I recently reviewed Lewis E. Lehrman's book, Money, Gold, and History for the National Review. This book is a compilation of his essays where he calls for a return to an international gold standard. He takes a very sanguine view of its history and how it would work today. Though the classical gold standard of 1870-1914 did work relatively well, the history of gold as money is far more nuanced than portrayed by Lehrman. Here is an excerpt of my review where I touch on this point:
Consider, first, the history of the gold standard. Though Lehrman claims that the gold standard is “the historic common currency of civilization” and the “proven guarantor of one hundred years of price stability,” the history of gold is far more nuanced. Silver actually was the dominant metallic standard for hundreds of years before gold. The main reason it was displaced by gold is not that gold was inherently better, but that important countries, including the U.K. and the U.S., introduced bimetallism—legally minting silver and gold into money—and did so at exchange rates that inadvertently led to the undervaluation of silver. This undervaluation eventually drove silver out of circulation as money. Gold became the money standard largely by accident.
In the U.S., bimetallism was introduced in 1792. Soon afterward, changing market prices led to an overvaluation of silver at the mint and a de facto silver standard that lasted until 1834. Congress then changed the mint ratio and, in an instant, gold became overvalued, and would serve as the monetary standard from 1834 to 1861. This change was part of President Andrew Jackson’s famous war on the Second Bank of the United States, whose bills were backed by silver. There was nothing market-driven or natural about this switch from a silver standard to a gold standard. It was pure politics.
That gold was an accident of history is further evident in the contentious debate over a gold standard versus a bimetallic standard after the Civil War. Convertibility of dollars into metals had ended with the Civil War, and Congress had set 1879 as the year it would resume. Congress, however, failed to authorize the further coinage of silver. This meant that dollars would be convertible only into gold. Had silver still been coined at the mint, it would have become, by 1879, the de facto money standard, given market prices. This shift to gold irritated many, particularly those who thought gold was too deflationary; this was such a concern that it became the defining issue of the 1896 presidential election. Only with the Gold Standard Act of 1900 was the possibility of monetizing silver permanently put to rest. If gold was the “currency of civilization” for centuries, as Lehrman claims, why was its success an accident, and why has the U.S. money standard always been so contentious?
Lehrman also claims that politicians cannot manipulate a gold standard as they can fiat currency, because the gold supply depends on real-world gold production. But the above examples and others (such as the suspension of convertibility during the Civil War and FDR’s confiscation of gold in 1933) clearly show that even the gold standard is susceptible to manipulation.
That the U.S. gold standard was an accident of history and that its longest unchallenged, continuous run was only a quarter of a century suggests the question: Was it was the gold standard, per se, that created the long-run price stability of the 18th and 19th centuries, or was it a deeper political and institutional commitment to price stability?
I go on to make the case that it is not price stability per se we want, but monetary stability. I argue that is best accomplished by stabilizing the expected path of total dollar spending growth. You can read the rest of my review here.