Back in 2007, presidential candidate Ron Paul generated a lot of talk, especially among libertarians, about monetary policy, the Federal Reserve, and the gold standard. As a longtime believer in sound money, I was surprised to discover how many smart young libertarians thought that talk of the gold standard was nutty. And perhaps more surprised to discover that they thought it was unnecessary now that the problem of central banking had been solved. As two of them wrote when I asked about their objections,
“The gold standard is the solution to no actual problem that is of concern to anyone. I think it’s a mistake to take a relatively professional and independent central bank for granted, but we have one. Inflation is low and predictable. The monetary climate is stable and amenable to savings and investment, etc.”
“What’s the beef with the Fed? By my estimation, it’s been one of the most effective, restrained government agencies over the last twenty five years. They’ve dramatically reduced the volatility of the business cycle while achieving low, reasonably constant inflation.”
Well. How’s that confidence in central banking looking now? I’m reminded of Murray Rothbard’s comment in 1975 about what the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation had done to trust in government:
Twenty years ago, the historian Cecelia Kenyon, writing of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, chided them for being “men of little faith” – little faith, that is, in a strong central government. It is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in government today.
Partly in response to such criticisms of the gold standard, in February 2008 Cato published a paper by Professor Lawrence H. White, “Is the Gold Standard Still the Gold Standard among Monetary Systems?” White argued:
The gold standard is not a flawless monetary system. Neither is the fiat money alternative. In light of historical evidence about the comparative magnitude of these flaws, however, the gold standard is a policy option that deserves serious consideration.
In a study covering many decades in a large sample of countries, Federal Reserve Bank economists found that “money growth and inflation are higher” under fiat standards than under gold and silver standards.
A gold standard does not guarantee perfect steadiness in the growth of the money supply, but historical comparison shows that it has provided more moderate and steadier money growth in practice than the present-day alternative, politically empowering a central banking committee to determine growth in the stock of fiat money. From the perspective of limiting money growth appropriately, the gold standard is far from a crazy idea.
And he quoted a devastating line from an essay (p. 104) by Peter Bernholz:
A study of about 30 currencies shows that there has not been a single case of a currency freely manipulated by its government or central bank since 1700 which enjoyed price stability for at least 30 years running.
In February 2008 White’s study didn’t get much attention. Most people still thought the Greenspan-Bernanke Fed was doing a great job, so why talk about alternatives to fiat money? But now, after the crash of 2008 and the growing realization that Dow 14000 was the product of a cheap-money boom that led to the inevitable bust, maybe it’s time to think about the gold standard or other constraints on politicized money creation.