It’s here that we finally get to what’s really the heart of this entire series of posts, which is this: in the West, paper money has been an instrument of revolution.
Both the American and French Revolutions were funded via paper money, and it’s very likely they could not have succeeded without it. It allowed new and fledgling regimes to command necessary resources and fund their armies, which allowed them to take on established states. While such states have mints, a tax base, ownership of natural resources, the ability to write laws, etc.; a rebellion against an established order has none of these things. So, to raise funds, the ability to issue IOUs as payment makes being able to start a revolution far more likely. As we’ve already seen, just about every financial innovation throughout history came about due to the costs of waging wars. Paper money was no exception.
One might even go so far as to say that the American, French and Russian Revolutions would never have been able to happen at all without the invention of paper money!
1. The United States
Earlier we looked at the financial innovations that the colonies undertook to deal with the lack of precious metals in circulation. Wherever paper money and banks had been created, commerce and prosperity increased.
Then it all came to a screeching halt.
The British government passed laws which forbade the issuing and circulation of paper money in the colonies. The monetary experiments came to an end. As you might expect, the domestic economy shrank, and commerce was severely constricted. Of course, the colonists became quite angry at this turn of events.
British authorities initially viewed colonial paper currency favorably because it supported trade with England, but following New England’s “great inflation” in the 1740s, this view changed. Parliament passed the Currency Act of 1751 to strictly limit the quantity of paper currency that could be issued in New England and to strengthen its fiscal backing.
The Act required the colonies to retire all existing bills of credit on schedule. In the future, the colonies could, at most, issue fiat currencies equal to one year’s worth of government expenditures provided that they retired the bills within two years. During wars, colonies could issue larger amounts, provided that they backed all such issuances with taxes and compensated note holders for any losses in the real value of the notes, presumably by paying interest on them.
As a further important constraint on the colonies’ monetary policies, Parliament prohibited New England from making any fiat currency legal tender for private transactions. In 1764, Parliament extended the Currency Act to all of the American colonies.
Paper Money and Inflation in Colonial America (Owen F. Humpage, Economic Commentary, May 13, 2015)
To get around the prohibition on governments issuing paper notes as IOUs, banking may have filled the void. But that option was also cut off by the British government. Last time we saw that the South Sea Bubble, along with a panoply of related schemes, had nearly taken down the entire British economy (as it had done in France). In response, Parliament passed the Bubble Act, which forbade any chartered corporations except those expressly authorized by a Royal Charter. This effectively put the kibosh on banking as an alternative source of paper money in the American colonies.
Given their instinct for experiment in monetary matters, it would have been surprising if the colonists had not discovered or invented banks. They did, and their enthusiasm for this innovation would have been great had it not also been systematically curbed.
In the first half of the eighteenth century the New England colonies, along with Virginia and South Carolina, authorized banking institutions. The most famous, as also the most controversial of these, was the magnificently named Land Bank Manufactory Scheme of Massachusetts which, very possibly, owed something to the ideas of John Law.
The Manufactory authorized the issue of bank notes at nominal interest to subscribers to its capital stock – the notes to be secured, more or less, by the real property of the stockholders. The same notes could be used to pay back the loan that their issue had incurred. This debt could also be repaid in manufactured goods or produce, including that brought into existence by the credit so granted.
The Manufactory precipitated a bitter dispute in the colony. The General Court was favorable, a predisposition that was unquestionably enhanced by the award of stock to numerous of the legislators. Merchants were opposed. In the end, the dispute was carried to London.
In 1741, the Bubble Acts – the British response, as noted, to the South Sea Company and associated promotions and which outlawed joint-stock companies not specifically authorized by law – were declared to apply to the colonies. It was an outrageous exercise in post-facto legestlation, one that helped inspire the Constitutional prohibition against such laws. However, it effectively ended the colonial banks. (Galbraith, pp. 56-57)
Benjamin Franklin, as we have seen, was a longstanding advocate of paper money. He wrote treatises on the subject, and even printed some of it on behalf of the government of Pennsylvania. It was this paper money, he argued, that was the cause of the colonies’ general prosperity in contrast to the widespread poverty and discontent he witnessed everywhere in England:
Before the war, the colonies sent Benjamin Franklin to England to represent their interests. Franklin was greatly surprised by the amount of poverty and high unemployment. It just didn’t make sense, England was the richest country in the world but the working class was impoverished, he wrote “The streets are covered with beggars and tramps.”
It is said that he asked his friends in England how this could be so, they replied that they had too many workers. Many believed, along with Malthus, that wars and plague were necessary to rid the country from man-power surpluses.
“We have no poor houses in the Colonies; and if we had some, there would be nobody to put in them, since there is, in the Colonies, not a single unemployed person, neither beggars nor tramps.” – Benjamin Franklin
He was asked why the working class in the colonies were so prosperous.
“That is simple. In the Colonies, we issue our own paper money. It is called ‘Colonial Scrip.’ We issue it in proper proportion to make the goods and pass easily from the producers to the consumers. In this manner, creating ourselves our own paper money, we control its purchasing power and we have no interest to pay to no one.” – Benjamin Franklin
Soon afterward, the English bankers demanded that the King and Parliament pass a law that prohibited the colonies from using their scrip money. Only gold and silver could be used which would be provided by the English bankers. This began the plague of debt based money in the colonies that had cursed the English working class.
The first law was passed in 1751, and then a harsher law was passed in 1763. Franklin claimed that within one year, the colonies were filled with unemployment and beggars, just like in England, because there was not enough money to pay for the goods and work. The money supply had been cut in half.
A good comment to the above article notes other factors which were also at work:
William Pitt’s prosecution of the war was conducted by running up government debt, and the settlement of this debt after the war’s conclusion required the raising of taxes by Parliament. Since, from Britain’s view, the war had been fought in order to protect its colonies, it felt that it was only fair that the colonies bore some of the financial burden. Colonial scrip was useless to Parliament in this regard, as was barter. The repayment of British lenders to the Crown could only be done in specie.
The colonies, as you correctly pointed out, did not have this in any significant quantity, although in the view of British authorities this was the colonies’ problem and not theirs. This policy also came on the heels of the approach of benign neglect conducted by Robert Walpole as Prime Minister, under which the colonies were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased so long as their activities generally benefited the British Crown. It should also be noted here that demands of payment of taxes in hard currency is a common tactic for colonial powers to undermine local economies and customs. It played that role in fomenting the American Revolution as well as the Whiskey Rebellion of the new Constitutional republic, not to mention how it was used in South Africa to compel natives participating in a traditional economy to abandon their lands and take up work as laborers in the gold mines.
Now, it would be unreasonable to say that this was THE cause of the American Revolution. In school, we’re taught that that taxes were the main cause: “No taxation without representation” went the slogan (and precipitated the Boston Tea Party). We’re also told that the colonists were much aggrieved by high customs duties, such as those of the unpopular Stamp Act.
But the suppression of paper money and local currency issuance by the British government appears to have been just as much of a cause, although it is probably unknown by the vast majority of Americans. The reason for this strange omission is unexplained. Galbraith thinks that that more conservative attitudes towards money creation in modern times have caused even American historians to argue that the British authorities were largely correct in their actions!
English historian, John Twells, wrote about the money of the colonies, the colonial Scrip:
“It was the monetary system under which America’s Colonies flourished to such an extent that Edmund Burke was able to write about them: ‘Nothing in the history of the world resembles their progress. It was a sound and beneficial system, and its effects led to the happiness of the people.
