Poor on Stewart
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 Dugald Stewart. My comments are in brackets. Referenced page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to Poor’s book.
Dugald Stewart (1753-1828) was a Scottish philosopher and mathematician, who popularizing the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Among his writings are Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (in three volumes, 1792, 1814, and 1827), Outlines of Moral Philosophy (1793), and The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers (1828). Poor reviews Stewart’s monetary philosophy as presented in his Lectures on Political Economy.
Poor writes, “Stewart was an ardent admirer of [Adam] Smith, and assumed to reduce to precise and logical terms what his great master only more generally outlined” (p. 171). Nevertheless, Stewart objected to Smith’s belief that the value of gold and silver depended largely on “their beauty, utility in the arts, and scarcity; that such qualities, among others still more important, fitted them to serve as money” (p. 171). For Stewart, the intrinsic value of gold and silver in a coin is “merely accidental circumstances.” Stewart asserts, “When gold is converted into coin, its possessor never thinks of any thing but its exchangeable value” (p. 171). If the intrinsic value of gold and silver are annihilated, i.e., their conversion to flatware, jewelry, etc., they could still function as money as they did when they had intrinsic value. Money is merely a ticket or counter. “It is general consent alone which distinguishes them [gold and silver], when employed as money, from any thing else which circulates in a country; from the paper money, for instance, which circulates in Scotland and England.” (p. 172). If a country were isolated from the rest of the world, gold or silver coin as a medium of exchange would have no advantage over paper currency. Also, whether the circulation medium consists of gold or paper would make no difference on the national wealth. Moreover, according to Stewart, whether gold or silver was abundant or scant would not matter. “The only utility which is essential to gold and silver as media of exchange is their peculiar adaptation (divisibility, durability, &c.) to this purpose” (p. 172). [For the most part, fiat money proponents agree with Stewart’s monetary theory.]
Poor replies that like Smith, Stewart errs in his assumption “that money was an invention, — an arrangement entered into from a sense of its necessity” (p. 172). Stewart also errs in his conclusion “that value is not a necessary attribute of money” (p. 173). [Poor is correct: Money was not an invention. It evolved over time from spontaneous market operations. Only after money came into being did governments get involved.]
However, Stewart’s idea of money is a logical derivation from Smith’s idea. From the premises laid down by Smith, Stewart concluded that “value is no attribute of money.” Poor remarks, “the real value of money must equal its nominal value, or, in case of symbols, the values of what they represent must equal their nominal value in coin, or value is no attribute of money whatever” (p. 173). [Today’s fiat paper money is based on Stewart’s premise that value is no attribute of money. That is, the quality of money is irrelevant. Force is the only thing behind, or backing, today’s fiat paper money.]
Stewart states, “We never think when we receive the precious metals as money, of their value in the arts” (p. 173). To which Poor replies, “But were they not first taken, and chiefly, for their value in the arts? and if we do not now consciously go through the same mental process that was gone through when they were first taken, is it not that such consciousness is concealed from us by habit, not that it does not exist” (p. 173)? People practice many things without conscious thought about how such practice came into being. Acting this way “is no proof that the mind is not engaged in one case as in the other” (p. 173). Poor notes:
Stewart, however, wholly misstated the fact that gold and silver are taken without any consciousness of their value in the arts. As a rule, we do not raise the inquiry; we assume from experience that coins are what they purport to be: but let it be noised abroad that debased coins of a particular denomination are in circulation, then every one of the kind, good or bad, will be subjected to the closest scrutiny, and, if taken at all, will only be taken at its value in the arts, measured by the amount of pure metal it contains (pp. 173-174).Stewart claims that if all gold and silver mines were exhausted, all the gold and silver in existence would be converted to money. Poor disagrees. First, he doubts the possibility of exhausting of all mines. If gold and silver were to disappear, civilization would disappear with them. However, if all mines were exhausted, Poor doubts that all gold and silver would be converted to money. Poor writes:
