In 1877, Henry Varnum Poor (1812-1905) wrote Money and Its Laws: Embracing a History of Monetary Theories, and a History of the Currency of the United States. He was a financial analyst and founder of a company that evolved into Standard & Poor’s. Poor was a proponent of the real bills doctrine and the classical gold-coin standard and, thus, the quality theory of money. He gave little credence to the quantity theory of money — especially if credit money, such as bank notes, were convertible on demand in species. Also, he contended that the value of money depends on and is derived from the value of the material of which it is made and with paper money, its representation of such value.
In the latter part of his book, he discusses leading monetary theorists from Aristotle (350 B.C.) to David A. Wells (1875). Most of the economists whom he discussed were proponents of the quantity theory of money. We will look at his discussion on William Huskisson. My comments are in brackets. Referenced page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to Poor’s book.
William Huskisson (1770-1830) was a British statesman, financier, and member of Parliament. He wrote “Question Concerning the Depreciation of Our Currency” (1810), which Poor reviews. Huskisson wrote his pamphlet during the Napoleonic wars when the English pound was not convertible into gold or silver. His and Poor’s comments reflect this condition.
Huskisson states that in the popular sense, money is often considered to have only purely arbitrary and conventional value. Sometimes, it is defined as “the representation of all other commodities, and sometimes as the common measure of them” (p. 216). He concludes that these definitions are incomplete “because they are equally applicable to every description of currency, whether consisting of the precious metal, of paper, or of any other article” (p. 216). Huskisson continues, “It is of the essence of money to possess intrinsic value” (p. 216). Moreover, “The quality of representing commodities does not necessarily imply intrinsic value; because that quality may be given either by confidence or by authority. The quality of being a common measure does not necessarily imply intrinsic value” (p. 216). He adds, “Money, or a given quantity of gold or silver, is not only the common measure and common representative of all other commodities, but also the common and universal equivalent” (p. 216). Although paper currency has no intrinsic value, promissory notes in whatever form and from whatever source can represent value. “It does so, in as much as it is an undertaking to pay, in money, the sum for which it is issued” (p. 216) “The money, or coin of a country, is so much of its capital. Paper currency is no part of the capital of a country: it is so much circulating credit” (p. 216). Huskisson adds, “Whoever buys, gives, whoever sells, receives, such a quantity of pure gold or silver as is equivalent to the article bought or sold; or, if he gives or receives paper instead of money, he gives or receives that which is valuable only as it stipulates the payment of a given quantity of gold or silver” (pp. 216-217). Paper money remains at par with gold if it is convertible to gold coin. Both money (gold coin) and paper promissory money (bank notes) “are common measures and representatives of the value of all commodities. But money alone is the universal equivalent; paper currency is the representative of that money” (p. 217). He identifies two types of paper currency: “the one resting upon confidence, the other upon authority” (p. 217). Paper currency resting upon confidence is circulating credit. Bank notes are of this type of currency. Paper currency resting upon authority is paper money [government notes and bank notes made legal tender by the government] are of this type of currency (p. 217). [Huskisson was a Bullionist. That is, he believed that paper money ought to be a warehouse receipt for gold. For each dollar, pound, or franc of paper money in circulation, there ought to be a dollar, pound, or franc of gold stored in a vault to back that paper money.]
Poor objects to Huskisson’s notion that confidence or authority can give quality to representing commodities. Poor remarks, “That a person believes that a note which he takes represents commodities does not make it the representative of them, any more than the belief of the Alchemists made the baser metals in combination the representatives of gold, into which they so long sought to convert them. If confidence would create values, the silliest dunce would be the Croesus of the race” (p. 217).
Some people believe that if the government can declare the length of the foot or meter for measuring distance, it can declare that a bank note [or a government note] can measure value: “Intrinsic value is no more necessary in one case than in the other” (p. 217). To this belief, Poor replies that owners of land would not accept for their sales the instruments by which their acres are measured. To them, a surveyor’s chain is only worth its value as scrap metal. “When men buy and sell, they exchange, or intend to exchange, articles possessing equal values” (p. 217). [Actually, exchanges only take place when both parties perceive that they are receiving something of greater value to themselves than what they are giving up.]
Poor continues citing Huskisson. According to Huskisson, if a country’s circulating currency consists exclusively of gold and if the quantity of gold in that country doubles while the quantity of gold and the demand for it remained the same in all other countries, then the value of gold in such country would fall. This loss of value would appear as a rise in the prices of all commodities. However, since gold is much cheaper in the country in which its quantity has increased, it would be bought and exported to other countries until its value is again equal in all parts of the world (p. 218). If a country’s circulating currency consists of both gold and paper and if a paper currency were doubled while the quantity gold remains the same, prices will rise. The value of gold as a commodity will rise in price and in the same proportion as other commodities; that is, its value compared with other commodities will remain the same. Such an increase in paper currency causes the exportation of gold coin because gold’s value as currency remains the same while its price in that currency has increased, i.e., the gold content of the coin is worth more than the denomination stamped on the coin. This exportation decreases the currency in circulation and thus supports the value of the currency remaining. Thus, “[a]n excess of paper has, in the first instance, the same effect upon prices as an excess of the precious metals, to the same amount, would have, in any particular country. But it does not admit of the same relief: it cannot right itself by exportation” (p. 218).
