Government Seignorage

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

The
other day I was reading The Daily Reckoning, Bill Bonner's
email newsletter sent out to Gary North's mailing list, when a commentator
mentioned "seignorage," the markup the government makes
on the difference between the value of a $20 bill and the cost to
produce it. This is not a new concept, but for me it was like a
light bulb going off. Gary North and others have been trying to
explain why a paper money system, even if it is backed by a "gold
standard," inevitably leads to government confiscation. It
occurred to me that the term "seignorage" may be the simplest
way to understand it.

To
start the discussion, let us temporarily accept the concept that
governments have a monopoly on the supply of money. The government
of South Africa, for example, manufactures Krugerrands. In this
case the seignorage value, the difference between the value
of the gold content and the price of the Krugerrand, is a comparatively
small percentage. That government is performing a valuable service
and making a reasonable profit. Investors all over the world buy
Krugerrands freely, of their own volition, without government coercion.

This
was the original basis of the seignorage system. Governments
produced a real good – coins that contained true intrinsic value,
whether gold or silver or copper – which could then be exchanged for
other goods of real value such as food and clothing. Governments
were supposed to supply an equal value of coinage for the money,
and throughout some historic periods competition provided a series
of checks and balances. In modern terms, if South Africa were to
dilute the gold content of the Krugerrand, people would simply stop
purchasing them and buy Canadian Maple Leafs, or something similar.

In
John Donne's Elegy XI upon the loss of his 12 gold coins
we see the process at work by which governments are continually
tempted to debase their currency, yet are constrained by competition
to provide some content of intrinsic value:

Oh
shall twelve righteous angels, which as yet
No leaven of vile solder did admit…

Were they but crowns of France, I cared not,
For, most of these, their natural country rot
I think possesseth, they come here to us,
So pale, so lame, so lean, so ruinous.
And howsoe’er French kings most Christian be,
Their crowns are circumcised most Jewishly.
Or were they Spanish stamps, still travelling,
That are become as Catholic as their king,
These unlicked bear-whelps, unfiled pistolets
That, more than cannon shot, avails or lets,
Which, negligently left unrounded, look
Like many-angled figures in the book

Each
European country produced gold coins, but some were recognized as
more dependable, while others were suspected of being debased. But
once any government is given an absolute monopoly, they no longer
have any incentive to produce real goods of true intrinsic value.
They are guaranteed a set price for their product, so the more they
can cheapen the product, the greater their profit. To see the incentive
for chicanery, we need merely ask, "What if an ordinary company
were to be given a similar deal?"

What
if taxpayers were required by law to pay for, say, Compaq computers,
while Compaq was required to deliver something, but there was no
way to monitor the quality of Compaq's delivered products? Compaq
would know that the consumer would pay them so much money each month,
whether or not the product actually worked. In fact, the product
didn't even need to contain any actual computer chips, it just had
to bear a surface resemblance to the promised item.

Naturally
they would realize that delivering cheap plastic or paper facsimiles
of computers would allow them to make the maximum possible gross
margin. The pressure to do so would be irresistible, and
the result would be inevitable. How could a chairman tell
his board of directors that he was going to continue supplying working
computers at a minimal profit margin, when he had the opportunity
to make virtually 100% profit by delivering cheap replicas instead?

It
would be a bad thing if Compaq were not delivering real computers,
even worse if farmers stopped delivering real food. But it's the
worst of all when the government does the same thing to money, because
money is the basis for all economic exchange, and so the government
is debasing every part of society. Every industry, every transaction
is affected.

To
test our seignorage theory, let's look at other areas where
government has a monopoly and see if the same principles are at
work. The two most important which occupy the largest percentage
of national income would be education and national defense. In both
cases, the government owns either an outright or a virtual monopoly.
The government's monopoly on education is not reduced by the existence
of private schools since all citizens must pay for the schools whether
they use them or not. Parents who send their children to private
schools are required to pay twice.

Let
us assume for the sake of argument that at one time the government
delivered real education, just as at one time governments delivered
real gold coins to their citizens. But over time, how long would
it take government educators to realize that they would get paid
the same, and that their income was guaranteed by the force of law,
whether they delivered a viable product or not? In the same way
that governments discovered that they could vastly increase the
seignorage value of money by delivering paper instead of
gold for the same price, wouldn't governments discover that they
could deliver a mere simulacrum of education as well? After all,
property taxes do not rise or fall based on the knowledge level
of students. On the contrary, over the past 40 years there has been
a consistently inverse relationship in which expenditures increase
while academic performance falls.

John
Senior points out in his book The
Death of Christian Culture
that in the 19th century 16-year
old students were required to write essays in ancient Greek. As
he says, they weren't necessarily brilliant essays, nor was the
ancient Greek necessarily flawless. But they could do it. That was
what was meant by receiving an "education."

Educated
men of the founding fathers' generation believed that the measure
of an educated man was that he would be capable of holding a conversation
with educated men of the past, men like Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine.
An educated man of that generation could do so, and in the original
language. In Henry Fielding's 18th-century novel, Joseph
Andrews
, the parson says to a fraud who claims to be educated,
"Why, if my 8-year old boy could not construe Greek better
than you, I would give him a flogging." Virtually no one in
today's society receives that level of education, despite the expenditure
of enormous sums of money that are beyond the wildest imaginations
of former centuries. How many Americans would feel confident conducting
a dialogue with Alexander Pope or Dr. Johnson without embarrassing
themselves?

