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Home | Mises Library | The Specific Value of Money

The Specific Value of Money

Tags Financial MarketsMoney and BanksHistory of the Austrian School of EconomicsMonetary Theory

05/02/2018Ludwig von Mises

[Excerpted from Human Action, Scholar's Edition, pp. 425–427.]


As far as a good used as money is valued and appraised on account of the services it renders for nonmonetary purposes, no problems are raised which would require special treatment. The task of the theory of money consists merely in dealing with that component in the valuation of money which is conditioned by its function as a medium of exchange.

In the course of history various commodities have been employed as media of exchange. A long evolution eliminated the greater part of these commodities from the monetary function. Only two, the precious metals gold and silver, remained. In the second part of the 19th century, more and more governments deliberately turned toward the demonetization of silver.

In all these cases what is employed as money is a commodity which is used also for nonmonetary purposes. Under the gold standard, gold is money and money is gold. It is immaterial whether or not the laws assign legal tender quality only to gold coins minted by the government.

What counts is that these coins really contain a fixed weight of gold and every quantity of bullion can freely be transformed into coins. Under the gold standard the dollar and the pound sterling were merely names for a definite weight of gold, within very narrow margins precisely determined by the laws. We may call such a sort of money commodity money.

A second sort of money is credit money. Credit money evolved out of the use of money substitutes. It was customary to use claims, payable on demand and absolutely secure, as substitutes for the sum of money to which they gave a claim. (We shall deal with the features and problems of money substitutes in the next section.)

The market did not stop using such claims when one day their prompt redemption was suspended and thereby doubts about their safety and the solvency of the obligee were raised. As long as these claims had been daily maturing claims against a debtor of undisputed solvency and could be collected without notice and free of expense, their exchange value was equal to their face value; it was this perfect equivalence which assigned to them the character of money substitutes.

Now, as redemption was suspended, the maturity date postponed to an undetermined day, and consequently doubts about the solvency of the debtor or at least about his willingness to pay emerged, they lost a part of the value previously ascribed to them. They were now merely claims, which did not bear interest, against a questionable debtor and falling due on an undefined day. But as they were used as media of exchange, their exchange value did not drop to the level to which it would have dropped if they were merely claims.

One can fairly assume that such credit money could remain in use as a medium of exchange even if it were to lose its character as a claim against a bank or a treasury, and thus would become fiat money. Fiat money is a money consisting of mere tokens which can neither be employed for any industrial purposes nor convey a claim against anybody.

It is not a task of catallactics but of economic history to investigate whether there appeared, in the past, specimens of fiat money or whether all the sorts of money which were not commodity money were credit money. The only thing that catallactics has to establish is that the possibility of the existence of fiat money must be admitted.

The important thing to be remembered is that with every sort of money, demonetization — i.e., the abandonment of its use as a medium of exchange — must result in a serious fall of its exchange value. What this practically means has become manifest when in the last eighty years the use of silver as commodity money has been progressively restricted.

There are specimens of credit money and fiat money which are embodied in metallic coins. Such money is printed, as it were, on silver, nickel, or copper. If such a piece of fiat money is demonetized, it still retains exchange value as a piece of metal. But this is only a very small indemnification of the owner. It has no practical importance.

The keeping of cash holdings requires sacrifices. To the extent that a man keeps money in his pockets or in his balance with a bank, he forsakes the instantaneous acquisition of goods he could consume or employ for production.

In the market economy these sacrifices can be precisely determined by calculation. They are equal to the amount of originary interest he would have earned by investing the sum. The fact that a man takes this falling off into account is proof that he prefers the advantages of cash holding to the loss in interest yield.

It is possible to specify the advantages which people expect from keeping a definite amount of cash. But it is a delusion to assume that an analysis of these motives could provide us with a theory of the determination of purchasing power which could do without the notions of cash holding and demand for and supply of money.1

The advantages and disadvantages derived from cash holding are not objective factors which could directly influence the size of cash holdings. They are put on the scales by each individual and weighed against one another. The result is a subjective judgment of value, colored by the individual's personality. Different people and the same people at different times value the same objective facts in a different way.

Just as knowledge of a man's wealth and his physical condition does not tell us how much he would be prepared to spend for food of a certain nutritive power, so knowledge about data concerning a man's material situation does not enable us to make definite assertions with regard to the size of his cash holding.

  • 1. Such an attempt was made by Greidanus, The Value of Money (London, 1932), pp. 197 ff.
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