The Myth of Insufficient Gold

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of the standard arguments against a gold standard is this: "There’s
not enough gold to facilitate all of the transactions in a free
market economy." This is an old criticism. It was a lot more
popular before the desktop computer industry started cutting prices
every year, while increasing product quality. These days, people
expect falling prices in desktop computers.

if they expected price cuts in all other industries?

you have ever wondered what would happen if a relatively fixed
supply of above-ground gold were the primary medium of exchange,
this essay may help clarify things.

people have no conception of what you are about to read. They
are not interested. They don’t know that their futures will depend
heavily on the answers to these questions that will be adopted
by the Federal Reserve System’s policy-makers. They think, "I
can’t be bothered with monetary theory." Therein lies your
investment opportunity.

"There Isn’t Enough Gold"

would appear that the reasons commonly advanced as a proof that
the quantity of the circulating medium should vary as production
increases or decreases are entirely unfounded. It would appear
also that the fall of prices proportionate to the increase in
productivity, which necessarily follows when, the amount of
money remaining the same, production increases, is not only
entirely harmless, but in fact the only means of avoiding misdirections
of production.

A. Hayek, Prices
and Production
(1931), p. 105

Professor Hayek wrote in 1931 was not accepted then, and it is
not accepted today. Note: it would take over $1,200 to match the
purchasing power of $100 in 1931, according to the
inflation calculator of the U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor

policy-makers had listened to him, we might be able to buy for
$25 what it took $100 to buy in 1931. That is because economic
growth has continued steadily since 1931.


growth is one of the chief fetishes of modern life. Hardly anyone
would challenge the contemporary commitment to the aggregate expansion
of goods and services. This is true of socialists, interventionists,
and free enterprise advocates; if it is a question of "more"
as opposed to "less," the demonstrated preference of
the vast bulk of humanity is in favor of the former.

keep the idea of growth from becoming the modern equivalent of
the holy grail, the supporter of the free market is forced to
add certain key qualifications to the general demand for expansion.

that all costs of the growth process be paid for by those who
by virtue of their ownership of the means of production gain
access to the fruits of production. This implies that society
has the right to protect itself from unwanted "spill over"
effects like pollution, i.e., that the so-called social costs
be converted into private costs whenever possible.

that economic growth be induced by the voluntary activities
of men cooperating on a private market. The state-sponsored
projects of "growthmanship," especially growth induced
through inflationary deficit budgets, are to be avoided.

that growth not be viewed as a potentially unlimited process
over time, as if resources were in unlimited supply.

short, aggregate economic growth should be the product of the
activities of individual men and firms acting in concert according
to the impersonal dictates of a competitive market economy. It
should be the goal of national governments only in the limited
sense of policies that favor individual initiative and the smooth
operation of the market, such as legal guarantees supporting voluntary
contracts, the prohibition of violence, and so forth.


"and so forth" is a constant source of intellectual
as well as political conflict.

of the more heated areas of contention among free market economists
is the issue of monetary policy. The majority of those calling
themselves free market economists believe that monetary policy
should not be the autonomous creation of voluntary market agreements.
Instead, they favor various governmental or quasi-governmental
policies that would oversee the creation of money and credit on
a national, centralized scale.

policy in this perspective is an "exogenous factor"
in the marketplace — something that the market must respond to rather
than an internally produced, "endogenous factor" that
stems from the market itself. The money supply is therefore supposedly
indirectly related to market processes; it is controlled by the
central governments acting through the central bank, or else it
is the automatic creation of a central bank on a fixed percentage
increase per day and therefore not subject to "fine-tuning"
operations of the political authorities.

smaller number of free market advocates (myself among them) are
convinced that such monopoly powers of money creation are going
to be used. Power is never neutral; it is exercised according
to the value standards of those who possess it. Money is power,
for it enables the bearer to purchase the tools of power, whether
guns or votes.

have an almost insatiable lust for power, or at least for the
right to exercise power. If they are granted the right to finance
political expenditures through deficits in the visible tax schedules,
they are empowered to redistribute wealth in the direction of
the state through the invisible tax of inflation.