Back
in the 19th century when the pound sterling was as good as gold,
the word "education" meant something specific to the inhabitants
of Tom
Brown's School Days
. Now that the pound has been reduced
to only a fraction of its former glory, and even that fraction is
based on "faith and credit" rather than intrinsic value,
education in a similar fashion has been debased to a level that
would be hardly recognizable to a citizen of that time.

It's
true that some young students are knowledgeable in areas of technical
information that did not exist back then. But in America at least,
that knowledge is usually gained through private initiative outside
the formal education system upon which the government lavishes so
much public expenditure. The science taught in most schools consists
primarily of indoctrination in certain ecological principles. And
even in the technical fields, virtually all of our science PhDs
are being earned by foreign-born students.

Our
other proposed example of government seignorage was national
defense. Once again we see phenomenal public expenditures in an
area in which the government has a monopoly. But the question is,
"Do we receive anything recognizable as defense?"
In the education field the government has demonstrated that a seemingly
infinite expenditure on scholastic-related products is not capable
of producing true education. Likewise in the area of national defense,
virtually infinite expenditures by the government seemingly cannot
defend the United States.

If
the United States had not one soldier in its army, nor even 1 plane
in its air force, would we be in any danger of foreign aggression?
Would we need to fear imminent invasion from Canada or Mexico? Would
England or France take advantage of the opportunity to launch a
pre-emptive strike? Would even the ultimate bogeyman, the former
Soviet Union, pose any threat?

Compare
this situation to what we experience today. In place of the "no
standing army" rule envisioned by the founding fathers, we
have a massive military, greater in might than all the competing
militaries of the world. Yet we suffer under constant, unremitting
threats, according to our federal government, which considerately
informs us of the daily threat level, whether "Level Orange"
or "Level Red." We are unable even to perform the job
which was done by the rudimentary Coast Guard system that existed
in the United States before the days of massive military buildups – protect
our own borders from a massive influx of illegal immigrants and
illegal drugs, although we are capable of obliterating virtually
any city in the world, a task in no way truly related to the defense
of our homeland.

In
the case of both education and defense, a reader might point out
that the government does purchase something with all that
money. From education departments we get thousands of school buildings,
hundreds of thousands of teachers, countless numbers of books. From
the defense department we get hundreds of millions of dollars worth
of guns, planes, bombs, etc. The money is being spent somewhere,
after all.

But
the correct question to ask is not whether there is a lot of activity
going on, but whether the ultimate product is being delivered. Historically,
when governments started to deliver paper money in place of gold,
they did not go out of business. Rather they initiated a new era
of vast governmental expansion which we are continuing to live through.
The scope of national government activity increased in direct proportion
to the vastly increased seignorage value of their debased
currencies.

If
Compaq were allowed to deliver paper facsimiles of computers, would
all activity at corporate headquarters disappear? On the contrary,
the activity would actually increase as the company enjoyed the
ability to play with 99% gross margins. More employees would be
hired. All the managers would get raises. Bigger buildings would
be built. The manufacture of paper computers would be presented
as a task of consummate skill and difficulty.

We
see an analogous situation with money. The machinery of the government-operated
financial system is infinitely larger and more complex than anyone
could have imagined in past times. Enormous amounts of monetary
products are produced and distributed by a system that is perfectly
understood by no one apparently, not even by the people running
the system.

Where
does money come from and how does it operate? When should we supply
more of it and when should we supply less? Who owns the Federal
Reserve and who benefits from the profits? These are all deep mysteries,
but the plain and obvious fact is that in the field of money supply,
just as in the areas of education and defense, enormous activities
take place, in which large amounts of currency change hands.

The
only real question is whether any true money is delivered.
Sure we have lots of pieces of paper floating around, and lots more
digital representations, but does the government actually supply
us with any implements of intrinsic value that we can trade for
other items of intrinsic value? In the same way, we can ask, "Do
we get education?" Does anyone other than the immediate
beneficiaries (administrators, teachers, contractors) have any use
for all these buildings, books, computers, etc? And do we get defense?
Are the citizens of our country actually protected from foreign
invasion by all this military-related activity, or are we instead
made more vulnerable?

Ludwig
von Mises pointed out that a fundamental problem with a socialist
system is that in the absence of price indicators there is no way
to tell what is wanted and needed. The Soviet Union, for example,
may have exceeded their quota for tractors every year, but lacked
fuel to operate them. Tractor production was considered a good in
its own right, whether or not any food was produced with the tractors.
Vast efforts were undertaken, but there was no way to know if they
were fulfilling their ultimate purpose.

Our
own government systems of money, defense and education operate in
precisely the same fashion. Vast efforts are expended but there
is no way to know whether we want more paper money, more school
buildings, or more fighter planes, or whether these things are achieving
their ultimate purposes. Alan Greenspan decides how much to increase
the money supply based on his own inscrutable logic. School systems
decide to construct new buildings and hire more teachers without
any feedback from a competitive system. When was the last time that
you went down to the store and decided that the F-117 stealth fighter
was a better value than the older F-16 fighter plane? These decisions
are made in an economic vacuum not significantly different from
the Soviet economy.

Hopefully
these 3 examples demonstrate that the seignorage concept
is a convenient way to visualize the problems with government-supplied
products. Government owns a markup on the products it delivers,
and there is a built-in incentive to maximize this markup, as there
is for all companies and products. But for the government, there
are no balancing incentives that force them to deliver full value
for the money. On the contrary, there are inevitable and
irresistible incentives to debase the product to the greatest
extent possible. History has shown that the government's ability
to debase the product is very great indeed, in fact virtually limitless.

June
6, 2003

John
Galvin [send him mail]
is a businessman living in Cincinnati. His most recent publication
is “Humanae Vitae: A Critical Re-evaluation.”

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts