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Reinstating the gold standard

Summary:
From Lars Syll Ninety years ago Keynes could congratulate Great Britain on finally having got rid of the biggest ”barbarous relic” of his time — the gold standard. He lamented that advocates of the ancient standard do not observe how remote it now is from the spirit and the requirement of the age … [T]he long age of Commodity Money has at last passed away before the age of Representative Money. Gold has ceased to be a coin, a hoard, a tangible claim to wealth … It has become a much more abstract thing – just a standard of value; and it only keeps this nominal status by being handed round from time to time in quite small quantities amongst a group of Central Banks. Ending the use of fiat money guaranteed by promises for currencies once more backed by gold is not the way out of the

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from Lars Syll

Ninety years ago Keynes could congratulate Great Britain on finally having got rid of the biggest ”barbarous relic” of his time — the gold standard. He lamented that

advocates of the ancient standard do not observe how remote it now is from the spirit and the requirement of the age … [T]he long age of Commodity Money has at last passed away before the age of Representative Money. Gold has ceased to be a coin, a hoard, a tangible claim to wealth … It has become a much more abstract thing – just a standard of value; and it only keeps this nominal status by being handed round from time to time in quite small quantities amongst a group of Central Banks.

Reinstating the gold standardEnding the use of fiat money guaranteed by promises for currencies once more backed by gold is not the way out of the present economic crisis. Far from being the sole prophylactic against the alleged problems of fiat money, as the ‘gold bugs’ maintain, a return to gold would only make things far worse. So yours truly — just as Keynes did — most certainly rejects any proposals for restoring the gold standard.

The ‘gold bugs’ seem to forget that we actually have tried the gold standard before – in the era more or less between 1870 and 1930 – and with disastrous results!


Implementing a new gold standard today would only lead to a generally falling price level. Sounds great? If you think so, read what Keynes wrote already ninety years ago in Essays in Persuasion:

Of course, a fall in prices, which is the the same thing as a rise in the value of claims on money, means that real wealth is transferred from the debtor in favour of the creditor, so that a larger proportion of the real assets is represented by the claims of the depositor, and a smaller proportion belongs to the nominal owner of the asset who has borrowed in order to buy.

Allowing this debt deflation process — the analysis of which was later developed by Irving Fisher and Hyman Minsky — would land us in a situation where output and wages would fall and unemployment and the real burden of debt would increase. The only winners would probably be banks and financial institutes.

So why would anyone want to reinstate a gold standard? The best surmise is probably that it’s a question of ideology and politics. Libertarians and market fundamentalists that advocate a return to gold, want to restrict the possibilities of governments to intervene in the economy and — even harder than with ‘independent’ central banks — force countries to pursue restrictive economic policies that at all costs keep inflation down.

Still not convinced of why a return to gold is a bad idea? Then, at least, remember what Keynes wrote in The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill (1925):

We stand midway between two theories of economic society. The one theory maintains that wages should be fixed by reference to what is ’fair’ and ’reasonable’ as between classes. The other theory–the theory of the economic juggernaut–is that wages should be settled by economic pressure, otherwise called ’hard facts’, and that our vast machine should crash along, with regard only to its equilibrium as a whole, and without attention to the chance consequences of the journey to individual groups. The gold standard, with its dependence on pure chance, its faith in the ’automatic adjustments’, and its general regardlessness of social detail, is an essential emblem and idol of those who sit in the top tier of the machine. I think that they are immensely rash… in their comfortable belief that nothing really serious ever happens. Nine times out of ten, nothing really does happen–merely a little distress to individuals or to groups. But we run a risk of the tenth time (and stupid into the bargain), if we continue to apply the principles of an economics, which was worked out on the hypothesis of laissez-faire and free competition, to a society which is rapidly abandoning these hypotheses.

Reinstating the gold standardSo, next time you want to come up with some new idea on how to solve our economic problems with a magic gold bullet, remember new economic thinking starts with reading old books! Why not start with the best there are — those written by John Maynard Keynes.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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