The Theory of Money and Credit

Ludwig von Mises.
Mises, Ludwig von
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H. E. Batson, trans.
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Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
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Foreword by Murray Rothbard and Introduction by Lionel Robbins not available online




The Function of Money

1 The General Economic Conditions for the Use of Money


Where the free exchange of goods and services is unknown, money is not wanted. In a state of society in which the division of labor was a purely domestic matter and production and consumption were consummated within the single household it would be just as useless as it would be for an isolated man. But even in an economic order based on division of labor, money would still be unnecessary if the means of production were socialized, the control of production and the distribution of the finished product were in the hands of a central body, and individuals were not allowed to exchange the consumption goods allotted to them for the consumption goods allotted to others.


The phenomenon of money presupposes an economic order in which production is based on division of labor and in which private property consists not only in goods of the first order (consumption goods), but also in goods of higher orders (production goods). In such a society, there is no systematic centralized control of production, for this is inconceivable without centralized disposal over the means of production. Production is "anarchistic." What is to be produced, and how it is to be produced, is decided in the first place by the owners of the means of production, who produce, however, not only for their own needs, but also for the needs of others, and in their valuations take into account, not only the use-value that they themselves attach to their products, but also the use-value that these possess in the estimation of the other members of the community. The balancing of production and consumption takes place in the market, where the different producers meet to exchange goods and services by bargaining together. The function of money is to facilitate the business of the market by acting as a common medium of exchange.

2 The Origin of Money


Indirect exchange is distinguished from direct exchange according as a medium is involved or not.


Suppose that A and B exchange with each other a number of units of the commodities m and n. A acquires the commodity n because of the use-value that it has for him. He intends to consume it. The same is true of B, who acquires the commodity m for his immediate use. This is a case of direct exchange.


If there are more than two individuals and more than two kinds of commodity in the market, indirect exchange also is possible. A may then acquire a commodity p, not because he desires to consume it, but in order to exchange it for a second commodity q which he does desire to consume. Let us suppose that A brings to the market two units of the commodity m, B two units of the commodity n, and C two units of the commodity o, and that A wishes to acquire one unit of each of the commodities n and o, B one unit of each of the commodities o and m, and C one unit of each of the commodities m and n. Even in this case a direct exchange is possible if the subjective valuations of the three commodities permit the exchange of each unit of m, n, and o for a unit of one of the others. But if this or a similar hypothesis does not hold good, and in by far the greater number of all exchange transactions it does not hold good, then indirect exchange becomes necessary, and the demand for goods for immediate wants is supplemented by a demand for goods to be exchanged for others.*1


Let us take, for example, the simple case in which the commodity p is desired only by the holders of the commodity q, while the comodity q is not desired by the holders of the commodity p but by those, say, of a third commodity r, which in its turn is desired only by the possessors of p. No direct exchange between these persons can possibly take place. If exchanges occur at all, they must be indirect; as, for instance, if the possessors of the commodity p exchange it for the commodity q and then exchange this for the commodity r which is the one they desire for their own consumption. The case is not essentially different when supply and demand do not coincide quantitatively; for example, when one indivisible good has to be exchanged for various goods in the possession of several persons.


Indirect exchange becomes more necessary as division of labor increases and wants become more refined. In the present stage of economic development, the occasions when direct exchange is both possible and actually effected have already become very exceptional. Nevertheless, even nowadays, they sometimes arise. Take, for instance, the payment of wages in kind, which is a case of direct exchange so long on the one hand as the employer uses the labor for the immediate satisfaction of his own needs and does not have to procure through exchange the goods in which the wages are paid, and so long on the other hand as the employee consumes the goods he receives and does not sell them. Such payment of wages in kind is still widely prevalent in agriculture, although even in this sphere its importance is being continually diminished by the extension of capitalistic methods of management and the development of division of labor.*2


Thus along with the demand in a market for goods for direct consumption there is a demand for goods that the purchaser does not wish to consume but to dispose of by further exchange. It is clear that not all goods are subject to this sort of demand. An individual obviously has no motive for an indirect exchange if he does not expect that it will bring him nearer to his ultimate objective, the acquisition of goods for his own use. The mere fact that there would be no exchanging unless it was indirect could not induce individuals to engage in indirect exchange if they secured no immediate personal advantage from it. Direct exchange being impossible, and indirect exchange being purposeless from the individual point of view, no exchange would take place at all. Individuals have recourse to indirect exchange only when they profit by it; that is, only when the goods they acquire are more marketable than those which they surrender.


Now all goods are not equally marketable. While there is only a limited and occasional demand for certain goods, that for others is more general and constant. Consequently, those who bring goods of the first kind to market in order to exchange them for goods that they need themselves have as a rule a smaller prospect of success than those who offer goods of the second kind. If, however, they exchange their relatively unmarketable goods for such as are more marketable, they will get a step nearer to their goal and may hope to reach it more surely and economically than if they had restricted themselves to direct exchange.


It was in this way that those goods that were originally the most marketable became common media of exchange; that is, goods into which all sellers of other goods first converted their wares and which it paid every would-be buyer of any other commodity to acquire first. And as soon as those commodities that were relatively most marketable had become common media of exchange, there was an increase in the difference between their marketability and that of all other commodities, and this in its turn further strengthened and broadened their position as media of exchange.*3


Thus the requirements of the market have gradually led to the selection of certain commodities as common media of exchange. The group of commodities from which these were drawn was originally large, and differed from country to country; but it has more and more contracted. Whenever a direct exchange seemed out of the question, each of the parties to a transaction would naturally endeavor to exchange his superfluous commodities, not merely for more marketable commodities in general, but for the most marketable commodities; and among these again he would naturally prefer whichever particular commodity was the most marketable of all. The greater the marketability of the goods first acquired in indirect exchange, the greater would be the prospect of being able to reach the ultimate objective without further maneuvering. Thus there would be an inevitable tendency for the less marketable of the series of goods used as media of exchange to be one by one rejected until at last only a single commodity remained, which was universally employed as a medium of exchange; in a word, money.


This stage of development in the use of media of exchange, the exclusive employment of a single economic good, is not yet completely attained. In quite early times, sooner in some places than in others, the extension of indirect exchange led to the employment of the two precious metals gold and silver as common media of exchange. But then there was a long interruption in the steady contraction of the group of goods employed for that purpose. For hundreds, even thousands, of years the choice of mankind has wavered undecided between gold and silver The chief cause of this remarkable phenomenon is to be found in the natural qualities of the two metals. Being physically and chemically very similar, they are almost equally serviceable for the satisfaction of human wants. For the manufacture of ornaments and jewelry of all kinds the one has proved as good as the other. (It is only in recent times that technological discoveries have been made which have considerably extended the range of uses of the precious metals and may have differentiated their utility more sharply.) In isolated communities, the employment of one or the other metal as sole common medium of exchange has occasionally been achieved, but this short-lived unity has always been lost again as soon as the isolation of the community has succumbed to participation in international trade.


Economic history is the story of the gradual extension of the economic community beyond its original limits of the single household to embrace the nation and then the world. But every increase in its size has led to a fresh duality of the medium of exchange whenever the two amalgamating communities have not had the same sort of money. It would not be possible for the final verdict to be pronounced until all the chief parts of the inhabited earth formed a single commercial area, for not until then would it be impossible for other nations with different monetary systems to join in and modify the international organization.


Of course, if two or more economic goods had exactly the same marketability, so that none of them was superior to the others as a medium of exchange, this would limit the development toward a unified monetary system. We shall not attempt to decide whether this assumption holds good of the two precious metals gold and silver. The question, about which a bitter controversy has raged for decades, has no very important bearings upon the theory of the nature of money. For it is quite certain that even if a motive had not been provided by the unequal marketability of the goods used as media of exchange, unification would still have seemed a desirable aim for monetary policy. The simultaneous use of several kinds of money involves so many disadvantages and so complicates the technique of exchange that the endeavor to unify the monetary system would certainly have been made in any case.


The theory of money must take into consideration all that is implied in the functioning of several kinds of money side by side. Only where its conclusions are unlikely to be affected one way or the other, may it proceed from the assumption that a single good is employed as common medium of exchange. Elsewhere, it must take account of the simultaneous use of several media of exchange. To neglect this would be to shirk one of its most difficult tasks.

3 The "Secondary" Functions of Money


The simple statement, that money is a commodity whose economic function is to facilitate the interchange of goods and services, does not satisfy those writers who are interested rather in the accumulation of material than in the increase of knowledge. Many investigators imagine that insufficient attention is devoted to the remarkable part played by money in economic life if it is merely credited with the function of being a medium of exchange; they do not think that due regard has been paid to the significance of money until they have enumerated half a dozen further "functions"—as if, in an economic order founded on the exchange of goods, there could be a more important function than that of the common medium of exchange.


