Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2: ORIGIN AND NATURE OF MONEY - Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems
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CHAPTER 2: ORIGIN AND NATURE OF MONEY - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems 
Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems, 2nd edition, revised (New York: The Century Co., 1923).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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ORIGIN AND NATURE OF MONEY
§ 1. Origin of money. § 2. Money as a tool. § 3. Money defined. § 4. Qualities of the original money-good. § 5. Industrial changes and forms of money. § 6. The precious metals as money. § 7. Varying extent of the use of money. § 8. Relative importance of money. § 9. Standard-commodity money. § 10. Commodity money without coinage. § 11. The money-material in its commodity uses.
§ 1. Origin of money. Everywhere in the world where the beginnings of regular trade have appeared, some one of the articles of trade soon has come to be taken by many traders who did not expect to keep or use it themselves, but to pass it along in another trade.1 This made it money, for money is whatever comes to be used as a general price-good. The character of a general price-good clearly distinguishes money from goods bought and sold by a particular class of merchants, such as grain, cattle, etc., to be sold again. It is only in so far as a particular good comes to be taken by persons not specially dealing in it, taken for the purpose of using it as a price-good to get something else which they desire, that a thing has the character of money. The thing called money thus is a durative good passing from hand to hand in a community, and completing its use in turn to each possessor of it only as he parts with it in exchange for something else.
The use of money is of such social importance that it would be impossible for modern industrial society to exist without it. The discussion of money touches many interests; it raises many questions of a political and of an ethical nature. There are perhaps more popular errors on this than on any other one subject in economics, but the general principles of money are as fully understood and as firmly established as are any parts of economics.
§ 2. Money as a tool. Money is often, by a figure of speech, called a tool. A tool is a piece of material taken into the hand to apply force to other things, to shape them or move them. Figuratively, this is what money does: it moves things into one’s control. A man takes it, not to get enjoyment out of it directly, but to apply force, to move something, and that which he moves is the thing he buys. Money thus (as money) is always an indirect agent. Adam Smith aptly likened money to the roads and wagons that transport goods, thus gratifying desires by putting goods into more convenient places. The fundamental use that money serves is to apportion one’s income conveniently as it accrues and as it is spent. The use of money increases the value of goods by increasing the ease with which trade can take place. Like any tool or agent, money is valued for what it does or helps to do. It enhances the value of the goods that it buys and sells by dividing them into quantities convenient for use and by making them available at the right times.
It has been said that the service performed by money is to overcome the difficulty in barter of the double coincidence of wants and possessions. For example, a man may possess a horse that he is willing to sell, and he wants in place of it not just one thing, but a group of things, say a cow, a bag of flour, a pair of shoes, and several other small commodities, perhaps preferring not to have them all at once, but distributed over a period of some days or some weeks. Now, it is not likely that these things would exchange at such ratios in the market that the horse would just be of equal value to the group of other goods. Little less than a miracle would be needed to find a man desiring a horse, and who at the same time possessed just that group of goods to exchange for it. So, either no trade at all could take place, or there must be a series of trades in which the man takes some of the things he wants (say a cow) and other things “to boot,” in the hope that later these may be traded for the right things. Evidently, when the “possession” is one large thing and the “wants” are many (or vice versa), the coincidence required is much more than double. In the light of the principles of diminishing gratification and of time-preference, it is clear that the amounts in which and the times at which goods are available have an essential bearing on their values. Money is the most successful device ever discovered for distributing the supplies of a journey along its course and the goods of daily need over a period of time. The use of money as a storehouse of value by hoarding it is merely a more extreme case of keeping income until a time when it will have a greater value to the owner than it has in the present.2
§ 3. Money defined. Money may be defined as a material means of payment and medium of trade, passing from hand to hand and generally accepted as the most usual price-good. The definition contains several ideas. Trade means the taking and giving of things of value. Money passes from hand to hand, is a thing that can be handled and is, or can be, bodily transported. The words “generally accepted” imply that money has a peculiar social character, is not an ordinary good. As a price-good, money itself must be a thing having value; otherwise it could not be accepted.
The application of the definition is not always easy, for money shades off into other things that serve the same purpose and are related in nature. Money is not merely an order for goods, as a card or paper requesting payment; it is itself a thing of value (though this value may be due partly or solely to its possessing the money function). Such things as a telegram when transferring an order for the payment of money, as the spoken word, and as a mere promise to pay, are not money. Even checks and drafts are merely written evidences of credit, and are used as substitutes for money.
In many problems money appears to be at the same time like and unlike other things of value, and just wherein lies the difference it is often difficult to determine. Even special students differ as to the border-line of the concept, but as to the general nature of money there is essential agreement.
