14 March 2010

Review of What Has Government Done to Our Money? by Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard: a Jew who was good with money.Murray Rothbard is not a well-known name to most Americans. But he was one of the most brilliant philosophers of the twentieth century. His clear writing style, endless knowledge, and wonderful ideas make all of his books worth reading.

What Has Government Done to Our Money? is only 112 pages. It can be read quickly. It is available for free online at the Mises Institute's website. It is as relevant today as it was when it was first written in 1963. Let's review the major points that Rothbard makes in this book.


1. Specialization permits each man to develop his best skill, and allows each region to develop its own particular resources. If no one could exchange, if every man were forced to be completely self-sufficient, it is obvious that most of us would starve to death, and the rest would barely remain alive. Exchange is the lifeblood, not only of our economy, but of civilization itself. (p. 12.)

Rothbard establishes the value of exchange. I do not have the ability nor time to raise various crops, engineer a vehicle, build a computer, and so forth. What I can do is recognize the skill at which I am best and exchange my ability with people who lack that skill. It is within the nature of humans to exchange, because it makes each individual's survival easier.

2. But man discovered, in the process of trial and error, the route that permits a greatly-expanding economy: indirect exchange. Under indirect exchange, you sell your product not for a good which you need directly, but for another good which you then, in turn, sell for the good you want. At first glance, this seems like a clumsy and round-about operation. But it is actually the marvelous instrument that permits civilization to develop. (p. 13.)

Barter is a problematic way to exchange. A farmer cannot exchange his plow for eggs, bread, and a suit unless he manages to find someone who both wants his whole plow and is willing to make eggs, bread, and a suit available for trade. The plow is indivisible and may not be desired. The farmer must use a more marketable good as a medium of exchange.

3. A most important truth about money now emerges from our discussion: money is a commodity. Learning this simple lesson is one of the world’s most important tasks. (p. 15.)

Money must be durable, divisible, consistent, convenient, and valuable. The free market has identified that gold and silver are the most suitable objects to use as money. The farmer can trade his plow for gold. He can then trade his gold for eggs, bread, and a suit. Additionally, the existence of prices allows the farmer to make economic calculations. He can have some gold left over after the exchange. He can make profits. He will accumulate as much gold as he can (in terms of weight) so that he can obtain more of the things that he desires.

4. In our example, she magically doubled our supply of gold. Would we be twice as rich? Obviously not. What makes us rich is an abundance of goods, and what limits that abundance is a scarcity of resources: namely land, labor, and capital. Multiplying coin will not whisk these resources into being. We may feel twice as rich for the moment, but clearly all we are doing is diluting the money supply. As the public rushes out to spend its new-found wealth, prices will, very roughly, double—or at least rise until the demand is satisfied, and money no longer bids against itself for the existing goods. (p. 28–29.)

Rothbard outlines inflation. There is no social benefit in increasing the money supply. It makes an ounce of gold less valuable than it was before. In the real world, of course, the amount of gold can never double overnight.

5. For larger transactions, it is awkward and expensive to transport several hundred pounds of gold. But the free market, ever ready to satisfy social needs, comes to the rescue. Gold, in the first place, must be stored somewhere, and just as specialization is most efficient in other lines of business, so it will be most efficient in the warehousing business. Certain firms, then, will be successful on the market in providing warehousing services. Some will be gold warehouses, and will store gold for its myriad owners. As in the case of all warehouses, the owner’s right to the stored goods is established by a warehouse receipt which he receives in exchange for storing the goods. The receipt entitles the owner to claim his goods at any time he desires. (p. 39.)

A bank is a money warehouse. Like any other warehouse, it profits by charging a small fee in exchange for offering storage space and security for customers' gold and silver. The bank gives its customers pieces of paper that can be redeemed for the amount of gold and silver deposited. For convenience, people sometimes offer these pieces of paper during exchanges rather than the actual gold and silver. Warehouses work when people trust that when they redeem their receipts, all of their property will be there.


