Various substances have been used as money in the past. The “survival of the fittest” has, however, eliminated all but three (omitting fractional coins), and these are used, singly or in combination, at present in all the civilized nations of the world. These three are gold, silver, and paper. Gold and silver are generally used in the form of coins of definite weight and fineness. Paper money is a promissory note issued by the government, or by authorized banks, promising to pay the bearer, on demand, the amount of coin specified on its face.
Where this promise is kept, and coin is paid on demand, the paper is said to be convertible.52 Where, for any reason, the promise is not kept, and the amount of coin specified will not be given on demand, the paper is called inconvertible or irredeemable.
As the coins which are used, and which are promised to be given in exchange for paper, may be either of gold or silver, or both, the system is said to be a gold standard or a silver standard, according to which one is used, or a bi-metallic standard if both are used under certain conditions. At present, as will be explained in considering that system, there is no country that is really using a bi-metallic standard.
Where the paper money is inconvertible, the coin on which it is based does not circulate with it (for reasons which will appear later), and such a system must be regarded as distinct from the others, no matter whether the basis be gold or silver. Three systems are therefore in use,—the gold standard, the silver standard, and the inconvertible paper. The characteristics of each of these will be53 considered separately, but, taken as a whole, some facts should first be noted.
Money in all countries is at present essentially a creature of the law. Not only does the government fix the weight and fineness of the coins, but it assumes the right to make the coins, and in some cases to limit the coinage to a certain amount, or to stop coining altogether. It also, in most cases, issues the notes or paper money, and where it does not it controls the issue by laws regulating the banks that do issue them. It controls therefore in all cases the volume of money issued, both by specifying that it shall be made of certain metals which are scarce, and perhaps limiting the coinage of those, and by limiting the amount of paper money that is generally used, to a greater or less extent, in all systems.
There is no international coin or money. Gold and silver when shipped from one country to another go as so much bullion; their value is practically the same whether54 coined or uncoined. As Walter Bagehot observes, in his work “Lombard Street”:—
“Within a country the action of a government can settle the quantity, and therefore the value, of its currency; but outside of its own country no government can do so. Bullion is the cash of international trade; paper currencies are of no use there, and coins pass only as they contain more or less bullion.”
Not only is the value of money as a whole, in any country, governed by the law of supply and demand; but each of these three kinds of money, and each of the substances of which they are made, is individually subject to the same great law.
The Gold Standard.
The wide and long-continued use of gold as money has led to a popular impression, current even among well-informed men, that somehow, or in some mysterious way, gold has stability of value and is independent of those fluctuations which they recognize in the55 values of all other substances. That this is wholly erroneous is admitted by every writer on finance, and quotations are hardly necessary to support the statement that gold varies in value in the same way and is subject to the same law of supply and demand which regulates all other values.
Along with this conception of stability in the value of gold, has grown up a very natural belief that where paper or silver circulated concurrently with gold, so long as they were mutually convertible, gold was the medium which regulated the value of all; and that no matter what the quantities of the others might be, they did not affect the value of the gold or of the money as a whole. This is another popular misconception.
In one sense the gold regulates the value of the money, but only to the extent that it limits, under the existing laws, the volume of the whole by its scarcity. In another and wider sense the value of the gold is itself fixed and controlled by the value of the money56 in its entirety. The use of gold for money is so enormously greater than its uses for all other purposes, that its value as money fixes its value as a whole, since its money use is by far the largest factor affecting the demand for it.
The demand for money is generally an indiscriminate demand, satisfied with paper money or silver as well as with gold where they circulate together. Hence, every issue of paper or increased coinage of silver in any such country, demand remaining the same, lowers the value of the money as a whole by increasing the supply, and since the value of gold is determined by its value as money, that is lowered with the rest.
The value of gold varies, therefore, with that of the money as a whole of which it forms a part.
