By kind permission of Paul Birch, we reproduce his essay setting out a proposal for honest money through bearer shares, previously published on this site in October 2009. Paul’s own site may be found here: www.paulbirch.net.
Nobody understands money, least of all economists. Too sweeping a statement? Perhaps. But every analysis of the workings of monetary systems that I have ever read has been seriously in error at one or more crucial points. This is true not only of the supposedly impartial opuses of academic economics, but also of the writings of Marxists, socialists, Keynesian dirigists, free-marketeers, anarcho-capitalists, libertarians and utopians of every flavour.
On important issues of monetary policy, then, and whether a free market in money is either workable or desirable, the protestations of the experts must be considered unreliable. In particular, the claims of libertarian-leaning economists, such as Ludwig von Mises, that the operation of “free banking” would be both stable and superior to the system of government monopoly called “central banking” need to be treated with scepticism; they have not proved what they think they have proved.
Here I intend to give a description of certain aspects of the creation and use of money free of major error; it is conceivable that I may not entirely succeed. I shall argue that free banking, as it is usually understood, may be liable to gross instabilities and inefficiencies, especially in a free-market environment, and that a centralised fiat currency has definite advantages. However, I shall then describe an alternative form of free-market banking that appears not to suffer from these deficiencies and into which the current system of state control could be metamorphosed. I shall argue that it is the innate honesty or dishonesty of the banking method that most distinguishes good money from bad; and that it is of the greatest importance to ensure that the laws under which banking takes place are able effectively to restrain all dishonest forms of banking, including those in which the dishonesty is most subtle.
2. What is Money?
So what is money? A deceptively easy question, that. Answers from the past include “gold”, “silver and gold”, “a medium of exchange”, “a promise to pay”, “a store of value”, “a measure of demand”, “just another commodity”. Such answers hold a germ of truth, but only lead to controversy, because they miss the essential point. All along we’ve been asking the wrong question. Instead, let us ask a new one:
What is the function of money?
The function of money is to keep track of who owes what to whom. In a world in which there is division of labour and in which we obtain diverse satisfactions by the voluntary exchange of goods and services we have need of an accounting device to permit this exchange to take place at minimal cost and without undue coercion or confusion. This accounting device we call money. Simple barter is not enough, because the goods I want are seldom held by the person to whom I can render service.
Imagine a central register, detailing every transaction entered into by each and every person, and containing a list of all the favours owed by each and every person to each and every other person. That would do it. It would be hideously complicated, but it would work. Fortunately, though, we needn’t go to such lengths, because in a market economy most of that data is redundant. All we really need to know is the current balance to the account of each person — how much the rest of the world owes him or how much he owes the rest of the world — and even that need not be centrally recorded.
In a market economy, then, the function of money is to reduce the transaction costs of honest trade (including gifts and bequests other than those directly in kind) by reliably and efficiently registering the indebtedness resulting from previous transactions. The details of those previous transactions no longer matter; only the present net position counts (except for incomplete transactions, such as when you have bought an item but not yet paid for it).
So, if the function of money is to keep track of honest trade, can we now answer the original question in a more enlightened and constructive way? I think we can.