Henry George’s Concept of Money and Its Application to 21st Century Monetary Reform — Concluding Remarks
|July 24, 2004||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
Money and Monetary Reform
Henry Georges Concept of Money and Its Application to 21st Century Monetary Reform — Concluding Remarks
We are pleased to present the concluding portion of an essay by Stephen Zarlenga of the American Monetary Institute. Zarlenga considers American economist Henry George’s views on money and their modern implications. Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four
For further information, visit the American Monetary Institute web site at www.monetary.org
GEORGE WAS MONETARILY CONSISTENT TO THE END
Demonstrating that George always retained his position favoring a governmentally issued and controlled monetary system, is his Shall The Republic Live? article published in the New York Journal, the day before the 1896 Presidential election:
Gold and silver are merely the banners under which the rival contestants in this election have ranged themselves. The banks are not really concerned about their legitimate business under any currency. They are struggling for the power of profiting by the issuance of paper money, a function properly and constitutionally belonging to the nation.
Henry George Jr., when presenting the article informs us that:
Since a young man, Henry George had advocated as the best possible money, paper issued by the general government – paper based on the public credit.
That is still the monetary key today; it has always been the essential monetary issue facing our nation. All Georgists can be proud that he so strongly and consistently embraced it.
GEORGIST IMPLICATIONS FOR 21 st CENTURY MONETARY REFORM
What are the implications of Georges thought for present day monetary reform proposals? Let’s consider the four main reforms being discussed:
A GOLD STANDARD REFORM – HAVING MONEY FULLY OR PARTLY BACKED BY GOLD OR OTHER COMMODITIES
George derided the idea of digging up ore from one hole in the ground (called a mine) in order to refine and deposit metal into another hole in the ground (called a bank vault):
We have deliberately substituted a costly currency for a cheap currency; we have deliberately added to the cost of paying off the public debt We are digging silver out of certain holes in the ground in Nevada and Colorado and poking it down other holes in the ground in Washington, New York, and San Francisco. (Soc Pr, 168)
The reason the element of intrinsic value may be partially or entirely eliminated without loss of usefulness is to be found in the peculiar use of money. The use of other commodities is in consumption. The use of money is in exchange. Thus the intrinsic character of money is of no moment to him who receives it to circulate again. (SPE, 520)
These are reasons enough, but there are additional ones to avoid a gold standard. Historically over and again it has been a method of concentrating a special monetary privilege into the hands of a plutocracy. The misinformation being spread today that a gold standard helps the common man because it stops inflation, misses the point. For labor has suffered far more from deflation or restriction of the monetary system than from inflation, and a metallic based monetary system is essentially a formula for deflation. Under a deflation, its not labor, but those with money or to whom money is owed, who automatically benefit without giving anything in return. Those in debt are harmed because they must repay it in more valuable money. As the industrialists in a society are often large debtors; industry is thus harmed and this harm is passed through very quickly against labor.
Georges early protégé, Michael Flurscheim in 1902 sarcastically observed that (Gold) – a nice standard of value indeed, which has appreciated almost 100% in the last thirty years!
Historical experience shows this tends to happen under a gold standard, because gold production has almost never kept pace with population growth, let alone industrial and commercial needs. That is even true of the 1500-1650 period when gold and silver were being plundered by the fleet load from the Americas. Thus the only way to avoid deflation with a gold standard, is by not really having a gold standard and creating leveraged amounts of paper money credits, based on smaller amounts of gold; making the promise of convertibility a fraud, instituting special privileges for bankers and subjecting the monetary system to panics and crashes. But one of the things we learned from the Great Depression, is not to do that again! And of course, it is inconsistent with Georges requirements for justice.
A 20th century Georgist, Robert de Fremery made these salient comments on a gold standard in his 1992 book Rights Vs Privileges. De Fremery writes:
The question arises: Would it be wise to have such a currency convertible into gold? Certainly not. That would make it a credit currency – the very thing that has caused so much trouble. There are people who look with distrust upon printing press or fiat money. But they overlook one of the basic facts about money. It is true that we need a hard money. But we should not make the mistake of associating hardness with convertibility into gold. The essence of a hard money is not determined by the material of which it is composed – or the material into which it is convertible. The essence of a hard money is that its supply is fairly stable and there are precise limits to it And a purely paper or fiat money can be a hard money if we set precise limits to its supply, or it can be a soft money if we set no precise limits to its supply. A population standard (as he described), would obviously give us a much harder money than the orthodox gold-credit system gave us prior to 1933 – and certainly a much harder currency than the money-managers are giving us today.
