The Gold Standard and Fiat Currency: Metalism vs. Nominalism, Part One

By L. Randall Wray

Last week I asserted that coins have never been a form of commodity money; rather they have always been the IOUs of the issuer. Essentially, a gold coin is just the state’s IOU that happens to have been stamped on gold. It is just a “token” of the state’s indebtedness—nothing but a record of that debt. The state must take back its IOU in payments made to itself. “Taxes drive money”—these “money things” are accepted because there are taxes “backing them up”, not because they have embodied gold. As promised, this week I will begin try to dispel the view that coins used to be commodity monies. Next week, we will finish up the discussion.

In this Primer I do not want to go deeply into economic history—we are more interested here with how money “works” today. However, that does not mean that history does not matter, nor should we ignore how our stories about the past affect how we view money today. For example, a common belief (accepted by most economists) is that money first took a commodity form. Our ancient ancestors had markets, but they relied on inconvenient barter until someone had the bright idea of choosing one commodity to act as a medium of exchange. At first it might have been pretty sea shells, but through some sort of evolutionary process, precious metals were chosen as a more efficient money commodity.

Obviously, metal had an intrinsic value—it was desired for other uses. (And if we take a Marxian labor theory of value, we can say metal had a labor value as it had to be mined and refined.) Whatever the case, that intrinsic value imparted value to coined metal. This helped to prevent inflation—that is, decline in the purchasing power of the metal coin in terms of other commodities—since the coin could always be melted and sold as bullion. There are then all sorts of stories about how government debased the value of the coins (by reducing precious metal content), causing inflation.

Later, government issued paper money (or base metal coins of very little intrinsic value) but promised to redeem this for the metal. Again, there are many stories about government defaulting on that. And then finally we end with today’s “fiat money”, with nothing “real” standing behind it. And that is how we get the Weimar Republics and the Zimbabwes—with nothing really backing the money it now is prone to causing hyperinflation as government prints up too much of it. Which leads us to the gold bug’s lament: if only we could go back to a “real” money standard: gold.

In this discussion, we cannot provide a detailed historical account to debunk the traditional stories about money’s history. Let us instead provide an overview of an alternative.

First we need to note that the money of account is many thousands of years old—at least four millennia old and probably much older. (The “modern” in “modern money theory” comes from Keynes’s claim that money has been state money for the past 4000 years “at least”.) We know this because we have, for example, the clay tablets of Mesopotamia that record values in money terms, along with price lists in that money of account.

We also know that money’s earliest origins are closely linked to debts and record-keeping, and that many of the words associated with money and debt have religious significance: debt, sin, repayment, redemption, “wiping the slate clean”, and Year of Jubilee. In the Aramaic language spoken by Christ, the word for “debt” is the same as the word for “sin”. The “Lord’s Prayer” that is normally interpreted to read “forgive us our trespasses” could be just as well translated as “our debts” or “our sins”—or as Margaret Atwood says, “our sinful debts”.*

Records of credits and debits were more akin to modern electronic entries—etched in clay rather than on computer tapes. And all early money units had names derived from measures of the principal grain foodstuff—how many bushels of barley equivalent were owed, owned, and paid. All of this is more consistent with the view of money as a unit of account, a representation of social value, and an IOU rather than as a commodity.

Or, as we MMTers say, money is a “token”, like the cloakroom “ticket” that can be redeemed for one’s coat at the end of the operatic performance.

Indeed, the “pawn” in pawnshop comes from the word for “pledge”, as in the collateral left, with a token IOU provided by the shop that is later “redeemed” for the item left. St. Nick is the patron saint of pawnshops (and, appropriately, for thieves), while “Old Nick” refers to the devil (hence, the red suit and chimney soot) to whom we pawn our souls. The Tenth Commandment’s prohibition on coveting thy neighbor’s wife (which goes on to include male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor) has nothing to do with sex and adultery but rather with receiving them as pawns for debt. By contrast, Christ is known as “the Redeemer”—the “Sin Eater” who steps forward to pay the debts we cannot redeem, a much older tradition that lay behind the practice of human sacrifice to repay the gods.*

We all know Shakespeare’s admonition “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, as religion typically views both the “devil” creditor and the debtor who “sells his soul” by pawning his wife and kids into debt bondage as sinful—if not equally then at least simultaneously tainted, united in the awful bondage. Only “redemption” can free us from humanity’s debts owing to Eve’s original sin.

Of course, for most of humanity today, it is the original sin/debt to the tax collector, rather than to Old Nick, that we cannot escape. The Devil kept the first account book, carefully noting the purchased souls and only death could “wipe the slate clean” as “death pays all debts”. Now we’ve got our tax collector, who like death is the only certain thing in life. In between the two, we had the clay tablets of Mesopotamia recording debits and credits in the Temple’s and then the Palace’s money of account for the first few millennia after money was invented as a universal measure of our multiple and heterogeneous sins.

