In a short educational video message, Professor White from George Mason University and LearnLiberty (Institute for Humane Studies) answers the question “what is a gold standard” and “why isn’t there any more in the US?”
Readers know meantime what a gold standard is. In his presentation, he touches one highly interesting fact which is based on monetary history:
A gold standard can operate with or without government involvement in the minting of gold coins, the issuing of gold-backed paper currency, and the provision of gold-backed checking accounts. Historically, private mints and commercial banks were reliable providers of gold-denominated moneys. Thanks to the banks, a gold standard doesn’t mean that people have to carry around bags of gold coins. Anyone who finds paper currency and checking accounts more convenient can use those. But it does mean that if a person wants to redeem a bank’s $20 bill or cash its $20 check, the bank is obliged to give him a $20 gold coin. The obligation to redeem for gold guarantees the gold value of all kinds of bank-issued money. And the purchasing power of gold was historically very stable. By contrast, under today’s unbacked, or fiat, dollar standard, there is no value guarantee. If you take a $20 Federal Reserve note to a bank, all you can get for it is other Federal Reserve notes. The experience with fiat moneys in various countries has ranged from mild inflation to terrible inflation.
On to the question why the United States (and hence the world as a whole, which uses the US dollar as the world reserve currency since many decades) left the gold standard. The short answer: “Basically, because the gold standard constrained the federal government. The obligation to redeem in gold limited money printing at times when the federal government, rightly or wrongly, thought more money printing would be a good idea.”
Professor White goes on and explains how the United States went off the gold standard in two major steps.
First, in the 1930s, under President Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government broke its promise to redeem Federal Reserve notes in coin for U.S. citizens. Private ownership and use of gold coins were actually outlawed. Individuals and banks were ordered to turn in their gold coins and bullion to the Federal Reserve. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Fed printed dollars rapidly. The falling purchasing power of the dollar triggered redemptions by foreign central banks, and the U.S. government began running out of gold. Rather than stop printing dollars, Nixon ended their redeemability in 1971. The money printing then accelerated, culminating in double-digit inflation around 1980. By contrast, inflation under the classical gold standard was never in double digits and averaged only 0 to 1 percent per year over the long term.
A common objection to a gold or silver standard is that there can be random shocks to the supply or demand curves for metal and that these will make the purchasing power of metallic money unstable. But historically this was not much of a problem. For example, after the major supply shock of the California gold rush of 1849, as the gold dispersed over the entire world, the resulting inflation was less than 1.5 percent per year for about eight years. Thereafter the price level leveled off and later gradually declined as the world output of goods grew faster than the stock of gold. Under our current fiat standard, the supply of money is up to the decisions of the Federal Open Market Committee. There is no self-correcting market tendency to prevent the creation of too much money under that system.
Indeed, the truth of the matter is that “the fate of the dollar rests with a handful of political appointees.”
In closing, the Mr. White asks the question under which system the quantity and purchasing power of money are more stable. In other words, which system better limits inflation? The answer to that question is clear from the historical record. Gold and silver standards have dramatically outperformed fiat standards around the world in providing stable, low-inflation currency. If only our leaders wanted to look at history and resist a bit more to their ego.