The following is an excerpt from Murray Rothbard’s excellent book, “A History of Money and Banking in the United States.” The passage outlines how the gold standard prevented governments from using inflation as a device to manipulate their currencies, something of great concern to China now. However, Word War I brought that to an end as expenditures during the ‘Great War’ resulted in massive wartime spending throughout Europe. When the war ended, a jury-rigged and bogus new gold standard was created which went into effect in 1925 with the U.S. dollar and the British pound at its core. However, the inherent flaws in this system were to have fatal repercussions made plain in 1929 and during the Depression.
The prewar monetary order was genuinely “international”; that is, world money rested not on paper tickets issued by one or more governments but on a genuine economic commodity – gold – whose supply rested on market supply-and-demand principles. In short, the international gold standard was the monetary equivalent and corollary of international free trade in commodities. It was a method of separating money from the State just as enterprise and foreign trade had been so separated. In short, the gold standard was the monetary counterpart of laissez-faire in other economic areas.
The gold standard in the prewar era was never “pure,” no more than was laissez-faire in general. Every major country, except the United States, had central banks which tried their best to inflate and manipulate the currency. But the system was such that this intervention could only operate within narrow limits. If one country inflated its currency, the inflation in that country would cause the banks to lose gold to other nations, and consequently the banks, private and central, would before long be brought to heel. And while England was the world financial center during this period, its predominance was market rather than political, so it too had to abide by the monetary discipline of the gold standard…
The advent of the World War disrupted and rended this economic idyll, and it was never to return. In the first place, all of the major countries financed the massive war effort through an equally massive inflation, which meant that every country except the United States, even including Great Britain, was forced to go off the gold standard, since they could no longer hope to redeem their currency obligations in gold. The international order not only was sundered by the war, but also split into numerous separate, competing, and warring currencies, whose inflation was no longer subject to the gold constraint. In addition, the various governments engaged in rigorous exchange control, fixing exchange rates and prohibiting outflows of gold; monetary warfare paralleled the broader economic and military conflict.
At the end of the war, the major powers sought to reconstitute some form of international monetary order out of the chaos and warring economic blocs of the war period. The crucial actor in this drama was Great Britain, which was faced with a series of dilemmas and difficulties.On the one hand, Britain not only aimed at re-establishing its former eminence, but it meant to use its victorious position and its domination of the League of Nations to work its will upon the other nations, many of them new and small, of post-Versailles Europe. This meant its monetary as well as geral political and economic dominance. Furthermore, it no longer felt itself bound by the old-fashioned laissez-faire restraints from exerting frankly political control, nor did it any longer feel bound to observe the classical god-standard restraints against inflation.
While Britain’s appetite was large, its major dilemma was its weakness of resources. The wracking inflation and the withdrawal from the gold standard had left the United States, not Great Britain, as the only “hard,” gold-standard country. If Great Britain were to dominate the postwar monetary picture, it would somehow have to take the United States into camp as its willing junior partner. From the classic prewar pound-dollar par of $4.86 to the pound, the pound had fallen on the international money markets to $3.50, a substantial 30-percent drop, a drop that reflected the greater degree of inflation in Great Britain than in the U.S. The British then decided to constitute a new form of international monetary system, the “gold-exchange standard,” which it finally completed in 1925. In the classical, prewar gold standard, each country kept its reserves in gold, and redeemed its paper and bank currencies in gold coin upon demand. The new gold-exchange standard was a clever device to permit Britain and the other European countries to remain inflated and to continue inflating, while enlisting the United States as the ultimate support for all currencies. Specifically, Great Britain would keep its reserves, not in gold but in dollars, while the smaller countries of Europe would keep their reserves, not in gold but in pounds sterling. In this way, Great Britain could pyramid inflated currency and credit on top of dollars, while Britain’s client states could pyramid their currencies, in turn, on top of pounds. Clearly, this also meant that only the United States would remain on a gold-coin standard, the other countries “redeeming” only in foreign exchange. The instability of this system, with pseudo gold-standard countries pyramiding on top of an increasingly shaky dollar-gold base, was to become evident in the Great Depression.
But the British task was not simply to induce the United States to be the willing guarantor of all the shaky and inflated currencies of war-torn Europe. For Great Britain might well have been able to return to the original form of gold standard at a new, realistic, depreciated parity of $3.50 to the pound. But it was not willing to do so. For the British dream was to restore, even more glowingly than before, British financial preeminence, and if it depreciated the pound by 30 percent, it would thereby acknowledge that the dollar, not the pound, was the world financial center. This it was fiercely unwilling to do; for restoration of dominance, for the saving of financial face, it would return at the good old $4.86 or bust in the attempt. And bust it almost did. For to insist on returning to gold at $4.86, even on the new, vitiated, gold-exchange basis, was to mean that the pound would be absurdly expensive in relation to the dollar and other currencies, and would therefore mean that at current inflated price levels, Britain’s exports—its economic lifeline— would be severely crippled, and a general depression would ensue. And indeed, Britain suffered a severe depression in her export industries—particularly coal and textiles—throughout the 1920s. If she insisted on returning at the overvalued $4.86, there was only one hope for keeping her exports competitive in price: a massive domestic deflation to lower price and wage levels. While a severe deflation is difficult at best, Britain now found it impossible, for the new system of national unemployment insurance and the new-found strength of trade unions made wage-cutting politically unthinkable.
But if Britain would not or could not make her exports competitive by returning to gold at a depreciated par or by deflating at home, there was a third alternative which it could pursue, and which indeed marked the key to the British international economic policy of the 1920s: it could induce or force other countries to inflate, or themselves to return to gold at overvalued pars; in short, if it could not clean up its own economic mess, it could contrive to impose messes upon everyone else. If it did not do so, it would see inflating Britain lose gold to the United States, France, and other “hard-money” countries, as indeed happened during the 1920s; only by contriving for other countries, especially the U.S., to inflate also, could it check the loss of gold and therefore halt the collapse of the whole jerry-built international monetary structure.
In the short run, the British scheme was brilliantly conceived, and it worked for a time; but the major problem went unheeded: if the United States, the base of the pyramid and the sole link of all these countries to gold and hard money, were to inflate unduly, the dollar too would become shaky, it would lose gold at home and abroad, and the dollar would itself eventually collapse, dragging the entire structure down with it. And this is essentially what happened in the Great Depression.