Taxes Drive Money

By L. Randall Wray

Last week we raised the following question: Where currency cannot be exchanged for precious metal, and if legal tender laws are neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure acceptance of a currency, and if the government’s “promise to pay” really amounts to nothing more than exchanging one 5 Dollar note for another 5 Dollar note, then why would anyone accept a government’s currency? This week we explore the MMT answer.

Taxes drive money. One of the most important powers claimed by sovereign government is the authority to levy and collect taxes (and other payments made to government including fees and fines). Tax obligations are levied in the national money of account—dollars in the US, Canada, and Australia, Yen in Japan, Yuan in China, and Pesos in Mexico. Further, the sovereign government also determines what can be delivered to satisfy the tax obligation. In all modern nations, it is the government’s own currency that is accepted in payment of taxes.

We will examine in more detail in coming blogs exactly how payments are made to government. While it appears that taxpayers mostly use checks drawn on private banks to make tax payments, actually, when government receives these checks it debits the reserves of the private banks. Effectively, private banks intermediate between taxpayers and government, making payment in currency (technically, reserves that are the IOU of the nation’s central bank) on behalf of the taxpayers. Once the banks have made these payments, the taxpayer has fulfilled her obligation, so the tax liability is eliminated.

We are now able to answer the question posed earlier: why would anyone accept government’s “fiat” currency? Because the government’s currency is the main (and usually the only) thing accepted by government in payment of taxes. To avoid the penalties imposed for non-payment of taxes (that could include prison), the taxpayer needs to get hold of the government’s currency.

It is true, of course, that government currency can be used for other purposes: coins can be used to make purchases from vending machines; private debts can be settled by offering government paper currency; and government money can be hoarded in piggy banks for future spending. However, these other uses of currency are all subsidiary, deriving from government’s willingness to accept its currency in tax payments.

It is because anyone with tax obligations can use currency to eliminate these liabilities that government currency is in demand, and thus can be used in purchases or in payment of private obligations. The government cannot readily force others to use its currency in private payments, or to hoard it in piggybanks, but government can force use of currency to meet the tax obligations that it imposes.

For this reason, neither reserves of precious metals (or foreign currencies) nor legal tender laws are necessary to ensure acceptance of the government’s currency. All that is required is imposition of a tax liability to be paid in the government’s currency.

What does government promise? What does a government IOU owe you?The “promise to pay” that is engraved on UK Pound notes is superfluous and really quite misleading. The notes should actually read “I promise to accept this note in payment of taxes.” We know that the UK treasury will not really pay anything (other than another note) when the five Pound paper currency is presented. However, it will and must accept the note in payment of taxes. If it refuses to accept its own IOUs in payment, it is defaulting on that IOU. What was it that President Bush said?

"There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again."

Forgive him as he probably listened to Roger Daltry a bit too much back in his partying days. What he meant is that the sovereign can fool me once—shame on government—but it cannot fool me again. (That, folks, is what led to the creation of the Bank of England! A story for another day.)

This is really how government currency is redeemed—not for gold, but in payments made to the government. We will go through the accounting of tax payments later. It is sufficient for our purposes now to understand that the tax obligations to government are met by presenting the government’s own IOUs to the tax collector.

Conclusion. We can conclude that taxes drive money. The government first creates a money of account (the Dollar, the Tenge), and then imposes tax obligations in that national money of account. In all modern nations, this is sufficient to ensure that many (indeed, most) debts, assets, and prices, will also be denominated in the national money of account.

(Note the asymmetry that is open to a sovereign: it imposes a liability on you so that you will accept its IOU. It is a nice trick—and you can do it too, if you are king of your own little castle.)

The government is then able to issue a currency that is also denominated in the same money of account, so long as it accepts that currency in tax payment. It is not necessary to “back” the currency with precious metal, nor is it necessary to enforce legal tender laws that require acceptance of the national currency. For example, rather than engraving the statement “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private”, all the sovereign government needs to do is to promise “This note will be accepted in tax payment” in order to ensure general acceptability domestically and even abroad.

Ok we need a cliff-hanger. Here are two questions to ponder for Wednesday:

  1. Does this work only for taxes? Could other obligatory payments work? Like what?
  2. What if you do not, personally, owe taxes? Why would you accept the government’s currency?

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