Say what you will about Keynesian superstar Paul Krugman, he doesn’t mince words. In a recent interview with Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal, Krugman gave his opinion that Bitcoin was in a bubble because it wasn’t backed by a tangible asset.
Perhaps sensing that this may have undercut the case for Krugman’s preferred monetary system, Krugman was quick to add thatgovernment-issued fiat money was “backed by men with guns.” (See the video for yourself.) Thus, Krugman thought that government currencies were not in a bubble, even if they weren’t backed by tangible assets, because people needed to obtain the currency in order to pay taxes.
Krugman’s analysis provides a good opportunity to explore the subtlety of Ludwig von Mises’ monetary economics. On the one hand, Mises was a “hard money” man who was a fierce opponent of government fiat money. It is also true that Mises was a classical liberal who would have opposed government coercion in the form of legal tender laws, capital gains taxes on gold and silver, and other ways that governments currently use their “guns” to solidify the present system where most people on Earth use government-issued notes as their primary form of money.
However, even though a libertarian and proponent of Misesian economics might object to government-issued fiat money because of the coercion–”men with guns”–involved, strictly speaking Mises would not agree that a currency can be backed by guns, in the way Krugman describes. To speak in this manner is a complete surrender in the face of the economist’s task of explaining money.
Mises’ grand work in this area is his The Theory of Money and Credit, for which my free study guide is available. As Mises conceived it, the central theoretical task when it comes to money is to explain why money has a particular purchasing power. Why should it be that people give up valuable goods and services for a particular item–the money commodity–according to definite exchange ratios?
Mises’ answer is that people form expectations about the future purchasing power of money, and that is what gives it purchasing power today. These expectations in turn are based on their observations of the money’s purchasing power in the past. Thus lays the groundwork for Mises’ famous “regression theorem,” in which people’s subjective valuations of money necessarily involves a historical component (unlike their subjective valuation of, say, pizza). Gold, silver, and other forms of commodity money could ultimately be traced back to the days of barter, in which they had definite exchange ratios with other goods because of their usefulness as regular commodities.
In the case of government-issued fiat currencies, Mises explained their purchasing power using the same theoretical apparatus. The only difference is that at some point in the past, the currencies (such as the dollar, pound, franc, etc.) had been explicitly linked to the precious metals, and that’s what grounded everyone’s valuations of them.
Thus, Krugman’s glib assertion that today’s government fiat monies derive their value from guns completely dodges the problem for the economist: to explain the magnitude of that value. Even if we conceded that the government could force everyone to use something–let’s say a particular type of sea shell–as money, by insisting on payment of taxes in the form of sea shells, that policy wouldn’t explain why an hour of labor should trade for 10 shells, rather than 100 or 1,000. This is especially true when we reflect that most government taxes are expressed in terms of percentages, rather than an absolute amount.
Furthermore, it’s obvious that Krugman’s “explanation” would have no way of accounting for changes in either variable. For example, in the 1970s in the United States, price inflation took off dramatically, meaning the purchasing power of the dollar fell sharply. Was this because of a reduction in taxes? Of course not. And in the 1920s, there were sharp cuts in marginal income tax rates at the federal level. Did this lead to severe price inflation, as people now didn’t need as many dollars to pay Uncle Sam? On the contrary, consumer prices were fairly stable in this period.
As these observations should demonstrate, Krugman really hasn’t offered a viable explanation for the purchasing power of money. One might be tempted to say that at best, governments can use their taxing power to dictate what the monetary unit is, even though they would still have little control over its purchasing power.
Yet even this concedes too much. Strictly speaking, if the only policy we are considering is that the government says every year, “Citizens must turn in such-and-such number of sea shells as tax payment,” that alone won’t even be sufficient to conclude that the sea shells will be the money in this society. People could still use some other commodity as the money, and then use the actual money to buy the sufficient number of sea shells each year right before paying their taxes.
UPDATE: After originally posting this, I realized there was a problem with one of my examples: In the 1920s amidst the marginal income tax rate cuts designed by Treasury Secretary Mellon, the U.S. was still on the gold standard. Thus this period is not a good refutation of Krugman’s explanation for fiat money’s exchange value. (Of course, we can simply look at other examples of governments that engaged in large-scale tax cuts even while using a fiat currency, and we don’t typically see a sharp rise in price inflation accompanying them.)
Robert P. Murphy is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, and has written for Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, and EconLib. He has taught at Hillsdale College and is currently a Senior Economist for the Institute for Energy Research. He lives in Nashville.