given this fear of the political monopoly of the state, should
ideally be the creation of market forces. Whatever scarce economic
goods that men voluntarily use as a means of facilitating market
exchanges — goods that are durable, divisible, transportable,
and above all scarce — are sufficient to allow men to cooperate
in economic production. Money came into existence this way; the
state only sanctioned an already prevalent practice. Generally,
the two goods that have functioned best as money have been gold
and silver: they both possess great historic value, though not
intrinsic value (since no commodity possesses intrinsic value).

of course, also provides for the creation of new money. But as
Ludwig von Mises argued, truly competitive banking — free
banking — keeps the creation of new credit at a minimum,
since bankers do not really trust each other, and they will demand
payment in gold or silver from banks that are suspected of insolvency.

the creation of new money on a free market would stem primarily
from the discoveries of new ore deposits or new metallurgical
techniques that would make available greater supplies of scarce
money metals than would have been economically feasible before.
It is quite possible to imagine a free market system operating
in terms of nonpolitical money. The principle of voluntarism should
not be excluded, a priori, from the realm of monetary policy.


are several crucial issues involved in the theoretical dispute
between those favoring centralized monetary control and free market

the question of constitutional sovereignty: which sphere, civil
government or the market, is responsible for the administration
of money?

the question of economic efficiency: would the plurality of
market institutions interfere with the creation of a rational
monetary framework?

and most important for this paper: is not a fundamental requirement
for the growth of economic production the creation of a money
supply sufficient to keep pace, proportionately, with aggregate

constitutional question, historically, is easier to answer than
the other two. The Constitution says very little about the governing
of monetary affairs. The Congress is granted the authority to
borrow money on the credit of the United States, a factor which
has subsequently become an engine of inflation, given the legalized
position of the central bank in its activity of money creation.
The Congress also has the power "To coin Money, regulate
the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of
Weights and Measures" (Article 11, Section 8). Furthermore,
the states are prohibited to coin money, emit bills of credit,
or "make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment
of Debts" (Article II, Section 9).


interpretation of these passages has become increasingly statist
since the 1860’s. Gerald T. Dunne describes his book, Monetary
Decisions of the Supreme Court, in these terms: "This
work traces a series of decisions of the Supreme Court which have
raised the monetary power of the United States government from
relative insignificance to almost unlimited authority." He
goes on to write: ". . . the Founding Fathers regarded political
control of monetary institutions with an abhorrence born of bitter
experience, and they seriously considered writing a sharp limitation
on such governmental activity into the Constitution itself. Yet
they did not, and by "speaking in silences" gave the
government they founded the near absolute authority over currency
and coinage that has always been considered the necessary consequence
of national sovereignty."

most detailed study of the changing views of the Supreme Court
is the 1,600-page book by Edwin Viera, Pieces of Eight.
He is a Harvard-trained lawyer and a first-rate monetary theorist.
He shows how the original dollar was based on a free market currency,
the Spanish "piece of eight," which was silver.

great push toward centralization came, understandably, with the
Civil War, the first truly modern total war, with its need of
new taxes and new power. From that point on, there has been a
continual war of the Federal government against the limitations
imposed by a full gold coin standard of money. It is all too clearly
an issue of sovereignty: the sovereignty of the political sphere
against that of individuals operating in terms of voluntary economic


second question is more difficult to answer. Would the plurality
of monetary sovereignties within the over-all sovereignty of a
competitive market necessarily be less efficient than a money
system created by central political sovereignty? As a corollary,
are the time, capital, and energy expended in gold and silver
mining worse spent than if they had gone into the production of
consumer goods?

the short run and in certain localized areas, plural monetary
sovereignties might not be competitive. A local bank could conceivably
flood a local region with unbacked fiat currency. But these so-called
wildcat banking operations, unless legally sanctioned by state
fractional reserve licenses (deceptively called limitations),
do not last very long. People discount the value of these fiat
bills, or else make a run on the bank’s vaults. The bank is not
shielded by political sovereignty against the demands of its creditors.
In the long run it must stay competitive, earning its income from
services rather than the creation of fiat money. With the development
of modern communications that are almost instantaneous in nature,
frauds of this kind become more difficult.