And remember, to advocate that money must be a commodity or backed by a commodity is to destroy the distinction between money and wealth. The control of such a money system remains only in the hands of those with the wealth – by definition, the plutocracy. The very concept of money, and its societal basis in law is undermined.
A FREE BANKING MONETARY REFORM
The term free banking is vague, because its supporters have not uniformly defined it. We take it to mean a system where bankers are allowed to create the money supply in the form of their credits, or notes, which are allowed to circulate without restriction or regulation, to the extent that the markets will allow. But isnt it really up to these advocates to define their own terms?
The present day call for free banking is among the least informed of monetary proposals yet to be put forward in our nation. It seems that to promote an idea without real examination today all one has to do is put the word free into its name. This has even enabled them to ensnare Milton Friedman (who had been resisting) among their tentative supporters.
The strident anti government attitude of many of those promoting free banking has created a prejudice in them to view all regulation as bad and, contrary to our experience and our history, to place their trust in the bankers to act honorably!
George was strongly against granting special privileges to bankers. His direct experience with free banking, which he referred to as wildcat banking, was dismal. For him, and other contemporary professional observers of various backgrounds (Gouge, Knox, Bullock, Sumner) the facts were self evident and universally against the bankers: The evils entailed by wildcat banking in the United States are too well remembered to need reference and no-one would now go back to them. (cited above) Now 150 years later along come the free bankers and say he and the other observers were wrong. Why? Because their theory tells them so. If it seems this section has treated the Free banking concept lightly, thats as much as their arguments presented to date deserve. For a summary of the problems with the argument, please see Appendix 1.
USING LOCAL EXCHANGE TRADING SYSTEMS (LETS)
This alternative is superior to the two reforms above because it does not promote or require injustice as the two above reforms do. These systems vary from locale to locale, and are not always as well defined as one could ask. They are normally well meaning attempts to remedy the shortage of national currency that exists in many localities. Mainly they enable participants to trade their labor, and some other items, with each other, without using the national currency.
These systems can be traced back to Josiah Warren, the originator of the Labour Exchange idea, put into practice by Robert Owen in London in 1832 after a very tight money period. In fact, Henry George was associated with organizing a variant of such a system for Tom Johnsons company in Johnstown. Johnson wrote:
It was at our Johnstown plant during the panic of the early (eighteen) nineties that we hit upon a device for supplying the shortage of currency There were plenty of orders for our product – street railroad rails – but the buyers couldnt pay cash. We called our employees together and explained that we were unable to command enough currency to pay the full amount of their wages, but that if they were willing to accept a small percentage in cash and the remainder in certificates that we should be able to continue to operate the mill we were selling rails for such cash payments as we could get and accepting the purchasers bonds for the remainder .The bonds were to be held by a joint committee of company representatives and working men and against these bonds the certificates were issued .The certificates passed nearly at par and we experienced no serious legal embarrassment
In a separate case, Michael Flursheim formed the Commercial Exchange Company in New Zealand in 1898, which created its own money form, substituting debts between member merchants for cash. They accepted script from one another which had been printed by the trustees. The trustees loaned out the scrip, based on the credit of the participants, with the interest going to cover administrative costs.
The problem is that while these local systems do no harm and can alleviate local cash shortages, they have been of very limited benefit, and generally soon end. For example Johnsons system went out of existence when the emergency faded, and Flurscheims quickly faltered. They will continue to be so limited unless they can qualify as a more true money form. That is, in order for them to really work, taxes (at least local taxes) have to become payable in such currencies. But then one would expect that such currencies would have to be issued by the taxing body. At present this is not possible, except in emergencies. Even State governments are forbidden from issuing their own currencies.