After Menger's review of the question, further discussion of the connection between the secondary functions of money and its basic function should be unnecessary.*4 Nevertheless, certain tendencies in recent literature on money make it appear advisable to examine briefly these secondary functions—some of them are coordinated with the basic function by many writers—and to show once more that all of them can be deduced from the function of money as a common medium of exchange.


This applies in the first place to the function fulfilled by money in facilitating credit transactions. It is simplest to regard this as part of its function as medium of exchange. Credit transactions are in fact nothing but the exchange of present goods against future goods. Frequent reference is made in English and American writings to a function of money as a standard of deferred payments.*5 But the original purpose of this expression was not to contrast a particular function of money with its ordinary economic function, but merely to simplify discussions about the influence of changes in the value of money upon the real amount of money debts. It serves this purpose admirably. But it should be pointed out that its use has led many writers to deal with the problems connected with the general economic consequences of changes in the value of money merely from the point of view of modifications in existing debt relations and to overlook their significance in all other connections.


The functions of money as a transmitter of value through time and space may also be directly traced back to its function as medium of exchange. Menger has pointed out that the special suitability of goods for hoarding, and their consequent widespread employment for this purpose, has been one of the most important causes of their increased marketability and therefore of their qualification as media of exchange.*6 As soon as the practice of employing a certain economic good as a medium of exchange becomes general, people begin to store up this good in preference to others. In fact, hoarding as a form of investment plays no great part in our present stage of economic development, its place having been taken by the purchase of interest-bearing property.*7 On the other hand, money still functions today as a means for transporting value through space.*8 This function again is nothing but a matter of facilitating the exchange of goods. The European farmer who emigrates to America and wishes to exchange his property in Europe for a property in America, sells the former, goes to America with the money (or a bill payable in money), and there purchases his new homestead. Here we have an absolute textbook example of an exchange facilitated by money.


Particular attention has been devoted, especially in recent times, to the function of money as a general medium of payment. Indirect exchange divides a single transaction into two separate parts which are connected merely by the ultimate intention of the exchangers to acquire consumption goods. Sale and purchase thus apparently become independent of each other Furthermore, if the two parties to a sale-and-purchase transaction perform their respective parts of the bargain at different times, that of the seller preceding that of the buyer (purchase on credit), then the settlement of the bargain, or the fulfillment of the seller's part of it (which need not be the same thing), has no obvious connection with the fulfillment of the buyer's part. The same is true of all other credit transactions, especially of the most important sort of credit transaction—lending. The apparent lack of a connection between the two parts of the single transaction has been taken as a reason for regarding them as independent proceedings, for speaking of the payment as an independent legal act, and consequently for attributing to money the function of being a common medium of payment. This is obviously incorrect. "If the function of money as an object which facilitates dealings in commodities and capital is kept in mind, a function that includes the payment of money prices and repayment of loans...there remains neither necessity nor justification for further discussion of a special employment, or even function of money, as a medium of payment."*9


The root of this error (as of many other errors in economics) must be sought in the uncritical acceptance of juristical conceptions and habits of thought. From the point of view of the law, outstanding debt is a subject which can and must be considered in isolation and entirely (or at least to some extent) without reference to the origin of the obligation to pay. Of course, in law as well as in economics, money is only the common medium of exchange. But the principal, although not exclusive, motive of the law for concerning itself with money is the problem of payment. When it seeks to answer the question, What is money? it is in order to determine how monetary liabilities can be discharged. For the jurist, money is a medium of payment. The economist, to whom the problem of money presents a different aspect, may not adopt this point of view if he does not wish at the very outset to prejudice his prospects of contributing to the advancement of economic theory.

Notes for this chapter

See Wicksell, Über Wert, Kapital und Rente (Jena, 1893; London, 1933), pp. 50 f.
The conclusion that indirect exchange is necessary in the majority of cases is extremely obvious. As we should expect, it is among the earliest discoveries of economics. We find it clearly expressed in the famous fragment of the Pandects of Paulus: "Quia non semper nec facile concurrebat, ut, cum tu haberas, quod ego desiderarem, invicem haberem, quod tu accipere velles" (Paulus, lib. 33 ad edictum 1.I pr. D. de contr. empt. 18, I).

Schumpeter is surely mistaken in thinking that the necessity for money can be proved solely from the assumption of indirect exchange (see his Wesen und Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie [Leipzig, 1908], pp. 273 ff.). On this point, cf. Weiss, Die moderne Tendenz in der Lehre vom Geldwert, Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft, Sozialpolitik und Verwaltung, vol. 19, pp. 518 ff.

See Menger, Untersuchungen über die Methode der Sozialwissenschaften und der politischen Okonomie insbesondere (Leipzig, 1883), pp. 172 ff.; Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre, 2d ed. (Vienna, 1923), pp. 247 ff.
See Menger, Grundsätze, pp. 278 ff.
See Nicholson, A Treatise on Money and Essays on Present Monetary Problems (Edinburgh, 1888), pp. 22 ff.; Laughlin, The Principles of Money (London, 1903), pp. 22 f.
Cf. Menger, Grundsätze, pp. 284 ff.
That is, apart from the exceptional propensity to hoard gold, silver, and foreign bills, encouraged by inflation and the laws enacted to further it.
Knies in particular (Geld und Kredit, 2d ed. [Berlin, 1885], vol. 1, pp. 233 ff.) has laid stress upon the function of money as interlocal transmitter of value.
Cf. Menger, Grundsätze, pp. 282 f.

End of Notes


On the Measurement of Value

1 The Immeasurability of Subjective Use-Values


Although it is usual to speak of money as a measure of value and prices, the notion is entirely fallacious. So long as the subjective theory of value is accepted, this question of measurement cannot arise. In the older political economy, the search for a principle governing the measurement of value was to a certain extent justifiable. If, in accordance with an objective theory of value, the possibility of an objective concept of commodity values is accepted, and exchange is regarded as the reciprocal surrender of equivalent goods, then the conclusion necessarily follows that exchange transactions must be preceded by measurement of the quantity of value contained in each of the objects that are to be exchanged. And it is then an obvious step to regard money as the measure of value.


But modern value theory has a different starting point. It conceives of value as the significance attributed to individual commodity units by a human being who wishes to consume or otherwise dispose of various commodities to the best advantage. Every economic transaction presupposes a comparison of values. But the necessity for such a comparison, as well as the possibility of it, is due only to the circumstance that the person concerned has to choose between several commodities. It is quite irrelevant whether this choice is between a commodity in his own possession and one in somebody else's possession for which he might exchange it, or between the different uses to which he himself might put a given quantity of productive resources. In an isolated household, in which (as on Robinson Crusoe's desert island) there is neither buying nor selling, changes in the stocks of goods of higher and lower orders do nevertheless occur whenever anything is produced or consumed; and these changes must be based upon valuations if their returns are to exceed the outlay they involve. The process of valuation remains fundamentally the same whether the question is one of transforming labor and flour into bread in the domestic bakehouse, or of obtaining bread in exchange for clothes in the market. From the point of view of the person making the valuation, the calculation whether a certain act of production would justify a certain outlay of goods and labor is exactly the same as the comparison between the values of the commodities to be surrendered and the values of the commodities to be acquired that must precede an exchange transaction. For this reason it has been said that every economic act may be regarded as a kind of exchange.*10


Acts of valuation are not susceptible of any kind of measurement. It is true that everybody is able to say whether a certain piece of bread seems more valuable to him than a certain piece of iron or less valuable than a certain piece of meat. And it is therefore true that everybody is in a position to draw up an immense list of comparative values; a list which will hold good only for a given point of time, since it must assume a given combination of wants and commodities. If the individual's circumstances change, then his scale of values changes also.


But subjective valuation, which is the pivot of all economic activity, only arranges commodities in order of their significance; it does not measure this significance. And economic activity has no other basis than the value scales thus constructed by individuals. An exchange will take place when two commodity units are placed in a different order on the value scales of two different persons. In a market, exchanges will continue until it is no longer possible for reciprocal surrender of commodities by any two individuals to result in their each acquiring commodities that stand higher on their value scales than those surrendered. If an individual wishes to make an exchange on an economic basis, he has merely to consider the comparative significance in his own judgment of the quantities of commodities in question. Such an estimate of relative values in no way involves the idea of measurement. An estimate is a direct psychological judgment that is not dependent on any kind of intermediate or auxiliary process.