free market is astoundingly efficient in communicating knowledge.
The activity of the stock market, for example, in response to
new information about a government policy or a new discovery,
indicates the speed of the transfer of knowledge, as prices are
rapidly raised or lowered in terms of the discounted value that
is expected to accrue because of the new conditions. The very
flexibility of prices allows new information to be assimilated
in an economically efficient manner. Why, then, are changes affecting
the value of the various monetary units assumed to be less efficiently
transmitted by the free market’s mechanism than by the political
sovereign? Why is the enforced stability of fixed monetary ratios
so very efficient and the enforced stability of fixed prices on
any other market so embarrassingly inefficient? Why is the market
incapable of arbitrating the value of gold and silver coins (domestic
vs. domestic, domestic vs. foreign), when it is thought to be
so efficient at arbitrating the value of gold and silver jewelry?
Why is the market incapable of registering efficiently the value
of gold in comparison to a currency supposedly fixed in relation
to gold?


answer should be obvious: it is because the market is so efficient
at registering subtle shifts in values between scarce economic
goods that the political sovereigns ban the establishment of plural
monetary sovereignties. It is because any disparity economically
between the value of fiat currency supposedly linked to gold and
the market value of gold exposes the ludicrous nature of the hypothetical
legal connection, which in fact is a legal fiction, that the political
sovereignty assumes for itself a monopoly of money creation.

is not the inefficiency of the market in registering the value
of money but rather its incomparable efficiency that has led to
its position of imposed isolation in monetary affairs. Legal fictions
are far more difficult to impose on men if the absurdity of that
fiction is exposed, hour by hour, by an autonomous free market

there not be a chaos of competing coins, weights, and fineness
of monies? Perhaps, for brief periods of time and in local, semi-isolated
regions. But the market has been able to produce light bulbs that
fit into sockets throughout America, and plugs that fit into wall
sockets, and railroad tracks that match many companies’ engines
and cars. To state, a priori, that the market is incapable of
regulating coins equally well is, at best, a dangerous statement
that is protected from critical examination only by the empirical
fact of our contemporary political affairs.

in the stock of gold and silver are generally slow. Changes in
the "velocity of money" — the number of exchanges
within a given time period — are also slow, unless the public
expects some drastic change, like a devaluation of the monetary
unit by the political authority. These changes can be predicted
within calculable limits; in short, the economic impact of such
changes can be discounted. They are relatively fixed in magnitude
in comparison to the flexibility provided by a government printing
press or a central bank’s brand new IBM computer. The limits imposed
by the costs of mining provide a continuity to economic affairs
compared to which the "rational planning" of central
political authorities is laughable.

the costs of mining produce for society is a restrained state.
We expend time and capital and energy in order to dig metals out
of the ground. Some of these metals can be used for ornament,
or electronic circuits, or for exchange purposes; the market tells
men what each use is worth to his fellows, and the seller can
respond accordingly. The existence of a free coinage restrains
the capabilities of political authorities to redistribute wealth,
through fiat money creation, in the direction of the state. That
such a restraint might be available for the few millions spent
in mining gold and silver out of the ground represents the greatest
potential economic and political bargain in the history of man.
To paraphrase another patriot: "Millions for mining, but
not one cent in tribute."


reducing the parameters of the money supply by limiting money
to those scarce economic goods accepted voluntarily in exchange,
prediction becomes a real possibility. Prices are the free market’s
greatest achievement in reducing the irrationality of human affairs.
They enable us to predict the future.

reward the successful predictors, while losses greet the inefficient
forecasters, thus reducing the extent of their influence. The
subtle day-to-day shifts in the value of the various monies would,
like the equally subtle day-to-day shifts in value of all other
goods and services, be reflected in the various prices of monies,
vis–vis each other.

speculators (predictors) could act as arbitrators between monies.
The price of buying pounds sterling or silver dollars with my
gold dollar would be available on request, probably published
daily in the newspaper. Since any price today reflects the supply
and demand of the two goods to be exchanged, and since this in
turn reflects the expectations of all participants of the value
of the items in the future, discounted to the present, free pricing
brings thousands and even millions of forecasters into the market.

