worth a Continental"? Not necessarily. If a government issues paper receipts that are fully backed by some valuable and widely acceptable item of trade — fully redeemable upon demand by the bearer — such receipts may serve very well as a medium of exchange. But, of course, there’s no reason on earth why the issuance of warehouse receipts should be a governmental function. Let anyone do it who has a warehouse, and printing press, and a sufficient stock of gold or silver or whatever else the receipt calls for. And let government intervene only to see that the receipts are not fraudulent — counterfeit.
I am well aware that some governments of some nations at some times have been in charge of monetary policy with quite satisfactory results, when the policy was to mint standardized coins and issue receipts fully redeemable in some well-known and highly marketable commodity. But there is no reason to suppose that the managers of a governmental monopoly will long function in competitive fashion if the monopoly can be exploited to gain additional political power. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure how to exploit a money monopoly: just print bogus warehouse receipts and declare them to be legal tender; then pass laws to penalize suppliers of goods or services who refuse to accept the bogus receipts at face value. Finally, this can be pushed to the point of issuing receipts based not on the fullness of the warehouse but on its emptiness instead — the use of the national debt as the backing for the paper money.
What would be the grossest fraud if an individual tried it has become the common practice of governments — all quite legal because it is a governmental monopoly. And the result is a runaway inflation that disrupts business activities and hinders rather than facilitates trade. This is why governments cannot be trusted with power to determine what traders should use as a medium of exchange. Let the traders choose.
Leave the decisions about money to the market. Limit the government to its proper function of policing the market and punishing traders who cheat or rob or willfully injure other peaceful persons.
There Is No Blueprint
When I say that decisions about money should be left to the market, I do not presume to know precisely what those decisions might be. Nor do I find much agreement among monetary experts as to what those decisions ought to be. Would traders insist on pure gold as money? Would they use checking accounts or American Express or credit cards? Would they patronize banks and insist on 100 per cent reserves? I don’t know, and I’m not terribly concerned that no one else seems to know precisely. What I am concerned about is that men be free to choose whatever best seems to serve their own respective purposes. And I believe that from such freedom to succeed or fail in open competition in the market will come the most nearly perfect and tamper-proof monetary policy humanly possible.
How much understanding of money is required of us? No more understanding than any one of us has about how to make a jet airplane.
To support this point, let me repeat for the umpteenth time that no single person knows how to make an ordinary wooden lead pencil, explained in a brevity entitled, "I, Pencil."1 Yet, the year that piece was written, we made in the U.S.A. 1,600,000,000 wooden pencils. How come? How explain a know-how that exists in no one of us, even remotely? My answer: It is the overall luminosity, the wisdom in the free market. When millions of people are free to act creatively as they choose, an unimaginable wisdom is the consequence. To assert that it is a billion times greater than exists in any discrete individual would be a gross understatement.
Keep in mind that any single person’s understanding of how money could be made to serve us honestly and efficiently is precisely as impossible as understanding how to make a pencil!
It is appropriate at this point to ask a question to which no one has a correct answer: What would be the medium-of-exchange situation were it left not to dictocratic control but to the fantastic wisdom of the market? To hazard a guess would be to feign a clairvoyance beyond human experience. Guessing would be as farfetched as expecting Socrates to have foreseen and described the makings of present-day air travel, electric lighting, the human voice delivered around the earth in one-seventh of a second, my dictaphone, or a thousand and one other phenomena. I call these "phenomena" because no one understands or can describe the genesis of these countless economic blessings even after their existence! The wisdom that accounts for them is not in you or me; it derives from the overall luminosity. Why then should we not entrust money— the medium of exchange — to this same wisdom rather than to the coercive power of those now in public office?
Yes, what this country needs is a good five-cent nickel. The way is clear: Relegate organized force — government — to the defense of life and property, invoking a common justice, keeping the peace. And leave all creative activities, including the medium of exchange — money — to the wisdom of the market. Do this or our country will end up with a five-cent thousand-dollar bill.
Difficult? Yes! Impossible? Who knows! One thing for certain: Turning money affairs over to the free market is no more an idealistic dream than reducing government to its proper role. And, another thing for certain: Standing for that which seems politically expedient or feasible gains nothing; such techniques are doomed to failure. On the other hand, every boon to mankind has had its birth in the pursuit and upholding of what’s right. Humanity has been graced with many boons, every one of which was first thought to be impossible. Bear in mind that righteousness, as well as faith, works miracles.