As it [gold] gradually disappeared from loss and attrition, commerce and trade, and with these, civilization and wealth, would gradually die out. As these disappeared, gold and silver would gradually flow back into the arts, and almost wholly in time; for, as there would be no trade, money would not be wanted. It is a fact of universal observation, that gold and silver possessed by the savage races are not used as money, but almost wholly in the arts (p. 174).To Stewart’s belief that “gold and silver, as a medium of exchange, would possess no value over the most worthless of substances” (p. 175), Poor replies:
This absurdity is repeated by every subsequent writer upon the subject of money. Suppose England to be the world, what then? Would all sense of beauty, of utility or value be lost to its people? Suppose, as Stewart assumes, England isolated, a Yorkshire grazier should take with him to London a lot of beeves; and upon their sale should be offered a leather medal, with curious hieroglyphics stamped upon it, in payment. The seller at first might consider the offer as a good joke; but, on finding the purchaser in earnest, he would believe himself to be dealing with a madman, and would take good care to get his beeves into his possession again, and to rid himself of such a dangerous customer. To be logical, Stewart must assume that, were England isolated from all the world, its people would have a sense of neither use nor beauty; in other words, that they would be lower in the scale than any race or tribe ever yet discovered. If the precious metals have no intrinsic value, then the Scythian was correct in assuming money to be useful only for the purpose of assisting in numeration and arithmetic. It is for this reason that Stewart held their value to be disadvantageous, in complicating thereby the theory of money. If value be not an attribute of money, he was quite right in eliminating from it all idea of such quality (p. 175).[The fiat paper monetary system that has now taken over the world supports Stewart’s notion of money better than it does Poor’s. However, Poor’s notion is much closer to the truth than Stewart’s. Because of believing Stewart, the world is now on the edge of a monetary crisis the likes of which the world has never before witnessed. Civilization is on the verge of collapsing into an economic abyss from which it may never recover, such as that which happened when the dying Roman civilization collapsed into the Dark Age — only this time the collapse may be worse. Only a return to a commodity monetary standard, such as the gold standard, where money has real value in non-monetary uses and can extinguish debt because it is no one else’s obligation, can save it.]
Poor asks if Stewart is correct in that money as such has no value, then what harm can come from debasing coins? When a coin is debased, the denomination remains the same. However, the precious metal content of the coin is reduced. [Historically, when precious-metal coins were debased, prices quickly rose to adjust to the precious metal content of the debased coin. Even the death penalty could not deter this price adjustment.] Poor remarks, “If the sole use of money, as asserted by Stewart, be to assist in numeration and arithmetic, then the different denominations of coin have only the force of numerals; and a piece of leather upon which is imprinted the word ‘dollar’ is in its proper essence the same thing as a piece of gold upon which the same word is impressed” (p. 176). He continues,
Hume was more logical and consistent. Agreeing with Stewart that the only value of money, as such, was to assist in numeration and arithmetic, he took the ground that the currency should be debased, as the means of eliminating value from it; naively remarking, that such debasement should be effected in such a sly way that the people should not discover the swindle. Of the two, Hume is to be preferred. The admission that the debasement was a swindle had the merit, at least, of putting the people on their guard (p. 176).Stewart writes that money provides a “scale of value” instead of a “standard of value,” which is the term that Smith uses. Thus, Stewart is more accurate than Smith about his concept of money. Poor notes, “It would be a contradiction in terms to call that a standard of value which had no value. A thing may be a scale, without being a standard. A yardstick is a scale for measuring distance or extension, but not the standard of distance or extension” (p. 177).
Poor asks, “If all value is to be abstracted from money, then of what advantage are the qualities of divisibility and fusibility, in the materials composing it” (p. 177)? These are two of the qualities that Stewart claims make gold useful as money (p. 176). Moreover, Poor continues, “Why not have the denominations which are fitted to express ‘every conceivable variation, of value’ all of the same size and fineness? A bank-note for a thousand dollars has precisely the same size and quality of material as a note for one dollar. The only difference is in their inscriptions” (p. 177).
Continuing his comment on Stewart’s claim that divisibility and fusibility were qualities that fitted gold and silver for money, Poor writes, “According to Stewart’s theory, the qualities which fit gold and silver for money — divisibility and fusibility — are of the least importance; for pieces of similar size may be made by their inscriptions to express ‘every conceivable variation of value’” (p. 177).