Furthermore such local currencies do not stop the continued mismanagement of the monetary system at the national level – they cant stop the continued dispensation of monetary injustice from above through the privately owned and controlled Federal Reserve monetary system. And ending that injustice should really be our monetary priority.
REFORMING THE FEDERAL RESERVE SYSTEM
Fortunately this is a monetary reform that can reach Georges goal for the nation to control its own money system. This is our best and most direct course of action – the real thing – and it could happen this way: In the next, (or the next) crisis created by the banking system, instead of bailing them out as usual at public expense, if there was enough awareness and public support, our government could nationalize the Federal Reserve; as England nationalized the Bank of England in 1946. Several past Chairmen of the House Banking Committee, including Rep. Henry B. Gonzales, introduced similar legislation over the years.
Reform can begin, even without a complete and detailed blueprint of the ideal money system to be ultimately reached; so long as reform is consistent with the nature of money, and considerations of justice play the major role.
Short term it is crucial to institute enough monetary reform to place time on the side of Justice, instead of against it as at present. Once in charge of the money system, our government could start to carefully use real, and honest money – modern American Greenbacks – debt free US money to break the near subsistence levels so much of the population is still mired in. For example to re-build the nations decaying roads and bridges; and its deteriorating water and sewer systems; and dilapidated schools and inadequate air traffic control systems; quality low cost housing, and the Internet freeways. In other words the current policies where much of the new money goes into activities that create financial bubbles would be ended. Requiring the commercial banking system to re-adopt the real bills doctrine, as described above, would go a very long way toward improving the nations financial structure.
Longer term, it would become recognized that the monetary power is stronger and more pervasive than the three other branches of government. In keeping with its actual power and importance in the daily lives of the citizenship, the monetary department would probably evolve into a fourth branch of government. In fact thats what it is now, but run for private gain, instead of the common good.
This Fourth Branch would refine and codify its protocols in ever-increasing accuracy; starting from a point of the considerable knowledge and expertise already embodied in the Federal Reserve apparatus. The overall objective however, would be changed. Instead of managing the monetary system for the bankers interests, the goal would be to promote the general welfare, to borrow a phrase from our constitution. Our nation could move into the 3rd millennium in a manner befitting the human race; once again setting an example to the world.
DEFINING THE PROPER RELATION OF THE INDIVIDUAL TO SOCIETY
But in order to effect any meaningful reform, a much needed attitude change is called for. The key is recognizing the proper relation of the individual to society. No doubt some readers are wincing at the thought of instituting the monetary power in our government. Since at least Adam Smiths Wealth Of Nations, for over 2 centuries, a poisoning of our attitude toward government has been underway. The stealthy promotion of this self destructive childishness has to be stopped.
In years of monetary research, it is noteworthy that such anti governmental propaganda is intimately connected with monetary proposals. I found it first introduced from England in Smiths writings, and later in cruder attempts from lesser lights like Walter Bagehot with his 1869 proposal for a union of American and British currencies. And even from crackpots like Oxfords Bonamy Price – another English expert sent on tour to befuddle American minds. Price, who had been mentally ill, was given Thorold Rogers political economy professorship after Rogers had demonstrated that the economic condition of Englishmen had been declining for over 300 years!
Bagehot condemned the Greenbacks and the United States:
So far from its being an economic act which governments do for the benefit of their subjects it has been a political act which they have done for their own sake.
This anthropomorphic view of government – pretending the government has desires and attributes like a person, is an essential element of the financiers attack on their main potential opponent – our government. While this anthropomorphism is nonsense, it serves to smear government as being motivated to abuse the monetary system, the way for example that private bankers are.
