Gold Standard? Not Even An Iron Pyrite Standard!

Email Print

pyrite is better known as fool’s gold. I first saw some iron pyrite
half a century ago. My parents had taken me to Central City, Colorado — a
wonderful tourist trap. It had been a gold mining town. There was
a Silver Dollar Saloon. There was an old train in the middle of
the town.

bought a little boxed collection of rocks. Of course, they were
called minerals. That made them more than rocks. In the box was
a sample of iron pyrite. It really did look like gold to my untrained
eye. It sparkled in the sun.

was reminded of that trip when I read Jude Wanniski’s extract from
an exchange between Alan Greenspan and Congressman Ron Paul. Dr.
Paul knows more about monetary theory than anyone else in Congress.
He has sat on the House Banking Committee throughout his career.

remember arriving as his newly hired Research Assistant in June,
1976. That was on a Friday. He had to hand in a minority report
on a bill to extend America’s support of the International Monetary
Fund (IMF). I was assigned the job of writing it. It was officially
due the following Tuesday, but he had been tipped off by an old-timer
that a deadline for a minority report is always one day before the
official deadline. So, I had until Monday morning to crank out something
coherent for him to submit. I did it. Of course, the bill passed.
President Ford, acting on behalf of William Simon, the Secretary
of the Treasury, signed it into law. Simon hated the gold standard.
I later heard him tell a group of us Republican staffers, "I
reject your theology of gold." You can tar and feather me with
that phrase any time.


1966, Alan Greenspan, then under the wing of Ayn Rand, published
an article on the gold standard. It appeared in her newsletter.
She later reprinted it in her book, Capitalism:
The Unknown Ideal
. The article was titled, "Gold and
Economic Freedom." It began with this take-no-prisoners paragraph:

almost hysterical antagonism toward the gold standard is one issue
which unites statists of all persuasions. They seem to sense — perhaps
more clearly and subtly than many consistent defenders of laissez-faire — that
gold and economic freedom are inseparable, that the gold standard
is an instrument of laissez-faire and that each implies and requires
the other.

is the sort of rhetoric that never gets into academic journals.
It also never gets into The Federal Reserve Bulletin.

a logic reminiscent of a generation earlier, statists argued that
the gold standard was largely to blame for the credit debacle
which led to the Great Depression. If the gold standard had not
existed, they argued, Britain’s abandonment of gold payments in
1931 would not have caused the failure of banks all over the world.
(The irony was that since 1913, we had been, not on a gold standard,
but on what may be termed "a mixed gold standard"; yet
it is gold that took the blame.) But the opposition to the gold
standard in any form — from a growing number of welfare-state advocates — was
prompted by a much subtler insight: the realization that the gold
standard is incompatible with chronic deficit spending (the hallmark
of the welfare state).

understood that the gold standard after World War I was a phony,
government-run ersatz gold standard that in fact minimized the use
of gold by the public. It was a gold standard for central bankers,
called the gold-exchange standard. Yet even this stripped-down model
was more than the statists could tolerate.

of its academic jargon, the welfare state is nothing more than
a mechanism by which governments confiscate the wealth of the
productive members of a society to support a wide variety of welfare
schemes. A substantial part of the confiscation is effected by
taxation. But the welfare statists were quick to recognize that
if they wished to retain political power, the amount of taxation
had to be limited and they had to resort to programs of massive
deficit spending, i.e., they had to borrow money, by issuing government
bonds, to finance welfare expenditures on a large scale.

issue is government spending. Rather than tax directly, governments
run deficits. When they cannot sell all the debt to investors, they
sell it to their central banks, which create money to purchase this
debt. This imposes a subtle inflation tax: the depreciation of money.

the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings
from confiscation through inflation. There is no safe store of
value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding
illegal, as was done in the case of gold. If everyone decided,
for example, to convert all his bank deposits to silver or copper
or any other good, and thereafter declined to accept checks as
payment for goods, bank deposits would lose their purchasing power
and government-created bank credit would be worthless as a claim
on goods. The financial policy of the welfare state requires that
there be no way for the owners of wealth to protect themselves.

is the shabby secret of the welfare statists’ tirades against
gold. Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the confiscation
of wealth. Gold stands in the way of this insidious process. It
stands as a protector of property rights. If one grasps this,
one has no difficulty in understanding the statists’ antagonism
toward the gold standard.

was how Greenspan ended his article. It was a classic.

forward 39 years.


the most recent Q&A session by the House Banking Committee,
Dr. Paul reminded his colleagues of this article — an unusual punishment,
indeed, but not cruel.

