Kurt Schuler takes me (among others) to task in a thoughtful post on the Free-Banking blog for being too harsh in my criticisms of the gold standard, in particular in blaming the gold standard for the Great Depression, when it was really the misguided policies of central banks that were at fault.
Well, I must say that Kurt is a persuasive guy, and he makes a strong case for the gold standard. And, you know, the gold standard really wasn’t fatally flawed, and if the central banks at the time had followed better policies, the gold standard might not have imploded in the way that it did in the early 1930s. So, I have to admit that Kurt is right; the Great Depression was not the inevitable result of the gold standard. If the world’s central banks had not acted so unwisely – in other words, if they had followed the advice of Hawtrey and Cassel about limiting the monetary demand for gold — if the Bank of France had not gone insane, if Benjamin Strong, Governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, then the de facto policy-making head of the entire Federal Reserve System, had not taken ill in 1928 and been replaced by the ineffectual George L. Harrison, the Great Depression might very well have been avoided.
So was I being unfair to the gold standard? OK, yes, I admit it, I was being unfair. Gold standard, you really weren’t as bad as I said you were. The Great Depression was really not all your fault. There, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. But, do I want to see you restored? No way! At least not while the people backing you are precisely those who, like Hayek, in his 1932 lament for the gold standard defending the insane Bank of France against accusations that it caused the Great Depression, hold Hawtrey and Cassel responsible for the policies that caused the Great Depression. If those are the ideas motivating your backers to want to restore you as a monetary standard, I find the prospect of your restoration pretty scary — as in terrifying.
Now, Kurt suggests that people Ron Paul are not so scary, because all Ron Paul means when he says he wants to restore the gold standard is that the Federal Reserve System be abolished. With no central bank, it will be left up to the market to determine what will serve as money. Here is how Kurt describes what would happen.
If people want the standard to be gold, that’s what free banks will offer to attract their business. But if people want the standard to be silver, copper, a commodity basket, seashells, or cellphone minutes, that’s what free banks will offer. Or if they want several standards side by side, the way that multiple computer operating systems exist side by side, appealing to different niches, that’s what free banks will offer. A pure free banking system would also give people the opportunity to change standards at any time. Historically, though, many free banking systems have used the gold standard, and it is quite possible that gold would re-emerge against other competitors as the generally preferred standard.
Now that’s pretty scary – as in terrifying – too. As I suggested in arecent post, the reason that people in some places, like London, for instance, seem to agree readily on what constitutes money, even without the operation of legal tender laws, is that there are huge advantages to standardization. Economists call these advantages network effects, or network externalities. The demand to use a certain currency increases as other people use it, just as the demand to use a computer operating system or a web browser increases as the number of people already using it increases. Abolishing the dollar as we know it, which is what Kurt’s scenario sounds like to me, would annihilate the huge network effects associated with using the dollar, thereby forcing us to go through an uncertain process of indefinite length to recapture those network effects without knowing how or where the process would end up. If we did actually embark on such a process, there is indeed some chance, perhaps a good chance, that it would lead in the end to a gold standard.
Would a gold standard associated with a system of free banking — without the disruptive interference of central banks — work well? There are strong reasons to doubt that it would. For starters, we have no way of knowing what the demand of such banks to hold gold reserves would be. We also have no way of knowing what would happen to the gold holdings of the US government if the Federal Reserve were abolished. Would the US continue to hold gold reserves if it went out of the money creation business? I have no idea. Thus, the future value of gold in a free-banking system is thus completely unpredictable. What we do know is that under a fractional reserve system, the demand for reserves by the banking system tends to be countercyclical, going up in recessions and going down in expansions. But what tends to cause recessions is an increase in the demand of the public to hold money. So the natural cyclical path of a free-banking system under a gold standard would be an increasing demand for money in recessions, associated with an increasing monetary demand for gold by banks as reserves, causing an increase in the value of gold and a fall in prices. Recessions are generally characterized by declining real interest rates produced by depressed profit expectations. Declining real interest rates increase the demand for an asset like gold under the gold standard with a fixed nominal value, so both the real and the monetary demand for gold would increase in recessions, causing recessions to be deflationary. Recessions with falling asset prices and rising unemployment and, very likely, an increasing number of non-performing loans would impair the profitability and liquidity of banks, perhaps threatening the solvency of at least some banks as well, thereby inducing holders of bank notes and bank deposits to try to shift from holding bank notes and bank deposits to holding gold.
A free-banking system based on a gold standard is thus likely to be subject to a shift in demand from holding bank money to holding gold, when it is least able to accommodate such a shift, making a free-banking system based on a gold standard potentially vulnerable to a the sort of vicious deflationary cycle that characterized the Great Depression. The only way out of such a cycle would be to suspend convertibility. Such suspensions might or might not be tolerated, but it is not at all clear whether or how a mechanism to trigger such a suspension could be created. Insofar as such suspensions were expected, the mere anticipation of a liquidity problem might be sufficient to trigger a shift in demand away from holding bank money toward holding gold, thereby forcing a suspension of convertibility. Chronic suspensions of convertibility would tend to undermine convertibility.
In short, there is a really serious problem inherent in any banking system in which the standard is itself a medium of exchange. The very fact that gold is money means that, in any fractional reserve system based on gold, there is an inherent tendency for the system to implode when there is a loss of confidence in bank money that causes a shift in demand from bank money to gold. In principle, what would be most desirable is a system in which the monetary standard is not itself money. Alternatively, the monetary standard could be an asset whose supply may be increased without limit to meet an increase in demand, an asset like, you guessed it, Federal Reserve notes and reserves. But that very defect is precisely what makes the Ron Pauls of this world think that the gold standard is such a wonderful idea. And that is a scary — as in terrifying — thought.