6. On the free market, money can be acquired by producing and selling goods and services that people want, or by mining (a business no more profitable, in the long run, than any other). But if government can find ways to engage in counterfeiting—the creation of new money out of thin air—it can quickly produce its own money without taking the trouble to sell services or mine gold. It can then appropriate resources slyly and almost unnoticed, without rousing the hostility touched off by taxation. (p. 52.)

Governments do not earn money, nor is money voluntarily donated to them. Governments must rob people without angering the people too much; inflation is the most effective technique. Government counterfeiters can create new money and buy what they want; the prices increase thereafter because more money is available. Only the people who get the new money first benefit from inflation. Inflation diminishes savings and encourages debt.

7. As a result, the demand for money now falls and prices go up more, proportionately, than the increase in the money supply. At this point, the government is often called upon to “relieve the money shortage” caused by the accelerated price rise, and it inflates even faster. Soon, the country reaches the stage of the “crack-up boom,” when people say: “I must buy anything now—anything to get rid of money which depreciates on my hands.” The supply of money skyrockets, the demand plummets, and prices rise astronomically. Production falls sharply, as people spend more and more of their time finding ways to get rid of their money. (p. 56.)

Rothbard now outlines hyperinflation. Hyperinflation has occurred many times in history (e.g., the American Revolution, the Weimar Republic, and Zimbabwe). But how does government gain such complete control over money that it can completely destroy its economy? What happened to the people's gold and silver in the warehouses?

8. Until a few centuries ago, there were no banks, and therefore the government could not use the banking engine for massive inflation as it can today. What could it do when only gold and silver circulated? The first step, taken firmly by every sizeable government, was to seize an absolute monopoly of the minting business. (p. 58.)

American coins are issued by the U.S. Mint. It has existed since 1792. Private minting efforts are shut down. Originally, the coins were composed of relatively valuable metals like silver (in dollars, halves, quarters, and dimes), nickel (in nickels), and copper (in pennies).

9. Having acquired the mintage monopoly, governments fostered the use of the name of the monetary unit, doing their best to separate the name from its true base in the underlying weight of the coin. This, too, was a highly important step, for it liberated each government from the necessity of abiding by the common money of the world market. Instead of using grains or grams of gold or silver, each State fostered its own national name in the supposed interests of monetary patriotism: dollars, marks, francs, and the like. (p. 58.)

Government propaganda is always at work. Being rich is redefined from owning a large amount of gold to owning a large amount of that government's currency. Government reeducates people to desire "dollars" instead of gold.

10. Debasement was the State’s method of counterfeiting the very coins it had banned private firms from making in the name of vigorous protection of the monetary standard. Sometimes, the government committed simple fraud, secretly diluting gold with a base alloy, making shortweight coins. More characteristically, the mint melted and recoined all the coins of the realm, giving the subjects back the same number of “pounds” or “marks,” but of a lighter weight. The leftover ounces of gold or silver were pocketed by the King and used to pay his expenses. (p. 59.)

U.S. coins no longer have silver in them. Cheap zinc replaced copper in pennies. Even cheaper steel will likely replace cupronickel in the near future. The melt value of US coins is now far less than their supposed monetary value; they are artificially overvalued. The undervalued silver coins were driven out of circulation; nickels are on their way out as well. This phenomenon is known as Gresham's Law. Likewise, when government attempts to artificially fix the ratio between two metals, one will become undervalued and disappear. Therefore, governments opt to use one metal as the standard. Gold has historically been the chosen metal.

11. We have seen that no fractional-reserve bank can redeem all of its liabilities; and we have also seen that this is the gamble that every bank takes. But it is, of course, essential to any system of private property that contract obligations be fulfilled. The bluntest way for government to foster inflation, then, is to grant the banks the special privilege of refusing to pay their obligations, while yet continuing in their operation. While everyone else must pay their debts or go bankrupt, the banks are permitted to refuse redemption of their receipts, at the same time forcing their own debtors to pay when their loans fall due. The usual name for this is a “suspension of specie payments.” A more accurate name would be “license for theft;” for what else can we call a governmental permission to continue in business without fulfilling one’s contract? (p. 66.)

