A Free-Market Monetary System

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A lecture delivered at the Gold and Monetary Conference, New Orleans, November 10, 1977. It made its first appearance in print in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 3, Number 1.

When a little over two years ago, at the second Lausanne Conference of this group, I threw out, almost as a sort of bitter joke, that there was no hope of ever again having decent money, unless we took from government the monopoly of issuing money and handed it over to private industry, I took it only half seriously. But the suggestion proved extraordinarily fertile. Following it up I discovered that I had opened a possibility which in two thousand years no single economist had ever studied. There were quite a number of people who have since taken it up and we have devoted a great deal of study and analysis to this possibility.

As a result I am more convinced than ever that if we ever again are going to have a decent money, it will not come from government: it will be issued by private enterprise, because providing the public with good money which it can trust and use can not only be an extremely profitable business; it imposes on the issuer a discipline to which the government has never been and cannot be subject. It is a business which competing enterprise can maintain only if it gives the public as good a money as anybody else.

Now, fully to understand this, we must free ourselves from what is a widespread but basically wrong belief. Under the Gold Standard, or any other metallic standard, the value of money is not really derived from gold. The fact is, that the necessity of redeeming the money they issue in gold, places upon the issuers a discipline which forces them to control the quantity of money in an appropriate manner; I think it is quite as legitimate to say that under a gold standard it is the demand of gold for monetary purposes which determines that value of gold, as the common belief that the value which gold has in other uses determines the value of money. The gold standard is the only method we have yet found to place a discipline on government, and government will behave reasonably only if it is forced to do so.

I am afraid I am convinced that the hope of ever again placing on government this discipline is gone. The public at large have learned to understand, and I am afraid a whole generation of economists have been teaching, that government has the power in the short run by increasing the quantity of money rapidly to relieve all kinds of economic evils, especially to reduce unemployment. Unfortunately this is true so far as the short run is concerned. The fact is, that such expansions of the quantity of money which seems to have a short-run beneficial effect, become in the long-run the cause of a much greater unemployment. But what politician can possibly care about long run effects if in the short run he buys support?

My conviction is that the hope of returning to the kind of gold standard system which has worked fairly well over a long period is absolutely vain. Even if, by some international treaty, the gold standard were reintroduced, there is not the slightest hope that governments will play the game according to the rules. And the gold standard is not a thing which you can restore by an act of legislation. The gold standard requires a constant observation by government of certain rules which include an occasional restriction of the total circulation which will cause local or national recession, and no government can nowadays do it when both the public and, I am afraid, all those Keynesian economists who have been trained in the last thirty years, will argue that it is more important to increase the quantity of money than to maintain the gold standard.

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November 22, 2008

F. A. Hayek (1899–1992) was a founding board member of the Mises Institute. He shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics with ideological rival Gunnar Myrdal “for their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.”

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