Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek was, as he says in the 1990 introduction to his Denationalization of Money: The Argument Refined, one of the chief “gold bugs” of the 20th century. And he reminded us, so long as politicians want to control money, gold-backed currency is essential to protect our liberty from the politics of inflation.
But his concern for money and market reached back to his earlier work, as noted in a number of articles posted in recent years at mises.org. As noted by Nikolay Gertchev:
In a series of five lectures delivered in 1937, and published under the title Monetary Nationalism and International Stability, Hayek offers an in-depth analysis of the main deficiencies of the present-day monetary system. In a nutshell, he identifies two factors that disrupt international economic relations: the fractional reserve commercial banks and the national central banks. The former are the primary source for the international transmission of the business cycles, while the attempts of the latter to correct the imbalances de facto amplify the resulting instability.
And Demelza Hays writes:
In 1975 Hayek eventually gave a lecture entitled “Choice of Currency,” in which he articulated for the first time the provocative demand that the state monopoly on money should be repealed. The publication of the monographs Free Choice in Currency and The Denationalization of Money followed a year later, in which he expanded in greater detail on his ideas on competition between private money issuers. …
What shape would an order reflecting these power-sharing principles take, and how could it emerge? Hayek argues that such an order would take shape if the following liberties were granted:
Fast forward nearly a half century and Hayek’s call for the denationalization of money seems to be a real possibility, not just a crank libertarian position safely ignored by the monetary authorities.
The coming of the block chain technology and cryptocurrencies certainly suggest that the original post-World War II Bretton Woods “settlement” of the status of money, that gold and US dollars, redeemable in gold, were the basis for international settlements, failed. As have later revisions of the idea. Thus, an era of monetary uncertainty may give rise to possibilities for market-oriented reforms.
Bitcoin, as an example of “virtual gold,” gains its value from the limited number of units of that cryptocurrency and the expense in “mining” more of those units, not unlike real gold. While Bitcoin is the best known of the cryptocurrencies, CoinMarketCap.com lists over a thousand crypto currencies that are traded (though a significant percentage of these are actually ICOs — Initial Crypto Offerings — a way to raise funds for a particular project). Much of the power of the cryptos is that they can be easily, and privately, bought, sold, and exchanged.
Hayek predicted that normal market forces would apply to the goods we use to facilitate exchange (“currencies”) if only governments would get out of the way. In a free market for money he suggested that major financial institutions would sponsor competing currencies, probably defined by “baskets” of commodities. He speculates on how the market would maintain the value and stability of such currencies, far better than any political system of legal tender.
To some degree, this seems to be happening with cryptocurrencies.
And then along comes the 900 pound gorilla. Facebook, with two billion users, has decided to enter the cryptocurrency market with its Libra coin. Since the Libra would be usable as a currency on Facebook itself, the company probably has calculated that it will have a strong competitive advantage over any of the competing currencies.
Ah, but … and here is the rub, the Libra is not a naturally limited good, as Bitcoin is, but can be multiplied to infinity. It is not stabilized by reference to a basket of commodities as Hayek recommended. Rather, it will be defined by a changeable basket of fiat currencies!
That’s right. Facebook and Libra’s cooperating founding organizations (including PayPal, Visa, Uber …) hope to provide a stable cryptocurrency by tying it to a group of government currencies! According to Techcrunch:
A Libra is a unit of the Libra cryptocurrency that’s represented by a three wavy horizontal line unicode character ≋ like the dollar is represented by $. The value of a Libra is meant to stay largely stable, so it’s a good medium of exchange, as merchants can be confident they won’t be paid a Libra today that’s then worth less tomorrow. The Libra’s value is tied to a basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities for a slew of historically stable international currencies, including the dollar, pound, euro, Swiss franc and yen. The Libra Association maintains this basket of assets and can change the balance of its composition if necessary to offset major price fluctuations in any one foreign currency so that the value of a Libra stays consistent.
Well, that’s it. Zuckerberg is no Hayek. And the Libra is no Bitcoin.