§ 4. Qualities of the original money-good. The selection of any money-commodity has not been made by chance, but has been the result of that object being better fitted than others to serve as a medium of exchange. The main qualities that affected the selection of primitive forms of money were as follows:
1. Marketability (or salability); that is, it must be easy to sell. The first forms of money had to be things that every one desired at some time and many people desired at any time. That was the essential quality that made any one ready to take it when he did not wish its direct use himself. Many kinds of food and of clothing are very generally desired goods. But few of these classes of goods have in a high measure certain other important qualities, now to be named.
2. Transportability; that is, the money material must be easy to carry; it must have a large value in small bulk and weight. To carry a bag of wheat on one’s back a few miles requires as great an effort ordinarily as does the raising of the wheat; and the cost of carriage for fifty miles, even by wagon, will often equal the whole value of the wheat. Cattle, while not comparatively very valuable in proportion to weight, and not possessing the other qualities of money in the highest degree, have the advantage that they can be made to carry themselves long distances, and therefore they have been much used as money in simpler economic conditions.
3. Cognizability; that is, the money-good must be easy to know, and to judge as to quality. If expert knowledge or special apparatus is needed to test it in order to avoid counterfeits, few could be ready to take it, and trading would be a costly process.
4. Durability; that is, the money-good must be easy to keep without much loss in amount or in quality, perhaps for long periods, until it can be passed on in trade. Few kinds of food answer very well to this last requirement, being organic and perishable. But all four qualities above named were pretty well embodied in primitive times in rock-salt, in rare flints and bits of copper suitable for tools and weapons, in furs in northern countries, and in many articles of personal adornment, such as beads, feathers, jewels, and metal ornaments.
5. Divisibility; that is, the quality in the monetary material that permits it to be divided easily into smaller amounts and then to be united again into larger masses at little cost and without loss in amount or in quality. This quality is present only when the material is homogeneous throughout the whole mass, a condition fulfilled more completely by the metals than by any other goods. This quality makes it possible to put the governmental stamp upon the money material, and to produce pieces some of which are exact duplicates and some exact multiples, of others. In this manner pieces of money are provided suitable for transactions of different magnitudes, down to small fractional amounts. A monetary system of this kind aids greatly the development of the sense and habit of exact estimation of price.
§ 5. Industrial changes and the forms of money. The money use, as has just been shown, is a resultant of a number of different motives in men. The changing material and industrial conditions of society change the kind of money that is used. Things that have the highest claim to fitness for money with a people at one stage of development have a low claim at another. The final choice of the money-good depends on the resultant of all the advantages. Shells are used for ornament in poor communities, but cease to be so used in a higher state of advancement, and thus their salability ceases. Furs cease to be generally marketable in northern climes when the fur-bearing animals are nearly killed off and the fur trade declines. When tobacco was the great staple of export from Virginia, everybody was willing to take it, and its market price was known by all. It served well then as the chief money; but, as it ceased to be the almost exclusive product of the province, it lost the knowableness and marketability it had before. In agricultural and pastoral communities where every one had a share in the pasture, cattle were a fairly convenient form of money; but in the city trade of to-day their use as money is impossible. Thus, in a sense, different commodities compete, each trying to prove its fitness to be a medium of trade; but only one, or two, or three at the most, can at one time hold such a place.
While industrial changes and conditions affect the choice of money, in turn money reacts upon the other industrial conditions. If a new and more convenient material is found or the value of the money metal changes to a degree that affects the generalness of its use, industry is greatly affected. The discovery of mines in America brought into Europe in the sixteenth century a great supply of the precious metals, and this change in the use of money reacted powerfully upon industry. Money, being itself one of the most important of the industrial conditions, is affected by and in turn affects all others.
§ 6. The precious metals as money. Certain of the metals early began to show their superior fitness to perform the monetary function. The metals first used as money were copper, bronze (an alloy of copper with nickel), and iron. These were truly precious metals in early times, for they were found only in small quantities in a few localities. They, therefore, were widely sought and highly valued as ornaments and for use as tools and weapons. But as the great ancient nations emerged into history, these materials were already being displaced in large measure. Their value fell greatly as a result of greater production due to somewhat regular mining. As wealth grew, as trade increased, as the use of money developed, as commerce extended to more distant lands, the heavier, less precious metals failed to serve the growing monetary need, especially in the larger transactions. Silver and gold, step by step, often making little progress in a century, became the staple and dominant forms of money in the world, while copper and nickel still continued to be used for the smaller monetary pieces. Every community has witnessed some stages of this evolution. In this contest silver had, up to the end of the Middle Ages, proved itself to be, on the whole, the fittest medium of exchange for most purposes, though gold was at the same time in use in larger transactions and in international trade among the leading commercial countries.