(Such considerations also provide the answer to a series of objections to the subjective theory of value. It would be rash to conclude, because psychology has not succeeded and is not likely to succeed in measuring desires, that it is therefore impossible ultimately to attribute the quantitatively exact exchange ratios of the market to subjective factors. The exchange ratios of commodities are based upon the value scales of the individuals dealing in the market. Suppose that A possesses three pears and B two apples; and that A values the possession of two apples more than that of three pears, while B values the possession of three pears more than that of two apples. On the basis of these estimations an exchange may take place in which three pears are given for two apples. Yet it is clear that the determination of the numerically precise exchange ratio 2 : 3, taking a single fruit as a unit, in no way presupposes that A and B know exactly by how much the satisfaction promised by possession of the quantities to be acquired by exchange exceeds the satisfaction promised by possession of the quantities to be given up.)


General recognition of this fact, for which we are indebted to the authors of modern value theory, was hindered for a long time by a peculiar sort of obstacle. It is not altogether a rare thing that those very pioneers who have not hesitated to clear new paths for themselves and their followers by boldly rejecting outworn traditions and ways of thinking should yet shrink sometimes from all that is involved in the rigid application of their own principles. When this is so, it remains for those who come after to endeavor to put the matter right. The present is a case in point. On the subject of the measurement of value, as on a series of further subjects that are very closely bound up with it, the founders of the subjective theory of value refrained from the consistent development of their own doctrines. This is especially true of Böhm-Bawerk. At least it is especially striking in him; for the arguments of his which we are about to consider are embodied in a system that would have provided an alternative and, in the present writer's opinion, a better, solution of the problem, if their author had only drawn the decisive conclusion from them.


Böhm-Bawerk points out that when we have to choose in actual life between several satisfactions which cannot be had simultaneously because our means are limited, the situation is often such that the alternatives are on the one hand one big satisfaction and on the other hand a large number of homogeneous smaller satisfactions. Nobody will deny that it lies in our power to come to a rational decision in such cases. But it is equally clear that a judgment merely to the effect that a satisfaction of the one sort is greater than a satisfaction of the other sort is inadequate for such a decision; as would even be a judgment that a satisfaction of the first sort is considerably greater than one of the other sort. Böhm-Bawerk therefore concludes that the judgment must definitely affirm how many of the smaller satisfactions outweigh one of the first sort, or in other words how many times the one satisfaction exceeds one of the others in magnitude.*11


The credit of having exposed the error contained in the identification of these two last propositions belongs to Cuhel. The judgment that so many small satisfactions are outweighed by a satisfaction of another kind is in fact not identical with the judgment that the one satisfaction is so many times greater than one of the others. The two would be identical only if the satisfaction afforded by a number of commodity units taken together were equal to the satisfaction afforded by a single unit on its own multiplied by the number of units. That this assumption cannot hold good follows from Gossen's law of the satisfaction of wants. The two judgments, "I would rather have eight plums than one apple" and "I would rather have one apple than seven plums," do not in the least justify the conclusion that Böhm-Bawerk draws from them when he states that therefore the satisfaction afforded by the consumption of an apple is more than seven times but less than eight times as great as the satisfaction afforded by the consumption of a plum. The only legitimate conclusion is that the satisfaction from one apple is greater than the total satisfaction from seven plums but less than the total satisfaction from eight plums.*12


This is the only interpretation that can be harmonized with the fundamental conception expounded by the marginal-utility theorists, and especially by Böhm-Bawerk himself, that the utility (and consequently the subjective use-value also) of units of a commodity decreases as the supply of them increases. But to accept this is to reject the whole idea of measuring the subjective use-value of commodities. Subjective use-value is not susceptible of any kind of measurement.


The American economist Irving Fisher has attempted to approach the problem of value measurement by way of mathematics.*13 His success with this method has been no greater than that of his predecessors with other methods. Like them, he has not been able to surmount the difficulties arising from the fact that marginal utility diminishes as supply increases, and the only use of the mathematics in which he clothes his arguments, and which is widely regarded as a particularly becoming dress for investigations in economics, is to conceal a little the defects of their clever but artificial construction.


Fisher begins by assuming that the utility of a particular good or service, though dependent on the supply of that good or service, is independent of the supply of all others. He realizes that it will not be possible to achieve his aim of discovering a unit for the measurement of utility unless he can first show how to determine the proportion between two given marginal utilities. If, for example, an individual has 100 loaves of bread at his disposal during one year, the marginal utility of a loaf to him will be greater than if he had 150 loaves. The problem is, to determine the arithmetical proportion between the two marginal utilities. Fisher attempts to do this by comparing them with a third utility. He therefore supposes the individual to have B gallons of oil annually as well, and calls that increment of B whose utility is equal to that of the 100th loaf of bread. In the second case, when not 100 but 150 loaves are available, it is assumed that the supply of B remains unchanged. Then the utility of the 150th loaf may be equal, say, to the utility of b/2. Up to this point it is unnecessary to quarrel with Fisher's argument; but now follows a jump that neatly avoids all the difficulties of the problem. That is to say, Fisher simply continues, as if he were stating something quite self-evident: "Then the utility of the 150th loaf is said to be half the utility of the 100th." Without any further explanation he then calmly proceeds with his problem, the solution of which (if the above proposition is accepted as correct) involves no further difficulties, and so succeeds eventually in deducing a unit which he calls a "util." It does not seem to have occurred to him that in the particular sentence just quoted he has argued in defiance of the whole of marginal-utility theory and set himself in opposition to all the fundamental doctrines of modern economics. For obviously this conclusion of his is legitimate only if the utility of b is equal to twice the utility of b/2. But if this were really so, the problem of determining the proportion between two marginal utilities could have been solved in a quicker way, and his long process of deduction would not have been necessary. Just as justifiably as he assumes that the utility of is equal to twice the utility of b/2, he might have assumed straightaway that the utility of the 150th loaf is two-thirds of that of the 100th.


Fisher imagines a supply of B gallons that is divisible into n small quantities b, or 2n small quantities b/2. He assumes that an individual who has this supply B at his disposal regards the value of commodity unit x as equal to that of b and the value of commodity unit y as equal to that of b/2. And he makes the further assumption that in both valuations, that is, both in equating the value of x with that of b and in equating the value of y with that of b/2, the individual has the same supply of B gallons at his disposal.


He evidently thinks it possible to conclude from this that the utility of b is twice as great as that of b/2. The error here is obvious. The individual is in the one case faced with the choice between x (the value of the 100th loaf) and b = 2b/2. He finds it impossible to decide between the two, i.e., he values both equally. In the second case he has to choose between y (the value of the 150th loaf) and b/2. Here again he finds that both alternatives are of equal value. Now the question arises, what is the proportion between the marginal utility of b and that of b/2? We can determine this only by asking ourselves what the proportion is between the marginal utility of the nth part of a given supply and that of the 2nth part of the same supply, between that of b/n and that of b/2n. For this purpose let us imagine the supply B split up into 2n portions of b/2n. Then the marginal utility of the (2n-1)th portion is greater than that of the 2nth portion. If we now imagine the same supply B divided into n portions, then it clearly follows that the marginal utility of the nth portion is equal to that of the (2n-1)th portion plus that of the 2nth portion in the previous case. It is not twice as great as that of the 2nth portion, but more than twice as great. In fact, even with an unchanged supply, the marginal utility of several units taken together is not equal to the marginal utility of one unit multiplied by the number of units, but necessarily greater than this product. The value of two units is greater than, but not twice as great as, the value of one unit.*14


Perhaps Fisher thinks that this consideration may be disposed of by supposing b and b/2 to be such small quantities that their utility may be reckoned infinitesimal. If this is really his opinion, then it must first of all be objected that the peculiarly mathematical conception of infinitesimal quantities is inapplicable to economic problems. The utility afforded by a given amount of commodities, is either great enough for valuation, or so small that it remains imperceptible to the valuer and cannot therefore affect his judgment. But even if the applicability of the conception of infinitesimal quantities were granted, the argument would still be invalid, for it is obviously impossible to find the proportion between two finite marginal utilities by equating them with two infinitesimal marginal utilities.


