Henry George’s Concept of Money and Its Application to 21st Century Monetary Reform — Part Four
|December 31, 2003||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
Money and Monetary Reform
Henry Georges Concept of Money and Its Application to 21st Century Monetary Reform — Part Four
We are pleased to present the fourth part 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
For further information, visit the American Monetary Institute web site at www.monetary.org
HENRY GEORGES MONETARY VIEWS
Georges son, Henry Jr., tells us that his father thought that money is a sibling of language (SPE, x), referring partly to its universal significance and inseparability from the advance of mankind, but also to the way he thought it had developed:
Money is not an invention, but rather a natural growth or development, arising in the progress of civilization from common perceptions and common needs. (SPE, 512)
In this vein, one could also call the law a development rather than an invention.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WEALTH AND MONEY
George was well aware of a special confusion between the definition of money and of wealth. While wealth is tangible, he repeatedly identified the abstract nature of money:
It is important that this purely representative character of money should be thoroughly understood and constantly kept in mind, for from the confusion resulting from the confounding of money with wealth have flown the largest and most pernicious results. (SPE, 493-4)
And he cited Archbishop Whately on the harmful effects of this peculiar confusion:
It has for centuries done more and perhaps for centuries to come will do more, to retard the improvement of Europe than all other causes put together. (SPE, 141)
Weve just related how this confusion helped enable financial interests to keep the monetary power from being properly defined in the U.S. Constitution.
George accurately noted that:
These are not the effects of the confusion of a term. The confusion of the term is one of the effects of the influence upon thought of the same special interest (SPE, 141, 142)
And he thought that to eliminate such thought control required eliminating the source of the controllers power.
Thus in both Progress and Poverty and the Science Of Political Economy, George devotes considerable attention to various definitions of wealth; finally settling on: Natural products that have been secured, moved, combined, separated, or in other ways modified by human exertion, so as to fit them for the gratification of human desires. (SPE, 147) However, he did not formulate such a careful definition of money. One wonders how his work would have developed had he concentrated earlier on finding the definition of money; perhaps starting with Aristotles essential definition of Nomisma: Money exists not by nature but by law (Ethics, 1133)
It’s significant that while Adam Smith dealt with the topic of money among the very first subjects, and thoroughly obscured it in his only book on economics, The Wealth Of Nations; Henry George put money off to the very last thing to be considered in his last book, indeed posthumously. George thought he had to clear up the concepts of wealth and value before he could undertake the concept of money. But Id suggest that really was not necessary and perhaps even the other way around, since both value and wealth are generally measured or expressed in terms of money.
EARLY INDICATIONS IN PROGRESS AND POVERTY
There are early indications in Progress and Poverty of Georges advanced monetary awareness at age 40:
The laborer who receives his wages in money (coined or printed it may be) really receives in return for the addition his labour has made to the general stock of wealth, a draft on that general stock, which he may utilize… and that neither the money, which is but the draft, nor the particular form of wealth which he uses it to call for, represents advances of capital for his maintenance, but on the contrary represents the wealth or a portion of the wealth his labour has already added to the general stock. (P&P, 29)
Making this distinction between wealth and money, is usually a key step on the road to a fuller monetary awareness. Its not an obvious step, for it requires abandoning a more comfortable concrete view of money as a tangible physical thing and adopting a view of money as an abstract power. For example, those insisting on gold backing for money have usually not yet taken this step.
George continues the same thought:
That this universal truth is so often obscured, is largely due to that fruitful source of economic obscurity, the confounding of wealth with money since Dr. Adam Smith made the egg stand on its head (P&P, 62)
Indeed one can trace much of the regression to metallism of professional monetary thought in the 19th and 20th centuries back to Adam Smiths monetary errors, inconsistencies and contradictions. The greenback supporters later overcame this, as did Henry George.
Another indication of Georges monetary awareness is in his sons biography describing how George helped Mr. Moxham set up an emergency money system for the Johnson Company (see below):
Mr. George regarded this as an illustration of what the United States could do to clear up the currency difficulties – issue from its own treasury a paper currency based upon its credit and interchangeable with its bonds.
