In Defense of the “Barbarous Relic”: Why The Enemies of Capitalism Smear The Gold Standard

by | Oct 16, 2008

Given the state of affairs created by the U.S. Central Banking system this classic on Free Banking and the Gold Standard by Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) is all the more relevant today . Excerpted from his book “Human Action: A Treatise on Economics” (1966).–Ed.Men have chosen the precious metals gold and silver for the money service […]

Given the state of affairs created by the U.S. Central Banking system this classic on Free Banking and the Gold Standard by Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) is all the more relevant today . Excerpted from his book “Human Action: A Treatise on Economics” (1966).–Ed.

Men have chosen the precious metals gold and silver for the money service on account of their mineralogical, physical, and chemical features. The use of money in a market economy is a praxeologically necessary fact. That gold–and not something else–is used as money is merely a historical fact and as such cannot be conceived by catallactics. In monetary history too, as in all other branches of history, one must resort to historical understanding. If one takes pleasure in calling the gold standard a “barbarous relic,” [28] one cannot object to the application of the same term to every historically determined institution. Then the fact that the British speak English–and not Danish, German, or French–is a barbarous relic too, and every Briton who opposes the substitution of Esperanto for English is no less dogmatic and orthodox than those who do not wax rapturous about the plans for a managed currency.

In the seventeenth century the rates at which the English government tariffed the coins overvalued the guinea with regard to silver and thus made the silver coins disappear. Only those silver coins which were much worn by usage or in any other way defaced or reduced in weight remained in current use; it did not pay to export and to sell them on the bullion market. Thus England got the gold standard against the intention of its government. Only much later the laws made the de facto [actual] gold standard a de jure [legal] standard. The government abandoned further fruitless attempts to pump silver sta ndard coins into the market and minted silver only as subsidiary coins with a limited legal tender power. These subsidiary coins were not money, but money-substitutes. Their exchange value depended not on their silver content, but on the fact that they could be exchanged at every instant, without delay and without cost, at their full face value against gold. They were de facto silver printed notes, claims against a definite amount of gold.

The gold standard was the world standard of the age of capitalism, increasing welfare, liberty, and democracy, both political and economic. In the eyes of the free traders its main eminence was precisely the fact that it was an international standard as required by international trade and the transactions of the international money and capital market. [29] It was the medium of exchange by means of which Western industrialism and Western capital had borne Western civilization into the remotest parts of the earth’s surface, everywhere destroying the fetters of age-old prejudices and superstitions, sowing the seeds of new life and new well-being, freeing minds and souls, and creating riches unheard of before. It accompanied the triumphal unprecedented progress of Western liberalism ready to unite all nations into a community of free nations peacefully cooperating with one another.

The nationalists are fighting the gold standard because they want to sever their countries from the world market and to establish national autarky as far as possible. Interventionist governments and pressure groups are fighting the gold standard because they consider it the most serious obstacle to their endeavors to manipulate prices and wage rates. But the most fanatical attacks against gold are made by those intent upon credit expansion. With them credit expansion is the panacea for all economic ills. It could lower or even entirely abolish interest rates, raise wages and prices for the benefit of all except the parasitic capitalists and the exploiting employers, free the state from the necessity of balancing its budget–in short, make all decent people prosperous and happy. Only the gold standard, that devilish contrivance of the wicked and stupid “orthodox” economists, prevents mankind from attaining everlasting prosperity.

The main objection raised against the gold standard is that it makes operative in the determination of prices a factor which no government can control–the vicissitudes of gold production. Thus an “external” or “automatic” force restrains a national government’s power to make its subjects as prosperous as it would like to make them. The international capitalists dictate and the nation’s sovereignty becomes a sham.

The significance of the fact that the gold standard makes the increase in the supply of gold depend upon the profitability of producing gold is, of course, that it limits the government’s power to resort to inflation. The gold standard makes the determination of money’s purchasing power independent of the changing ambitions and doctrines of political parties and pressure groups. This is not a defect of the gold standard; it is its main excellence. Every method of manipulating purchasing power is by necessity arbitrary. All methods recommended for the discovery of an allegedly objective and “scientific” yardstick for monetary manipulation are based on the illusion that changes in purchasing power can be “measured.” The gold standard removes the determination of cash-induced changes in purchasing power from the political arena. Its general acceptance requires the acknowledgment of the truth that one cannot make all people richer by printing money. The abhorrence of the gold standard is inspired by the superstition that omnipotent governments can create wealth out of little scraps of paper.

What the expansionists call the defects of the gold standard are indeed its very eminence and usefulness. It checks large-scale inflationary ventures on the part of governments. The gold standard did not fail. The governments were eager to destroy it, because they were committed to the fallacies that credit expansion is an appropriate means of lowering the rate of interest and of “improving” the balance of trade.

The struggle against gold which is one of the main concerns of all contemporary governments must not be looked upon as an isolated phenomenon. It is but one item in the gigantic process of destruction which is the mark of our time. People fight the gold standard because they want to substitute national autarky for free trade, war for peace, totalitarian government omnipotence for liberty.

It may happen one day that technology will discover a method of enlarging the supply of gold at such a low cost that gold will become useless for the monetary service. Then people will have to replace the gold standard by another standard. It is futile to bother today about the way in which this problem will be solved. We do not know anything about the conditions under which the decision will have to be made.

References:

[28] Lord Keynes in the speech delivered before the House of Lords, May 23, 1944. [Keynes’s description of gold as a “barbarous relic” appeared even before his 1944 speech in J. M. Keynes, Monetary Reform (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1924), p. 187.]

[29] T. E. Gregory, The Gold Standard and Its Future (1st ed. London, 1934), pp. 22 ff.

[30] Cf. below, Chapters 27

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Ludwig Von Mises (1881-1973) was the 20th century's foremost economist. He was the author of Human Action, Socialism, and a dozen other works.

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