04 April 2009

Mad Witches' Dance

An extract from the book Money by Hartley Withers, 1935:

Since, then, it seems to be true that prices vary with fluctuations in the quantity of money, and since the quantity of gold, and consequently of gold-paper money, has certainly varied considerably in the past, and price have varied with them, the critics of the gold standard have logic on their side when they argue that stability in buying power has not been secured by it; that money is defective as a measure of value when the amount of commodities that it will command is subject to variation; and that it would be just as sensible to use, for measuring lengths of timber or pieces of land, a yard-stick made of an elastic material.

But having thus seen that there is much truth in the premises of the critics' argument, is it necessary that we should follow them to their conclusion and abolish the gold standard? It is a long step from admitting that the gold standard has not been perfect to replacing it by one which, when tried, has shown the same imperfection in a highly exaggerated form. During and after the war we had no gold standard, but money that was paper, issued, at the will and pleasure of governments, by governments or by central banks acting at their bidding; and prices whirled up in a mad witches' dance. It is true that the circumstances were enormously exceptional, but the experience has left, in the minds of most of us, a deep mistrust of any change that would leave our money in the hands of politicians who could multiply its amount whenever they preferred that mode of paying their way to taking money out of our pockets by taxation.

It is so easy and tempting, and politicians are so human. In fact, Mr. Stanley Baldwin, an austere but kindly judge, has stated publicly that there was no government on earth that he would trust to manage a currency, and the one outstanding advantage to his mind of a gold currency was that, so far as anything in the world could be, a gold currency was knave-proof. Moreover, recent exceptional experience has shown that the power of public authority to endow pieces of paper with buying power fails if it is worked too hard. A government can make certain money legal tender for the payment of debts, but it cannot compel shopkeepers to party with their goods in exchange for it if they do not want to, as was shown in Germany when the printing press was producing its most monstrous effects, and the trade and business of the country began to be done in dollars and other foreign currencies.

For the present the gold standard, in spite of the hard truths that are behind many of the criticisms with which it is bespattered, holds the field as a working scheme, under which, during the century before the war, immense and unprecedented progress was made in improving the material conditions of man's existence. The circumstances which led to its collapse in 1931, chief among which were panic in America and political funk in Europe, seriously though unreasonably discredited it. But its loss showed how valuable was the work that it did, in steadying rates of exchange, and so promoting commercial and financial intercourse between the nations.

1 comment:

Alan von Altendorf said...

I know it is a trivial remark to say we should pay more attention to lessons learned by our grandparents in WWI, the Roaring Twenties, and the World Crisis aka Great Depression.

Thanks for posting this excellent material, Bron.