Finally, a few words must be devoted to Schumpeter's attempt to set up as a unit the satisfaction resulting from the consumption of a given quantity of commodities and to express other satisfactions as multiples of this unit. Value judgments on this principle would have to be expressed as follows: "The satisfaction that I could get from the consumption of a certain quantity of commodities is a thousand times as great as that which I get from the consumption of an apple a day," or "For this quantity of goods I would give at the most a thousand times this apple." *15 Is there really anybody on earth who is capable of adumbrating such mental images or pronouncing such judgments? Is there any sort of economic activity that is actually dependent on the making of such decisions? Obviously not.*16 Schumpeter makes the same mistake of starting with the assumption that we need a measure of value in order to be able to compare one "quantity of value" with another. But valuation in no way consists in a comparison of two "quantities of value." It consists solely in a comparison of the importance of different wants. The judgment "Commodity a is worth more to me than commodity b" no more presupposes a measure of economic value than the judgment "A is dearer to me—more highly esteemed—than B" presupposes a measure of friendship.

2 Total Value


If it is impossible to measure subjective use-value, it follows directly that it is impracticable to ascribe "quantity" to it. We may say, the value of this commodity is greater than the value of that; but it is not permissible for us to assert, this commodity is worth so much. Such a way of speaking necessarily implies a definite unit. It really amounts to stating how many times a given unit is contained in the quantity to be defined. But this kind of calculation is quite inapplicable to processes of valuation.


The consistent application of these principles implies a criticism also of Schumpeter's views on the total value of a stock of goods. According to Wieser, the total value of a stock of goods is given by multiplying the number of items or portions constituting the stock by their marginal utility at any given moment. The untenability of this argument is shown by the fact that it would prove that the total stock of a free good must always be worth nothing. Schumpeter therefore suggests a different formula in which each portion is multiplied by an index corresponding to its position on the value scale (which, by the way, is quite arbitrary) and these products are then added together or integrated. This attempt at a solution, like the preceding, has the defect of assuming that it is possible to measure marginal utility and "intensity" of value. The fact that such measurement is impossible renders both suggestions equally useless. Mastery of the problem must be sought in some other way.


Value is always the result of a process of valuation. The process of valuation compares the significance of two complexes of commodities from the point of view of the individual making the valuation. The individual making the valuation and the complexes of goods valued, that is, the subject and the objects of the valuation, must enter as indivisible elements into any given process of valuation. This does not mean that they are necessarily indivisible in other respects as well, whether physically or economically. The subject of an act of valuation may quite well be a group of persons, a state or society or family, so long as it acts in this particular case as a unit, through a representative. And the objects thus valued may be collections of distinct units of commodities so long as they have to be dealt with in this particular case as a whole. There is nothing to prevent either subject or object from being a single unit for the purposes of one valuation even though in another their component parts may be entirely independent of each other The same people who, acting together through a representative as a single agent, such as a state, make a judgment as to the relative values of a battleship and a hospital, are the independent subjects of valuations of other commodities, such as cigars and newspapers. It is just the same with commodities. Modern value theory is based on the fact that it is not the abstract importance of different kinds of need that determines the scales of values, but the intensity of specific desires. Starting from this, the law of marginal utility was developed in a form that referred primarily to the usual sort of case in which the collections of commodities are divisible. But there are also cases in which the total supply must be valued as it stands.


Suppose that an economically isolated individual possesses two cows and three horses and that the relevant part of his scale of values (that item valued highest being placed first) is as follows: 1, a cow; 2, a horse; 3, a horse; 4,a horse; 5, a cow. If this individual has to choose between one cow and one horse he will rather be inclined to sacrifice the cow than the horse. If wild animals attack one of his cows and one of his horses, and it is impossible for him to save both, then he will try to save the horse. But if the whole of his stock of either animal is in danger, his decision will be different. Supposing that his stable and cowshed catch fire and that he can only rescue the occupants of one and must leave the others to their fate, then if he values three horses less than two cows he will attempt to save not the three horses but the two cows. The result of that process of valuation which involves a choice between one cow and one horse is a higher estimation of the horse. The result of the process of valuation which involves a choice between the whole available stock of cows and the whole available stock of horses is a higher estimation of the stock of cows.


Value can rightly be spoken of only with regard to specific acts of appraisal. It exists in such connections only; there is no value outside the process of valuation. There is no such thing as abstract value. Total value can be spoken of only with reference to a particular instance of an individual or other valuing "subject" having to choose between the total available quantities of certain economic goods. Like every other act of valuation, this is complete in itself. The person making the choice does not have to make use of notions about the value of units of the commodity. His process of valuation, like every other, is an immediate inference from considerations of the utilities at stake. When a stock is valued as a whole, its marginal utility, that is to say, the utility of the last available unit of it, coincides with its total utility, since the total supply is one indivisible quantity. This is also true of the total value of free goods, whose separate units are always valueless, that is, are always relegated to a sort of limbo at the very end of the value scale, promiscuously intermingled with the units of all the other free goods.*17

3 Money as a Price Index


What has been said should have made sufficiently plain the unscientific nature of the practice of attributing to money the function of acting as a measure of price or even of value. Subjective value is not measured, but graded. The problem of the measurement of objective use-value is not an economic problem at all. (It may incidentally be remarked that a measurement of efficiency is not possible for every species of commodity and is at the best only available within separate species, while every possibility, not only of measurement, but even of mere scaled comparison, vanishes as soon as we seek to establish a relation between two or more kinds of efficiency. It may be possible to measure and compare the calorific value of coal and of wood, but it is in no way possible to reduce to a common objective denominator the objective efficiency of a table and that of a book.)


Neither is objective exchange value measurable, for it too is the result of the comparisons derived from the valuations of individuals. The objective exchange value of a given commodity unit may be expressed in units of every other kind of commodity. Nowadays exchange is usually carried on by means of money, and since every commodity has therefore a price expressible in money, the exchange value of every commodity can be expressed in terms of money. This possibility enabled money to become a medium for expressing values when the growing elaboration of the scale of values which resulted from the development of exchange necessitated a revision of the technique of valuation.


That is to say, opportunities for exchanging induce the individual to rearrange his scales of values. A person in whose scale of values the commodity "a cask of wine" comes after the commodity "a sack of oats" will reverse their order if he can exchange a cask of wine in the market for a commodity that he values more highly than a sack of oats. The position of commodities in the value scales of individuals is no longer determined solely by their own subjective use-value, but also by the subjective use-value of the commodities that can be obtained in exchange for them, whenever the latter stand higher than the former in the estimation of the individual. Therefore, if he is to obtain the maximum utility from his resources, the individual must familiarize himself with all the prices in the market.


For this, however, he needs some help in finding his way among the confusing multiplicity of the exchange ratios. Money, the common medium of exchange, which can be exchanged for every commodity and with which every commodity can be procured, is preeminently suitable for this. It would be absolutely impossible for the individual, even if he were a complete expert in commercial matters, to follow every change of market conditions and make the corresponding alterations in his scale of use-values and exchange values, unless he chose some common denominator to which he could reduce each exchange ratio. Because the market enables any commodity to be turned into money and money into any commodity, objective exchange value is expressed in terms of money. Thus money becomes a price index, in Menger's phrase. The whole structure of the calculations of the entrepreneur and the consumer rests on the process of valuing commodities in money. Money has thus become an aid that the human mind is no longer able to dispense with in making economic calculations.*18 If in this sense we wish to attribute to money the function of being a measure of prices, there is no reason why we should not do so. Nevertheless, it is better to avoid the use of a term which might so easily be misunderstood as this. In any case the usage certainly cannot be called correct—we do not usually describe the determination of latitude and longitude as a "function" of the stars.*19

Notes for this chapter

See Simmel, Philosophie des Geldes, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1907), p. 35; Schumpeter, Wesen und Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie (Leipzig, 1908), p. 50.
Cf. Böhm-Bawerk, "Grundzüge der Theorie des wirtschaftlichen Güterwertes," Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik (1886), New Series, vol. 13, p. 48.
See Cuhel, Zur Lehre von den Bedürfnissen (Innsbruck, 1906), pp. 186 ff.; Weiss, Die moderne Tendenz in der Lehre vom Geldwert, Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft, Sozialpolitik und Verwaltung, vol. 19, pp. 532 ff. In the last edition of his masterpiece Capital and Interest, revised by himself, Böhm-Bawerk endeavored to refute Cuhel's criticism, but did not succeed in putting forward any new considerations that could help toward a solution of the problem (see Kapital und Kapitalzins, 3d ed. [Innsbruck, 1909-12], pp. 331 ff. Exkurse, pp. 280 ff.).
See Fisher,Mathematical Investigations in the Theory of Value and Prices, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy (New Haven, 1892), vol. 9, pp. 14 ff.
See also Weiss, op. cit., p. 538.
Cf. Schumpeter,op. cit., p. 290.
Cf. further Weiss,op. cit., pp. 534 ff.
See also Clark, Essentials of Economic Theory (New York, 1907), p. 41. In the first German edition of the present work, the above argument contained two further sentences that summarized in an inadequate fashion the results of investigation into the problem of total value. In deference to certain criticisms of C. A. Verrijn Stuart (Die Grundlagen der Volkswirtschaft [Jena, 1923], p. 115), they were omitted from the second edition.
On the indispensability of money for economic calculation, see my book Die Gemeinwirtschaft: Untersuchungen über den Sozialismus(Jena, 1922), pp. 100 ff.
[This chapter deals with technical matters which may present difficulty to readers unacquainted with general economic theory. It may be omitted on a first reading, but it is essential to complete understanding of certain issues, such as the index-number problem, which are dealt with later.—Editor.]

