Central Banking without Romance.

AuthorHogan, Thomas L.
  1. Introduction

    There is a broad consensus among economists that the gold standard suffers from major deficiencies. In a recent survey of prominent economists, none agreed with the proposition that a gold standard would improve price stability and employment (IGM 2012). In a series of lectures at George Washington University, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (2012a; 2012b) surveyed the major theoretical and empirical problems with the gold standard. According to Bernanke (and most other economists), the gold standard prevents optimal monetary adjustment, leading to output and price instability, cannot prevent financial panics, transmits bad policies between countries, and can lead to speculation-induced collapse. (1)

    These deficiencies certainly provide critiques of the gold standard that must be taken into consideration when comparing alternative monetary structures. They fall short, however, of demonstrating the superiority of central banking institutions over the gold standard. Comparative institutional analysis requires demonstrating that the relevant alternative institution, in this case the Fed, can do better than the gold standard on these same margins.

    Comparative institutional analysis is a long-running theme in public choice economics. (2) Pre-public choice economics is often analogized to the tale of the Roman Emperor in which the Emperor chooses between two singing contestants (Boettke, 1998, p. 27; Boettke, Coyne, and Leeson, 2007, p. 128). After hearing the first contestant sing, the Emperor declares the second contestant the winner on the belief that the second contestant could not possibly be worse than the first singer. Rather than assume an idealized alternative would improve upon real institutions, public choice scholars recognized the need to compare alternative institutional arrangements based on how they operate in practice, factoring in both knowledge and incentive problems (Aligica and Boettke 2009; Demsetz, 1969; Friedman, 1947; Pennington, 2011).

    Buchanan (1999 [1979], p. 45) argued for a positive institutional analysis of "politics without romance." Such analysis, he notes (p. 45), is necessary for a thorough understanding of governmental institutions as it "forces the analyst to compare relevant institutional alternatives." In addition, Buchanan (p. 47) stressed that economists should "compare social institutions as they might be expected actually to operate rather than to compare romantic models of how such institutions might be hoped to operate." Positive comparative analysis has since become a major pillar of public choice economics and of political and governmental institutional analysis in general. Following Buchanan and other public choice scholars, comparative analysis of institutions "without romance" has been applied to a variety of topics including statutory legal interpretation (Eskridge, 1988), free speech (Farber, 1991), zoning laws (Fraietta, 2013), and religious liberty (Horwitz, 2013).

    While public choice scholars have made substantial contributions to monetary theory, the romance, so-to-speak, has largely not been removed from central banking (Buchanan, 2015, p. 51; Boettke and Smith, 2016; O'Driscoll, 2013). While the consensus view is correct that the pre-Fed gold standard was flawed in many ways, this position does not prove that central banking is a superior alternative because it fails to demonstrate that the Fed can and has improved upon the gold standard. Comparative institutional analysis requires demonstrating that the Fed can outperform the gold standard on these same margins taking into consideration the institutions in which monetary authorities operate (Salter and Luther, 2018; Salter and Smith, 2018) and demonstrated knowledge (Salter and Smith, 2017; W. White, 2013) and incentive problems (Binder and Spindel, 2017; Boettke and Smith, 2013; Conti-Brown, 2016; Smith and Boettke, 2015; White, 2005) inherent to monetary policy.

    We examine the consensus view of the gold standard in light of this standard of comparative institutional analysis. More specifically, we analyze Bernanke's (2012a, p. 23-26) detailed list of "Problems with the gold standard" that to him, and many economists, demonstrate the superiority of the Fed. While Bernanke and other scholars offer critiques of the gold standard, many theoretically ideal features of central banks can be inferred from these criticisms. We compare U.S. economic performance on the gold standard to performance under the Fed surveying the most recent theoretical and empirical evidence. We find, despite the gold standard's defects, that the theoretical and empirical evidence fails to satisfactorily demonstrate that the Fed can--and has-been able to measurably improve upon it. Section 2 defines the gold standard and provides a brief review of the different forms it has taken across U.S. history. Section 3 evaluates each of Bemanke's (2012a; 2012b) five major problems of the gold standard using recent theoretical and empirical evidence. Section 4 concludes.