Gold discoveries in California in 1848, and in Australia, two years later, caused the production of gold to increase enormously,3 and gold became a relatively larger part of the monetary stocks of western European and North American countries.
In a higher degree than any other one material, gold has the qualities of the main monetary material for rich and industrially developed communities. England was first to give to gold the chief place in its monetary system; the United States did so in 1834, and has continued to keep gold in that place (except for the period of paper money from 1862 to 1879); France did so about 1879, having shifted gradually from silver, after 1855, under the working of the bimetallic law; Germany in 1873; and Japan since the later nineties. Other countries have been moving in the same direction. Since about 1890 some states (including Mexico) and some of the colonial possessions of the great nations (including India and the Philippines) have adopted the plan of the “gold-exchange standard.” By this plan gold is the standard price unit, while silver continues to be used all but exclusively as the material in circulation, its amount being controlled and its value regulated on principles to be explained below under coinage, seigniorage, and foreign exchange.
The most important of the countries in which silver is still the chief form of money is China. There are, however, numerous countries, notably in South America and Central America, in which paper notes have long been almost the only form of money; and in the period of the Great War every one of the belligerent countries excepting the United States approached or reached that condition where neither gold nor silver was actually in circulation.
§ 7. Varying extent of the use of money. Trade by the use of money at no time has become the exclusive method. Barter still lingers to-day.4 The extent to which, on an average, money is used in different parts of the world differs widely. The use of money in Siberia is less than in European Russia, and its use is less there than in western Europe. The use of money as compared with barter is generally much greater in the cities than in the rural districts. In the cities of Mexico not only money but banks and credit agencies are in general use; whereas the rural districts are more backward and make far more use of barter than is the case in the United States. At the ports in the cities of China, India, and South America the use of money may be very like that in European cities; but go a little way into the interior of these countries, and conditions as to the use of money change greatly.
However, the comparative per capita amounts of money (in terms of American dollars) in circulation in different countries is far from being a true index of their industrial development or of their commercial activity. Indeed, beyond a certain point the larger average amount of money in circulation in a country may indicate backwardness in the development of banks and other credit agencies rather than greater amount of wealth or of business. Notice, for example, the medium position of the great commercial countries, Germany and the United Kingdom, as compared with other countries above and below them in the following list.
§ 8. Relative importance of money. Because money is the general expression of purchasing power, and comes to symbolize all other wealth, it often assumes undue and exaggerated importance in men’s eyes. Money is but one of many forms of wealth. It constitutes but a small percentage of the total wealth of a country, and it is far from being the most indispensable to human welfare. Yet its importance, as a whole, in determining the form of industrial organization is enormous. In a society without money industrial processes would be very different, and trade would be hampered in manifold ways.
If a poor community has relatively little money it is because it cannot afford more; it gets along with less money than is convenient, just as it gets along with fewer agents of every other kind than it could use. Pioneers in a poor community where the average wealth is low cannot afford to keep a large number of wagons, plows, good roads, or schoolhouses. If the members of the community were wealthy enough each would have more of these and of other things, and the sum total of money would be greater. Great as is the convenience of money, poorer communities have to do with little of it. It is, therefore, a confusion of cause and effect when poor communities imagine that their poverty is due to the small amount of money in circulation.
Many of the most common errors in economics are the result of confusion as to the real nature and place of money. The word “money” is so often used, in a figurative sense, for any or all of the goods for which it may be exchanged, that men forget that it is often a mere symbol of wealth and not the wealth itself. To give only two illustrations out of many that could be given: In relation to foreign trade, men continually speak of bringing money into the country, or of sending our money abroad, when in neither case, probably, has any money moved in the direction indicated. Again, in reference to the interest rate or to the causes of business crises, men speak of money being more plentiful or less plentiful, when the amount of money has either not changed or has changed in the contrary direction, and what is really meant is that some change has occurred in credit conditions. So persistent is this idea that there is hardly an economic problem in which this characteristic monetary illusion does not serve to mislead popular opinion. The safest course for the student is to assume always that any explanation of processes of production or of trade in terms of money is superficial, and that the real forces and reasons are to be found only by penetrating more deeply into the situation.
§ 9. Standard-commodity money. The actual money in use in almost every country to-day consists of a wide and confusing variety: gold, silver, nickel, copper, paper in various forms, issued by various authorities under various conditions as to amount and as to seigniorage. But, among all the kinds, in each country some one kind is found standing preëminent and in a peculiar position as the standard money to which the value of all the other kinds of money is in some manner adjusted. Usually this standard money is composed of a material (gold or silver) that is a commodity; but there are many examples of paper money being for the time the standard. We mean by standard money that kind, no matter what its form, which serves in any country as the unit in which the value of other kinds of money is expressed. The standard usually is a quantity of metal, of a certain weight and fineness, which, as a commodity, has a value also in industrial uses. Coins of this standard are called full, or real, money by some writers who deny the title of money to everything else. Sometimes the standard may legally be a double one, as in bimetallism, both gold and silver; but in such cases it actually is either gold or silver most of the time.