In a bad hour, the British Parliament took away from America its representative money, forbade any further issue of bills of credit, these bills ceasing to be legal tender, and ordered that all taxes should be paid in coins. Consider now the consequences: this restriction of the medium of exchange paralyzed all the industrial energies of the people. Ruin took place in these once flourishing Colonies; most rigorous distress visited every family and every business, discontent became desperation, and reached a point, to use the words of Dr. Johnson, when human nature rises up and assets its rights.”
Peter Cooper, industrialist and statesman wrote:
“After Franklin gave explanations on the true cause of the prosperity of the Colonies, the Parliament exacted laws forbidding the use of this money in the payment of taxes. This decision brought so many drawbacks and so much poverty to the people that it was the main cause of the Revolution. The suppression of the Colonial money was a much more important reason for the general uprising than the Tea and Stamp Act.”
Our Founding Fathers knew that without financial independence and sovereignty there could be no other lasting freedoms. Our freedoms and national sovereignty are being lost because most people do not understand our money system…
If paper money was the cause of the American Revolution, it was also the solution. The Continental Congress issued IOUs to pay for the war – called ‘Continental notes’ or ‘Continental scrip’:
With independence the ban by Parliament on paper money became, in a notable modern phrase, inoperative. And however the colonies might have been moving towards more reliable money, there was now no alternative to government paper…
Before the first Continental Congress assembled, some of the colonies (including Massachusetts) had authorized note issues to pay for military operations. The Congress was without direct powers of taxation; one of its first acts was to authorize a note issue. More states now authorized more notes.
It was by these notes that the American Revolution was financed….
Robert Morris, to whom the historians have awarded the less than impeccable title of ‘Financier of the Revolution’, obtained some six-and-a-half million dollars in loans from France, a few hundred thousand from Spain, and later, after victory was in prospect, a little over a million from the Dutch. These amounts, too, were more symbolic than real. Overwhelmingly the Revolution was paid for with paper money.
Since the issues, Continental and state, were far in excess of any corresponding increase in trade, prices rose – at first slowly and that, after 1777, at a rapidly accelerating rate…Eventually, in the common saying, ‘a wagon-load of money would scarcely purchase a wagon-load of provisions’. Shoes in Virginia were $5000 a pair in the local notes, a full outfit of clothing upwards of a million. Creditors sheltered from their debtors like hunted things lest they be paid off in worthless notes. The phrase ‘not worth a Continental’ won its enduring place in American language. (Galbraith, pp. 58-59)
Despite this painful bout of hyperinflation, as Galbraith notes, there was simply no other viable alternative to fund the Revolutionary War at the time:
Thus the United States came into existence on a full tide not of inflation but of hyperinflation – the kind of inflation that ends only in the money becoming worthless. What is certain, however, is the absence of any alternative.
Taxes, had they been authorized by willing legislators on willing people, would have been had, perhaps impossible to collect in a country of scattered population, no central government, not the slightest experience in fiscal matters, no tax-collection machinery and with its coasts and numerous of its ports and customs houses under enemy control.
And people were far from willing. Taxes were disliked for their own sake and also identified with foreign oppression. A rigorous pay-as-you-go policy on the part of the Continental Congress and the states might well have caused the summer patriots (like the monetary conservatives) to have second thoughts about the advantages of independence.
Nor was borrowing an alternative. Men of property, then the only domestic source, had no reason to think the country a good risk. The loans from France and Spain were motivated not by hope of return but by malice towards an ancient enemy.
So only the notes remained. By any rational calculation, it was the paper money that saved the day. Beside the Liberty Bell there might well be a tasteful replica of a Continental note. (Galbraith, p. 60)
While this is often used as yet another cautionary tale of “government money printing” by libertarians and goldbugs, a couple of things need to be noted. The first, and most obvious is the fact that: without government money printing there would be no United States. That seems like an important point to me.
The second is a take from Ben Franklin himself. He argued that inflation is really just a sort of tax by another name. And, as opposed to “conventional” government taxation, the inflationary tax falls more broadly across the population, meaning that it was actually a more even-handed and fair method of taxation!
