The Best Argument for the Gold Standard
By Tyler Cowen
With President Donald Trump’s apparent plans to nominate Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to the Federal Reserve Board, attention has turned once again to the gold standard, a policy option once advocated by both men. Trump himself has expressed admiration for the gold standard.
To be clear: I don’t at all favor a gold standard. Still, it is worth thinking about why anyone might ever have favored a gold standard, and what the case for one might look like. I am also somewhat of a natural contrarian, to put it mildly, and each time I see rude remarks about the gold standard I ask myself: Is it a completely crazy idea? Finally, and more generally, I don’t like the idea of twisting research knowledge to fit the preferred political message of the day.
Historical data indicates that industrial production volatility was not higher before 1914, when the U.S. was on the gold standard, compared to after 1947, when it mostly wasn’t. And there are similar results for the volatility of unemployment. That’s not quite an argument for the gold standard, but it should cause opponents of the gold standard to think twice. Whatever the imperfections of a gold standard might be, monetary authorities make a lot of mistakes, too.
Furthermore, in the broader historical context, including the more distant past, the gold standard doesn’t look so bad. The age of the gold standard (and sometimes silver standard, and sometimes bimetallism) in the 19th century was largely one of peace and economic growth, running from 1815 until World War I. The fiat money era that followed was a disaster, as the 1920s brought monetary chaos, competitive devaluations, and even some hyperinflations and deflations, a few of which were driven by the desire to restore the old gold par at incorrect rates. It would have been better had the world managed to keep its gold-centered monetary order of 1913.
Even the Bretton Woods arrangement, which has a good record in terms of stability and growth, involved gold convertibility of a sort, albeit with no domestic convertibility and lots of pressures to discourage actual conversion from foreigners. Once the tie of the dollar to gold broke entirelyin the early 1970s, inflation and interest rates were high and again monetary chaos followed. From the vantage point of, say, 1979, some form of gold standard really did seem better.
What was not obvious then was that monetary policy was going to be so good and so stable for the next four decades, albeit with a number of mistakes. Today’s case for the gold standard is based on the view that these recent decades of good fiat money management are a historical outlier and cannot be sustained. I don’t share that opinion, but neither do I think it is crazy or a sign of extreme ignorance.
So why don’t I favor a gold standard? First, governments have a long history of interfering with gold standards, for better or worse. So it doesn’t really remove politics from monetary policy. Second, central banks should respond with extreme countercyclical pressure when a financial crisis hits, such as in 2008. That is harder to do with a gold standard, and usually it requires the suspension of gold convertibility. Third, the price of gold is now greatly influenced by demand from China and India, and it seems unwise for that to partially drive what is in essence U.S. monetary policy. Most generally, I still think central bank governance can do a better job than a gold-based system that sometimes creates excess deflationary pressures.
Nonetheless, the contemporary world is always testing my belief in central banking. Exactly how will matters unfold when so many world leaders are not behaving as responsibly as they should? Might that irresponsibility seep into monetary policy? After all, populations are aging and debt is accumulating. Surely it is reasonable to worry that some of these governments will seek to monetize their debts and move toward excessively easy money.
Oh, but wait — I forgot one big new argument in favor of a gold standard: President Trump himself. Perhaps his management of central bank affairs is somewhat … erratic? Might it not be a good idea to have the operation of monetary policy protected by a greater reliance on rules? My personal preference is for a nominal GDP rule, but the irony is this: At the end of the day, the advocates of the gold standard, and their possible presence on the Federal Reserve Board, are themselves the best argument for … the gold standard.