by Thomas Allen
Inconvertible paper money is money that is not convertible into full-weight metallic coin, such as gold and silver coin, on the demand of its holder in spite of its promises or guarantees. Proponents of inconvertible paper money consider it the “ideal money” as it has no intrinsic value and it represents no metallic coin, which they believe to be inferior to paper money.
Inconvertible paper money derives from two sources. First, and the most common today, are bank notes that become inconvertible because of a suspension of redemption in specie. Today’s federal reserve note is an example of this type of inconvertible paper money. When bank notes are no longer convertible to specie, they begin to behave like inconvertible government notes — especially if the government makes them legal tender and if the government controls their issue either directly or indirectly. Government notes are the second source of inconvertible paper money. That is, the government issues its paper money directly. Examples of government notes are the Assignat, the Continental and the U.S. note between 1862 and 1879. This type of inconvertible paper money was much more common before World War I than it is today. (Today, most inconvertible paper money is bank notes issued for governments by their central banks, which often have the appearance of independence, but which are really subject to governmental control. Although this money is usually labeled as bank notes, functionally, and for all practical purposes, they are government notes.)
Promoters of inconvertible paper money based their assertion of the superiority of inconvertible paper to metallic coin on several principles. A discussion of the chief ones follows.
- Medium of exchange. According to the adherents of inconvertible paper money, it is superior to metallic money as a medium of exchange. Paper money is a convention and does not have any “intrinsic value.” However, by general consent, it may become the medium of exchange of a country. It may become so acceptable that it cannot be distinguished from the acceptance of gold. This is true as long as custom or law forces people to use the paper money. If gold coin is allowed to circulate, its circulation will cease as people prefer to hoard the more valuable money, gold, and spend the less valuable money, paper. If gold coin does circulate, it will trade at a premium to the paper money.
- Common denominator in exchanges. Adherents of inconvertible paper money claim that it functions as well as, if not better than, metallic money as a common denominator in exchanges. Producers want an article of uniform quality that can be easily divided to serve as a common denominator in exchanges. Thus, money is a mere convention to facilitate exchanges. Inconvertible paper money can serve this purpose as well as, if not better than, gold.
What is called “a common denominator in exchanges” is called “a measure of value” by most economists. Gold coin is superior to inconvertible paper money as a measure of value as its value as money is independent of itself. Inconvertible paper money is inferior to full-weight gold coin in that its monetary unit does not measure anything tangible that is independent of itself. For example, the Gold Standard Act of 1900 defines the dollar as 23.22 grains of gold, which means that it has a value equivalent to 23.22 grains of gold. When the redemption of federal reserve notes in gold coin ceased, federal reserve notes had a value of 23.22 grains of gold. However, as federal reserve notes were no longer convertible to gold, the dollar ceased having the value of 23.22 grains of gold. It ceased having an independent unit of measure. Its measure of value became what a dollar could buy, which is a highly inferior measure of value.
- Standard of deferred payment. Adherents of inconvertible paper money assert that it can function better than metallic money as a standard of deferred payment. The better a money can ensure the same purchasing power during the duration of the contract or loan, the better it functions as a standard of deferred payments. Advocates of inconvertible paper money claim that it maintains its purchasing power better than metallic coin.
Inconvertible paper money can perform as a standard of deferred payment (it does so today) as long as it has popular acceptance. How well it performs this function depends on the regulation of its quality — so assert its proponents. Gold often proves inadequate in performing this function. Nevertheless, gold has historically done a better job of preserving value and, by that, its purchasing power than has inconvertible paper money. Eventually, inconvertible paper money loses popular acceptance. Gold never has although governments have often intervened to prevent its use, as occurred in the United States between 1933 and 1974.
Moreover, the advocates of inconvertible paper money seldom admit that depreciation, as revealed by a premium on gold or silver, is proof that the paper money has failed as a standard of deferred payment. They argue that the value of paper has not fallen; the value of gold and silver has risen. Whenever they do admit to depreciation, the fault is not with inconvertible paper money itself. It is with the government’s failure to use the correct formula or technique, which they are ready to provide, to regulate the quantity of money. If the depreciation occurs during wartime, the argument is that the enemy is flooding the country with counterfeit notes.