And you can kind of see his point. With legislative taxes, government always has to decide who and what to tax—and how much. This inevitably means that the government picks winners and losers by necessity. Sometimes this can be done wisely, but in practice it often is not. But an inflationary tax cannot be easily controlled by government legislation to favor privileged insiders, unlike more conventional methods of direct taxation, where the rich and well-connected are often spared much of the burden thanks to undue influence over legislators:
From 1776 to 1785 Franklin serves as the U.S. representative to the French court. He has the occasion to write on one important monetary topic in this period, namely, the massive depreciation of Congress’ paper money — the Continental dollar — during the revolution. In a letter to Joseph Quincy in 1783, Franklin claims that he predicted this outcome and had proposed a better paper money plan, but that Congress had rejected it.
In addition, around 1781 Franklin writes a tract called “Of the Paper Money of America.” In it he argues that the depreciation of the Continental dollar operated as an inflation tax or a tax on money itself. As such, this tax fell more equally across the citizenry than most other taxes. In effect, every man paid his share of the tax according to how long he retained a Continental dollar between the time he received it in payment and when he spent it again, the intervening depreciation of the money (inflation in prices) being the tax paid.
Benjamin Franklin and the Birth of a Paper Money Economy (PDF; Philidelphia Fed)
I’m not sure that many people would agree with that sentiment today, but it is an interesting take on the matter.
Once the war was won, and with the Continental notes inflating to zero, the new fledgling government could now issue money for real. The first government building constructed by the new government was the mint. The power to tax was authorized by Congress.
Although the war ended in 1783, the finances of the United States remained somewhat chaotic through the 1780s. In 1781, successful merchant Robert Morris was appointed superintendent of finance and personally issued “Morris notes”—commonly called Short and Long Bobs based on their tenure or time to maturity—and thus began the long process to reestablish the government’s credit.
In 1785, the dollar became the official monetary unit of the United States, the first American mint was established in Philadelphia in 1786, and the Continental Congress was finally given the power of taxation to pay off the debt in 1787, thus bringing together a more united fiscal, currency, and monetary policy.
Crisis Chronicles: Not Worth a Continental—The Currency Crisis of 1779 and Today’s European Debt Crisis (Liberty Street)
One of the more common silver coins used all over the world at this time was the Maria Theresa thaler (or taler), issued by the Holy Roman Empire from its silver mines in Joachimsthal, hence the name (today the town of Joachimsthal is known as Jáchymov and is located in the Czech Republic).
“Taler” became a common name for currency because so many German states and municipalities picked it up. During the sixteenth century, approximately 1,500 different types of taler were issued in the German-speaking countries, and numismatic scholars have estimated that between the minting of the first talers in Jáchymov and the year 1900, about 10,000 different talers were issued for daily use and to commemorate special occasions.
The most famous and widely circulated of all talers became known as the Maria Theresa taler, struck in honor of the Austrian empress at the Gunzberg mint in 1773…The coin…became so popular, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East that, even after she died, the government continued to mint it with the date 1780, the year of her death.
The coin not only survived its namesake but outlived the empire that had created it. In 1805 when Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire, the mine at Gunzberg closed, but the mint in Vienna continued to produce the coins exactly as they had been with the same date, 1780, and even with the mintmark of the closed mint. The Austro-Hungarian government continued to mint the taler throughout the nineteenth century until that empire collapsed at the end of World War I.
Other countries began copying the design of the Maria Theresa taler shortly after it went into circulation. They minted coins of a similar size and put on them a bust of a middle-aged woman who resembled Maria Theresa. Of they did not have a queen of their own who fit the description, they used an allegorical female such as the bust of Liberty that appeared on many U.S. coins of the nineteenth century.
The name dollar penetrated the English language via Scotland. Between 1567 and 1571, King James VI issued a thirty-shilling piece that the Scots called the sword dollar because of the design on the back of it. A two-mark coin followed in 1578 and was called the thistle dollar.
