Mention the term “legal tender” in polite company and most people will resemble a deer in the headlights. In simple terms legal tender is a kind of money a creditor cannot refuse in discharge of a debt due to him in the money issued by government. This is a legal designation for government-issued money—usually fiat money, nowadays—with special status. And although legal tender laws do not force consumers and merchants to use the “official” money, this money comes to be highly favored. Thus, here in America we buy and sell using dollars. In the United Kingdom, the British Pound is legal tender. In Japan, it is the Yen. You get the idea. It isn’t impossible to use monies other than legal tender, but using something else is often more akin to private, off the books, barter. For example, perhaps I want to buy my neighbor’s used lawn mower. I have some British Pounds left over from my last trip. My neighbor is planning a trip to the UK. He agrees to sell me his used lawn mower for some of my British Pounds. However, my neighbor would still legally have to pay his taxes in dollars and his credits would likely still demand dollars. So, dollars will be preferred for nearly all transactions.
Now, all this may sound perfectly reasonable, but legal tender laws present a huge opportunity for those who monopolize its production to manipulate the currency, primarily to allow for increased government spending. Governments suck resources out of the economy by bypassing the natural constraints of seeking a tax increase, always politically unpopular, or borrowing honestly in the bond market, which will drive up interest rates. Government by the people is thwarted, and the increase in the money supply causes vast harm to the economy.
Why Repeal Legal Tender Laws?
Naturally, advocates of eliminating legal tender laws have an obligation to convince the public that it’s the right thing to do. Why would any nation, especially the US, want to use any medium of exchange other than the dollar? Simply put, debasing the dollar allows government to steal from the people. The government prints money out of thin air to balance its ever expanding budget. This leads to vast and dire economic consequences, such as higher prices, boom/bust credit cycles, and transfers of wealth from the early receivers of the new money to the later receivers of the new money. This is the Cantillon Effect, as described by Emile Woolf in his latest essay.
The Path to a Better Money
The next question that the public may ask is what would replace the dollar. The answer is that the dollar would not necessarily be replaced, but it would have to compete for the public’s patronage in a free monetary market. It would have to compete not only with other national currencies but also with recently created media of exchange, such as bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In addition, we would expect that commodities such as gold and silver would regain some significant part of the market, especially since these commodities have been used as media of exchange for thousands of years until the recent experiments with fiat national currencies protected by legal tender laws.
Alasdair Macleod of Goldmoney.com has explained why crypto currencies are not suitable as alternative mediums of exchange, although the distributed ledger technology may have applications in a sound monetary regime. Rather, it is most probable that gold and silver would regain their prominence. There is a reason that the term “gold standard” is still used when describing something that is of the highest quality. There are many advantages to gold as a medium of exchange, but the most important are its universal acceptance by people of every walk of life all over the world, the fact that it cannot be counterfeited, and that it is rare. Gold specie itself could be exchanged by private individuals to satisfy major purchases, but for every day transactions the public would find it advantageous to rely upon a trusted third party to safe keep the gold and make it redeemable upon demand through any of the modern methods of money transfer, such as paper check, paper certificates, and digital means. Of course, the government itself could offer “gold dollars.” After all, it claims to have over eight thousand tons of gold in its vaults. But government’s track record for issuing more receipts for real money, gold and/or silver, than it has in its vaults probably would preclude it from gaining the public’s acceptance. More likely, major banks would issue their own gold backed money. The banks could gain acceptance in the market because they would be subject to ordinary commercial law that describes a “bailment.” A bailment is a transaction in which someone takes custody but not ownership of a good for the benefit of another. When we take a suit to the dry cleaners, we have entered a bailment agreement. The dry cleaning establishment does not own our suit. It takes temporary custody of it. Likewise when we check a coat at the theater or restaurant. If the dry cleaning establishment sells our suit or the restaurant gives our coat to another party, we can sue for damages and possibly bring criminal charges. Therefore, one’s gold dollar account at a major bank must be legally redeemable in specie upon demand. If the bank does not have the gold, the customer can take it to court on a charge of fraud. Even the bank officials and owners could be charged with a crime. Try doing this with the government!
Just as a better mousetrap drives less effective ones out of the market, better money will drive out bad money. Privately issued money will gain more acceptance over time as the public learns that it can trust the issuers not to issue more receipts than specie held in reserve. Not so with government money. Once the public’s trust has been lost, it will be impossible for government to regain it in the face of honest competition. It is most likely that bank issued fiduciary media (technically the real “money” is gold or silver in its vault) will be used first for transactions among banks, bond merchants, and large companies. But over time the public will learn that modern electronic money transfer methods are just as reliable for retail use. Then we can expect competition by the big banks to spread rather quickly. Eventually, government’s fiat money will be abandoned for whatever one can get in, say, gold backed Goldmoney.comDollars, CitibankDollars, BankAmeriDollars, DeutscheMarks, BarclayPounds, or the like.
The Necessity of Financial Truth
With the government no longer able to print money to satisfy its profligate spending, the reckoning will have arrived. Let us not believe that a reckoning is avoidable. It is not. Nor should we wish it to be. To continue to print money in massive amounts, as the government does now, will lead to a financial and economic collapse. Would we want our doctor to tell us that all is well when his tests say otherwise? Would we want him to recalibrate his thermometer, blood pressure gauges, etc. so that they gave false indications in order that we could continue an unhealthy lifestyle right up to the point of collapse? Of course not. Yet this is a consequence of fiat money; i.e., the true state of the nation’s financial and economic health is hidden. On the other hand, sound money reveals the true state of our financial affairs, both private and public, so that we do not unwittingly destroy capital and/or make promises that cannot be met. Furthermore, let us not give false promises that everyone will be spared real hardship in a return to sound money. Those who have relied upon the government to pay their bills will find that not all bills will be paid as in the past.
Real statesmanship will be required to cut government spending and explain the reasons to the public. The real villains will not be those who pull the world back from the financial and economic precipice but those who spent us into this mess in the first place–the Keynesian economists, the Modern Monetary Theorists, the Socialists, and especially the feckless politicians who swallowed the impossible siren songs of these charlatans and forced them on the public in order to buy votes by promising the moon. Let us have the courage to demand the truth, no matter how unpalatable it may be. Eliminating legal tender laws will set the wheels of monetary and economic reform in motion.