you, in the 1960s, described the paper system as a scheme for
the confiscation of wealth…. Is it not true that the paper system
that we work with today is actually a scheme to default on our
debt? And is it not true that, for this reason, that’s a good
argument for people not — eventually, at some day — wanting to buy
Treasury bills because they will be paid back with cheaper dollars?….

aligned with this question, I would like to ask something to dealing
exactly with gold, is that: If paper money — today it seems to be
working rather well — but if the paper system doesn’t work, when
will the time come? What will the signs be that we should reconsider

were reasonable questions. The depreciation of money since the creation
of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 has been in the range of 95%,
even using government figures. See the Inflation
Calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics

touched a sore point, I think, as evidenced by the fact that Greenspan
momentarily grew clear.

you say central banks own gold — or monetary authorities own gold.
The United States is a large gold holder. And you have to ask
yourself: Why do we hold gold? And the answer is essentially,
implicitly, the one that you’ve raised — namely that, over the generations,
when fiat monies arose and, indeed, created the type of problems — which
I think you correctly identify — of the 1970s, although the implication
that it was some scheme or conspiracy gives it a much more conscious
focus than actually, as I recall, it was occurring. It was more
inadvertence that created the basic problems.

conspiracy, of course. That Roosevelt unilaterally confiscated the
American public’s gold in 1933 — it was just inadvertent. That
gold bullion remained illegal for Americans to own until 1975 was
again inadvertent, no doubt. And as to the rumor that the FED has
sold its gold through Germany through gold leasing — why, perish the
thought. And as for the long ballyhooed "independent audit" — well,
that would be necessary only if there had been a conspiracy. But
there hasn’t.

as I’ve testified here before to a similar question, central bankers
began to realize in the late 1970s how deleterious a factor the
inflation was. And, indeed, since the late ’70s, central
bankers generally have behaved as though we were on the gold standard.
And, indeed, the extent of liquidity contraction that has occurred
as a consequence of the various different efforts on the part
of monetary authorities is a clear indication that we recognize
that excessive creation of liquidity creates inflation which,
in turn, undermines economic growth.

contraction." That’s a nice phrase. It sounds like the equivalent
of "reduction in the money supply." That has not happened
in my lifetime.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has a published a
table of annual rates
of increase in various national currencies
since 1992. Take a look. There are remarkably few minus signs in
any of these numbers.

is a chart
of U.S. monetary expansion
, published by Edward Jones Company.
It is based on Federal Reserve figures. It is chart #3: the increase
in M-2. From 1960 until 2002, in only one year, 1994, did it approach
zero percent increase. In no year was there a decrease, or as Greenspan
put it, "liquidity contraction."

Greenspan delivered his coup de grce:

that the question is: Would there be any advantage, at this particular
stage, in going back to the gold standard? And the answer is:
I don’t think so, because we’re acting as though we were there.

month, yes. Next month? That’s none of our business as citizens,
which is why the FED delays the publication of a summary of the
minutes of the FOMC
(which sets monetary policy) for three weeks, and five years for
the full set (we are assured by the FED) of minutes.

Greenspan in 2005 is an intellectual caricature of what he was in
1966. He says that Congress and the public can trust the central
bankers of the world because they are following monetary policy
as if the world were on a gold standard.

a look at central bank monetary policy in 2001, in response to the
looming recession, which ceased looming and hit in March, 2001.
The chart includes the dollar and European money. The
chart went ballistic.

Maestro wants to direct the orchestra. A government-defined and
enforced gold standard is much too inhibiting. As for a full gold-coin
standard, where every holder of a receipt for gold, private (bank)
or public (treasury), has the legal right to walk in and exchange
his receipt at a fixed rate for gold coins, would drastically limit
his ability to conduct.

is the whole point of a gold standard. It restricts the ability
of politicians and central bankers to manipulate the currency outside
of very narrow range. It makes bean-counters and order-takers out
of central bankers. It limits their creativity to inflate the currency
at various rates — they never contract the total supply of money.


believes Greenspan, who speaks on behalf of all central bankers,
as his remarks indicate.

standard? Who needs it? Iron pyrite? Too old fashioned, and too
reminiscent of the real thing.

money based on central bank reserves of government debt: that’s
what the nation needs.

the band play on! We know how competent it is.

as good as this one. . . .

The drums go bang,
And the cymbals clang,
And the horns they blaze away.
McCarthy pumps the old bassoon
While the pipes do play.
And Hennessey Tennessee tootles the flute,
And the music is somethin’ grand.
A credit
to old Ireland is McNamara’s band.

1, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

North Archives

Email Print