The Scots used the name dollar to distinguish their currency, and thereby their country and themselves, more clearly from their domineering English neighbors to the south. Thus, from very early usage, the word dollar carried with it a certain anti-English or antiauthoritarian bias that many Scottish settlers took with them to their new homes in the Americas and other British colonies. The emigration of Scots accounts for much of the subsequent popularity of the word dollar in British colonies around the world… (Weatherford, History of Money, pp. 115-116)
In 1782, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on a Money Unit of the U.S. that “The unit or dolar is a known coin and most familiar of all to the mind of the people. It is already adopted from south to north.”
The American colonists became so accustomed to using the dollar as their primary monetary unit that, after independence, they adopted it as their official currency. On July 6, 1785, the Congress declared that “the money unit of the United States of America be one dollar.” Not until April 2, 1792, however, did Congress pass a law to create an American mint, and only in 1794 did the United States begin minting silver dollars. The mint building, which was started soon after passage of the law and well before the Capitol or White House, became the first public building constructed by the new government of the United States. (Weatherford, History of Money, p. 118)
In the nineteenth century, there were strong arguments around the establishment of a central bank in the United States. One was, in fact, chartered, and then its charter was later revoked. We’ll talk a little about this in the final entry of this series next time, but for now, it is beyond the scope of this post.
In the late eighteenth century, France’s financial circumstances were still very dire. It constantly needed to raise money for its perennial wars with England who, as we saw earlier, successfully funded its own wars with paper money and state borrowing via the Bank of England an—option not available to France in the wake of the Mississippi Bubble’s collapse and the failure of John Law’s Banque Royale. France’s generous loan to the United States’ revolutionaries may have been well appreciated by us Americans, but in retrospect, it was probably not the best move considering France’s fiscal situation (plus the fact that Revolution would soon engulf it; something the French aristocracy obviously had no way of knowing at the time).
In the aftermath of the Revolution, the National Assembly repudiated the King’s debts. It also suspended taxation. But it still badly needed money, especially since many of the countries surrounding France (e.g. Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain and several other monarchies) declared war on it soon after the King met the guillotine. The answer they came up with was, once again, monetizing land. In this case, it was the land seized from the Catholic Church by the Revolutionary government. “[T]he National Assembly agreed that newly nationalised properties in the form of old church land could be purchased through the use of high-denomination assignats, akin to interest-bearing government bonds, mortgaged (assignée) on the property.”
The Estates-General had been summoned in consequence of the terrible fiscal straits of the realm. No more could be borrowed. There was no central bank which could be commanded to take up loans. All still depended on the existence of willing lenders or those who could be apprehended and impressed with their duty.
The Third Estate could scarcely be expected to vote new or heavier levies when its members were principally concerned with the regressive harshness of those then being collected. In fact, on 17 June 1789 the National Assembly declared all taxes illegal, a breathtaking step softened by the provision that they might be collected on a temporary basis.
Meanwhile memories of John Law kept Frenchmen acutely suspicious of ordinary paper money; during 1788, a proposal for an interest-bearing note issue provoked so much opposition that it had to be withdrawn. But a note issue that could be redeemed in actual land was something different. The clerical lands were an endowment by Heaven of the Revolution.
The decisive step was taken on 19 December 1789. An issue of 400 million livres was authorized; it would, it was promised, ‘pay off the public debt, animate agriculture and industry and have the lands better administered’. These notes, the assignats, were to be redeemed within five years from the sale of an equivalent value of the lands of the Church and the Crown.
The first assignats bore interest at 5 per cent; anyone with an appropriate amount could use them directly in exchange for land. In the following summer when a new large issue was authorized, the interest was eliminated. Later still, small denominations were issued.