Contrary to most economic opinion, this type of greenback monetary proposal, has never really been discredited, but has merely been smeared and ignored, as have Georges views on land. In fact the present Federal Reserve System can be viewed as a form of such a proposal; although with the critical flaw added that the Fed is privately owned and privately managed, opening the door to conflicts of interests, and establishing special monetary privileges.
These and other early indications were interesting, but not really conclusive, and not always consistent.
GEORGE WAS A GREENBACKER
However by age 44, in Social Problems (1884), George demonstrated a fully developed concept for how an advanced monetary system ought to operate:
It is not the business of government to direct the employment of labor and capital, and to foster certain industries at the expense of other industries; and the attempt to do so leads to all the waste, loss and corruption due to protective tariffs.
On the other hand it is the business of government to issue money. This is perceived as soon as the great labor saving invention of money supplants barter. To leave it to every one who chose to do so to issue money would be to entail general inconvenience and loss, to offer many temptations to roguery, and to put the poorer classes of society at a great disadvantage. These obvious considerations have everywhere, as society became well organized, led to the recognition of the coinage of money as an exclusive function of government. When in the progress of society, a further labor-saving improvement becomes possible by the substitution of paper for the precious metals as the material for money, the reasons why the issuance of this money should be made a government function become still stronger. The evils entailed by wildcat banking in the United States are too well remembered to need reference. The loss and inconvenience, the swindling and corruption that flowed from the assumption by each State of the Union of the power to license banks of issue ended with the war, and no -one would now go back to them. Yet instead of doing what every public consideration impels us to, and assuming wholly and fully as the exclusive function of the General Government the power to issue money, the private interests of bankers have, up to this, compelled us to the use of a hybrid currency, of which a large part, though guaranteed by the General Government, is issued and made profitable to corporations. The legitimate business of banking – the safekeeping and loaning of money, and the making and exchange of credits, is properly left to individuals and associations; but by leaving to them, even in part and under restrictions and guarantees, the issuance of money, the people of the United States suffer an annual loss of millions of dollars, and sensible increase the influences which exert a corrupting effect upon their government. (Soc Pr, 178-9)
It is normally very difficult to write about monetary systems as concisely as George does here and still remain accurate. That he has done so indicates he put study and effort into it. George continued to express this view for about 15 years until his death. He repeated the position in 1886, when 46 years old, in Protection Or Free Trade (page 12), stating that government currency is preferable to private bank currency, based on the bank holding government bonds as reserves:
What can be clearer than that a note directly issued by the government is at least as good as a note based on a government bond? Yet special interests have sufficed with us to institute and maintain a hybrid currency for which no valid reason can be assigned than private profit.
We see this theme repeated again in the Standard in 1888, where George at age 48, focused on how the fractional reserve feature of the banking system placed the bankers in a specially privileged position – able to have both the interest on the money they loaned to the Government, and still have nearly the full use of that money to make further loans(!):
by means of the national banking system we have permitted the holders of a large part of the public debt to enjoy the principle while they draw the interest. Through the national banking system the banker was allowed to draw from the government $80,000 in money for every $100,000 in bonds he deposited, and then to draw interest on the whole $100,000. This proportion was subsequently increased to 90%, and now a bill is pending in Congress to allow the national banks a dollar in money for every dollar in bonds they deposit, while paying them full interest on the dollar.