End of Notes


The Various Kinds of Money

1 Money and Money Substitutes


When an indirect exchange is transacted with the aid of money, it is not necessary for the money to change hands physically; a perfectly secure claim to an equivalent sum, payable on demand, may be transferred instead of the actual coins. In this by itself there is nothing remarkable or peculiar to money. What is peculiar, and only to be explained by reference to the special characteristics of money; is the extraordinary frequency of this way of completing monetary transactions.


In the first place, money is especially well adapted to constitute the substance of a generic obligation. Whereas the fungibility of nearly all other economic goods is more or less circumscribed and is often only a fiction based on an artificial commercial terminology, that of money is almost unlimited. Only that of shares and bonds can be compared with it. The sole factor that could possibly prevent any of these from being completely fungible is the difficulty of sub-dividing their separate units; and various expedients have been adopted, which, at least as far as money is concerned, have entirely robbed this difficulty of all practical significance.


A still more important circumstance is involved in the nature of the function that money performs. A claim to money may be transferred over and over again in an indefinite number of indirect exchanges without the person by whom it is payable ever being called upon to settle it. This is obviously not true as far as other economic goods are concerned, for these are always destined for ultimate consumption.


The special suitability for facilitating indirect exchanges possessed by absolutely secure and immediately payable claims to money, which we may briefly refer to as money substitutes, is further increased by their standing in law and commerce.


Technically, and in some countries legally as well, the transfer of a banknote scarcely differs from that of a coin. The similarity of outward appearance is such that those who are engaged in commercial dealings are usually unable to distinguish between those objects that actually perform the function of money and those that are merely employed as substitutes for them. The businessman does not worry about the economic problems involved in this; he is only concerned with the commercial and legal characteristics of coins, notes, checks, and the like. To him, the facts that banknotes are transferable without documentary evidence, that they circulate like coins in round denominations, that no fight of recovery lies against their previous holders, that the law recognizes no difference between them and money as an instrument of debt settlement, seem good enough reason for including them within the definition of the term money, and for drawing a fundamental distinction between them and cash deposits, which can be transferred only by a procedure that is much more complex technically and is also regarded in law as of a different kind. This is the origin of the popular conception of money by which everyday life is governed. No doubt it serves the purposes of the bank official, and it may even be quite useful in the business world at large, but its introduction into the scientific terminology of economics is most undesirable.


The controversy about the concept of money is not exactly one of the most satisfactory chapters in the history of our science. It is chiefly remarkable for the smother of juristic and commercial technicalities in which it is enveloped and for the quite undeserved significance that has been attached to what is after all merely a question of terminology. The solution of the question has been re garded as an end in itself and it seems to have been completely forgotten that the real aim should have been simply to facilitate further investigation. Such a discussion could not fail to be fruitless.


In attempting to draw a line of division between money and those objects that outwardly resemble it, we only need to bear in mind the goal of our investigation. The present discussion aims at tracing the laws that determine the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods. This and nothing else is the task of the economic theory of money. Now our terminology must be suited to our problem. If a particular group of objects is to be singled out from among all those that fulfill a monetary function in commerce and, under the special name of money (which is to be reserved to this group alone), sharply contrasted with the rest (to which this name is denied), then this distinction must be made in a way that will facilitate the further progress of the investigation.


It is considerations such as these that have led the present writer to give the name of money substitutes and not that of money to those objects that are employed like money in commerce but consist in perfectly secure and immediately convertible claims to money.


Claims are not goods;*20 they are means of obtaining disposal over goods. This determines their whole nature and economic significance. They themselves are not valued directly, but indirectly; their value is derived from that of the economic goods to which they refer. Two elements are involved in the valuation of a claim: first, the value of the goods to whose possession it gives a right; and, second, the greater or less probability that possession of the goods in question will actually be obtained. Furthermore, if the claim is to come into force only after a period of time, then consideration of this circumstance will constitute a third factor in its valuation. The value on January 1 of a right to receive ten sacks of coal on December 31 of the same year will be based not directly on the value of ten sacks of coal, but on the value of ten sacks of coal to be delivered in a year's time. This sort of calculation is a matter of common experience, as also is the fact that in reckoning the value of claims their soundness or security is taken into account.


Claims to money are, of course, no exception. Those which are payable on demand, if there is no doubt about their soundness and no expense connected with their settlement, are valued just as highly as cash and tendered and accepted in the same way as money.*21 Only claims of this sort—that is, claims that are payable on demand, absolutely safe as far as human foresight goes, and perfectly liquid in the legal sense—are for business purposes exact substitutes for the money to which they refer. Other claims, of course, such as notes issued by banks of doubtful credit or bills that are not yet mature, also enter into financial transactions and may just as well be employed as general media of exchange. This, according to our terminology, means that they are money. But then they are valued independently; they are reckoned equivalent neither to the sums of money to which they refer nor even to the worth of the rights that they embody. What the further special factors are that help to determine their exchange value, we shall discover in the course of our argument.


Of course it would be in no way incorrect if we attempted to include in our concept of money those absolutely secure and immediately convertible claims to money that we have preferred to call money substitutes. But what must be entirely condemned is the widespread practice of giving the name of money to certain classes of money substitutes, usually banknotes, token money, and the like, and contrasting them sharply with the remaining kinds, such as cash deposits.*22 This is to make a distinction without any adequate difference; for banknotes, say, and cash deposits differ only in mere externals, important perhaps from the business and legal points of view, but quite insignificant from the point of view of economics.


On the other hand, arguments of considerable weight may be urged in favor of including all money substitutes without exception in the single concept of money. It may be pointed out, for instance, that the significance of perfectly secure and liquid claims to money is quite different from that of claims to other economic goods; that whereas a claim on a commodity must sooner or later be liquidated, this is not necessarily true of claims to money. Such claims may pass from hand to hand for indefinite periods and so take the place of money without any attempt being made to liquidate them. It may be pointed out that those who require money will be quite satisfied with such claims as these, and that those who wish to spend money will find that these claims answer their purpose just as well; and that consequently the supply of money substitutes must be reckoned in with that of money, and the demand for them with the demand for money. It may further be pointed out that whereas it is impossible to satisfy an increase in the demand, say, for bread by issuing more breadtickets without adding to the actual supply of bread itself, it is perfectly possible to satisfy an increased demand for money by just such a process as this. It may be argued, in brief, that money substitutes have certain peculiarities of which account is best taken by including them in the concept of money.


Without wishing to question the weight of such arguments as these, we shall on grounds of convenience prefer to adopt the narrower formulation of the concept of money, supplementing it with a separate concept of money substitutes. Whether this is the most advisable course to pursue, whether perhaps some other procedure might not lead to a better understanding of our subject matter, must be left to the judgment of the reader To the author it appears that the way chosen is the only way in which the difficult problems of the theory of money can be solved.

