Fiat Money; The Root of All Evil?

Look about you at the world in which we live. It’s a world in which people move about comfortably and easily; a familiar place. But is it the world it should be? Indeed, is there such a thing as “should be?”

I think that there is, and that there is a growing awareness that modern American life has, somehow, gone awry. The headlines give a clue. The front pages are full of news of murders, rapes, robberies, and other miscellaneous crimes. Military actions in various parts of the world (our troops are everywhere) vie for space with news of the latest domestic scandals. The Business section is downright frightening: AIG, it seems, may need a bigger “rescue” than originally thought. Circuit City is bankrupt. The delivery firm, DHL, is firing almost 15,000 workers. Fannie Mae’s losses for the quarter are 29 billion. GM stock drops to lower point in 60 years. Casino revenues are falling. By the time you read these words, it will be worse.

Visit an art museum. What do you see in the Modern Art section? Recently I scanned some slides I had taken a few years ago of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The building is spectacular, unforgettable: designed, it would seem, for the particular purpose of catching the eye. But it is incoherent and confusing. There seem to be no plane surfaces, no verticals, no plumb lines or right angles. It is a fitting structure to house the drabs and daubs so readily confused (by those with a vested interest in doing so) with art. Anything goes; no standards. “NO STANDARDS,” in fact, could be the motto of our era.

What about modern music? Not just modern popular music, about which I am incapable of rendering an opinion, being unable to name a single modern song, but even so-called “serious” music leaves the listener scratching his head and wondering whatever happened to melody, or harmony.

Public morality? What morality? Adultery has always been with us, but in the past it was recognized as wrong; there was even a law against it! Today it is simply a “relationship,” and those indulging in it would regard the idea of its being wrong as puzzling, or outmoded. There aren’t any standards, after all.

Civility, good manners? Listen to the language used today, with vulgarities and obscenities used so commonly that the users probably don’t recognize them as anything but common parlance. See how people dress. Ladies, whatever happened to hats and gloves? Gentlemen, do you recall coats and ties? Do you even own such items? Yes, yes, I know: there aren’t any standards. Do your own thing. There are no absolutes; you can be absolutely sure of that!

I have long suspected that the decline of our culture is, indirectly, related to the decline of our money, or what passes for it. First, of course, is a decline in moral values, but after that, monetary standards are the first to go. In the dim past, it was accepted that for an honest day’s work one should obtain an honest day’s pay. That “pay” was as specific as the job which earned it. It could, if necessary, be weighed and analyzed to be sure it met the standard. It was silver or gold, or checks or currency redeemable in it. In some subtle, ineffable way, those who worked for a living felt a sort of dignity in knowing that their labors would be rewarded with such precious stuff. They would have been shocked at the concept of working for nothing, or no thing. Does one give something for nothing? Not if his work has value. How often have you heard the complaint that the workmanship of today just doesn’t compare with the workmanship of yesterday. Maybe that’s because the workman of yesterday was paid — not with an invalid promise, but with tangible wealth.

In those bygone days of money (instead of “credit”), life is said to have moved at a slower, less hectic, pace. Were the slower pace, and the fact of actual tangible payment, related? I believe so. Money held its value. There was a monetary standard.

By contrast, today’s wages lose value — measurable only in a frequently redefined “purchasing power” — with every passing month. A “fixed income” means a constantly decreasing standard of living. So Mom goes to work, although that means giving part of her earnings to Uncle Sam, buying a second car, and putting the children in day care: in the end, not as rewarding as hoped. Maybe Dad gets a second, part-time, job. With all of this work, there should be some reward: maybe a boat, a country club membership, a larger home. Easy to obtain with easy money! It’s not hard to see how money, and getting more of it, could become a virtual obsession. You’re working so hard; why shouldn’t you have something to show for it? Living at the brink of, or beyond, one’s means has become all too common. Well, we’re witnessing what happens when that bubble bursts. But the bubble would never have existed if money was a tangible good, not created with the stroke of the banker’s pen.

Money is indispensable to civilization. Individuals or families living in isolation don’t need money; what would they buy? But put people together in cities, to enjoy the benefits of the division of labor, and they need some sort of common bartering agent. That is the role of money. Without it, civilization is impossible. When money is withdrawn from society slowly, and replaced with fiat, or imaginary money, society sickens. The process is gradual, like the heating of the water in the pot containing the frog, but sooner or later, the situation becomes unbearable. If there are no standards for money, other standards will fade away as well. Money circulates through the body politic; if it goes bad, that body deteriorates.

So look about once again. What you see is the collapse of a society built upon a bubble of deceit and dishonesty, a society which has been trying to borrow itself into prosperity. It’s happened before, many times. A fiat “money” eventually reaches its intrinsic value. Do we learn from experience? In monetary matters, the answer would seem to be “NO!” And civilization crumbles, on a foundation of fiat.

A sound society needs sound money.

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