The next step in government's control of money is the establishment of the government's debased, renamed currency as legal tender. Whenever the banks gets into trouble (viz., too many people want their gold back), they break their promise to redeem receipts for gold because government allows them to do so. Therefore, there is nothing to stop the banks from "wildcat banking." Of course, banks could not continue to exist without customers who trust the banks, and so the "suspension of specie payments" was always a temporary, imperfect method of inflation.

12. [A]ll the banks in the country became clients of the Central Bank. Gold poured into the Central Bank from the private banks, and, in exchange, the public got Central Bank notes and the disuse of gold coins. Gold coins were scoffed at by “official” opinion as cumbersome, old-fashioned, inefficient—an ancient “fetish,” perhaps useful in children’s socks at Christmas, but that’s about all. How much safer, more convenient, more efficient is the gold when resting as bullion in the mighty vaults of the Central Bank! Bathed by this propaganda, and influenced by the convenience and governmental backing of the notes, the public more and more stopped using gold coins in its daily life. Inexorably, the gold flowed into the Central Bank where, more “centralized,” it permitted a far greater degree of inflation of money-substitutes. (p. 69.)

The Federal Reserve was created in 1913. Government grants the Fed a monopoly on issuing notes. These Federal Reserve notes are "legal tender for all debts, public and private." People eventually accept these paper dollars as preferable to their gold because the government-backed central bank cannot fail. People willingly trade in their gold for scraps of paper. The Fed can print more of these scraps of paper whenever it wishes. It is one of the cleverest cons in history.

13. There is still the problem of the Central Bank itself. The citizens can conceivably make a run on the Central Bank, but this is most improbable. A more formidable threat is the loss of gold to foreign nations. For just as the expansion of one bank loses gold to the clients of other, nonexpanding banks, so does monetary expansion in one country cause a loss of gold to the citizens of other countries. Countries that expand faster are in danger of gold losses and calls upon their banking system for gold redemption. This was the classic cyclical pattern of the nineteenth century; a country’s Central Bank would generate bank credit expansion; prices would rise; and as the new money spread from domestic to foreign clientele, foreigners would more and more try to redeem the currency in gold. (p. 75.)

In other words, the gold standard is problematic. There are ways for the central bank to lose the gold that it has so cleverly obtained. At this point, government admits to its crime by "going off the gold standard." Government refuses to give up its gold. It may even make private gold ownership illegal. (FDR did so during the Great Depression.) Dollar bills are now literally mere scraps of paper. Government has obtained absolute control over money by deceiving the people. Complete control of money paves the road to complete control over the economy: full socialism.

14. Furthermore, government meddling with money has not only brought untold tyranny into the world; it has also brought chaos and not order. It has fragmented the peaceful, productive world market and shattered it into a thousand pieces, with trade and investment hobbled and hampered by myriad restrictions, controls, artificial rates, currency breakdowns, etc. It has helped bring about wars by transforming a world of peaceful intercourse into a jungle of warring currency blocs. In short, we find that coercion, in money as in other matters, brings, not order, but conflict and chaos. (p. 84.)

Rothbard uses the remaining pages to outline the modern Western history of governmental meddling in money. The gold standard of the nineteenth century was not perfect (because of government interventions), but it generally allowed a century of peace and prosperity. World War I changed everything. Most governments (other than these United States) inflated and went off the gold standard in order to pay for the war. The British ruined post-war efforts to restore gold. Monetary conflicts eventually plunged the world into another war. This time around, it was the Americans who caused post-war economic problems to arise. Europeans eventually got tired of the dollar inflation and demanded gold. Thus, President Nixon took these United States off of the gold standard in 1971. In the free market, the price of gold has skyrocketed ever since, completely contrary to the expectations of Keynesians and Friedmanites. Unless we return to the usage of private gold as money, the inevitable future is continued inflation, economic breakdown, and warfare.

Rating: 10/10. This book should be essential reading for the entire world.