2 The Peculiarities of Money Substitutes


Economic discussion about money must be based solely on economic considerations and may take legal distinctions into account only insofar as they are significant from the economic point of view also. Such discussion consequently must proceed from a concept of money based, not on legal definitions and discriminations, but on the economic nature of things. It follows that our decision not to regard drafts and other claims to money as constituting money itself must not be interpreted merely in accordance with the narrow juristic concept of a claim to money. Besides strictly legal claims to money, we must also take into account such relationships as are not claims in the juristic sense, but are nevertheless treated as such in commercial practice because some concern or other deals with them as if they actually did constitute claims against itself.*23


There can be no doubt that the German token coins minted in accordance with the Coinage Act of July 9, 1873, did not in law constitute claims to money. Perhaps there are some superficial critics who would be inclined to classify these coins actually as money because they consisted of stamped silver or nickel or copper discs that had every appearance of being money. But despite this, from the point of view of economics these token coins merely constituted drafts on the national Treasury. The second paragraph of section nine of the Coinage Act (in its form of June 1, 1909) obliged the Bundesrat to specify those centers that would pay out gold coins on demand in return for not less than 200 marks' worth of silver coins or fifty marks' worth of nickel and copper coins. Certain branches of the Reichsbank were entrusted with this function. Another section of the Coinage Act (sec. 8) provided that the Reich would always be in a position actually to maintain this convertibility. According to this section, the total value of the silver coins minted was never to exceed twenty marks per head of the population, nor that of the nickel and copper coins two and one-half marks per head. In the opinion of the legislature, these sums represented the demand for small coins, and there was consequently no danger that the total issue of token coinage would exceed the public demand for it. Admittedly, there was no statutory recognition of any right to conversion on the part of holders of token coins, and the limitation of legal tender (sec. 9, par 1) was only an inadequate substitute for this. Nevertheless, it is a matter of general knowledge that the token coins were in fact cashed without any demur at the branches of the Reichsbank specified by the chancellor


Exactly the same sort of significance was enjoyed by the Reich Treasury notes, of which not more than 120 million marks' worth were allowed to be in circulation. These also (sec. 5 of the act of April 30, 1874) were always cashed for gold by the Reichsbank on behalf of the Treasury. It is beside the point that the Treasury notes were not legal tender in private transactions while everybody was obliged to accept silver coins in amounts up to twenty marks and nickel and copper coins in amounts up to one mark; for, although they were not legally bound to accept them in settlement of debts, people in fact accepted them readily.


Another example is afforded by the German thaler of the period from the introduction of the gold standard until the withdrawal of the thaler from circulation on October 1, 1907. During the whole of this period the thaler was undoubtedly legal tender But if we seek to go behind this expression, whose juristic derivation makes it useless for our present purpose, and ask if the thaler was money during this period, the answer must be that it was not. It is true that it was employed in commerce as a medium of exchange; but it could be used in this way solely because it was a claim to something that really was money, that is, to the common medium of exchange. For although neither the Reichsbank nor the Reich nor its separate constituent kingdoms and duchies nor anybody else was obliged to cash them, the Reichsbank, acting on behalf of the government, always took pains to ensure that no more thalers were in circulation than were demanded by the public. It achieved this result by refusing to press thalers on its customers when paying out. This, together with the circumstance that thalers were legal tender both to the bank and to the Reich, was sufficient to turn them in effect into drafts that could always be converted into money, with the result that they circulated at home as perfectly satisfactory substitutes for money. It was repeatedly suggested to the directors of the Reichsbank that they should cash their own notes not in gold but in thalers (which would have been well within the letter of the law) and pay out gold only at a premium, with the object of hindering the export of it. But the bank steadily refused to adopt this or any proposal of a similar nature.


The exact nature of the token coinage in other countries has not always been so easy to understand as that of Germany, whose banking and currency system was fashioned under the influence of such men as Bamberger, Michaelis, and Soetbeer. In some legislation, the theoretical basis of modern token-coinage policy may not be so easy to discover or to demonstrate as in the examples already dealt with. Nevertheless, all such policy has ultimately the same intent. The universal legal peculiarity of token coinage is the limitation of its power of payment to a specified maximum sum; and as a rule this provision is supplemented by legislative restriction of the amount that may be minted.


There is no such thing as an economic concept of token coinage. All that economics can distinguish is a particular subgroup within the group of claims to money that are employed as substitutes for money, the members of this subgroup being intended for use in transactions where the amounts involved are small. The fact that the issue and circulation of token coins are subjected to special legal rules and regulations is to be explained by the special nature of the purpose that they serve. The general recognition of the right of the holder of a banknote to receive money in exchange for it while the conversion of token coins is in many countries left to administrative discretion is a result of the different lines of development that notes and token coinage have followed respectively. Token coins have arisen from the need for facilitating the exchange of small quantities of goods of little value. The historical details of their development have not yet been brought to light and, almost without exception, all that has been written on the subject is of purely numismatical or metrological importance.*24 Nevertheless, one thing can safely be asserted: token coinage is always the result of attempts to remedy deficiencies in the existing monetary system. It is those technical difficulties, that hinder the subdivision of the monetary unit into small coins, that have led, after all sorts of unsuccessful attempts, to the solution of the problem that we adopt nowadays. In many countries, while this development has been going on, a kind of fiat money*25 has sometimes been used in small transactions, with the very inconvenient consequence of having two independent kinds of money performing side by side the function of a common medium of exchange. To avoid the inconveniences of such a situation the small coins were brought into a fixed legal ratio with those used in larger transactions and the necessary precautions were taken to prevent the quantity of small coins from exceeding the requirements of commerce. The most important means to this end has always been the restriction of the quantity minted to that which seems likely to be needed for making small payments, whether this is fixed by law or strictly adhered to without such compulsion. Along with this has gone the limitation of legal tender in private dealings to a certain relatively small amount. The danger that these regulations would prove inadequate has never seemed very great, and consequently legislative provision for conversion of the token coins has been either entirely neglected or left incomplete by omission of a clear statement of the holder's right to change them for money. But everywhere nowadays those token coins that are rejected from circulation are accepted without demur by the state, or some other body such as the central bank, and thus their nature as claims to money is established. Where this policy has been discontinued for a time and the attempt made by suspending effectual conversion of the token coins to force more of them into circulation than was required, they have become credit money, or even commodity money. Then they have no longer been regarded as claims to money, payable on demand, and therefore equivalent to money, but have been valued independently.


The banknote has followed quite a different line of development. It has always been regarded as a claim, even from the juristic point of view. The fact has never been lost sight of that if its value was to be kept equal to that of money, steps would have to be taken to ensure its permanent convertibility into money. That a cessation of cash payments would alter the economic character of banknotes could hardly escape notice; in the case of the quantitatively less important coins used in small transactions it could more easily be forgotten. Furthermore, the smaller quantitative importance of token coins means that it is possible to maintain their permanent convertibility without establishing special funds for the purpose. The absence of such special funds may also have helped to disguise the real nature of token coinage.*26


Consideration of the monetary system of Austria-Hungary is particularly instructive. The currency reform that was inaugurated in 1892 was never formally completed, and until the disruption of the Hapsburg monarchy the standard remained legally what is usually called a paper standard, since the Austro-Hungarian Bank was not obliged to redeem its own notes, which were legal tender to any amount. Nevertheless, from 1900 to 1914 Austria-Hungary really possessed a gold standard or gold-exchange standard, for the bank did in fact readily provide gold for commercial requirements. Although according to the letter of the law it was not obliged to cash its notes, it offered bills of exchange and other claims payable abroad in gold (checks, notes, and the like), at a price below the upper theoretical gold point. Under such conditions, those who wanted gold for export naturally preferred to buy claims of this sort, which enabled them to achieve their purpose more cheaply than by the actual export of gold.


For internal commerce as well, in which the use of gold was exceptional since the population had many years before gone over to banknotes and token coins,*27 the bank cashed its notes for gold without being legally bound to do so. And this policy was pursued, not accidentally or occasionally or without full recognition of its significance, but deliberately and systematically, with the object of permitting Austria and Hungary to enjoy the economic advantages of the gold standard. Both the Austrian and the Hungarian governments, to whose initiative this policy of the bank was due, cooperated as far as they were able. But in the first place it was the bank itself which had to ensure, by following an appropriate discount policy, that it would always be in a position to carry out with promptitude its voluntary undertaking to redeem its notes. The measures that it took with this purpose in view did not differ fundamentally in any way from those adopted by the banks-of-issue in other gold-standard countries.*28 Thus the notes of the Austro-Hungarian Bank were in fact nothing but money substitutes. The money of the country, as of other European countries, was gold.

3 Commodity Money, Credit Money, and Fiat Money


The economic theory of money is generally expressed in a terminology that is not economic but juristic. This terminology has been built up by writers, statesmen, merchants, judges, and others whose chief interests have been in the legal characteristics of the different kinds of money and their substitutes. It is useful for dealing with those aspects of the monetary system that are of importance from the legal point of view; but for purposes of economic investigation it is practically valueless. Sufficient attention has scarcely been devoted to this shortcoming, despite the fact that confusion of the respective provinces of the sciences of law and economics has nowhere been so frequent and so fraught with mischievous consequences as in this very sphere of monetary theory. It is a mistake to deal with economic problems according to legal criteria. The juristic phraseology, like the results of juristic research into monetary problems, must be regarded by economics as one of the objects of its investigations. It is not the task of economics to criticize it, although it is entitled to exploit it for its own purposes. There is nothing to be said against using juristic technical terms in economic argument where this leads to no undesirable consequences. But for its own special purposes, economics must construct its own special terminology.


