The Monetary Metal That Won't Die
For more than one hundred years, governments have been trying to kill gold’s role in the monetary system. They’ve dreamed of a day when the cursed metal would vanish completely except as jewelry and luxurious adornment. And yet its monetary properties won’t go away. Central banks still hold it, and many have increased their gold holdings in recent years.
The U.S. government holds it and reports it on their balance sheets. The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, China, Germany, Russia, India — they all hold gold. Turkey bought about 41.3 tons of gold for official reserves in November. Goldman Sachs is expecting central banks to buy 600 tons this year. Look at the combined official holdings to date: 30,744 tons.
Contrary to public mythology, gold has no statutory role in the monetary system at all. The paper standard has ruled since 1973, though most people are still slow to figure that out. Sure, it is an asset but so are many things that governments and central banks own: computers, land, buildings, mortgage-back securities however toxic, and many other things. There is no special reason why gold should be reported, listed, touted, purchased in scary times, but not these other assets.
The truth is that gold does have a huge and continuing role to play. And it is more than purely psychological. It is deeply embedded in the history of money itself and in the development of the world economy as we know it. Governments destroyed the gold standard long ago but they know better than anyone that there is no surer means of financial security, proven over nearly all times and all places.
But here is an interesting question. What precisely are governments and central banks seeking to protect with their gold holdings and acquisitions? It is not you and me. It is about their system and their interests. As much as they love foisting the paper stuff on the population, risking even the destruction of the means by which we earn, save, and provide for ourselves, when it comes to government and central bank finance, gold serves serves them well. They deny it publicly but their actions speak more loudly than their press conferences.
This is one reason among a million that you can’t trust government to manage or even make the money that runs the economy. This should and could be the job of the private sector. The first time that I heard Murray Rothbard make this claim, I was amazed. Doesn’t everyone know that this is a primary function of government? But he was not only correct about this; fantastic research his book on this topic came out (What Has Government Done to Our Money?) has reinforced the point.
The leading historian of private coinage is George Selgin. His book Good Money is one of the most fascinating books on monetary history ever written. The country is England and the time is the Industrial Revolution. The official Mint was cranking out only large denomination coins suitable for old-world trade by large companies, but this was a time when the bourgeoisie was being born. Small manufacturers all over the country needed small denominations to pay their workers. They didn’t wait for the government to make the stuff. Button makers jumped at the chance to mint small denomination coins for factories to pay their workers.
What emerged from this event was a highly developed and extremely sophisticated system of private coinage at the very heart of England’s birth into the modern world. Selgin’s book tells the entire story in remarkable detail, and the publisher went all out with this book to provide a large section of beautiful color images of many of the private coins of the period, with even a comparison to the government’s unimaginative and often ugly coins. The free market picked up where government left off!
You can guess what happened. The result was the same as today when private traders have come up with digital currencies to compete with the government: the state shut them down. Don’t mint your own money; the government hates the competition! Selgin’s book covers the drama with energy and wit, revealing a slice of history that is hardly known by anyone.
Laissez-Faire Books is the only source for the hardbound version of this fascinating book, and there is a limited number still available. And this format is precisely what you want in a book of this importance: the format alone turns treatise to treasure. Never let anyone tell you that the private sector can’t be wholly in charge of the monetary system. Selgin has demonstrated otherwise.
This is the history but what about the future? In 1982, the Reagan administration pushed through a bill that created a U.S. Gold Commission to look into the question. It was the great missed opportunity, because — no surprise — the fix was in on what the commission would decide. Ron Paul and Lewis Lehrman were both on the committee, and they dissented from the majority opinion.
The dissenting opinion wasn’t just an opinion paper; it was a wonderful book on the past, present, and future of gold as a monetary unit. It ends with a detailed plan for restoring sound money and liberating us from the tyranny of paper. The book is out in a special edition of Laissez-Faire Books: The Case for Gold.
Can gold really be the money of the future? Nathan Lewis thinks so and he makes the case in Gold: The Once and Future Money. He points out that without a gold standard, with money that is sound and tied down to strict limits on production, the whole theoretical apparatus of government finance stops making any sense. What does it matter how much debt you run up if you can just print the money to pay for it? Perhaps this might have something to do with why government can’t seem to control its spending. And how can we even have a rational discussion of tax policy and its likely affect on revenue streams and the government deficit so long as any revenue shortfall can be made up for through the magical powers of the central bank?
The absence of gold, Lewis argues, has introduce irrationality and fiscal chaos into government finance. Nor has it served the population well. It is directly responsible for the creation of the boom and bust cycle — paper gives the central bank massive power to manipulate interest rates — as well as the relentless declines in the value of the dollar. The system has failed, he says, and if governments don’t repair the money, the private sector will respond, just as it did in the early years of the industrial revolution.
Growing economies are about change. Industries are born and industries die. Business come and go, and even seeming Goliaths are often slayed by start ups. The jobs we do change. The types of production that nations specialize in are constantly in motion. All this global enterprise changes the face of the earth every half century or so. Thanks goodness for change: without it, there would be no supporting the 7 billion people who inhabit this place.
There are very few things in this world that do not change, but one of them is the perception and reality that sound money is rooted in the gold standard. Powerful presidents could not kill it, though more than a dozen have tried. Elite economists have tried to wish its place in the world away but couldn’t do so. It is the ultimate immovable object in the world of economics. That gold as a monetary unit will outlive us all is one of history’s few sure bets.