In gold standard countries the coinage of gold is unlimited, and—not to speak of the small mint charges—generally free. Under these conditions the value of gold coin and gold bullion are the same, weight for weight.57 The silver coin, which is used to some extent in gold standard countries, does not have either free or unlimited coinage at present. Its bullion value is less than its nominal and actual value, which is maintained at a par with that of gold by the limitation of its issue,—just as in the case of paper money,—and by the fact that within the country of issue it does the same work as the gold, just as paper money does. Men will give just as much of any commodity for the silver coin or the paper as they will for the gold, because, their utility being the same, their exchange value must also be the same.
With these facts explained, we can proceed to consider a very important law affecting the value of money and its distribution among different nations.
It was noticed and stated many years ago by Sir Thomas Gresham that full-weight coins58 would not continue to circulate with clipped, worn, or light-weight ones, and that the latter would drive the former out of the country. This statement has been extended and enlarged into what is known as Gresham’s Law, which, as generally formulated, is that a poorer money will drive a better one out of circulation. In this form it is commonly accepted as true, but is often misunderstood and misapplied.
It is, in fact, but a particular case of the more general law that any commodity will seek the market where it is worth the most, where it will exchange for the most of other commodities.
The full-weight coins would exchange for no more in the country of issue than would the light-weight ones (within certain limits), but when it was desired to ship coins to other countries where they were valued by weight and not by tale, the full-weight ones were more valuable, and were, therefore, selected for such shipment, leaving the poorer ones to circulate at home.
The resultants of all the various forces acting on money value through supply and demand evidently must be different in different countries, and thereby may cause the money of one country to rise in value while that of another falls. When this occurs between two countries using the same metal as a part of their money,—that is, either between two gold-standard or two silver-standard countries, Gresham’s law immediately operates to bring the two moneys again to a uniform value.
Since the gold varies in value with the money as a whole, it will, under such circumstances, be worth more in the country having the higher money value than in the other, and a flow of gold will set in from the country where it is worth the least to the one where it has the greater value. This flow of gold decreases the amount of money in the country from which it goes, and increases the amount in the other, thus raising the value60 of money in the one, and lowering it in the other, until they are again on an equality within the limits of the cost of shipping gold from one to the other.
The operation of this law, therefore, tends to make the value of money uniform, and average prices the same in all countries using the same standard.
The gold which thus flows from one country to another does not go, of course, without a return of other commodities in exchange. The operation will be clearer if stated in its converse form.
Since prices and money values are complementary terms, one rising as the other falls, and vice versa, a rise in the value of money means lower prices, on the average, in that country. People will buy in the cheapest market, and if prices are lower in one country than in others, they will buy in that country in preference to others; the balance of trade, as it is called, will be in their favour; gold will be sent in payment for the commodities61 bought: it will increase the money supply and raise prices there, and at the same time it will lower those of the country from which it goes until prices in the two are again on a level.
It must not be supposed, however, as it evidently has been by some, that the operation of this law in regulating prices and making them uniform as between different countries at the same time, has any effect whatever on prices and money values as between two different periods.
An increase or decrease of money value may go on simultaneously in all countries, and no flow of gold be caused; the value of gold would continue to be the same in all countries, yet might be much higher or lower at the end than at the beginning of the period.
To illustrate: the different countries may be compared to several tanks connected at the bottom by pipes, and containing water, the level of which, representing money value,62 is continually fluctuating with the amounts of water added to or drawn from each of the tanks. If the water rises higher in one tank than in others, a flow will set in from the higher to the lower until all are again on a level; but if the cause of the rise in the one tank continues, or if the cause extends to all the other tanks, the level in all the tanks may be greatly changed.
So the continued preponderance of the forces in one direction, operating either to decrease or increase money value in one country alone or in all together, will raise or lower that value in all the countries which are connected by the use of the common money metal, under a free coinage system. Thus the large discoveries of gold in one country will by this means gradually spread themselves over all gold-using countries. The country where the gold is discovered, is, of course, the richer by the amount discovered, and is none the poorer because of its flow to other countries, for such country receives the63 same value of other commodities in exchange for the gold.