price reflects the composite of all predictors’ expectations.
What better means could men devise to unlock the secrets of the
future? Yet monetary centralists would have us believe that in
monetary affairs, the state’s experts are the best source of economic
continuity, and that they are more efficient in setting the value
of currencies as they relate to each other than the market could

we find in the price-fixing of currencies is exactly what we find
in the price-fixing of all other commodities: Periods of inflexible,
politically imposed "stability" interspersed with great
economic discontinuities. The old price shifts to some wholly
new, wholly unpredictable, politically imposed price, for which
few men have been able to take precautions. It is a rigid stability
broken by radical shifts to some new rigidity. It has nothing
to do with the fluid continuity of flexible market pricing. Discontinuous
"stability" is the plaque of politically imposed prices,
as devaluations come in response to some disastrous political
necessity, often internationally centered, involving the prestige
of many national governments. It brings the rule of law into disrepute,
both domestically and internationally. Sooner or later domestic
inflation comes into conflict with the requirements of international

those who prefer tidal waves to the splashing of the surf, for
those who prefer earthquakes to slowly shifting earth movements,
the rationale of the political monopoly of money may appear sane.
It is strange that anyone else believes in it. Instead of the
localized discontinuities associated with private counterfeiting,
the state’s planners substitute complete, centralized discontinuities,
the predictable market losses of fraud (which can be insured against
for a fee) are regarded as intolerable, yet periodic national
monetary catastrophes like inflation, depression, and devaluation
are accepted as the "inevitable" costs of creative capitalism.
It is a peculiar ideology.


third problem seems to baffle many well-meaning free market supporters.
How can a privately established monetary system linked to gold
and silver expand rapidly enough to facilitate business in a modern
economy? How can new gold and silver enter the market rapidly
enough to "keep pace," proportionately, with an expanding
number of free market transactions?

answer seems too obvious: the expansion of a specie-founded currency
system cannot possibly grow as fast as business has grown in the
last century. Since the answer is so obvious, something must be
wrong with the question. There is something wrong; it has to do
with the invariable underlying assumption of the question: today’s
prices are downwardly inflexible.

is a fact that many prices are inflexible in a downward direction,
or at least very, very "sticky." For example, wages
in industries covered by minimum wage legislation are as downwardly
inflexible as the legislatures that have set them. Furthermore,
wages in industries covered by the labor union provisions of the
Wagner Act of 1935 are downwardly inflexible, for such unions
are legally permitted to exclude competing laborers who would
work for lower wages. Products that come under laws establishing
"fair trade" prices, or products undergirded by price
floors established by law, are not responsive to economic conditions
requiring a downward revision of prices. The common feature of
the majority of downwardly inflexible prices is the intervention
of the political sovereignty.

logic of economic expansion should be clear enough: if it takes
place within a relatively fixed monetary structure, either the
velocity of money will increase (and there are limits here) or
else prices in the aggregate will have to fall. If prices are
not permitted to fall, then many factors of production will be
found to be uneconomic and therefore unemployable. The evidence
in favor of this law of economics is found every time a depression
comes around (and they come around just as regularly as the government-sponsored
monetary expansions that invariably precede them). Few people
interpret the evidence intelligently.

union leaders do not like unemployed members. They do not care
very much about unemployed nonmembers, since these men are unemployed
in order to permit the higher wages of those within the union.
Business owners and managers do not like to see unemployed capital,
but they want high rates of return on their capital investments
even if it should mean bankruptcy for competitors. So, when falling
prices appear necessary for a marginal firm to stay competitive,
but when it is not efficient enough to compete in terms of the
new lower prices for its products, the appeal goes out to the
state for "protection." Protection is needed from nasty
customers who are going to spend their hard-earned cash or credit

group resists lower returns on its investment — labor or financial — even
in the face of the biggest risk of all: total unemployment. And
if the state intervenes to protect these vested interests, it
is forced to take steps to insure the continued operation of the

does so through the means of an expansion of the money supply.
It steps in to set up price and wage floors; for example, the
work of the NRA (National Recovery Administration) in the early
years of the Roosevelt administration. Then the inflation of the
money supply raises aggregate prices (or at least keeps them from
falling), lowers the real income from the fixed money returns,
and therefore "saves" business and labor. This was the
"genius" of the Keynesian recovery, only it took the
psychological inducement of total war to allow the governments
to inflate the currencies sufficiently to reduce real wages sufficiently
to keep all employed, while simultaneously creating an atmosphere
favoring the imposition of price and wage controls in order to
"repress" the visible signs of the inflation, i.e.,
even higher money prices. So prices no longer allocated efficiently;
ration stamps, priority slips, and other "hunting licenses"
took the place of an integrated market pricing system. So did
the black market.