The article continues with George pointing out the absurdity of backing the currency with silver, or another commodity. Remember the great discovery demonstrated by the Massachusetts bills of credit in 1690 was that a promise to receive rather than a promise to pay was sufficient to empower a properly issued government paper currency:
And not content with this, as though from the mere desire of paying as much interest as possible, and making the redemption of our public debt as slow as possible, we are actually buying up enormous amounts of silver, for which we have no more use than for so many tons of cobblestones, and storing them away in vaults. Secretary Fairchild sees the absurdity of coining the silver and proposes instead that it shall be stowed away in bars. But why not leave the silver in the ore and the ore in the ground? That would be a far greater economy. As for the silver notes, they would be just as useful and just as readily taken if they promised to pay silver yet to be mined and refined, or if instead of promising to pay anything at all, they were simply made receivable for public dues. (Standard, Feb 11 1888)
As Kenneth Wenzer has claimed in his Anthology Of Henry Georges Thought:
A condemnation of banks and a call for monetary reform were part of the Georgist agenda for improving America
The Standard articles which we cite in this study are quoted from Wenzers pioneering work. Since the focus has rarely been placed on Georges monetary views, well use this opportunity to present more of them:
There never was any good reason for the institution of the national banking system, and there is not today any good reason for its continuance. Like all special privileges it is but a taxation of the many for the benefit of the few, and like all use of governmental power for private advantage, it has resulted in governmental extravagance and political demoralization. The pretense that there is some mystery about currency and banking that common people cannot understand, is like the pretense that no one but the members of the protected rings and trusts are competent to say what tariff taxes shall be levied on the people The national bank notes current in the united states fulfill the functions of generally accepted money, not because they have the name of a bank printed on them, not because bonds are deposited for their redemption, but because they are issued by the general government, bear its stamp, and rest upon its credit. They are in no wise better than the notes directly issued by the government, but derive their security and usefulness from the same source that gives the greenback its security and usefulness – the fact that they are issued by the government and are receivable for its dues . The proper business of banking is the receiving, the keeping and the loaning out of money, and the facilitation of exchanges by the extension , interchange, and cancellation of private credits. With the issuance of money the proper business of banking has nothing whatever to do. (Standard, Apr 28, 1888)
To withdraw the national bank currency and to substitute for it notes directly issued by the government would be to save annually for the people millions directly, and still more millions indirectly, but it would not in the least interfere with the proper business of banking. (Standard, Apr 28, 1888)
GEORGE WAS A GREENBACKER BUT NOT A FOOL
Georges call for monetary reform is well known as the Greenback position.
The Plutocracys answer has been to continuously finance a two centuries smear campaign against government to raise the fear of inflation under such a system. A fear not really justified by historical evidence, where one finds much greater monetary abuse by privately controlled monetary systems, than by public, governmentally controlled ones. And that is why the study of economics is steered away from the study of history.
In this propaganda campaign the Plutocracy still advertises the 6 – 700 year old cases of monarchs debasing their coinage, but never gives the context – that this period of Kingly Abuse, took place on the continent after the collapse of monetary order with the fall of Byzantium in 1204 AD. Nor do they point out that much of the alteration in coinage was an accepted form of taxation. Nor will you ever hear that virtually no irresponsible currency changes (save one brief incident with Henry VIII) took place in England during those times. Nor will you learn that Republics generally fared much better monetarily than monarchies; nor do they advertise the much greater monetary disasters created by private bankers during these same times.
In the more modern period, during times of war, the money power, partly to assure their own survival has stood aside and acquiesced in government issuing money (as in the Revolution, and the Civil War); or issued it in large quantities themselves, if allowed to get away with it (as in WW1 and WW2). In doing this, they could be sure that the resulting production would be blown up or sunk, or be useless, rather than end up as new consumer goods or new production facilities, or improved infrastructure, which would have tended to lower prices, and to have made the population more independent of the monetary miscreants. This is why warfare has become associated with getting the economy moving. But it wasnt the warfare but the accompanying monetary and production activity that were responsible. We have not seen modern historical situations in the English speaking world where such high levels of monetary activity was directed into real economic production, and not specifically designed for destruction. Partial exceptions are the limited efforts undertaken by Roosevelt after the Great Depression (which gave us projects like Hoover Dam, and the water and sewer systems still in use in our upstate NY home town); and the original all-out NASA effort to reach the moon (which gave us our modern computerization).
In short, the Plutocracys inflation theme is mostly propaganda. Consider it for example in light of what you have just read in our (very) brief monetary history of the US. For an extensive description of these historical realities, please see my book The Lost Science Of Money.
Louis Post tells how George once answered a question related to this charge – on whether hed support the government issuing money too freely, with the statement:
(ecclesiastical expletive!) I am a Greenbacker, but I am not a fool.
Post lets us guess exactly what the expletive was.