Through the medium of gold, therefore, general prices are maintained at the same level approximately in all gold-standard countries.
The great defect of the system is, that, because of this mutual bond, no one country can adjust the volume of its money to the demand so as to maintain prices constant. Only by an agreement faithfully carried out by all, or by most of the leading countries, would this be possible. There is no such agreement now existing, nor any likelihood of the leading nations agreeing to do this, and the value of money in all gold-standard countries is the resultant of all the various forces that act upon its supply and demand, with no intelligent attempt to control either; it is, in fact, the foot-ball of politics, selfish interests, and chance.
Neither the annual supply of gold nor the total amount used as money is the principal64 factor in determining its value. It cannot be doubted that if all the nations now using the gold system were to abandon it, the value of the metal would be but a fraction of its present value, and on the other hand, if all the nations now using silver and paper, in whole or in part, as money, were to change to the gold standard, its value would be increased to many fold what it is now. The legislation, therefore, of all countries is the great factor determining coin value, not alone in the country legislating, but also in all other countries using gold and silver as a basis for their system. The factor next in importance is the extent to which credit is used in the place of money. The total production of gold is so small beyond the amount used in the arts and sciences that it would require a great change in its value, and years of time, for any increased production due to higher value to affect materially the quantity of gold coin in use. The production of gold depends more on chance, and less on its labour65 cost, than the production of almost any other commodity; and though it would be, and is, stimulated somewhat by a higher value, there is no such certainty of its increased production being commensurate with the increased labour expended on it as there is in the case of most commodities.
The Silver Standard.
When the money system of a country is based on silver, and that metal has free and unlimited coinage in the mints, as gold has in countries using the gold standard, the same laws apply as in the case of gold. Exactly the same forces operate to affect the volume and value of the money except that the production of silver, its use by other nations, etc., are the factors, instead of gold supply and use. The coin and the bullion are equal in value, weight for weight, and Gresham’s law applies the same as it does to gold to regulate the flow of silver from one silver-standard country to another.
66 In some silver-standard countries, however, the coinage is not free and unlimited, the government purchasing the silver at its market rate and coining it in such quantities as it sees fit. In this case the bullion value does not coincide with the coinage value: the latter depends entirely on the amount that is coined, relative to the demand for money, and is independent of the bullion value of the silver. The coin will be of higher value than the bullion, and will not be exported to other countries, as the bullion is equally valuable for that purpose and less costly. It is evident that the value of money is just as dependent on chance,—that is, on a variety of causes too intricate and uncertain to be controlled,—in the case of the silver standard with free coinage as in the case of gold; but as some of the forces acting on silver are different from those acting on gold, one standard may be much more stable than the other.
The theory of bi-metallism—a money founded upon both gold and silver coin—is based upon the fact, before stated, that the value of each of these metals is really determined by the value of the money, as a whole, of which they form a part—their use for money purposes being so much greater than their other uses as to be the determining factor. If all nations, or a sufficient number of the leading ones, agree to coin both gold and silver in any amounts presented, and at the same ratio, the values of each relative to the other will be fixed at that ratio. No other market could be found for either metal at a higher ratio. The plan requires, of necessity, free coinage of both metals by several nations and in the same ratio. If the ratio differs in different countries, or if there are too few countries that are party to the agreement, the operation of Gresham’s law will separate the two metals, and cause68 each to seek the country where it is worth the most as measured in the other. The supply of each metal is independent of the other, and their values, therefore, can only be kept the same by a control and adjustment of the demand thereto.
Where silver and gold are both coined freely at a fixed ratio, if the supply of gold decreases, a portion of the demand for that metal—it being more valuable than silver—would be immediately transferred to silver, raising the latter and lowering the former value, and thus keeping their values at the same ratio. This, however, would not necessarily keep the value of the money constant as regards general commodities, and prices would still fluctuate. The variations would be spread over both metals, and, as shown by Jevons and others, would probably be more frequent, though less extensive.