inflationary pressures have prevented us from falling into reality.
Citizens will not face the possibility that the depression of
the 1930’s is being repressed through the expansion of the money
supply, an expansion which is now threatening to become exponential.
No, we seem to prefer the blight of inflation to the necessity
of an orderly, generally predictable downward drift of aggregate

people resist change. That, in spite of the hopes and footnoted
articles by liberal sociologists who enjoy the security of tenure.

people who do welcome change have in mind familiar change, potentially
controllable change, change that does not rush in with destruction.
Stability, law, order: these are the catchwords even in our own
culture, a culture that has thrived on change so extensive that
nothing in the history of man can compare with it. It should not
be surprising that the siren’s slogan of "a stable price
level" should have lured so many into the rocks of economic
inflexibility and monetary inflation.

a stable price level requires, logically, stable conditions: static
tastes, static technology, static resources, static population.
In short, stable prices demand the end of history. The same people
who demand stable prices, whether socialist, interventionist,
or monetarist, simultaneously call for increased economic production.
What they want is the fulfillment of that vision restricted to
the drunken of the Old Testament: "… tomorrow shall be
as this day, and much more abundant" (Isaiah 56:12). The
fantasy is still fantasy; tomorrow will not be as today, and neither
will tomorrow’s price structure.

in economic affairs can lead to present euphoria and ultimate
miscalculation. Prices change. Tastes change. Productivity changes.
To interfere with those changes is to reduce the efficiency of
the market; only if your goal is to reduce market efficiency would
the imposition of controls be rational. To argue that upward prices,
downward prices, or stable prices should be the proper arrangement
for any industry over time is to argue nonsense. An official price
can be imposed for a time, of course, but the result is the misallocation
of scarce resources, a misallocation that is mitigated only by
the creation of a black market.


is one sense in which the concept of stable prices has validity.
Prices on a free market ought to change in a stable, generally
predictable, continuous manner. Price (or quality) changes should
be continual (since economic conditions change) and hopefully
continuous (as distinguished from discontinuous, radical) in nature.
Only if some exogenous catastrophe strikes the society should
the market display radical shifts in pricing. Monetary policy,
ideally, should contribute no discontinuities of its own —
no disastrous, aggregate unpredictabilities. This is the only
social stability worth preserving in life: the stability of reasonably
predictable change.

free market, by decentralizing the decision-making process, by
rewarding the successful predictors and eliminating (or at least
restricting the economic power of) the inefficient forecasters,
and by providing a whole complex of markets, including specialized
markets of valuable information of many kinds, is perhaps the
greatest engine of economic continuity ever developed by men.
That continuity is its genius. It is a continuity based, ultimately,
on its flexibility in pricing its scarce economic resources. To
destroy that flexibility is to invite disaster.

myth of the stable price level has captured the minds of the inflationists,
who seek to impose price and wage controls in order to reduce
the visibility of the effects of monetary expansion. On the other
hand, stable prices have appeared as economic nirvana to conservatives
who have thought it important to oppose price inflation. They
have mistaken a tactical slogan — stable prices — for
the strategic goal. They have lost sight of the true requirement
of a free market, namely, flexible prices. They have joined forces
with Keynesians and neo-Keynesians; they all want to enforce stability
on the "bad" increasing prices (labor costs if you’re
a conservative, consumer prices if you’re a liberal), and they
want few restraints on the "good" upward prices (welfare
benefits if you’re a liberal, the Dow Jones average if you’re
a conservative). Everyone is willing to call in the assistance
of the state’s authorities in order to guarantee these effects.
The authorities respond.

we see is the "ratchet effect." A wage or price once
attained for any length of time sufficient to convince the beneficiaries
that such a return is "normal" cannot, by agreed definition,
be lowered again. The price cannot slip back. It must be defended.
It must be supported. It becomes an ethical imperative. Then it
becomes the object of a political campaign. At that point the
market is threatened.


defense of the free market must be in terms of its capacity to
expand the range of choices open to freemen. It is an ethical
defense. Economic growth that does not expand the range of men’s
choices is a false hope. The goal is not simply the expansion
of the aggregate number of goods and services. It is no doubt
true that the free market is the best means of expanding output
and increasing efficiency, but it is change that is constant in
human life, not expansion or linear development. There are limits
on secular expansion.