There are two sorts of thing that may be used as money: on the one hand, physical commodities as such, like the metal gold or the metal silver; and, on the other hand, objects that do not differ technologically from other objects that are not money, the factor that decides whether they are money being not a physical but a legal characteristic. A piece of paper that is specially characterized as money by the imprint of some authority is in no way different, technologically considered, from another piece of paper that has received a similar imprint from an unauthorized person, just as a genuine five-franc piece does not differ technologically from a "genuine replica." The only difference lies in the law that regulates the manufacture of such coins and makes it impossible without authority. (In order to avoid every possible misunderstanding, let it be expressly stated that all that the law can do is to regulate the issue of the coins and that it is beyond the power of the state to ensure in addition that they actually shall become money; that is, that they actually shall be employed as a common medium of exchange. All that the state can do by means of its official stamp is to single out certain pieces of metal or paper from all the other things of the same kind so that they can be subjected to a process of valuation independent of that of the rest. Thus it permits those objects possessing the special legal qualification to be used as a common medium of exchange while the other commodities of the same sort remain mere commodities. It can also take various steps with the object of encouraging the actual employment of the qualified commodities as common media of exchange. But these commodities can never become money just because the state commands it; money can be created only by the usage of those who take part in commercial transactions.)


We may give the name commodity money to that sort of money that is at the same time a commercial commodity; and the name fiat money to money that comprises things with a special legal qualification. A third category may be called credit money, this being that sort of money which constitutes a claim against any physical or legal person. But these claims must not be both payable on demand and absolutely secure; if they were, there could be no difference between their value and that of the sum of money to which they referred, and they could not be subjected to an independent process of val uation on the part of those who dealt with them. In some way or other the maturity of these claims must be postponed to some future time. It can hardly be contested that fiat money in the strict sense of the word is theoretically conceivable. The theory of value proves the possibility of its existence. Whether fiat money has ever actually existed is, of course, another question, and one that cannot offhand be answered affirmatively. It can hardly be doubted that most of those kinds of money that are not commodity money must be classified as credit money. But only detailed historical investigation could clear this matter up.


Our terminology should prove more useful than that which is generally employed. It should express more clearly the peculiarities of the processes by which the different types of money are valued. It is certainly more correct than the usual distinction between metallic money and paper money. Metallic money comprises not only standard money but also token coins and such coins as the German thaler of the period 1873-1907; and paper money, as a rule, comprises not merely such fiat money and credit money as happen to be made of paper, but also convertible notes issued by banks or the state. This terminology is derived from popular usage. Previously, when more often than nowadays "metallic" money really was money and not a money substitute, perhaps the nomenclature was a little less in-appropriate than it is now. Furthermore, it corresponded—perhaps still corresponds—to the naive and confused popular conception of value that sees in the precious metals something "intrinsically" valuable and in paper credit money something necessarily anomalous. Scientifically, this terminology is perfectly useless and a source of endless misunderstanding and misrepresentation. The greatest mistake that can be made in economic investigation is to fix attention on mere appearances, and so to fail to perceive the fundamental difference between things whose externals alone are similar, or to discriminate between fundamentally similar things whose externals alone are different.


Admittedly, for the numismatist and the technologist and the historian of art there is very little difference between the five-franc piece before and after the cessation of free coinage of silver, while the Austrian silver gulden even of the period 1879 to 1892 appears to be fundamentally different from the paper gulden. But it is regrettable that such superficial distinctions as this should still play a part in economic discussion.


Our threefold classification is not a matter of mere terminological gymnastics; the theoretical discussion of the rest of this book should demonstrate the utility of the concepts that it involves.


The decisive characteristic of commodity money is the employment for monetary purposes of a commodity in the technological sense. For the present investigation, it is a matter of complete indifference what particular commodity this is; the important thing is that it is the commodity in question that constitutes the money, and that the money is merely this commodity. The case of fiat money is quite different. Here the deciding factor is the stamp, and it is not the material bearing the stamp that constitutes the money, but the stamp itself. The nature of the material that bears the stamp is a matter of quite minor importance. Credit money, finally, is a claim falling due in the future that is used as a general medium of exchange.

4 The Commodity Money of the Past and of the Present


Even when the differentiation of commodity money, credit money, and fiat money is accepted as correct in principle and only its utility disputed, the statement that the freely mintable currency of the present day and the metallic money of previous centuries are examples of commodity money is totally rejected by many authorities and by still more of the public at large. It is true that as a rule nobody denies that the older forms of money were commodity money. It is further generally admitted that in earlier times coins circulated by weight and not by tale. Nevertheless, it is asserted, money changed its nature long ago. The money of Germany and England in 1914, it is said, was not gold, but the mark and the pound. Money nowadays consists of "specified units with a definite significance in terms of value, that is assigned to them by law" (Knapp). "By 'the standard' we mean the units of value (florins, francs, marks, etc.) that have been adopted as measures of value, and by 'money' we mean the tokens (coins and notes) that represent the units that function as a measure of value. The controversy as to whether silver or gold or both together should function as a standard and as currency is an idle one, because neither silver nor gold ever has performed these functions or ever could have done so" (Hammer).*29


Before we proceed to test the truth of these remarkable assertions, let us make one brief observation on their genesis—although it would really be more correct to say renascence than to say genesis, since the doctrines involved exhibit a very close relationship with the oldest and most primitive theories of money. Just as these were, so the nominalistic monetary theories of the present day are, characterized by their inability to contribute a single word toward the solution of the chief problem of monetary theory—one might in fact simply call it the problem of monetary theory—namely that of explaining the exchange ratios between money and other economic goods. For their authors, the economic problem of value and prices simply does not exist. They have never thought it necessary to consider how market ratios are established or what they signify. Their attention is accidentally drawn to the fact that a German thaler (since 1873), or an Austrian silver florin (since 1879), is essentially different from a quantity of silver of the same weight and fineness that has not been stamped at the government mint. They notice a similar state of affairs with regard to "paper money." They do not understand this, and endeavor to find an answer to the riddle. But at this point, just because of their lack of acquaintance with the theory of value and prices, their inquiry takes a peculiarly unlucky turn. They do not inquire how the exchange ratios between money and other economic goods are established. This obviously seems to them quite a self-evident matter. They formulate their problem in another way: How does it come about that three twenty-mark pieces are equivalent to twenty thalers despite the fact that the silver contained in the thalers has a lower market value than the gold contained in the marks? And their answer runs: Because the value of money is determined by the state, by statute, by the legal system. Thus, ignoring the most important facts of monetary history, they weave an artificial network of fallacies; a theoretical construction that collapses immediately the question is put: What exactly are we to understand by a unit of value? But such impertinent questions can only occur to those who are acquainted with at least the elements of the theory of prices. Others are able to content themselves with references to the "nominality" of the unit of value. No wonder, then, that these theories should have achieved such popularity with the man in the street, especially since their kinship with inflationism was bound to commend them strongly to all "cheap-money" enthusiasts.


It may be stated as an assured result of investigation into monetary history that at all times and among all peoples the principal coins have been tendered and accepted, not by tale without consideration of their quantity and quality, but only as pieces of metal of specific degrees of weight and fineness. Where coins have been accepted by tale, this has always been in the definite belief that the stamp showed them to be of the usual fineness of their kind and of the correct weight. Where there were no grounds for this assumption, weighing and testing were resorted to again.


Fiscal considerations have led to the promulgation of a theory that attributes to the minting authority the right to regulate the purchasing power of the coinage as it thinks fit. For just as long as the minting of coins has been a government function, governments have tried to fix the weight and content of the coins as they wished. Philip VI of France expressly claimed the right "to mint such money and give it such currency and at such rate as we desire and seems good to us"*30 and all medieval rulers thought and did as he in this matter. Obliging jurists supported them by attempts to discover a philosophical basis for the divine right of kings to debase the coinage and to prove that the true value of the coins was that assigned to them by the ruler of the country.