Theoretically, therefore, a bi-metallic standard is little if at all better than a single standard. Whether it would be better or69 worse than gold or than silver would depend altogether on the conditions at any particular time, and it is therefore as much the victim of chance as either of the metals alone, so far as providing a money of stable value is concerned.
As already stated, no nation is now using a bi-metallic standard. Countries like France and the United States, which nominally have the double standard, have long since restricted or stopped the coinage of silver and are really on a gold basis, their silver coins being at par with gold and worth much more than their bullion value.
Prior to about the year 1873 these nations, as well as several others, coined silver as well as gold in any amount presented, and all nations using coin were practically on a bi-metallic basis, the ratio between gold and silver values having been maintained at 15½ to 1 (the coinage ratio in Europe) for many years within narrow limits. The United States had adopted the ratio of 15.988 to 170 long before this time, and as a result the silver had all left this country in obedience to Gresham’s law, as it was worth more relative to gold in Europe.
About the date above mentioned there was a great change in the coinage laws of several countries. Germany changed to a gold basis, selling a large stock of silver; France and other nations also practically changed to a gold basis by stopping the coinage of silver. As a result of this the relative values of silver and gold changed considerably. The demand for gold increased, and the demand for silver decreased. Silver fell gradually in value relative to gold, and this effect was further affected by large discoveries and greater production of silver.
The United States also stopped the free coinage of silver at about the same time as the other countries, but this had no immediate effect on the relative values of the two metals, for this country was at that time, and for several years afterward, using an inconvertible71 paper money—no coin of either kind being in circulation. It had, however, a large subsequent effect; for when the United States returned to a specie basis, if the coinage of silver had not been stopped, silver would have been coined in preference to gold, being the cheaper, and this country would have been on a silver rather than on a gold basis.
Paper money differs radically from coin in one respect. Its circulation is confined to the country of issue. It may indeed be confined to a small part of such country—as in the case of some of the old bank-notes—when the solvency of the issuing power is unknown or uncertain. This, however, may be regarded as an abnormal case.
When issued by the Government or by authorized banks whose solvency is unquestioned, it is accepted as freely as coin, and if not so accepted, cannot be considered good72 money. We shall consider only the case where it is generally accepted.
Being usually a promise to pay coin, on demand, it can, in one sense, be considered honest only when the promise is kept. If the issues are excessive,—that is, if by increasing the volume of the money as a whole its value is lowered so that the coin is worth more in some other country than as a part of that money system,—the coin will leave the country, as has been explained in regard to gold. The paper simply acts as so much gold or silver would act if added to the currency, forcing out a certain amount of coin. Where both metals are used with the paper, the one to go would depend on which was worth the most, relatively, in other countries. If the issues of paper are continued long enough, all the coin will leave the country, and, if still continued, the value of the money will sink below that of the coin, as the paper will not leave the country, but will accumulate, lowering the value with each new issue. The73 system will then have changed to an inconvertible paper system, the value of the money being no longer dependent on the value of the coin on which it is based, and no longer affected by changes of money value in other countries, but determined wholly by the amount issued, relative to the demands of business in the country of issue.
If the issues continue in excess of demand, the value will lower, even to the point of utter worthlessness; but if properly controlled and limited, the value of the money can be maintained at any point desired far more readily and easily than in the case of a convertible paper and coin system, since many variable forces are excluded when the convertibility is dropped.
The amount of paper money that can be kept at par with coin under a convertible system bears no fixed relation to the amount of the coin. By a proper control of the volume of paper issues their value can be kept equal to coin value, with almost no coin in74 circulation, or in reserve. An excessive issue of the paper will cause coin to be exported, but this export may be checked, and an import produced by withdrawing some of the paper.