There were misgivings. The memory of Law continued to be invoked. An anonymous American intervened with Advice on the Assignats by a Citizen of the United States. He warned the Assembly against the assignats out of the rich recent experience of his own country with the Continental notes. However, the initial response to the land-based currency was generally favourable.
Had it been possible to stop with the original issue or with that of 1790, the assignats would be celebrated as a remarkably interesting innovation. Here was not a gold, silver or tobacco standard but one based solidly and logically on the good soil of France.
Purchasing power in the first years had stood up well. There was admiring talk of how the assignats had put land into circulation. And business had improved, employment had increased and sales of the Church and other public lands had been facilitated. On occasion, sales had been too good. In relation to annual income, the prices set were comparatively modest; speculators clutching large packages of the assignats had arrived to take advantage of the bargains.
However, in France, as earlier in America, the demands of revolution were insistent. Although the land was limited, the claims upon it could be increased.
The large issue of 1790 was followed by others – especially after war broke out in 1792. Prices denominated in assignats now rose; their rate of exchange for gold and silver, dealing in which had been authorized by the Assembly, declined sharply. In 1793 and 1794, under the Convention and the management of Cambon, there was a period of stability. Prices were fixed with some success. What could have been more important, the supply of assignats was curtailed by the righteous device of repudiating those that had been issued under the king. In those years they retained a value of around 50 per cent of their face amount when exchanged for gold and silver.
Soon, however, need again asserted itself. More and more were printed. In an innovative step in economic warfare, Pitt, after 1793, allowed the royalist emigres to manufacture assignats for export to France. This, it was hoped, would hasten the decay.
In the end, the French presses were printing one day to supply the needs of the next. Soon the Directory halted the exchange of good real estate for the now nearly worthless paper – France went off the land standard. Creditors were also protected from having their debts paid in assignats. This saved them from the ignominy of having (as earlier in America) to hide out from their debtors. (Galbraith, pp. 64-66)
The lands of aristocrats who had fled France was confiscated as well and used to back further issuances of paper currency. Despite this, as with the Continentals, the value of the assignats soon inflated away to very little. France then issued a new paper money, the mandats territoriaux, also carrying an entitlement to land, in an attempt to stabilize the currency. But distrust in the paper currency (and in the government) was so endemic that the mandats began to depreciate even before they were issued:
With the sale of the confiscated property, a great debtor class emerged, which was interested in further depreciation to make it cheaper to pay back debts. Faith in the new currency faded by mid-year 1792. Wealth was hidden abroad and specie flowed to surrounding countries with the British Royal Mint heavily purchasing gold, particularly in 1793 and 1794.
But deficits persisted and the French government still needed to raise money, so in 1792, it seized the land of emigrants and those who had fled France, adding another 2 billion livres or more to French assets. War with Belgium that year was largely self-funded as France extracted some rents, but not so for the war with England in 1793. Assignats no longer circulated as a medium of payment, but were an object of speculation. Specie was scarce, but sufficient, and farmers refused to accept assignats, which were practically demonetized. In February 1793, citizens of Paris looted shops for bread they could no longer afford, if they could find it at all.
In order to maintain its circulation, France turned to stiff penalties and the Reign of Terror extended into monetary affairs. During the course of 1793, the Assembly prohibited buying gold or silver at a premium, imposed a forced loan on a portion of the population, made it an offense to sell coin or differentiate the price between assignats and coin, and under the Law of the Maximum fixed prices on some commodities and mandated that produce be sold, with the death penalty imposed for infractions.
France realized that to restore order, the volume of paper money in circulation must decrease. In December 1794, it repealed the Law of the Maximum. In January 1795, the government permitted the export of specie in exchange for imports of staple goods. Prices fluctuated wildly and the resulting hyperinflation became a windfall for those who purchased national land with little money down. Inflation peaked in October 1795. In February 1796, in front of a large crowd, the assignat printing plates were destroyed.
