Myth 2: The Gold Standard is an Example of Price-Fixing by Government

Barry Eichengreen (2011) writes that countries using gold as money “fix its price in domestic-currency terms (in the U.S. case, in dollars).”  He finds this perplexing:

But the idea that government should legislate the price of a particular commodity, be it gold, milk or gasoline, sits uneasily with conservative Republicanism’s commitment to letting market forces work, much less with Tea Party–esque libertarianism. Surely a believer in the free market would argue that if there is an increase in the demand for gold, whatever the reason, then the price should be allowed to rise, giving the gold-mining industry an incentive to produce more, eventually bringing that price back down. Thus, the notion that the U.S. government should peg the price, as in gold standards past, is curious at the least.

To describe a gold standard as “fixing” gold’s “price” in terms of a distinct good, domestic currency, is to get off on the wrong foot.  A gold standard means that a standard mass of gold (so many grams or ounces of pure or standard-alloy gold) defines the domestic currency unit.  The currency unit (“dollar”) is nothing other than a unit of gold, not a separate good with a potentially fluctuating market price against gold.  That one dollar, defined as so many grams of gold, continues be worth the specified amount of gold—or in other words that one unit of gold continues to be worth one unit of gold—does not involve the pegging of any relative price. Domestic currency notes (and checking account balances) are denominated in and redeemable for gold, not priced in gold.  They don’t have a price in gold any more than checking account balances in our current system, denominated in fiat dollars, have a price in fiat dollars.  Presumably Eichengreen does not find it curious or objectionable that his bank maintains a fixed dollar-for-dollar redemption rate, cash for checking balances, at his ATM.

As to what a believer in the free market would argue, surely Eichengreen understands that if there is an increase in the demand for gold under a gold standard, whatever the reason, then the relative price of gold (the purchasing power per unit of gold over other goods and services) will in fact rise, that this rise will in fact give the gold-mining industry an incentive to produce more, and that the increase in gold output will in fact eventually bring the relative price back down.

 

Kathleen M. Packard, Publisher
Ralph J. Benko, Editor

In Memoriam
Professor Jacques Rueff
(1896-1978)

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