GEORGES MONEY DISCUSSIONS IN THE SCIENCE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY
At age 58, while still embracing the correct policy for money to be governmentally issued, Georges unfinished attempts to theoretically define money in his Science Of Political Economy were not as advanced as his practical conclusions, perhaps because the latter had been empirically nourished. Remember, in this posthumously published book the final section on money was not complete. George Junior relates that: if entirely finished as planned (it) would have shown Book V on Money, extended but the work as left was, in the opinion of its author, in its main essentials completed, the broken parts, to quote his own words a few days before his death indicating the direction in which my thought was tending. (SPE, vii)
But such imprecision is very problematic for monetary questions. They have been for too long, purposely confused and shrouded in mystery. Thus Georges unfinished exposition on money tended to accentuate or reflect the political economists patterns of what he was reading rather than his own final synthesis. Thus in the first section of Book 5 he describes three concepts of money: First the idea of commodity money deriving its value from the metal; second fiat money empowered by the edict or fiat of government; and third credit money, used in place of barter.
But by Chapter 6 of Book V, it has been reduced to just two kinds – commodity money and credit; with fiat money being placed under the heading of credit. This disparity in organization is clearly more an indication of the incomplete status of Book 5, rather than loose thought on Georges part. And while he gives examples of different kinds of money, and the functions of money he does not really get to a meaningful definition of the essential nature of money, but instead arrives at the following over generalized statement:
Whatever in any time and place is used as the common medium of exchange is money in that time and place. (SPE, 494)
But the time and place qualifications are really superfluous. So of his 21 word definition, 9 words are unnecessary, and his definition of money reduces to the common medium of exchange.
A few pages later the definition becomes
we may define money with regard to its functions as that which in any time and place serves as the common medium of exchange and the common measure of value. (SPE, 502)
Such time and space language comes from the pseudo monetary arguments he had been reading, such as Mengers ideas on the origin of money, which strive for status by cloaking themselves in the terminology of the physical sciences. George didnt care much for the Austrian School:
What has succeeded (in place of the classical school) is usually denominated the Austrian School If it has any principles, I have been utterly unable to find them This pseudo science gets its name from a foreign language, and uses for its terms words adapted from the German – words that have no place and no meaning in an English work. It is indeed admirably calculated to serve the purpose of those powerful interests dominant in the colleges that must fear a simple and understandable Political Economy, and who vaguely wish to have the poor boys who are subjected to it by their professors rendered incapable of thought on economic subjects the volumes for mutual admiration which they publish . (SPE, 208) Later, Colonel E.C. Harwood, a twentieth century Georgist, and founder of the American Institute For Economic Research, carried forward this criticism of the Austrian School method, calling it A LEAP BACKWARD (headline). Dr. Von Mises denies not once but several times that his theories can ever be disproved by facts. This point of view represents a leap backward to Platonic Idealism or one of its offspring in various disguises.
Georges mutual admiration comment is amusing as this incestuous promotion visibly continues through the 20th century. Yet George still couldnt stop Austrian School founder Mengers arguments on money from seeping into his consciousness, for example when George writes:
money is the most readily exchangeable (thing) this ready exchangeability is the essential characteristic of money. (SPE, 487)
But to get to the real essential characteristic, George would have had to determine just what it is that makes money so readily exchangeable, and this was not likely to be found by reading the Austrians, or other economic works. Most of them had little or no idea, and those who did obfuscated it.
Still, Georges thought processes remained far superior to those he was reading, and he produced some excellent observations in Book V on money.
ON INTRINSIC VALUE BEING UNNECESSARY IN MONEY
Related to distinguishing money from wealth, George saw through the argument that money had to have intrinsic value:
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; also see SPE, 496)
that the circulating value of money need not necessarily depend on its intrinsic value, must have been clear to discerning men The fact that coins that had lost something of their intrinsic value by abrasion continued to pass current of itself would show that the circulating value of a coin did not depend on the value of the material it contained. (SPE, 522-3; also see SPE, 528)
And George understood the broad importance of the quantity factor, for maintaining the value of money:
What has everywhere caused the failure of innumerable attempts to reduce the intrinsic value of the principal and important coin without reducing its circulating value (is) that the sovereigns who have attempted it did not, and perhaps could not, observe the necessary condition of its success, the strict limitation of supply. (SPE, 525)
Georgists should be better able to understand that intrinsic value is superfluous, even a hindrance, in light of Georges accurate distinction between money and wealth. To insist on commodity money is to insist on re-defining money as tangible wealth; which is really to do away with the concept of money; and therefore to do away with the institution of money, substituting some convoluted form of hybrid wealth. Highly inconvenient to say the least.
