Thursday, June 1, 2017

Poor on Law

Poor on Law
Thomas Allen

    In 1877, Henry Varnum Poor (1812-1905) wrote Money and Its Laws: Embracing a History of Monetary Theories, and a History of the Currency of the United States. He was a financial analyst and founder of a company that evolved into Standard & Poor’s. Poor was a proponent of the real bills doctrine and the classical gold-coin standard and, thus, the quality theory of money. He gave little credence to the quantity theory of money — especially if credit money, such as bank notes, were convertible on demand in species. Also, he contended that the value of money depends on and is derived from the value of the material of which it is made and with paper money, its representation of such value.
    In the latter part of his book, he discusses leading monetary theorists from Aristotle (350 B.C.) to David A. Wells (1875). Most of the economists whom he discussed were proponents of the quantity theory of money. We will look at his discussion on John Law. My comments are in brackets. Referenced page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to Poor’s book.
    John Law (1671-1729) was a Scottish financier and gambler. He attempted to revive France by opening a bank to issue paper money. In 1716, he opened his bank, which became the Royal Bank with Law as its director. Reckless lending by his bank led to the financial panic of 1720. Poor reviews Law’s Money and Trade Considered (1705).
    Law argues “that articles of property, other than silver . . . might be made into money, or might be made the basis for the issue of paper money in place of one of silver” (pp. 81-82). [At the time that Law wrote, silver was the primary species in circulation.] According to Law, using items other than silver as money or as the basis for paper money should greatly benefit the public.
    Law declares, “The value of silver as money is its value in barter” (p. 82). He continues:
The additional value silver received from being used as money was because of its qualities which fitted it for that use, and that value was according to the additional demand its use as money occasioned. . . . Money is not a pledge, as some call it; it is a value paid, or contracted to be paid, with which it is supposed the receiver may, as his occasions require, buy an equal quantity of the same goods he has sold, or other goods equal in value to them; and that money is the most secure value either to receive, to contract for, or to value goods by, which is least liable to change in its value. . . . Thus silver having a value and qualities fitting it for money, which other goods had not, was made money, and, for the greater use of the people, was coined (pp. 82-83).
    Poor agrees that “Law was entirely right in assuming that the value of silver was its value in barter” (p. 83). However, Law “was mistaken . . . in asserting that it derives a value from its use as money, unless by its use as money he meant its use as reserves” (p. 83). [Most people who believe that money has value because of the material of which it is made believe that its use as money adds to that material’s value, whether such money is used as reserves or as a circulating purchasing medium.] Poor adds, “It is not their [gold and silver] use as a medium of exchange that constitutes their value: it is their value in the arts and their capacity to serve as reserves that give them their value in exchange” (p. 83). [In Dawn of Gold: The Real Story of Money, Philip Barton argues that gold originally received much of its value as money from its use in religion. William Carlile argues in The Evolution of Modern Money that gold evolved into money from its use as ornamentation as an expression of status.]
    Law argues:
Silver money is more uncertain in its value than other goods, so less qualified to serve as money. . . . Silver in bullion or money changes its value from any change in its quantity, or in the demand for it. . . . [S]ilver or money is dearer or cheaper, being more or less valuable, and equal to a greater or lesser quantity of goods. . . . More durable goods, as metals, materials for shipping, &c., increase in quantity beyond the demand for them, so are less valuable (pp. 83-84).
    Poor comments that Law’s assumption “are exactly opposed to the fact. The value of silver is uniform from the uniformity of its production and of the demand for it. Should there be some excess in production for one or more years, such excess would be taken up at previous prices to be held as reserves (so long as silver is legalized as money)” (p. 84). Poor continues, “Unlike other merchandise, the market for silver is the world. Until the markets of the world are glutted, it cannot fall materially in value from increase of production.” (p. 84). [As long as a country is on the silver standard, the “price” of silver will not change because the monetary unit is defined as a specific weight of silver. When the United States were on a de facto silver standard under its bimetallic system, one dollar would always buy 371.25 grains of silver because the dollar was defined as 371.25 grains of silver. That is, the “price” of 371.25 grains of silver was always one dollar, which was 371.25 grains of silver. {The price of 371.25 grains of silver was not fixed at one dollar, the dependent variable. The dollar was fixed at 371.25 grains of silver, the independent variable.} Moreover, Benjamin Anderson argues in The Value of Money that the supply of money and the demand for money does not determine its value. He argues that the “value of money is a quality of money, that quality which money shares with other forms of wealth, which lies behind, and causally explains, the exchange relations into which money enters.”