The difficulties of the money problem must be attacked at the point of standard-commodity money, where it is nearest to ordinary value problems and is less complicated than when the various other kinds of money and the various money substitutes are included.
§ 10. Commodity money without coinage. Let us consider the problem of money and its value as it would present itself if only one kind of commodity money were in use. This doubtless was in large measure, if not entirely, the case for a time in early societies after one material had proved itself to be the best suited for the purpose. The history of many kinds of money may, we have seen, be traced back to a point where they were not money, but commodities with only a direct value-in-use. Such were ornaments, shells, furs, feathers, salt, cattle, fish, game, and tobacco. Each of these materials has, in each situation, a value that is the reflection of its power to appeal to choice. Now, if to the commodity-use is added the monetary use, this increases the demand for that good. No new theory is required to explain the value of a commodity as it gradually acquires the added use of a medium of trade. The money use is one that works no physical or visible change in goods except a slight unavoidable abrasion, and at any time a person receiving a piece of commodity money may retain it for its use-value as food, ornament, tool, or weapon, or may retain it for a time and then spend it as money. This case of value is no more difficult than that of anything else having two or more uses. For example, cattle are used for milk, for meat, and as beasts of burden. Each of these uses is logically independent as a cause of value, yet all are mutually related, the value of cattle to a particular person being determined by the consideration of all the uses united into one scale of varying gratification.
In antiquity the metals were used as money in bulk; that is, the amount was weighed at each transaction and the quality was tested whenever there was doubt.6 In countries industrially backward, payments are still made in this manner. For some time after the discovery of gold in Calfornia, gold dust was roughly measured out on the thumb-nail. In shipments of gold to-day by bankers to settle international balances, metal may be in the form of bars that bear the mark of some well-known banking house. In all of the cases of this kind the gold is money in fact, but not by virtue of any act of government. The metal is simply a valuable good, the receiver of which values it according to its weight and fineness. This is true even when the government mint, for a small charge, tests and stamps the bars at the request of citizens.
§ 11. The money-material in its commodity uses. In the case of a commodity-money, such as gold, the problem of its value as bullion is the same as that of the value of pig iron or of zinc, of meat or of potatoes. The value of gold as bullion and its value as money are kept in equilibrium by choice and by substitution. The several uses of gold are constantly competing for it: its uses for rings, pens, ornaments, championship cups, photography, dentistry, delicate instruments, and as a circulating medium. If the metal becomes worth more in any one use, its amount is increased there and is correspondingly diminished in other uses.7
This adjustment of the value of commodity-money to other things is made also on the side of supply, in the use of labor and material agents to produce the precious metals and to produce other things. Gold-mining, for example, is one among various industries to which men may apply their labor and their available material agents. Some mines are superior, others medium, others marginal which it barely pays to work. There is, therefore, a rise and fall of the margin of gold production, with changes in prices and changes in the cost of production. Large new deposits of gold are discovered from time to time, and new methods of extracting gold are invented. If, when it barely pays to work a mine, such changes occur, gold becomes worth less, and the poorer mines eventually must go out of use. As gold rises in value some abandoned mines again come into use. A similar variation may be noted in the utilization of marginal land, marginal factories, marginal forges, and marginal agents of every kind.8
[1 ]See Vol. 1, pp. 15-16, 50-53, and 262-264, for an introductory statement of the origin and functions of money.
[2 ]The old-fashioned miser, however, withdraws his hoarded gold for the time from its usual monetary function as an indirect agent, and treats it as a direct good yielding to him psychic income by its mere possession.
[3 ]See chart of gold production, ch 5, Fig. 2.
[4 ]See Vol, I, p. 43, on the decline of barter.
[6 ]“I will . . . refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried.” (Zech. xiii, 9.) “I bought the field, . . . and weighed him the money, even seventeen shekels of silver. And I . . . weighed him the money in the balances.” (Jer. xxxii, 9, 10.) A shekel was 224 grains, troy weight, which is about equal to six tenths of the pure metal in a silver dollar to-day, and worth in recent years from twenty to sixty cents in gold. At that time, however, the purchasing power of silver was many times greater than it now is.
[7 ]See § 1 and § 2 of this chapter; also Vol. I, especially pp. 31-38 and 353-355.
[8 ]See Vol. I, pp. 138 ff. and 361 ff.