Huskisson identifies two ways that the currency of a country can be depreciated:
- If its standard coin contain less of gold or silver than it is certified to contain. In that case, the paper, as representing the coin, is also depreciated, and precisely in the same degree as the coin.
- If the standard coin being of full weight, and the paper which represents that standard coin, and is, or purports to be, exchangeable for it, is not exchangeable, at the same time, for so large a quantity of gold or silver as is contained in the coin which it represents. In that case, the coin, though undiminished in value, must, as part of the currency, partake of the depreciation of the whole (p. 218).
Poor remarks that if the currency of a country consists of gold coin and paper and if the two were equal in value, then the paper must be symbolic. Contrary to Huskisson assumption, a doubling of the currency would not be inflationary. Poor writes:
Prices would, in reference to money, remain unchanged. So long as gold and paper possessed the same value, an increase, or, rather, an inflation, of the currency, would not inflate or increase the price of gold bullion, — gold as merchandise, — while it might increase the value of all other kinds of merchandise, for the very good reason that gold cannot rise in value in reference to itself; that is, a sovereign after the inflation would purchase the same amount of bullion as before” (p. 219).
Moreover, Poor remarks, “So long as coin would purchase no more than an equal nominal amount of paper, gold would have no more tendency to go abroad than before such increase. Indeed, its tendency would be inward to provide adequate reserves for the increase of paper” (p. 219).
He continues, “If adequate provision, either in merchandise or coin, were not made for its [paper currency’s] redemption, it [paper currency] would become depreciated: it would not be exchangeable for an equal quantity of gold, nor would it command an equal amount of merchandise with gold, no matter whether it rested upon confidence or authority” (p. 219). Moreover, he adds, “The value of gold would not be influenced in any degree by the amount or value of the paper outstanding” (p. 219).
According to Poor, if paper currency rests on authority and was issued in large amounts, “it would, in great measure, drive the coin previously in circulation out of the country. But this fact would not tend, in any degree, to raise the value of the currency ‘resting on authority’” (p. 220). Furthermore, contrary to Huskisson’s assertion, “[t]he exportation of coin would tend to reduce the value of such currency, instead of raising it, by rendering it all the more difficult to resume, from the impoverishment of the people, which would be measured by the amount of gold — capital — that had been drawn from them” (p. 220). [Also, the government has no power to create value on which the currency must rest except to declare the monetary unit to be a specific weight of a commodity, such as gold or silver, to which paper currency is convertible on demand. Many proponents of fiat paper money do believe that government fiat can actually give value to that which has no value.]
According to Poor, Huskisson believes that paper currency resisting on confidence or authority is equal to gold as a measure of value. A decline in the value of paper currency brings down equally the value of gold, “for the reason that one competent measure of value must be equal in potency or effect to any other competent measure” (p. 220). However, the opposite is true. Poor writes “that the paper money of the country, though declared to have a value equal to that of an equal nominal amount of gold, did not possess such value; that the values of the two, though equally supported by authority, had no necessary relation the one to the other; and that their wide divergence was well calculated to excite the most profound alarm” (p. 220).
He [Huskisson] could not go into the market to make any purchase, without having thrust into his hand two scales of prices, — one in paper, the other in gold; yet, in the face of all this, he was so tied to tradition as to assert that money resting upon authority — the assignats of France and the Revolutionary Currency of the United States — was as competent a measure of values as gold and silver (pp. 220-221).
[Many fiat money reformers believe that the Continental and assignat failed because the government did not follow the right scheme in issuing them. Also, the flaws of today’s paper monetary system, including its electronic equivalent, result from following the doctrines of Keynes and Friedman instead of the scheme that the fiat money reformers promote, who disagree with each other on the proper scheme. Examples of these schemes are:
– the Social Credit scheme, which requires the government to give the people enough money to fill the gap between national income and gross domestic product (GDP);
– the American Monetary Institute’s scheme, which has the government creating and issuing government notes directly without banks;
– Richard Cook’s scheme, which is a combination of the Social Credit scheme and the American Monetary Institute’s scheme;
– the Money Reform Act scheme, which promotes the government issuing government notes and an end to banks converting loans to money;
– Arnold Leese’s scheme, which is a fascist monetary scheme;
– Byron Dale’s scheme, which has the government printing and spending government notes to finance the construction and maintenance of roads;
– Charles Norburn’s scheme, which has the government creating and spending government notes into circulation and an end to issuing interest-bearing government securities;
– the Foundation to Restore and Educated Electorate scheme, which is similar to Norburn’s scheme;
– Gertrude Coogan’s scheme, which has a trusteeship answerable to Congress issuing government notes to match productiveness and to maintain stable general prices;
– Silas Adams’ scheme, which has the government owning most of the country by buying all bonds, promissory notes, and other debt securities and corporate stock and other securities with government notes;
– K.S. Kenan’s scheme, which reduces the Federal Reserve mostly to a clearing house for banks and makes the Department of the Treasury responsible for issuing the country’s currency and replacing all interest-bearing U.S. securities with non-interest-bearing government notes.
For fiat money reformers, the problem is not fiat money itself; the problem is how the fiat money system is administrated.