George had only the very mildest case of anti-governmentitis. He saw that the problem was not government, but the abuse of government, and he knew that government had to be a big part of the solution. This disease has now become virulent, especially in the English speaking world. It has reached epidemic proportions in America, requiring as an antidote some of Georges soothing and therapeutic comments on the subject:
GEORGE ON THE PURPOSE OF GOVERNMENT
The primary purpose and end of government being to secure the natural rights and equal liberty of each, all businesses that involve monopoly are within the necessary province of governmental regulation, and businesses that are in their nature complete monopolies become properly functions of the state. As society develops, the state must assume these functions in their nature co-operative, in order to secure the equal rights and liberty of all. That is to say in the process of integration, the individual becomes more and more dependent upon and subordinate to the all, it becomes necessary for government, which is properly that social organ by which alone the whole body of individuals can act, to take upon itself, in the interest of all, certain functions which cannot safely be left to individuals. Thus out of the principle that it is the proper end and purpose of government to secure the natural rights and equal liberty of the individual, grows the principle that it is the business of government to do for the mass of individuals those things which cannot be done, or cannot be so well done, by individual action. As in the development of species, the power of conscious, coordinated action of the whole being must assume greater and greater relative importance to the automatic action of parts, so it is in the development of society. This is the truth in socialism, which although it is being forced upon us by industrial progress and social development, we are so slow to recognize. (Soc Pr, 177)
ON THE PROBLEM OF CORRUPTION
(Corruption) is no reason why we should shrink from political action, for it is only through political action that we can improve conditions which produce corruption.(Standard, Jan 7 1888)
ON THE ABUSE OF GOVERNMENT
The government when formed was a great advance over what then existed in Europe, but with that advance we stopped .but beneath everything there lies as the vital danger to the Republic the increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth .but consider what is the cause of the growing disparity in the distribution of wealth that we see in this country? First and foremost , the power of government has been deliberately and continuously prostituted to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. (Standard, Sept 14, 1889)
ON WHY WE CANNOT AVOID THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
But it will be said: if the railroads are even now a corrupting element in our politics, what would they be if the government were to own and to attempt to run them? Is not governmental management notoriously corrupt and inefficient? Would not the effect of adding such a vast army to the already great number of government employees, of increasing so enormously the revenues and expenditures of government, be to enable those who got control of government to defy opposition and perpetuate their power indefinitely; and would it not be, finally to sink the whole political organization in a hopeless slough of corruption?
My reply is that great as these dangers may be, they must be faced, lest worse befalls us Instead of belittling the dangers of adding to the functions of government as it is at present, what I am endeavoring to point out is the urgent necessity of simplifying and improving government, that it may safely assume the additional functions that social development forces upon it. It is not merely necessary to prevent government from getting more corrupt and more inefficient, though we can no more do that by a negative policy than the seaman can lay to in a gale without drifting; it is necessary to make government much more efficient and much less corrupt. The dangers that menace us are not accidental. They spring from a universal law which we cannot escape. That law is the one I pointed out in the first chapter of this book – that every advance brings new dangers and requires higher and more alert intelligence. (Soc Pr,184)
ON SOME FORGOTTEN PRINCIPLES OF GOVERNMENT
(I shall briefly) call attention to some principles that should not be forgotten in thinking of the assumption by the state of such functions as the running of railroads
ON GOVERNMENT EFFICIENCY
It seems to me that in regard to public affairs we too easily accept the dictum that faithful and efficient work can be secured only by the hopes of pecuniary profit, or the fear of pecuniary loss.
All that I have said of the railroad applies , of course, to the telegraph, the telephone, the supplying of cities with gas, water, heat and electricity, – in short to all businesses which are in their nature monopolies. I speak of the railroad only because the magnitude of the business makes its assumption by the state the most formidable of such undertakings.
“Businesses that are in their nature monopolies are properly functions of the state. The state must control or assume them, in self defense, for the protection of the equal rights of citizens. But beyond this, the field in which the state may operate beneficially as the executive of the great cooperative association, into which it is the tendency of true civilization to blend society, will widen with the improvement of government and the growth of public spirit. (Soc Pr, 188-9)
ON WHY INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT REQUIRES MORE GOVERNMENTAL FUNCTIONS
I have in this chapter touched briefly upon subjects that for thorough treatment would require much more space. My purpose has been to show that the simplification and purification of government are rendered the more necessary, on account of the functions which industrial development is forcing upon government, and the further functions which it is becoming more and more evident that it would be advantageous to assume. (Soc Pr, 192)
There is this truth-and it is a very important one- in socialism, that as civilization advances the functions which pass into the proper sphere of governmental control become more and more numerous, as we see in the case of the railroad, the telegraph, the supplying of gas, water, etc. But this is all the more reason why we should be careful to guard against governmental interference with what can safely be left to individual action. In some things our existing system is too socialistic and in others too anarchistic. The proper line between governmental control and individualism is that where free competition fails to secure liberty of action and freedom of development. The great thing which we should act to secure is freedom – that full freedom of each which is bounded by the equal freedom of others. (Standard, July 30, 1887; also see P&P, 412; Standard, Sept. 24, 1890)
One additional thought – it was a government job as a state inspector of gas meters that allowed George to write Progress And Poverty.
