The Marginal Revolution University has posted a nice little 10-minute video conversation between Scott Sumner and Larry about the gold standard and fiat money, Scott speaking up for fiat money and Larry weighing in on the side of the gold standard. I thought that both Scott and Larry acquitted themselves admirably, but several of the arguments made by Larry seemed to me to require either correction or elaboration. The necessary corrections or elaborations do not strengthen the defense of the gold standard that Larry presents so capably.
Larry begins with a defense of the gold standard against the charge that it caused the Great Depression. As I recently argued in my discussion of a post on the gold standard by Cecchetti and Schoenholtz, it is a bit of an overreach to argue that the Great Depression was the necessary consequence of trying to restore the international gold standard in the 1920s after its collapse at the start of World War I. Had the leading central banks at the time, the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and especially the Bank of France, behaved more intelligently, the catastrophe could have been averted, allowing the economic expansion of the 1920s to continue for many more years, thereby averting subsequent catastrophes that resulted from the Great Depression. But the perverse actions taken by those banks in 1928 and 1929 had catastrophic consequences, because of the essential properties of the gold-standard system. The gold standard was the mechanism that transformed stupidity into catastrophe. Not every monetary system would have been capable of accomplishing that hideous transformation.
So while it is altogether fitting and proper to remind everyone that the mistakes that led to catastrophe were the result of choices made by policy makers — choices not required by any binding rules of central-bank conduct imposed by the gold standard — the deflation caused by the gold accumulation of the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve occurred only because the gold standard makes deflation inevitable if there is a sufficiently large increase in the demand for gold. While Larry is correct that the gold standard per se did not require the Bank of France to embark on its insane policy of gold accumulation, it should at least give one pause that the most fervent defenders of that insane policy were people like Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Lionel Robbins, and Charles Rist, who were also the most diehard proponents of maintaining the gold standard after the Great Depression started, even holding up the Bank of France as a role model for other central banks to emulate. (To be fair, I should acknowledge that Hayek and Robbins, to Mises’s consternation, later admitted their youthful errors.)
Of course, Larry would say that under the free-banking system that he favors, there would be no possibility that a central bank like the Bank of France could engage in the sort of ruinous policy that triggered the Great Depression. Larry may well be right, but there is also a non-trivial chance that he’s not. I prefer not to take a non-trivial chance of catastrophe.
Larry, I think, makes at least two other serious misjudgments. First, he argues that the instability of the interwar gold standard can be explained away as the result of central-bank errors – errors, don’t forget, that were endorsed by the most stalwart advocates of the gold standard at the time – and that the relative stability of the pre-World War I gold standard was the result of the absence of the central banks in the US and Canada and some other countries while the central banks in Britain, France and Germany were dutifully following the rules of the game.
As a factual matter, the so-called rules of the game, as I have observed elsewhere (also here), were largely imaginary, and certainly never explicitly agreed upon or considered binding by any monetary authority that ever existed. Moreover, the rules of the game were based on an incorrect theory of the gold standard reflecting the now discredited price-specie-flow mechanism, whereby differences in national price levels under the gold standard triggered gold movements that would be deflationary in countries losing gold and inflationary in countries gaining gold. That is a flatly incorrect understanding of how the international adjustment mechanism worked under the gold standard, because price-level differences large enough to trigger compensatory gold flows are inconsistent with arbitrage opportunities tending to equalize the prices of all tradable goods. And finally, as McCloskey and Zecher demonstrated 40 years ago, the empirical evidence clearly refutes the proposition that gold flows under the gold standard were in any way correlated with national price level differences. (See also this post.) So it is something of a stretch for Larry to attribute the stability of the world economy between 1880 and 1914 either to the absence of central banks in some countries or to the central banks that were then in existence having followed the rules of the game in contrast to the central banks of the interwar period that supposedly flouted those rules.
Focusing on the difference between the supposedly rule-based behavior of central banks under the classical gold standard and the discretionary behavior of central banks in the interwar period, Larry misses the really critical difference between the two periods. The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of peace and stability after the end of the Civil War in America and the short, and one-sided, Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The rapid expansion of the domain of the gold standard between 1870 and 1880 was accomplished relatively easily, but not without significant deflationary pressures that lasted for almost two decades. A gold standard had been operating in Britain and those parts of the world under British control for half a century, and gold had long been, along with silver, one of the two main international monies and had maintained a roughly stable value for at least half a century. Once started, the shift from silver to gold caused a rapid depreciation of silver relative to gold, which itself led the powerful creditor classes in countries still on the silver standard to pressure their governments to shift to gold.
After three and a half decades of stability, the gold standard collapsed almost as soon as World War I started. A non-belligerent for three years, the US alone remained on the gold standard until it prohibited the export of gold upon entry into the war in 1917. But, having amassed an enormous gold hoard during World War I, the US was able to restore convertibility easily after the end of the War. However, gold could not be freely traded even after the war. Restrictions on the ownership and exchange of gold were not eliminated until the early 1920s, so the gold standard did not really function in the US until a free market for gold was restored. But prices had doubled between the start of the war and 1920, while 40% of the world’s gold reserves were held by the US. So it was not the value of gold that determined the value of the U.S. dollar; it was the value of the U.S. dollar — determined by the policy of the Federal Reserve — that determined the value of gold. The kind of system that was operating under the classical gold standard, when gold had a clear known value that had been roughly maintained for half a century or more, did not exist in the 1920s when the world was recreating, essentially from scratch, a new gold standard.