[1] “Value {of money} is prior to exchange. Value is not to be denned as ‘power in exchange.’”[2] According to Anderson, the social value theory best explains the value of money: “the social value theory is the only way of giving a psychological explanation to the demand-curve, and a marginal value explanation of marginal demand-price.”[3]  Thus, the value of money derives from the value of the commodity of which it is made and from its services as money. The value of the commodity as money combines with the value of the commodity in its nonmonetary use. Like all other commodities, and everything else, the value of the monetary metal and of its use as money is psychological. Anderson concludes, “The physical weight in gold, which itself is an object of social value, is commonly the immediate basis of the value of the dollar to-day, but money may get its primary value from other sources than valuable bullion. Given this primary value, the dollar may get an enhancement in that value from the services which it performs in the social technology of adjustment.”[4].]
    Poor remarks:
Although at the outset some of Law's propositions in reference to money were eminently sound, he was compelled to sacrifice them so soon as he began to unfold his scheme. Those who came after him were incapable of appreciating him where he was right, but were certain to follow him wherever he was wrong. . . . Economists have borrowed greatly from Law, from whom, from the disgrace attached to his name, they could copy without reference and with impunity. They constructed, in great measure, from the ruins he left behind, their grotesque and absurd edifices (pp. 84-85).
    Law proposes to substitute paper money based on land instead of silver. Unlike silver, Law believes that his land-based paper money would not fall in value. Land is more likely to maintain its value than any other goods because it does not increase in quantity. [Law’s notion that land maintains its value is wrong. The value of land can vary greatly, even over a few years. In 1991, the aggregate value of all the land in Japan was almost four times that of the United States. By 2005, land in Japan had lost half its value while land in the United States had more than tripled in value.]
    Poor remarks that no one would borrow or accept Law’s land notes unless they could use them “to obtain coin, or merchandise, the equivalent of coin, — capital that could be used in their industries” (p. 86). Holders of these land notes could not convert them to the land backing them. Whether well secured or not, Law’s land notes “could never get into circulation” (p. 86). To avoid this difficulty, Law declared, “Money is not the value for which goods are exchanged, but the value by which they are exchanged. The use of money is to buy goods; and silver, while money, is of no other use” (p. 86).
    Poor is convinced that Law doubts that people would willingly receive his land money for other articles. Poor remarks, “As he [Law] could not give up his scheme, his principles had to give way to his necessities, and he was forced to assert the exact opposite to that which he had affirmed, and the truth of which he had conclusively demonstrated” (p. 86). Thus, Law declares that money “was not the value for which goods were exchanged, but the value by which they were exchanged” (p. 86). Poor continues, to Law money “was the yardstick by which goods were measured off, — a contrivance to assist in numeration, — a tally or counter to register the delivery of certain quantities or values of merchandise; in other words, value was not a necessary attribute of money” (p. 86). [This notion that money is merely a counter and that value is not a necessary attribute of money is held by most of the writers whom Poor reviews and by today’s fiat money proponents.]
    Law identifies several criteria that make land superior to silver as money. One is that land produces everything, including silver. Thus, silver is just a product. Another is that, unlike silver, land does not increase or decrease in quantity and is, therefore, more certain in its value. Also, unlike silver, land can be improved and, by that, increase the demand for it. Land cannot lose any of its uses whereas silver can. When land is used as money, it does not lose any of its other uses; however, silver used as money cannot simultaneously be used for other purposes. [See “Land-Backed Currency” by Thomas Allen, which explains the inferiority of land as the basis for money.] Poor replies, “A mortgage on real property may possess a high value, and yet bare no other attributes fitting it to serve as money” (p. 87).
    Law also knew that his land money would not be accepted abroad. Therefore, he asserts “that it was not necessary that it ever should pass abroad; that the domestic trade of a nation was alone to be considered” (p. 88).
    About Law, Poor writes:
He took the short cut of throwing his principles overboard without the least compunction, whenever they came into conflict with his purposes. He was a man of action, who never stopped to explain, but pushed right forward to the object he had in view. For him to doubt and inquire would be to give up the contest altogether. His life was a mission to promote, in the first place, the welfare of his own country, by supplying it with money — capital; and every consideration was subordinate to this grand idea (p. 88).

Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.

More articles on money.

1. B.M. Anderson, The Value of Money (New York: The Macmillian Co., 1917), pp. 8-9).

2. Ibid., p. 9.

3. Ibid., p. 42.

4. Ibid., p. 591.

No comments:

Post a Comment