- Natural limitations on quantity. Adherents of inconvertible paper money argue that it is superior to metallic money because it is not subject to natural limitations as is metallic money. Unlike gold, inconvertible paper money is not subject to any natural limitations. Coins, hoards, ornamentation, plat, and the like along with mines limit the quantity of gold available for monetary use. The only limitation to the quantity of paper money is the speed at which printing presses can run and the speed at which printing presses, inks, and papers can be manufactured. These limitations can be overcome by putting an ever larger number on the paper notes.
The production of gold can vary significantly over the years. However, the quantity of newly mined gold entering the market is extremely small when compared with the aboveground stock of gold available for money. This high stock-to-flow ratio stabilizes the value of gold and prevents it from changing significantly. With no restriction other than governmental fiat placed on the production of inconvertible paper money, its quantity can increase without limit — or at least increase until it becomes worthless and no one accepts it.
According to the advocates of inconvertible paper money, another advantage that it has over metallic money is that the cost of manufacturing paper money is extremely low. Mining gold is expensive.
- Not exportable. Adherents identify the inability of inconvertible paper money to be exported to other countries as an advantage that it has over metallic money, which is easily transported. Inconvertible paper money is limited in its circulation to the country of issue. (This may have been true in the past, but it is not true today. The U.S. dollar circulates worldwide. Other fiat inconvertible paper moneys also circulate outside their country of issue.)
Under the gold standard, an overissue of money is halted by the exportation of gold. No such mechanism exists to halt the overissue of inconvertible paper money.
Moreover, unlike gold under the gold standard, inconvertible paper money is independent of the actions and monetary policies of other countries. Advocates of inconvertible paper money consider this independence to be a great benefit.
- Overissue. Adherents of inconvertible paper money firmly believe that if the government follows the correct formula or technique in issuing it, overissue is impossible. So far, no one has found the correct formula or technique, although fiat money reformers have come forth with several techniques to use to issue the right amount. However, the temptation to issue ever more notes is often too great. Governments find issuing new notes easier and more acceptable than raising taxes. One of the few exceptions is the U.S. note: The government reduced the quantity in circulation and eventually redeemed them in gold.
Under the gold standard, overissue is a self-correcting, short-lived problem. Any excess gold coins will be exported or converted to bullion. Excess convertible bank notes will be converted to gold coin, which will then be exported or converted to bullion. Thus, the overissue is quickly halted and reversed.
- Overissue leads to more issue. Adherents of inconvertible paper money who believe that it may be overissued are convinced that the overissue can be halted instead of leading to more issuance. However, the overissue of inconvertible paper money is seldom halted; the overissue nearly always leads to evermore increases in the money supply.
When gold is the money, supply and demand applies. Demand creates supply; supply satisfies demand. Excess monetary gold is exported or converted to bullion.
However, paper money is seldom exportable; it can only be used in the domestic markets. (Today, the U.S. dollar is a notable exception. Being the primary reserve currency of the world and the primary currency for buying and selling goods on the world markets, it is highly exportable. This exportation has spared Americans an enormous rise in prices.) When prices begin to rise because of excessive issuance, the government has to issue more notes just to maintain its current level of consumption. This new issuance leads to more rising prices, which leads to more issuance. Thus, a vicious cycle is created. Soon speculators enter the markets to buy goods before their prices rise to sell them at a higher price later; thus, prices begin to rise even more rapidly. A prime example of this phenomenon is the Assignat of the French Revolution.
In spite of all the historical evidence to the contrary, advocates of inconvertible paper money are convinced that no government can issue more notes than the real necessities of the government require. Unlike banks, governments cannot issue notes for profit. Therefore, the issue of government notes is limited to the absolute wants of the government. Most often governments under issue their notes — so assert some advocates of inconvertible paper money.
- Stability. Adherents of inconvertible paper money claim that it is more stable, i.e., maintains constant purchasing power, than is metallic money. An abstract paper monetary unit is more likely to be less variable in value, purchasing power, than gold. Yet, history has shown that the value of inconvertible paper money is much less stable than the value of gold under the gold standard.
Historically, gold’s purchasing power tends to rise for a decade or two and decline for a decade or two. However, over decades, its purchasing power is fairly constant. (See Roy Jastram’s study on gold’s purchasing power.)
On the other hand, inconvertible paper money’s purchasing power tends to decline at varying rates. Moreover, the decline accelerates as the currency approaches its death.