ON THE ORIGINS OF MONEY NOT BEING AS ADVERTISED BY ECONOMISTS
Another important example is Georges perception that the economists were generally ridiculous in their endlessly repeated mantra on the origin of money:
In explaining the origin and use of money, Adam Smith much overrated the difficulties of barter, and in this he has been followed by nearly all writers who have succeeded him
Though this explanation of the difficulties attending barter has been paraphrased by writer after writer since Adam Smith, it is an exaggeration so gross as to be ridiculous The butcher with meat that he wanted to dispose of would not have refused the exchange offered by the brewer and baker because he himself was already provided with all the bread and beer that he had immediate occasion for. He would say I will give you the meat you want on your promise to give me the equivalent in bread and beer when I call for them (SPE, 508)
Thus George seems to have independently figured out that the development of credit probably preceded the development of money.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CREDIT USED AS MONEY
Georges discussions of credit in Book V are noteworthy and well ahead of his time. In addition to understanding how credit could function in a primitive situation he understood how important it was to the monetary functioning of his own day:
If the use of money supersedes the use of credit in some exchanges, it is only where the use of credit is difficult and inconvenient (SPE, 517)
the great volume of domestic exchange is carried on by the giving and cancellation of credits the most important use of money today is that of a common measure of value, its secondary use. (SPE, 511) Though I didnt find George discussing this in detail, his referral to the giving and cancellation of credits indicates an awareness of the process that would come to be called the real bills doctrine, where a bank issues a credit (makes a loan) to a party based upon a commercial bill which the party has received in the course of selling a product. When the buyer of the product eventually makes his deferred payment, the banks credit is extinguished or canceled. The producer has been paid, the buyer has been assisted to make his purchase, and the bank receives its fee or interest, for facilitating the exchange between buyer and seller. In fact an example of a wholesome banking activity.
But this is quite different from a bank extending a long term loan for the purchase of an asset such as land. That process becomes an unstable one, if it becomes a generally accepted banking practice.
But unlike the bankers, George publicly – and forcefully – distinguished credit from money:
Credit as a facilitator of exchange is older than money and perhaps is even now more important than money But though it may be made into money it is not itself money (SPE, 493)
a real and very important distinction – the distinction between money and credit. checks, drafts, negotiable notes and other transferable obligations (pass for money) only when accompanied by trust or credit. (SPE, 491)
Thus there is a quality attaching to money which clearly distinguishes it from all forms of credit. (SPE, 492)
George well understood one of the main effects of that distinction, which has been forgotten by modern economists but which will soon enough be of great concern to our economy once again:
The curse of credit as a flux of exchanges is that it expands when there is a tendency to speculation, and sharply contracts just when most needed to assure confidence and prevent industrial waste. (Standard, Feb 11, 1888)
ON THE EXTENSION OF CREDIT TO LAND BEING UNSTABLE
In the pamphlet Causes Of Business Depression, Georges view, at age 55, was:
business depression comes from scarcity of employment. land is the source of all employment, the natural element indispensable to all work . The monopoly of land – the exclusion of labor from land by the high price demanded for it – is the cause of scarcity of employment and business depressions is clear
Thus bank loans to purchase land, within Georges viewpoint, would be an important factor for business instability, since they would facilitate that monopolization process.
