by Peter Schiff
Today, we’re accustomed to thinking of small greenish paper rectangles as the definition of money, and we think of the US government as the only source of money. To honestly discuss sound money, we need to realize where our current money customs came from.
At first, it was every man for himself. You ate or wore what you could pick or catch.
Barter was the first advance. If you had some extra meat, and your neighbor had an extra fur, you might make a direct exchange. If food, water, clothing, and simple tools are the only goods on the market, barter is fine – you can always find someone who has what you want and wants what you have.
But as soon as there’s basic manufacturing and prosperity begins increasing, barter becomes inadequate. Say you’re a hunter and you want a bed, but the only bedmaker in town is a vegetarian. What do you do then? You would have to figure out what the bedmaker wanted (maybe tofu), and then find someone who had tofu and wanted meat. If you couldn’t find that person, you would have to find a fourth person (someone who wanted meat, and had the hats that the tofu maker wanted), or try to convince the vegetarian bedmaker to take the meat and trade it for something else.
Meat, however, spoils, and so the bedmaker would have to unload it pretty quickly. So, unable to get your hands on anything the bedmaker wants to consume, you trade your meat for some salt and approach the bedmaker.
"Look, I know you don’t want salt, but think of all the people who do. They use it to preserve their meat and flavor their soup. And this stuff is nonperishable, so you can hold it as long as you want. And if, when the tofu dealer comes through town, he doesn’t want salt, you can explain to him what I’ve explained to you – he can use it to buy something he wants."
If you and the bedmaker agree, you’ve just created money. Organically, more people in your community begin taking salt for payment, even if they have no intention to use it, because they know others will accept it.
But – and this is important – the value of salt money is not entirely dependent on other people accepting it as payment. If, for some reason, folks stopped taking salt as payment, you could use it as, well, salt.
Salt was a pretty good currency, especially before refrigeration, because it was widely demanded, divisible down to the grain, very portable, easy to weigh, and could easily be tested for counterfeit by tasting it. Romans used salt for money.
But just because salt served as money didn’t mean there would be no other form of money in circulation. Tobacco leaves might be widely accepted as payment. So might gold or silver.
The Greatest Invention Ever?
The point is that money arises naturally in society, as a way of aiding in voluntary economic transactions. It was one of the greatest inventions ever. Money not only made it easier for people to buy what they wanted, it also made saving much more possible – you could accumulate excess money to spend at a later point.
While saving is frowned upon by the elites today, it’s an essential element in economic progress. By making it easier for people to save, money did two crucial things. First, it inspired more industriousness: there was now incentive to work harder to earn more in a day than you could spend in a day. Second, savings enabled ambitious entrepreneurs to make big capital investments: labor-saving machines, warehouses, transportation.
If the saver didn’t have any big plans in mind for his money, he could still make it productive by lending it out. Finance was nearly impossible without money. Sure, you could give your neighbor a pig this year in exchange for a pig and a chicken next year, but there would be a lot more opportunity for squabbling ("this pig isn’t as healthy as the pig I gave you last year").
With a commodity money, where there is little or no deviation in quality, and using universal, objective measures, like weight, you can lend with the confidence that what you get back will be of the same quality as what you loaned out.
Money also made specialization more practical. If you were really good at one thing – manufacturing nails (to borrow Adam Smith’s famous example) – you could make a living just by making nails. Without money, someone who spent his whole day making nails would have to find (a) someone with excess food who wanted nails, (b) someone with excess shelter who wanted nails, (c) someone with clothes to spare who also wanted nails at that moment, and so on.
Once money is introduced, the nail seller only needs to find (a) people with money who want nails, and (b) different people with everything the nail seller needs who want money. Facilitating specialization creates efficiencies, as folks get to divide up labor according to skill and interest. In countless ways, money improves society.
In the past, different types of commodity money competed. Salt had its advantages, but also disadvantages – you had to keep it dry, it was easy to spill. In Rome, rising sea levels made it much harder to get salt over the years.
Meanwhile, gold had a lot going for it. It’s fairly easy to store. Like salt, it’s easy to divide, but also easy to combine: you can make blocks, or coins of different weights or denominations, which can be standardized. It doesn’t rust. It doesn’t tarnish or undergo other unpleasant reactions with chemicals.
Like any money, gold has underlying value. Mostly, we think of its decorative value – across nearly every culture, gold is considered beautiful. Women love it, and pleasing women’s fancies is universally considered a good thing. It has industrial uses due to its resistance to corrosion and how thin it can be hammered.
Gold is also rare enough to be valuable, but plentiful enough that it can be widely circulated. Its supply grows, but never very quickly.
No authority had to declare gold to be money. It arose as a good medium of exchange, and in many cases it won out in competition against other moneys. It didn’t always win out to the exclusion of other types of money, but it was probably the most successful money ever, thanks not to some order from above, but thanks to gold’s own attributes.
This is very important: money doesn’t come from government; it comes from civil society.
Peter Schiff CEO of Euro Pacific Precious Metals, a gold and silver dealer selling reputable, well-known bullion coins and bars at competitive prices. He is author of The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets and Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse. His latest book is The Real Crash: America’s Coming Bankruptcy, How to Save Yourself and Your Country.