Recreating a gold standard after the enormous shock of World War I was not like flicking a switch. No one knew what the value of gold was or would be, because the value of gold itself depended on a whole range of policy choices that inevitably had to be made by governments and central banks. That was just the nature of the world that existed in the 1920s. You can’t just assume that historical reality away.
Larry would like to think and would like the rest of us to think that it would be easy to recreate a gold standard today. But it would be just as hard to recreate a gold standard today as it was in the 1920s — and just as perilous. As Thomas Aubrey pointed out in a comment on my recent post on the gold standard, Russia and China between them hold about 25% of the world’s gold reserves. Some people complain loudly about Chinese currency manipulation now. How would you like to empower the Chinese and the Russians to manipulate the value of gold under a gold standard?
The problem of recreating a gold standard was beautifully described in 1922 by Dennis Robertson in his short classic Money. I have previously posted this passage, but as Herbert Spencer is supposed to have said, “it is only by repeated and varied iteration that alien conceptions can be forced upon reluctant minds.” So, I will once again let Dennis Robertson have the final word on the gold standard.
We can now resume the main thread of our argument. In a gold standard country, whatever the exact device in force for facilitating the maintenance of the standard, the quantity of money is such that its value and that of a defined weight of gold are kept at an equality with one another. It looks therefore as if we could confidently take a step forward, and say that in such a country the quantity of money depends on the world value of gold. Before the war this would have been a true enough statement, and it may come to be true again in the lifetime of those now living: it is worthwhile therefore to consider what, if it be true, are its implications.
The value of gold in its turn depends on the world’s demand for it for all purposes, and on the quantity of it in existence in the world. Gold is demanded not only for use as money and in reserves, but for industrial and decorative purposes, and to be hoarded by the nations of the East : and the fact that it can be absorbed into or ejected from these alternative uses sets a limit to the possible changes in its value which may arise from a change in the demand for it for monetary uses, or from a change in its supply. But from the point of view of any single country, the most important alternative use for gold is its use as money or reserves in other countries; and this becomes on occasion a very important matter, for it means that a gold standard country is liable to be at the mercy of any change in fashion not merely in the methods of decoration or dentistry of its neighbours, but in their methods of paying their bills. For instance, the determination of Germany to acquire a standard money of gold in the [eighteen]’seventies materially restricted the increase of the quantity of money in England.
But alas for the best made pigeon-holes! If we assert that at the present day the quantity of money in every gold standard country, and therefore its value, depends on the world value of gold, we shall be in grave danger of falling once more into Alice’s trouble about the thunder and the lightning. For the world’s demand for gold includes the demand of the particular country which we are considering; and if that country be very large and rich and powerful, the value of gold is not something which she must take as given and settled by forces outside her control, but something which up to a point at least she can affect at will. It is open to such a country to maintain what is in effect an arbitrary standard, and to make the value of gold conform to the value of her money instead of making the value of her money conform to the value of gold. And this she can do while still preserving intact the full trappings of a gold circulation or gold bullion system. For as we have hinted, even where such a system exists it does not by itself constitute an infallible and automatic machine for the preservation of a gold standard. In lesser countries it is still necessary for the monetary authority, by refraining from abuse of the elements of ‘play’ still left in the monetary system, to make the supply of money conform to the gold position: in such a country as we are now considering it is open to the monetary authority, by making full use of these same elements of ‘play,’ to make the supply of money dance to its own sweet pipings.
Now for a number of years, for reasons connected partly with the war and partly with its own inherent strength, the United States has been in such a position as has just been described. More than one-third of the world’s monetary gold is still concentrated in her shores; and she possesses two big elements of ‘play’ in her system — the power of varying considerably in practice the proportion of gold reserves which the Federal Reserve Banks hold against their notes and deposits (p. 47), and the power of substituting for one another two kinds of common money, against one of which the law requires a gold reserve of 100 per cent and against the other only one of 40 per cent (p. 51). Exactly what her monetary aim has been and how far she has attained it, is a difficult question of which more later. At present it is enough for us that she has been deliberately trying to treat gold as a servant and not as a master.
It was for this reason, and for fear that the Red Queen might catch us out, that the definition of a gold standard in the first section of this chapter had to be so carefully framed. For it would be misleading to say that in America the value of money is being kept equal to the value of a defined weight of gold: but it is true even there that the value of money and the value of a defined weight of gold are being kept equal to one another. We are not therefore forced into the inconveniently paradoxical statement that America is not on a gold standard. Nevertheless it is arguable that a truer impression of the state of the world’s monetary affairs would be given by saying that America is on an arbitrary standard, while the rest of the world has climbed back painfully on to a dollar standard.
HT: J. P. Koning