By 1796, assignats gave way to specie and by February 1796, the experiment ended. The French tried to replace the assignat with the mandat, which was backed by gold, but so deep was the mistrust of paper money that the mandat began to depreciate before it was even issued and lasted only until February 1797…
…In February 1797 (16 Pluvoise year V), the Directory returned to gold and silver. But by then the Revolution was an accomplished fact. It had been financed, and this the assignats had accomplished. They have at least as good a claim on memory as the guillotine. (Galbraith, p. 66)
Eventually, France’s money system stabilized once its political situation more-or-less stabilized, but entire books have been written about that subject. The military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte sold off the French lands in North America to the United States to raise money for its wars of conquest on the European continent. Napoleon also finally established a central bank in France based on the British model.
In 1800, the lingering suspicion of the French of such institutions had yielded to the financial needs of Napoleon. There had emerged the Banque de France which, in the ensuing century, developed in rough parallel with the Bank of England. In 1875, the former Bank of Prussia became the Reichsbank. Other countries had acquired similar institutions or soon did…(Galbraith, p. 41)
It might to be going too far to say that without paper money, neither the American or French revolutions would have ever happened. But nor is entirely absurd to say that this may well be the case. It’s certainly doubtful that they would have succeeded. It’s difficult to imagine how much history would be different today had it not been for paper money and its role in revolution.
Paper money would continue to play that role throughout the Age of Revolutions well into the Twentieth Century, as Galbraith notes:
Paper was similarly to serve the Soviets in and after the Russian Revolution. By 1920, around 85 per cent of the state budget was being met by the manufacture of paper money…
In the aftermath of the Revolution the Soviet Union, like the other Communist states, became a stern defender of stable prices and hard money. But the Russians, no less than the Americans or the French, owe their revolution to paper.
Not that the use of paper money is a guarantee of revolutionary success. In 1913, in the old Spanish town of Chihuahua City, Pancho Villa was carrying out his engaging combination of banditry and social reform. Soldiers were cleaning the streets, land was being given to the peons, children were being put in schools and Villa was printing paper money by the square yard.
This money could not be exchanged for any better asset. It promised nothing. It was sustained by no residue of prestige or esteem. It was abundant. Its only claim to worth was Pancho Villa’s signature. He gave this money to whosoever seemed to be in need or anyone else who struck his fancy. It did not bring him success, although he did, without question, enjoy a measure of popularity while it lasted. But the United States army pursued him; more orderly men intervened to persuade him to retire to a hacienda in Durango. There, a decade later, when he was suspected by some to be contemplating another foray into banditry, social reform, and monetary policy, he was assassinated. (Galbraith, pp. 66-67)
Given that both the Continentals and the assignats both suffered from hyperinflation towards the end, they have been often held up as a cautionary tale: governments are inherently profligate and can not be trusted with money creation; only by strictly pegging paper money issuance to a cache of gold stashed away in vault somewhere can hyperinflation be avoided.
As Galbraith notes, this is highly selective. Sure, if you look just for instances of paper money overissuance and inflation you will find them. But this is also deliberately ignoring instances–often lasting for decades if not for centuries–that paper money functioned exactly as intended all across the globe; from ancient China, to colonial America, to modern times. It emphasizes the inflationary scare stories, but intentionally ignores the very real stimulus to commercial activity that paper money has provided, as opposed to the extreme constraints of a precious metal standard. It also totally ignores any extenuating circumstances in hyperinflations, such as Germany’s repayment of war debt in the twentieth century, or persistent economic warfare in the case of Venezuela today.
So the attitude that “government simply can’t be trusted” is more of a political opinion than something based on historical facts.