Nevertheless, in defiance of all official regulations and prohibitions and fixing of prices and threats of punishment, commercial practice has always insisted that what has to be considered in valuing coins is not their face value but their value as metal. The value of a coin has always been determined, not by the image and superscription it bears nor by the proclamation of the mint and market authorities, but by its metal content. Not every kind of money has been accepted at sight, but only those kinds with a good reputation for weight and fineness. In loan contracts, repayment in specific kinds of money has been stipulated for, and in the case of a change in the coinage, fulfillment in terms of metal required.*31 In spite of all fiscal influences, the opinion gradually gained general acceptance, even among the jurists, that it was the metal value—the bonitas intrinseca as they called it—that was to be considered when repaying money debts.*32


Debasement of the coinage was unable to force commercial practice to attribute to the new and lighter coins the same purchasing power as the old and heavier coins.*33 The value of the coinage fell in proportion to the diminution of its weight and quality. Even price regulations took into account the diminished purchasing power of money due to its debasement. Thus the Schöffen or assessors of Schweidnitz in Silesia used to have the newly minted pfennigs submitted to them, assess their value, and then in consultation with the city council and elders fix the prices of commodities accordingly. There has been handed down to us from thirteenth-century Vienna a forma institutionis que fit per civium arbitrium annuatim tempore quo denarii renovantur pro rerum venalium qualibet emptione in which the prices of commodities and services are regulated in connection with the introduction of a new coinage in the years 1460 to 1474. Similar measures were taken on similar occasions in other cities.*34


Wherever disorganization of the coinage had advanced so far that the presence of a stamp on a piece of metal was no longer any help in determining its actual content, commerce ceased entirely to rely on the official monetary system and created its own system of measuring the precious metals. In large transactions, ingots and trade tokens were used. Thus, the German merchants visiting the fair at Geneva took ingots of refined gold with them and made their purchases with these, employing the weights used at the Paris market, instead of using money. This was the origin of the Markenskudo or scutus marcharum, which was nothing but the merchants' usual term for 3.765 grams of refined gold. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the Geneva trade was gradually being transferred to Lyons, the gold mark had become such a customary unit of account among the merchants that bills of exchange expressed in terms of it were carried to and from the market. The old Venetian lire di grossi had a similar origin.*35 In the giro banks that sprang up in all big commercial centers at the beginning of the modern era we see a further attempt to free the monetary system from the authorities' abuse of the privilege of minting. The clearinghouse business of these banks was based either on coins of a specific fineness or on ingots. This bank money was commodity money in its most perfect form.


The nominalists assert that the monetary unit, in modern countries at any rate, is not a concrete commodity unit that can be defined in suitable technical terms, but a nominal quantity of value about which nothing can be said except that it is created by law. Without touching upon the vague and nebulous nature of this phraseology, which will not sustain a moment's criticism from the point of view of the theory of value, let us simply ask: What, then, were the mark, the franc, and the pound before 1914? Obviously, they were nothing but certain weights of gold. Is it not mere quibbling to assert that Germany had not a gold standard but a mark standard? According to the letter of the law, Germany was on a gold standard, and the mark was simply the unit of account, the designation of 1/2790 kg. of refined gold. This is in no way affected by the fact that nobody was bound in private dealings to accept gold ingots or foreign gold coins, for the whole aim and intent of state intervention in the monetary sphere is simply to release individuals from the necessity of testing the weight and fineness of the gold they receive, a task which can only be undertaken by experts and which involves very elaborate precautionary measures. The narrowness of the limits within which the weight and fineness of the coins are legally allowed to vary at the time of minting, and the establishment of a further limit to the permissible loss by wear of those in circulation, are much better means of securing the integrity of the coinage than the use of scales and nitric acid on the part of all who have commercial dealings. Again, the right of free coinage, one of the basic principles of modern monetary law, is a protection in the opposite direction against the emergence of a difference in value between the coined and uncoined metal. In large-scale international trade, where differences that are negligible as far as single coins are concerned have a cumulative importance, coins are valued, not according to their number, but according to their weight; that is, they are treated not as coins but as pieces of metal. It is easy to see why this does not occur in domestic trade. Large payments within a country never involve the actual transfer of the amounts of money concerned, but merely the assignment of claims, which ultimately refer to the stock of precious metal of the central bank.


The role played by ingots in the gold reserves of the banks is a proof that the monetary standard consists in the precious metal, and not in the proclamation of the authorities.


Even for present-day coins, so far as they are not money substitutes, credit money, or fiat money, the statement is true that they are nothing but ingots whose weight and fineness are officially guaranteed.*36 The money of those modern countries where metal coins with no mint restrictions are used is commodity money just as much as that of ancient and medieval nations.

Notes for this chapter

See Böhm-Bawerk, Rechte und Verhältnisse (Innsbruck, 1881), pp. 120 ff.
Wagner, Beiträge zur Lehre von den Banken (Leipzig, 1857), pp. 34 ff.
For instance, Helfferich, Das Geld, 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1923), pp. 267 ff.; English trans., Money (London, 1927), pp. 284 ff.
See Laughlin, The Principles of Money (London, 1903), pp. 516 ff.
See Kalkmann, Englands Übergang zur Goldwährung im 18. Jahrhundert (Strassburg, 1895), pp. 64 ff.; Schmoller, "Über die Ausbildung einer richtigen Scheidemünzpolitik vom 14. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert," Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reich 24 (1900): 1247-74; Helfferich, Studien über Geld und Bankwessen (Berlin, 1900), pp. 1-37.
On the concepts of commodity money, credit money, and fiat money, see sec. 3 of this chap.
On the nature of token coinage, see Say, Cours complet d'économie politique pratique, 3d ed. (Paris, 1852), vol, 1, p. 408; and Wagner, Theoretische Sozialökonomik (Leipzig, 1909), Part II pp. 504 ff. Very instructive discussions are to be found in the memoranda and debates that preceded the Belgian Token Coinage Act of 1860. In the memorandum of Pirmez, the nature of modern convertible token coins is characterized as follows: "With this property (of convertibility) the coins are no longer merely coins; they become claims, promises to pay. The holder no longer has a mere property right to the coin itself [jus in re]; he has a claim against the state to the amount of the nominal value of the coin [jus ad rem], a right which he can exercise at any moment by demanding its conversion. Token coins cease to be money and become a credit instrument [une institution de crédit], banknotes inscribed on pieces of metal ..." (see Loi décrétant la fabrication d'une monnaie d'appoint ... précédée des notes sur la monnaie de billon en Belgique ainsi que la discussion de la loi à la Chambre des Représentants [Brussels, 1860], p. 50).
The silver gulden in Austria-Hungary held the same position as the silver thaler in Germany from 1873 to 1907. It was legal tender, but economically a claim to money, since the bank-of-issue in fact always cashed it on demand.
See my articles "Das Problem gesetzlicher Aufnahme der Barzahlungen in Österreich-Ungarn," Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reich 33 (1909): 985-1037; "Zum Problem gesetzlicher Aufnahme der Barzahlungen in Österreich-Ungarn," ibid. 34 (1910): 1877-84; "The Foreign Exchange Policy of the Austro-Hungarian Bank," Economic Journal 19 (1909): 202-11; "Das vierte Privilegium der Österreichisch-Ungarischen Bank," Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft, Sozialpolitik und Verwaltung 21 (1922): 611-24.
See esp. Hammer, Die Hauptprinzipien des Geld-und Währungswesens und die Lösung der Valutafrage (Vienna, 1891), pp. 7 ff.; Gesell, Die Anpassung des Geldes und seiner Verwaltung an die Bedürfnisse des modernen Verkehres (Buenos Aires, 1897), pp. 21 ff.; Knapp, Staatliche Theorie des Geldes, 3d ed. (Munich, 1921), pp. 20 ff.
See Luschin, Allgemeine Münzkunde und Geldgeschichte des Mittelalters und der neureren Zeit (Munich, 1904), P. 215; Babelon, La théorie féodale de la monnaie (Extrait des mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, vol. 38, Part I [Paris, 1908], p. 35).
For important references, see Babelon, op. cit., p. 35.
See Seidler, "Die Schwankungen des Geldwertes und die juristische Lehre von dem Inhalt der Geldschulden," Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik (1894), 3d. Series, vol. 7, p. 688.
For earlier conditions in Russia, see Gelesnoff, Grundzüge der Volkswirtschaftslehre, trans. into German by Altschul (Leipzig, 1918), p. 357.
See Luschin, op. cit., pp. 221 f.
Ibid., p. 155; Endemann, Studien in der romanisch-kanonistischen Wirtschafts-und Rechtslehre bis gegen Ende des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1874), vol. 1, pp. 180 ff.
Chevalier, Cours d'économie politique, III., La monnaie (Paris, 1850), pp. 21 ff; Goldschmidt, Handbuch des Handelsrechts (Erlangen, 1868), vol. 1, Part II, pp. 1073 ff.

End of Notes

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