There! Does everyone feel better now? Take 2 aspirin, and re-read this section as needed. Lest this study be accused of unfairly quoting George, here is one more sentence on this subject that should be noted: If it were absolutely necessary to make a choice between full state socialism and anarchism, I for one would be inclined to choose anarchism, preferring no government at all, bad and inconvenient as that might be. (Standard, July 30 1887)
Fortunately it never was, and never will be necessary to make that choice.
INTEGRATING GEORGES MONETARY VIEWS INTO “GEORGISM”
How to do this can fortunately be found from within the Georgist movement. His early protégé Michael Flursheim came to these conclusions in 1902:
Money not land the principle villain – Henry George, his predecessors and disciples, have rendered an invaluable service to the world by clearly demonstrating the part played by land in the process of distribution..(But)
they have not even dreamt (that) Money might (be) the principle villain.
doubtless no permanent reform can be accomplished without a through reform of our land laws
Enthusiastic as I
am for land reform, I have gradually come to see that currency reform is more urgent still
that , in fact land reform could be reached much quicker and easier if money reform preceded, or anyhow were carried parallel with it. So we see that our readers are now more familiar with Georges monetary realizations than Flursheim was. Almost a century later Georgist Robert de Fremery, without benefit of reading Flursheim, reached a similar conclusion, and called for both land and monetary reform in Rights Vs Privileges. He combined these two themes because of his view that reform of either the monetary system, or the land taxation system alone, is not sufficient to place human society on the road to justice; that unless special privileges are replaced by fundamental rights in both these areas, the injustice and concentration of wealth spawned in either one, would soon re-establish a corrupt system of privilege in the other.
Our rights are interdependent. They stand or fall together. he wrote.
Bob de Fremery also had substantial practical experience integrating monetary and land reform ideas. For several years he taught a course on the monetary side of this at Robert Tidemans Henry George School in San Francisco. This was well known as the most successful Henry George school in the country. Reportedly more students were annually trained there than at all the other Henry George schools combined! Bob Tideman told de Fremery that he thought one of the big reasons for the schools success was by offering the monetary course, they were giving the students twice as much as the other schools.
Combining monetary reform with land reform will no doubt be considered an extra headache by both Georgists and monetary reformers. But then can either say that they have been happy with their isolated results?
Certainly Henry George deserves the last word here, and if asked, he would probably say: Our fundamental mistake is in treating land as private property (Soc Pr, 195)
But he also wrote unequivocally that: it is the business of government to issue money.
I want to thank the reader for finishing this report. Your comments and suggestions are very welcome. I invite you to keep in contact through AMIs web site http://www.monetary.org and to explore how we can move forward together.
APPENDIX 1 – SOME PROBLEMS WITH FREE BANKING (excerpted from The Lost Science of Money)
Here are some of the problems with the free banking arguments:
Problem # 1: They have not carefully defined their terms. They have not accurately and uniformly defined money. Some use a primitive commodity concept of money, others not. Their definition of free banking is not uniform, but varies greatly from writer to writer.
Problem # 2: They have miss-classified the period from 1836 to 1862 as the free banking period. The correct free banking period is pre 1836, before the state regulations on banking were increased. Naturally the post 1836 period gives better banking results, but anyone can see that its a period of increased government regulation:
A) Bank note issues by banks were restricted to specific percentages of the banks real capital.
B) The banks capital reserves were improved, moving toward government bonds rather than the worthless personal notes of the banks stockholders.
