America’s Royalist Coin Set
Treating the U.S. president as a head of state violates the spirit of the American revolution
February 1, 2007
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

The United States Mint has begun a new series of dollar coins. They will show the U.S. presidents in historical order, with a new coin issued every three months. The coins will be the same size as the previous issue that depicts Sacagawea, the American Indian woman who helped the Lewis and Clarke expedition that explored the American Northwest.

Why am I calling this a “royalist coin set”? In countries such as the United Kingdom where monarchs rule or reign, the currency depicts the king or queen as the sovereign and head of state. This is appropriate because the monarch represents the state and its continuity. Even if they don’t go as far as the French king Louis XIV, who declared “ L'état, c'est moi,” the king or queen is revered as a living embodiment of the state and the nation.

But the United States of America is a republic, and its revolution cast off royalty. The U.S. Constitution states, “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Also, the U.S. Constitution does not provide for any head of state. The Constitution says, “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America,” and it makes the President the commander in chief of the armed forces.

America has no single head of state. The USA has three branches of government of equal stature. Congress is elected by the people, independently of the election of the president. The Supreme Court has supreme authority over the interpretation of the Constitution and can nullify legislation. All the members of Congress and the Supreme Court are heads of state along with the president. When citizens vote, they act as sovereign individuals, so all U.S. citizens are heads of state also. Treating the U.S. president as a head of state violates the spirit of the American revolution.

Some countries have a prime minister, who is the head of the government, and a president who is the head of state. The presidency in those counties is a symbolic office, with little governing power. Those presidents are often on the coins of the country. But the U.S. does not have such a system. The chief executive presides over the government, but should not embody the state. The U.S. state is embodied in the Constitution, not in a man who holds the executive office.

The U.S. dollar is the official legal-tender currency of the United States, and the issuance of a series of dollar coins showing the past U.S. presidents treats them like royal heads of states. It elevates the presidency to a kingly position. Of course the most important presidents have long appeared on U.S. coins and paper currency, but putting all the past dead presidents on the coinage one by one carries this a step further. It is especially noteworthy at a time when political power has been increasingly centralized in the presidency.

We should shun president-worship by going in the opposite direction. Let’s remove the presidents from the money. We should do what Switzerland does with its Swiss franc coin. The U.S. mint could depict the eagle, statue of liberty, American Indians, natural features such as the Grand Canyon, and prominent Americans such as Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass. But no presidents or pictures of the White House or the Capitol, please.

The U.S. Mint is hoping that the new coins will circulate more than the previous series. Paper dollars wear out and have to be replaced frequently, so over the long run, it is less expensive to use dollar coins. One reason that the dollar coins are not more widely used is that many machines do not accept them. For example, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) in California does not accept dollar coins in its ticket machines. If it did, dollar coins would be much more useful in the Bay Area. Replacing Sacagawea with a past president will not change the usefulness of the coins.

The federal government also makes a profit when people keep the coins as collectibles, since it cost 20 cents to mint a coin for which they get one dollar. Like the current series of quarters that depict symbols of the states, the president coins might be popular, but if so, that only shows the prevalence of the mental disease of leader-worship in the U.S.

In a healthy democracy, the chief executive should be respected but not revered as a demi-god. Too many Americans expect the president to not only be in charge of foreign policy and the military, but also to rule over society as a super father, and to “run the economy” as though the U.S. economy were a corporation rather than a market.

We treat the president too much like an elected king, which is why the new president coins should be distasteful to small-r republicans. Something there is that doesn’t like this presidential coin series. Personally, I’m stocking up on Sacagaweas while the banks still have them.

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.