Some control, therefore, may be exercised over the value of money under a convertible system, to make such value constant, but this is evidently limited. If the value of the money is falling, the decline can be checked, and its value made to rise, by withdrawing some of the paper issues; but this will cause an importation of coin, partly offsetting the reduction and checking such rise, and when all the paper has been withdrawn, the power of control by this method ceases. If the money value is rising, an increase of paper issues will stop such rise, but it will cause the exportation of coin; and when all the coin has been exported, the money will cease to be convertible, and the system will have changed to an inconvertible one,—the money still possessing the same qualifications as a measure of value75 that it possessed in the former case. The only difference is, that in the convertible system the money value is partly determined by the natural causes affecting the supply of coin, partly by the laws and conditions of business in foreign countries, and partly by the legislation at home, restricting the coinage or the issue of paper; while in the inconvertible system it is determined wholly by the control of the issues relative to the demand for money.
This difference may constitute either a merit or a defect, according as the control is intelligent and honest or otherwise.
The disastrous consequences that have resulted at various times from the use of inconvertible paper money, have, in every case, been due to a lack of proper control and to excessive issues, caused generally by the want of a reliable gauge by which to determine the amount that should be issued, and by a misunderstanding of the principles involved.
John Stuart Mill says of inconvertible paper money:—
“In the case supposed, the functions of money are performed by a thing which derives its power of performing them solely from convention; but convention is quite sufficient to confer the power; since nothing more is needful to make a person accept anything as money, and even at any arbitrary value, than the persuasion that it will be taken from them on the same terms by others. The only question is, what determines the value of such a currency; since it cannot be, as in the case of gold and silver (or paper exchangeable for them at pleasure), the cost of production. We have seen, however, that even in the case of metallic currency, the immediate agency in determining77 its value is its quantity. If the quantity, instead of depending on the ordinary mercantile motives of profit and loss, could be arbitrarily fixed by authority, the value would depend on the fiat of that authority, not on the cost of production.
“The quantity of a paper currency not convertible into the metals at the option of the holder can be arbitrarily fixed; especially if the issuer is the sovereign power of the State. The value, therefore, of such a currency is entirely arbitrary.”
Prof. F. A. Walker, in his “Money, Trade, and Industry,” observes, p. 210:—
“After looking at this subject from every side, I am at a loss to conceive of a single argument which can be advanced to support the assertion of the economists, that paper money cannot perform this function of measuring values, so-called. On the contrary, it appears to me clear beyond a doubt, that just so long and just so far as paper money obtains and retains currency as the popular78 medium of exchange, so far and so long it does and must act as the value denominator or common denominator in exchange. And I see no reason to believe that in this single respect, hard money, so-called, possesses any advantage over issues of any other form or substance which secure the degree of general acceptance which is necessary to constitute them money.”
He says, further, on p. 214:—
“Such money, so long as its popular acceptance remains undiminished, performs the office of a standard of deferred payments well or ill, according as its amount is regulated.”
Paper money is a real economy over gold and silver. Its use substitutes for those coins, that involve much labour in their production, a money of slight labour cost, which, under proper control, performs the functions of money even better than the coin.
If, in any country possessed of the gold basis system, the gold product was wholly deposited in vaults, and paper certificates79 issued therefor to the amount of the deposits, such certificates, if in proper form and denominations, would answer all the requirements of a circulating medium even better than the gold, and their value would be exactly the same as that of the gold they replaced. By this method,—in a measure, the English system,—the country saves the wear and tear, besides considerable loss of gold, and is better served. The gold thus deposited, except a comparatively small amount shipped abroad at times, would never be called for: its sole purpose would be to regulate by its scarcity the amount of the paper money issued; beyond this purpose, it might as well be iron or lead as gold, or might as well have remained in the mines, from which it was dug at the expense of so much labour, as to be in the vaults.
It would be difficult to conceive of a method of controlling money volume and value more expensive, more clumsy, and more inefficient than this; for, it is to be noted, the control in80 no way adjusts the volume of money to the demand, so as to maintain a stable value, but merely adjusts the value to that ruling in other countries,—a matter, as we shall see later, of no importance whatever.
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