ON MONEYS ESSENTIAL CHARACTERISTIC
This is the defining primary feature of money; the one which ultimately assures its value. Over and again, history shows this to be moneys legal status, not its material. This doesnt necessarily mean legal tender declarations, but that a viable government, with taxation powers in a viable economy, will accept the money for payment of all taxes, dues, fees, fines, etc. Time and again we see that this is the minimum necessary legal provision insisted upon by bankers to be certain their privately created credits would indeed circulate as money. (for example the Bank of England; the 1st and 2nd Banks Of The U.S.; the 1864 National Banking System and the Federal Reserve System)
George fully understood this in practice, if not in theory, when he wrote that government certificates would circulate just fine if instead of promising to pay anything at all, they were simply made receivable for public dues. (Standard, Feb 11 1888). George came close to also achieving this awareness in theoretical terms; the disjointed indications from unfinished Book V indicating he was close when he wrote: that the key is the disposition to receive (money) as a medium of exchange. (SPE, 491)
And he acknowledged that:
the coining of money has from the earliest times been deemed a function of the sovereign – the seignior or lord – as representative of organized society or the state. (SPE, 518)
George almost arrives at the answer in the following excerpt. Reading it for the first time, I thought he was describing a possible factual exception to the essential principle of money stated above; but by the end, the specific facts he relates became more a confirmation of the principle than a contravention of it:
Is money therefore a matter of mere governmental regulation? can government statute or fiat prescribe what money shall be used and at what rate ? (SPE, 488) those of us who lived in California (from)1862 to 1879 (saw) that it cannot. During those years, while the money of the rest of the country was a more or less depreciated paper, the money of that State, and of the Pacific coast generally, was gold and silver. The paper money of the general government was used for the purchase of postage stamps, and the payment of internal revenue dues, the satisfaction of judgments of the Federal courts, and those of the State courts and for remittances to the East. But between man and man, and in ordinary transactions it passed only as a commodity.
If it can be said that the government was not fully exerted in this case; that the United States government dishonored its own currency in making bonds payable and custom-House dues receivable only in gold, and that the California specific contract law virtually gave the recognition of the State courts ONLY to gold and silver, we may turn to such examples as that of the Confederate Currency; as that of the Continental Currency; as that afforded by the Colonial currencies prior to the Revolution; as that of the French Assignats; or to that (example in Ireland). (SPE, 489)
Today, over a hundred years later, these examples, with the addition of the German hyper-inflation, still constitute the economists full arsenal against legally based money. But our discussion of the colonial moneys, the Continental Currency, the Greenbacks and the Confederate Currency demonstrate that these events have not been fully reported to us (we discuss the German Hyperinflation in my book, and the French Assignats in a special report). Contrary to the typical economists training, these events were more complex than generally presented and certainly do not constitute an unanswerable argument for placing the control of monetary systems into the hands of private bankers. George cites them because of their endless repetition in the economics books he was reading for so many years.
Henry George continues:
Shall we say then, as do many who point out this impotency of mere government fiat, that the exchange value of any money depends ultimately upon its intrinsic value; that the real money in the world, the only true and natural money, is gold and silver, one or both – for the metal-moneyists differ as to this, being divided into two opposing camps – the monometalists and the bimetallists? This notion is even more widely opposed to the facts than is that of the fiatists. But gold and silver are not the money of the world As for intrinsic value, it is clear that our paper money which has no intrinsic value, performs every office of money – is in every sense as truly money as our coins, which have intrinsic value; and that even of our coins, their circulating or money value has for the most part no more relation to intrinsic value than it has in the case of our paper money. And this is the case to-day all over the civilized world. (SPE, 491) Clearly George was still wrestling with these questions in his own mind. While he accurately identified the monetary system that was needed in practice, he died before fully identifying its theoretical basis. He was close to figuring it out as indicated by his statement that the notion of intrinsically valued money is even more widely opposed to the facts than is that of the fiatists, and his realization of the great importance of the disposition to receive (money); the ultimate receiver being the government.
The legal nature of money had been identified by Georges contemporary, the great monetary historian Alexander Del Mar, but unfortunately he and George were at odds, having squabbled over which of them had conceived the idea that interest arose out of natures creative forces (Actually the Scholastics had incorporated this concept in their work hundreds of years earlier, and Del Mar too, though exceedingly well read, appears largely unaware of the Scholastics work). The legal theory of money was at that very time being fully developed by George Knapp in his classic State Theory Of Money, first published in 1905, after George died.
Had George let the clues lead him to better grasp the legal basis of money, then he would have been in a position to make another truly great discovery which comes from combining that concept of money with his concept on how labor pays its own way. This great potential process would later be understood by John Maynard Keynes, but it has again slipped (or been pushed) out of the national consciousness.
Next week: Concluding Remarks
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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