…in the minds of some conservatives…there must have been a lingering sense of the singular service that paper money had, in the recent past, rendered to revolution. Not only was the American Revolution so financed. So also was the socially far more therapeutic eruption in France. If the French citizens had been required to act within the canons of conventional finance, they could not, any more than the Americans, acted at all. (Galbraith, pp. 61-62)
The desire for a gold standard comes from a desire to anchor the value of money in something outside of the control of governments. But, of course, pegging the value of currency to a certain arbitrary amount of gold is a political choice. Nor does it guarantee price stability–the value of gold fluctuates. A gold standard is more of a guarantee of the stability of the price of gold than the stability of the value of money. Also, in almost every case of war and economic depression in modern history, the gold standard is immediately chucked into the trashbin.
The other thing worth noting is that the worth of paper money is related to both issues of supply AND demand. Often, it’s not just that there is too much supply of currency. It’s that people refuse to accept the currency, leading just as assuredly to a loss in value.
And the lack of acceptance is usually driven by a lack of faith in the issuing government. You can see why this might be the case for assignats and Continentals. Both were revolutionary governments whose very stability and legitimacy was in question, particularly in France. If the government issuing the currency (which are IOU’s, remember) may not be around a year from now, then how willing are you to accept that currency? James Madison pointed out that the value of any currency was mostly determined by faith in the credit of the government issuing the currency. That’s why he and other Founding Fathers worked so hard to reestablish the credit of the United States following the Continental note debacle.
As Rebecca Spang—the author of “Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution”—notes, many people in revolutionary France were vigorously opposed to the seizing of Church property. Thus, they would not accept the validity of notes based on their value. This led to a lack of acceptance which contributed just as much to hypernflation as did any profligacy on the part of the government:
Revolutionary France became a paradigm case for the quantity theory of money, the view that prices are directly and proportionately correlated with the amount of money in circulation, and for the deleterious consequences of letting the latter run out of control.
Yet Spang shows that such neat economic interpretations are inadequate. At times, for example, prices rose first and politicians boosted the money supply in response.
Spang reiterates that the first assignats were neither a revolutionary policy nor a form of paper money. But as her stylishly crafted narrative makes clear, this soon changed. Politicians made the cardinal error of thinking that the state could be stabilised by in effect destabilising its money.
Popular distrust of the “real” worth of assignats prompted a contagion of fraud, suspicion and uncertainty. How could one tell a fake assignat, when technology couldn’t replicate them precisely? How could they even be used, when there was no compulsion beyond patriotic duty for sellers to accept them as payment? Small wonder that so many artists made trompe l’oeil images out of them — what looked solid and real was anything but…
‘Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution’, by Rebecca Spang (Financial Times)
Note that the situation of a stable government is totally different. Britain’s government was eminently stable compared to the United States and France at that time, hence its money retained most of its value, even when convertibility was temporarily suspended. This also underlies the value of Switzerland’s currency today, since they have a legendarily stable, neutral government (and really not that much in the way of actual resources).
So those who argue that America’s “fiat” money is no good would somehow have to make the case that the United States government is somehow more illegitimate or more unstable than the governments of other wealthy, industrialized nations. To my mind, this is tangential to treason. Yet no one ever calls them out on this point. From that standpoint, the biggest threat to the money supply comes not from overissuance (hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen), but from undermining the faith in, and credit of, the United States government. That’s been done exclusively by Republicans in recent years by grandstanding over the debt ceiling—an artificial borrowing constraint imposed during the United States’ entry into World War One. Really, this should be considered an unpatriotic and treasonous act. It almost certainly would have been perceived as such by the Founding Fathers.
I always have the same response to libertarians who sneer at the “worthlessness” of government fiat money. My response is this: if you truly believe it is worthless, then I will gladly take it off your hands for you. Please hand over all the paper money you have in your wallet right now at this very moment, as well as all the paper money you may have lying around your house. If you want, you can even take out some “worthless” paper money from the nearest ATM and hand it over to me too; I’ll gladly take that off your hands as well. You can give me as much as you like.
To date, I have yet to have a libertarian take me up on that offer. I wonder why?
Next: The Civil War finally establishes a national paper currency for the U.S.