Depreciating paper money fluctuates primarily for two reasons. First, the demand for money varies. Under the gold standard, this variation in demand is smoothed by gold moving into and out of the country. However, inconvertible paper money remains in the country; thus, its value fluctuates with changing demand. Second, the depreciation of inconvertible paper money impairs its circulation. Depreciation affects confidence in the currency. Inconvertible paper money depreciates more rapidly when confidence is falling and less rapidly when confidence is steady or rising. A rise in confidence may lead to a rise in purchasing power for a while. Political events affect confidence more than the volume of money in circulation.
- Benefits the working class. Adherents of inconvertible paper money are adamant in that the primary beneficiary of inconvertible paper money is the working class. They present it as benefitting the working class and gold standard as harming the working class. As with most claims of these advocates, the opposite is true. Inconvertible paper money is an egregious tax on production and labor. It leads to speculation, which benefits sharpies at the expense of workers. Initially, depreciating paper money increases the profits of businesses at the expense of consumers, most of whom are workers. However, these excess profits are short-lived as they attract more businesses. Moreover, inconvertible paper money leads to wasteful habits. As it is nearly always depreciating, its loss of purchasing power causes prices to rise. Moreover, prices rise before wages do and faster than wages. Thus, workers must pay more for goods and services with the same amount of labor. Also, most workers lack the means to hoard goods to sell in the future at much higher prices, or even for their own use. Worse, inconvertible paper money undermines the virtues needed to support the social system of the community. It destroys industry, frugality, and economy while promoting extravagance and speculation. Inconvertible paper money is the most effective means to cheat workers as it transfers the wealth of workers to the rich and the government.
- Gold is not essential to the monetary unit. Adherents of inconvertible paper money argue that gold is not essential to defining the monetary unit. They
assert that gold is no more essential to the monetary unit than brass or wood of a ruler is to the yard or meter. The yard and meter are not defined by the material of which a ruler is made. They are defined by the distance that light travels in a specific fraction of a second. Likewise, the value of the monetary unit is not defined by the material of which money is made. Under the gold standard, it is defined by the value of a specific weight and purity of gold. For example, the dollar was defined as 23.22 grains of fine gold, and, thus, had a value equal to 23.22 grains of gold. Under today’s monetary standard, the dollar is a nebulous abstraction whose value cannot be defined except in terms of itself.
Defining the value of the monetary unit, such as the dollar, peso, pound, or euro, as equal to the value of what the monetary unit buys gives the illusion of stability. The dollar always buys a dollar’s worth of goods. However, the quantity and often the quality of goods that a dollar buys declines over time. Anyone who has lived during the permanent suspension of the gold-coin standard and later the suspension of the gold exchange standard has personally witnessed the instability of an abstract monetary unit and its constant deterioration and loss of value.
Inconvertible paper money may be as bank notes for which redemption has been suspended, such as federal reserve notes after 1932, or forced government notes, such as U.S. notes before 1879. No matter which, both derive their initial value as money from the commodity money, e.g., gold coin, that they replace.
Unlike gold, which has value both as money and as bullion for ornamentation, etc., inconvertible paper money has only one use and that is as money, purchasing medium, a unit of account, and payment of debt and taxes. Therefore, it is low quality money. Lacking quality, it is a poor store of value. Likewise, its poor quality as money makes it a poor standard of exchange value, that is a standard of prices and accounts, or a measure of value.
Inconvertible paper money does have value, but that value is derived from its use as money, and that value depends on the confidence that people have in it. Also, it depends to a limited extent on the authority and power of the government to force it on the people. Once the value of money degenerates beyond a certain point, the power of government can no longer force the people to accept it, even with the death penalty. Examples are the Assignat and the Continental. Unless the government gives a believable promise that the paper money will soon be convertible on demand in full-weight metallic coin, that confidence declines. Declining confidences leads to declining value, purchasing power, of inconvertible paper money.
As the value of inconvertible paper money declines, so does the demand for it. When demand declines, its value declines. Therefore, more is needed to make the same quantity of purchases, Thus, its supply must increase to maintain the same level of purchases. Increasing supply leads to further loss of confidence and decline in demand for the money. As a result, general prices continue to rise.
Inconvertible paper money does function as money although inferior to gold coin. It can serve as a medium of exchange, a standard for the payment of debt, especially when it is legal tender, a measure of value, and even a store of value. However, it swindles creditors and impoverishes workers as it generally loses value over time. Moreover, as it loses value at varying rates, it is a poor measure of value and a poor standard of value. However, unlike gold coin, inconvertible paper money cannot extinguish debt. It merely discharges debt by transferring it to the issuer of the paper money.
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen