I couldn’t help being glad to see The Economist refer to Carl Menger’s theory of the origins of money just as I was about to explain that theory to my undergraduate classes. Nor did I at all mind having Menger’s ideas contrasted with those of another of my favorite economists, Charles Goodhart. I was, however, sorry to see that venerable publication, whose first two editors, James Wilson and Walter Bagehot, were among the more important 19th-century proponents of free banking, embrace Professor Goodhart’s “Cartalist” theory of money, and do so on grounds that won’t stand up to critical scrutiny.
Menger, of course, famously argued that commodity money, far from having to be deliberately designed, can evolve spontaneously or, as The Economist puts it, “is a market-led response to barter costs.”
But while The Economist allows that Menger’s account offers “a good description of how informal monies, such as those used by prisoners, originate,” it claims that the theory comes up short when it comes to explaining the origins of the most convenient of all commodity monies: those consisting of precious metals. Why? Because metals only make for convenient money once they have been packaged into coins, and “history shows that minting developed not as a private-sector attempt to minimize the costs of trading, but as a government operation.” Consequently, the article continues, “another theory is needed, in which the state plays a bigger role.” Cartalism is one such theory, according to which money, and efficient money especially, is a creature of the state, which invented coins with the ulterior motive of enhancing its revenues by making taxes payable in them and by occasionally resorting to debasement.
But is it true that minting developed, and could only develop, as a government operation? Goodhart’s article is supposed to offer proof that this was so, by pointing to two instances in which the collapse or withdrawal of government coinage gave way, not to private coinage but to barter (in the former Roman empire) or to the use of a non-metallic money (rice in 10th-century Japan).
One needn’t be a logician to recognize the inherent shortcomings of such a “proof by example.” That the withdrawal of state-run mints has sometimes failed to prompt the establishment of private ones hardly establishes that private mints have never existed, much less that they never could exist. One may, on the other hand, disprove the claim that private mints have neverexisted by means of a single, contradictory example.
As a matter of fact, there have been numerous episodes of private coinage, including some very successful ones. What’s more, it is far from clear that the very first coins ever made–the famous electrum lumps of Lydia, in Asia Minor–were government products. On the contrary: according to Thomas Figueira, one of the leading experts on the subject today, “It is uncertain whether it was someone endowed with political authority acting on behalf of his community or an individual acting on his own behalf who conceived of the idea of coinage.” Indeed, no one is even sure what those early coins were for, or even whether they ought to be called “coins” at all, since they were uniform in weight alone, but varied considerably in their gold and silver blend.
Of course it’s hardly likely than any Tom, Dick, or Harry would have been able to have his markings treated as credible certifications of weight or purity or anything else. Whoever made the first coins had to be some sort of big shot, or its corporate equivalent. Being a tyrant might suffice; but that hardly means that it was essential. Nor does the fact that almost every coin produced since the obscure beginnings of coinage has come from a government mint mean that only governments were fit to coin money. It could instead mean that governments found the fiscal gains to be had by monopolizing coinage too good to pass up. That governments frequently took advantage of their coinage monopolies, not to mint good coins, but to mint lousy ones that they then compelled their citizens to accept, would seem to favor the latter hypothesis.
It ought to go without saying that there is no technological reason why coins couldn’t have been a private invention, or couldn’t have been privately manufactured at any time to the same standards, if not better ones, than their government-made counterparts . “A mint, Sir” Edmund Burke once reminded Parliament, “is a manufacture, and it is nothing else.” …