C) A double liability was imposed on Bank stockholders, where they were liable to be called to pay an additional twice the par value of their stock, if their bank got into trouble.
D) More efficient systems of bank examination and reporting were established.
Problem #3: Partly because statistics on the banks are very patchy, the free banking advocates have focused on certain measures which cannot convey a full and accurate picture of banking. For example, they try to evaluate banking performance by the percentage of depositors money that was lost. But that treats the banks as deposit institutions, when they were in fact banks of issue, creating new money in amounts approaching 10 times their deposits.
The free bankers work thus ignores the bank stock frauds which observers tell us was an important part of banking. Recent history of the crash of 1929 indicates losses through stock markets, from a banking created crisis was about 40 times as much as the direct losses in bank deposits(see chapter 20). It also ignores the effect of the banks activities on the rest of the community.
Problem # 4: They think that they have theoretically proven that bankers can be trusted to act honestly, because they say in the long term, it will build bankers reputations and therefore be profitable. They dont consider that often in the short term, the potential for loot is so great that it will be taken without regard to honesty. They also ignore that reputation can be influenced by public relations expenditures and advertising. That is in fact the history of business immorality. Men dont always do the right thing when they are tempted by the opportunity to grab a great amount quickly.
Problem # 5: Starting with this apriori position, they have briefly looked through history for empirical support for their theory. But using history in that manner was not likely to yield accurate results. The lessons of history have to be viewed more dispassionately within their own context to see what picture emerges from several sources. It doesnt work to force a modern day template onto the facts; to attempt to force a fit with favorite theories.
Nor is it acceptable to use a modern created filter through which agreeable facts are retained and disagreeable facts are ignored. One cannot ignore the universal condemnations of the banks from qualified observers of many different persuasions: Knox, Gouge, Condy Raguet, Bullock, and Sumner quickly come to mind. John Jay Knox, a Controller of the Currency and generally friendly to banker interests wrote in his 1876 Treasury report:
The history of banking in the various states before the (civil) war will make plain to anyone that the note issuing privilege was much abused to the great detriment of individuals and the public. Banks were started for the sole purpose of foisting worthless notes upon a trusting public .
The idea that the government should issue the paper money, as well as coin the gold and silver has taken a firm hold of the American mind Knox wrote.
APPENDIX 2 – THE FREE TRADE QUESTION
Considering the effect that the free trade ideology had on Georgism from 1888, perhaps some burdens necessarily fall on those who still want to promote this theme, before a modicum of justice and more equitable distribution of wealth has been achieved through land reform and/or monetary reform. For example, tell us – what does free trade mean, when George would have most utilities, and transports; the largest companies in the country, as government entities? I am told by Georgists that George would never have supported NAFTA – the plutocracys version of free trade. Perhaps those who want Georgism to move first and foremost on free trade, should be asked to demonstrate empirically, not just theoretically, that this theory deserves front burner promotion, even before meaningful land reform has been achieved. In other words to please force it to a test of the facts; examine the record of the past 114 years since George expressed these views, and give examples of how the theory is borne out by the facts since then.
In England the wealthiest 1% of the population own about 17% of the wealth, and its falling. In the US the wealthiest 1% owns over 50% of the wealth, and its rising. George considered such a situation as highly dangerous and requiring radical solutions:
A civilization which tends to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a fortunate few, and to make of others mere human machines, must inevitably evolve anarchy and bring destruction. (Soc Pr, 8)
the political and social problems that confront us center in the problem of the distribution of wealth, and that their solution may be simple, (but) it must be radical. (Soc Pr, 81; see also 15, 83, 194)
Wouldnt free trade amplify this problem where well under 1% of the population have the economic means to engage in it? George understood, but then for some reason ignored that before free trade could be beneficial, land reform was needed. Id also suggest that monetary reform comes before free trade; and that if there were both land reform and monetary reform, free trade reform would be almost automatic. And if not, well wont the next generation need something to do?
Stephen Zarlenga has published 20 books on banking, politics and philosophy. In 1996 he helped to found the American Monetary Institute dedicated to the independent study of monetary history, theory and reform. His newest book is The Lost Science Of Money.
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