it is reasonable to expect that the growth in the number of goods
and services in a free market will exceed the number of new gold
and silver discoveries. If so, then it is equally reasonable to
expect to see prices in the aggregate in a slow decline. In fact,
by calling for increased production, we are calling for lower
prices, if the market is to clear itself of all goods and services
offered for sale. Falling prices are no less desirable in the
aggregate than increasing aggregate productivity. They are economic

are frequently heard to say that their employees are incapable
of understanding that money wages are not the important thing,
but real income is. Yet these same employers seem incapable of
comprehending that profits are not dependent upon an increasing
aggregate price level.

does not matter for aggregate profits whether the price level
is falling, rising, or stable. What does matter is the entrepreneur’s
ability to forecast future economic conditions, including the
direction of prices relevant to his business.

price today includes a component based on the forecast of buyer
and seller concerning the state of conditions in the future. If
a man on a fixed income wants to buy a product, and he expects
the price to rise tomorrow, he logically should buy today; if
he expects the price to fall, he should wait. Thus, the key to
economic success is the accuracy of one’s discounting, for every
price reflects in part the future price, discounted to the present.
The aggregate level of prices is irrelevant; what is relevant
is one’s ability to forecast particular prices.

is quite likely that a falling price level (due to increased production
of non-monetary goods and services) would require more monetary
units of a smaller denomination. But this is not the same as an
increase of the aggregate money supply. It is not monetary inflation.
Four quarters can be added to the money supply without inflation,
just as long as a paper one-dollar bill is destroyed. The effects
are not the same as a simple addition of the four quarters to
the money supply.

first example conveys no increase of purchasing power to anyone;
the second does. In the first example, no one on a fixed income
has to face an increased price level or an empty space on a store’s
shelf due to someone else’s purchase. The second example forces
a redistribution of wealth, from the man who did not have access
to the four new quarters into the possession of the man who did.
The first example does not set up a boom-bust cycle; the second

in the aggregate can fall to zero only if scarcity is entirely
eliminated from the world, i.e., if all demand can be met for
all goods and services at zero price. That is not our world. Thus,
we can safely assume that prices will not fall to zero. We can
also assume that there are limits on production. The same set
of facts assures both results: scarcity guarantees a limit on
falling prices and a limit on aggregate production. But there
is nothing incompatible between economic growth and falling prices.
Far from being incompatible, they are complementary. There should
be no need to call for an expansion of the money supply "at
a rate proportional to increasing productivity."

is a good thing that such an expansion is not necessary, since
it would be impossible to measure such proportional rates. It
would require whole armies of government-paid statisticians to
construct an infinite number of price indexes. If this were possible,
then socialism would be as efficient as the free market. Infinite
knowledge is not given to men, not even to government statistical
boards. Even Arthur Ross, the Department of Labor’s commissioner
of labor statistics, and a man who thinks the index number is
a usable device, has to admit that it is an inexact science at
best. Government statistical indexes are used, in the last analysis,
to expand the government’s control of economic affairs. That is
why the government needs so many statistics.

quest for the neutral monetary system, the commodity dollar, price
index money, and all other variations on this theme has been as
fruitless a quest as socialists, Keynesians, social credit advocates,
and government statisticians have ever embarked on. It presupposes
a sovereign political state with a monopoly of money creation.
It presupposes an omniscience on the part of the state and its
functionaries that is utopian. It has awarded to the state, by
default, the right to control the central mechanism of all modern
market transactions, the money supply. It has led to the nightmare
of inflation that has plagued the modern world, just as this same
sovereignty plagued Rome in its declining years.

the case of ancient Rome, it was a reasonable claim, given the
theological presupposition of the ancient world (excluding the
Hebrews and the Christians) that the state is divine, either in
and of itself or as a function of the divinity of the ruler. Rulers
were theoretically omniscient in those days. Even with their supposed
omniscience, their monetary systems were subject to ruinous collapse.

that men today would expect a better showing from an officially
secular state that recognizes no divinity over it or under it.
Then again, perhaps a state like this assumes the function of
the older, theocratic state. It recognizes no sovereignty apart
from itself. And like the ancient kingdoms, the sign of sovereignty
is exhibited in the monopoly over money.

3, 2003

North is the author of Mises
on Money
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