The first coins were created thousands of years later, in the greater Greek region (so far as we know, in Lydia in the 7th century BC). And in spite of all that has been written about coins, they have rarely been more than a very small proportion of the “money things” involved in finance and debt payment. For most of European history, for example, tally sticks, bills of exchange, and “bar tabs” (again, the reference to “wiping the slate clean” is revealing—something that might not be done for a year or two at the pub, where the alewife kept the accounts) did most of that work.

Indeed, until very recent times, most payments made to the Crown in England were in the form of tally sticks (the King’s own IOU, recorded in the form of notches in hazelwood)—whose use was only discontinued well into the 19th century (with a catastrophic result: the Exchequer had them thrown into the stoves with such zest that Parliament was burnt to the ground by those devilish tax collectors!) In most realms, the quantity of coin was so small that it could be (and was) frequently called in to be melted for re-coinage.

(If you think about it, calling in all the coins to melt them for re-coinage would be a very strange and pointless activity if coins were already valued by embodied metal!)

So what were coins and why did they contain precious metal? To be sure, we do not know. Money’s history is “lost in the mists of time when the ice was melting…when the weather was delightful and the mind free to be fertile of new ideas—in the islands of the Hesperides or Atlantis or some Eden of Central Asia” as Keynes put it. We have to speculate.

One hypothesis about early Greece (the mother of both democracy and coinage—almost certainly the two are linked in some manner) is that the elites had nearly monopolized precious metal, which was important in their social circles tied together by “hierarchical gift exchange”. They were above the agora (market place) and hostile to the rising polis (democratic city-state government). According to Classical scholar Leslie Kurke, the polis first minted coin to be used in the agora to “represent the state’s assertion of its ultimate authority to constitute and regulate value in all the spheres in which general-purpose money operated… Thus state-issued coinage as a universal equivalent, like the civic agora in which it circulated, symbolized the merger in a single token or site of many different domains of value, all under the final authority of the city.”** The use of precious metals was a conscious thumbing-of-the-nose against the elite who placed great ceremonial value on precious metal. By coining their precious metal, for use in the agora’s houses of prostitution by mere common citizens, the polis sullied the elite’s hierarchical gift exchange—appropriating precious metal, and with its stamp asserting its ultimate authority.

As the polis used coins for its own payments and insisted on payment in coin, it inserted its sovereignty into retail trade in the agora. At the same time, the agora and its use of coined money subverted hierarchies of gift exchange, just as a shift to taxes and regular payments to city officials (as well as severe penalties levied on officials who accepted gifts) challenged the "natural" order that relied on gifts and favors. As Kurke argues, since coins are nothing more than tokens of the city’s authority, they could have been produced from any material. However, because the aristocrats measured a man’s worth by the quantity and quality of the precious metal he had accumulated, the polis was required to mint high quality coins, unvarying in fineness. (Note that gold is called the noble metal because it remains the same through time, like the king; coined metal needed to be similarly unvarying.) The citizens of the polis by their association with high quality, uniform, coin (and in the literary texts of the time, the citizen’s "mettle" was tested by the quality of the coin issued by his city) gained equal status; by providing a standard measure of value, coinage rendered labor comparable and in this sense coinage was an egalitarian innovation.

From that time forward, coins commonly contained precious metal. Rome carried on the tradition, and Kurke’s thesis is consistent with the statement of St. Augustine, who declared that just as people are Christ’s coins, the precious metal coins of Rome represent a visualization of imperial power—inexorably doing the emperor’s bidding just as the reverent do Christ’s.*** Note, again, the link between money and religion.

OK that gets us to Roman times. Next week we examine coinage from Rome through to modern times.


*Payback: debt and the shadow side of wealth, by Margaret Atwood, Anansi 2008.

**Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold, by Leslie Kurke, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1999; xxi, 385; paper $29.95 (ISBN 0-691-00736-5), cloth $65.00 (ISBN 0-691-01731-X).

***If anyone knows the source for St. Augustine’s comparison of people to coins, please provide it. I thank Chris Desan, David Fox, and other participants of a recent seminar at Cambridge University for the discussion I draw upon here.

  1. Jardinero1 says

    I agree with the idea that money is merely a unit of account. A metric by which we measure our claims against one another. The unit of account works as long as we all agree that it works.

    I think you stretch the idea beyond any credulity when you state that “a gold coin is just the state’s IOU that happens to have been stamped on gold. It is just a “token” of the state’s indebtedness—nothing but a record of that debt. The state must take back its IOU in payments made to itself.” You dismantle the notion, yourself, in the succeeding paragraph when you state, “the coin could always be melted and sold as bullion”.

    There is a huge qualitative difference between commodity money and paper units or ledger entries. You can’t reconstitute paper or ledger entries in any other form. Commodity money exists simultaneously as commodity. It will still have a value in exchange irrespective of the state’s imprimatur. No matter what logical contortions and historical examples you cite you just can’t rationalize away that qualitative difference.

  2. steve says

    I think Jardinero has a good point. When Rome conquered the Gauls or someone else they could care less about any records of debt. The gold however was another matter.

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