  2. What is a Gold Standard?

    To properly assess the consensus view on the major problems of the gold standard that Bernanke (2012a; 2012b) surveys, it is first necessary to define the gold standard and its practical application. The gold standard is broadly defined as a monetary system using any monetary unit of a certain weight of gold (Bernanke, 2012b, p. 13; Selgin, 2013, p. 2), but there are many forms that the gold standard can take in practice. Gold-based monetary systems can vary drastically from a decentralized commodity standard, where the forces of supply of and demand for gold determine the purchasing power of the currency, to a completely centralized system in which the purchasing power of the currency, in terms of gold, is actively managed by a central bank. In this section, we discuss the different forms a gold standard can take and provide a brief history of the major variations of the gold standard in the United States. We also discuss Bemanke's (2012a; 2012b) definition of the gold standard in light of this history.

    A decentralized gold standard is a monetary system in which the quantity and purchasing power of gold are determined by the forces of supply and demand. On a decentralized gold standard, the supply of and demand for gold can automatically adjust to changing conditions and economic shocks. If a shock increases the demand for money, the purchasing power of gold will rise, causing profit-seeking suppliers of gold to increase the amounts of gold they produce. If the shock decreases the demand for money, the purchasing power of gold will fall, leading suppliers to decrease the amount of gold brought to market.

    It is important to note that a gold standard does not necessarily mean that every banknote is "backed 100 percent by gold in a vault," only that "money is meaningfully denominated in gold" (White, 1999, p. 46 [emphasis in original]). Gold standards are often facilitated by the competitive issue of private banknotes which allows banks to respond to changes in the demand for money, and in turn allows the quantity of money supplied to adjust to meet the quantity demanded (Hogan, 2012; Selgin and White, 1994; White, 1999 pp. 26-50).

    While the U.S. was on some form of a gold standard from 1792-1971, the form of the gold standard changed drastically over this period and can be split into several subperiods, only some of which should be considered to be a "gold standard" for the purposes our comparison. Between 1792 and 1913, the United States monetary system operated on a decentralized bimetallic system. While it is referred to as a "gold standard," both gold and silver were freely coined and jointly provided the nation with fiat and coin exchange media (Selgin, 2013, p. 4). Over the course of more than a century, changes in the supply and demand for gold and silver caused the money supply to alternate between a de facto silver standard and a de facto gold standard. The period between 1879 through 1913 is commonly known as the international "classical" gold standard. The classical gold standard allowed gold to flow between countries to regulate national money stocks, international trade, and the automatic adjustment of price levels (Selgin, 2013, p. 9).

    In contrast to the decentralized system, a managed gold standard is centrally managed by a single entity such as a central bank or currency board. In such a system, the monetary authority manages the quantity of money in the economy and thus its purchasing power. As in the decentralized system, the monetary unit is defined by a certain weight of gold. Rather than being purely subject to market forces, however, the monetary authority can adjust the quantity of money in the economy by increasing or decreasing the percentage of reserves it holds or the weight of gold for the monetary unit. A centralized gold standard can, in theory, be used to conduct monetary policy in a manner similar to a central bank issuing fiat currency, the limit being that the quantity of currency is constrained by the government's gold reserves. An international gold exchange standard is a variation of a managed gold standard, in which countries operate on an international gold standard but with each country controlling its own money supply within its borders.

    The U.S. monetary system was converted to a managed gold standard system by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 (Selgin, 2013, p. 11). The Fed's original mission was "to serve as a lender of last resort and to try to mitigate the panics that banks were experiencing every few years," and "to manage the gold standard" (Bernanke, 2012b, p. 18). As the political climate changed over time, however, the Fed's missions changed as well (Conti-Brown, 2016; W. White, 2013). In response to the Great Depression, the U.S. effectively went off the gold standard in 1933. Roosevelt (1933a; 1933b) issued executive orders that outlawed the private ownership of gold and...

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