Stewart claims that a scale of value renders “the ideas of value much more precise and definite than they otherwise would have been” (p. 177). Poor asks, “But how can ideas of relative value be made more precise by comparing them with a scale from which all value is abstracted? How can nothing be made to be the measure of the value of something” (p. 177)? [A great question. As far as I know, no one has satisfactorily explained how something of no value and does not represent something of value can measure value.] Continuing with an example, Poor writes, “A definite idea is conveyed in the statement that a gold dollar measures the value of a bushel of corn; but what idea can be formed of the value of the corn from a statement that its value is that expressed upon a worthless piece of leather or paper” (p. 177)? [With today’s fiat paper money, value is “measured” with worthless pieces of paper. Perhaps trying to measure something with nothing explains, at least in part, the devastating economic crisis looming before the world.]
Stewart also suggests that “the quantity of money required by a community was in ratio to the rapidity of its circulation” [i.e., the velocity of money or the velocity of circulation] (p. 178). [The concept of the velocity of money is an important component of the quantity theory of money.] To which Poor replies, “This suggestion, which naturally resulted from the assumption that money is not capital, but a scale of valuation, or an aid in enumeration and arithmetic, has become an axiom among all modern Economists” (p. 178). [Today, nearly all economists continue to agree with Stewart on this issue.] Commenting on the event that Stewart used to deduce his conclusion on the rapidity of circulation, Poor writes:
The result of these transactions was, that in the course of seven weeks the garrison had been paid 49,000 florins, the sutlers had sold supplies to the amount of 49,000 florins, and the commandant or government owed them 49,000 florins: so that in the end the latter had converted their supplies into money, and had in hand 7,000 florins, and a debt against the government or commandant for 49,000 florins. From all this Stewart deduces a law, — that the amount of currency required is in ratio to its activity. Suppose the garrison had required a certain amount of forage lying twenty miles off; and that, having but one horse, ten days were required for its transportation. With ten horses, the same work might have been done in a single day. Would Stewart from this fact have attempted to prove that one horse could do the work of ten? We wonder he did not fortify his argument by the following syllogism: ‘ten horses can do so much work in one day; one horse can do the same work in ten days; therefore one horse can do the work of ten horses (p. 179).Stewart states “that the quantity of money and notes in circulation must bear but a small proportion to the value of the goods to be bought and sold, and that this proportion must vary according to the quickness with which the money circulates or shifts from one hand to another” (p. 179). To this claim, Poor replies, “If the proportion of money to the goods to be bought and sold be small, then the amount of goods bought and sold will be small. Stewart has only shown that, with a small amount of money, seven weeks were required to effect exchanges which might, with an adequate amount, have been made in one” (p. 179).
Continuing his comments on the rapidity of the circulation of money, Poor writes:
If money be capital, or the representative of capital, and if when it is exchanged it is exchanged for other kinds of capital, then there can be no greater activity in money than in other kinds of capital; and there can be no relation whatever between its activity and quantity. There would be just as much sense in saying that the quantity of wheat necessary for the consumption of a community was in ratio to the rapidity of its movement: that is, if the rapidity of its motion be made twice as great, one-half the ordinary quantity will suffice. . . . [Stewart] overlooked the fact, that, when money was used as the measure of value or the scale of valuation, the thing, the scale itself, passed from the party using it to the party whose goods had been purchased and measured by it. . . . With Stewart . . . money is an entity, possessed of volition and will, flying about the country eager to do some good deed; an active and lively piece doing twice the work of a dull, phlegmatic one. But money cannot move unless something else moves, no matter how eager it may be for work. Its eagerness must find its complement in some other kind of property; so that if volition, will, and activity be predicated of one, volition, will, and activity must be predicated of the other. Money has no attribute of activity different from that possessed by all other kinds of merchandise. The use of one involves the use of the other; the employment of one involves the employment of the other (pp. 180-181).Poor concludes his review of Stewart with this comment:
One of the great evils resulting from the reputation of such a man as Dugald Stewart is, that every word that he uttered, which was recorded by himself or by others, is carefully gathered up and put into his ‘works.’ In the case of Stewart, these are swelled to eleven ponderous volumes, full of propositions of the correctness of not one of which the reader can have the least assurance. Had his ‘literary executor,’ instead of carefully raking up, burned three quarters of all he left, he would have rid the world of a vast mass of rubbish, and the painstaking student of a great deal of the most irksome toil. It may be set down as a maxim, that a person who assumes to write authoritatively upon every subject will write well upon none. Life is not long enough for one man to know every thing, or to construct an universal science (p. 182).
Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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