Among Austrian economists, there is a fundamental philosophical split between the “evolutionists” following Hayek, and the “moralists” following Rothbard. The former see the world in terms of dynamic, spontaneously ordering evolution of norms, where the latter see the world in terms of fixed and universally applicable ethical norms. This is perhaps a simplification, but the fact remains that for Hayekians, Rothbardian morality appears in principle as constructed as any socialist’s,1 if less destructive in practice. Hayekians, similarly, seem to the Rothbardians to be compromisers, failing to defend liberty as such and stopping short of a strictly Libertarian vision for society.2
This rift can be clearly seen in the debate on the best way to achieve sound money. While both agree that our current central-banking system is far from ideal and certainly the cause of the distortions in price structures and thus recurrent business cycles,3 4 each takes a very different approach – both methodologically and consequentially – to the question of the ideal monetary system.
Hayek, keeping with the major themes in his work, is less interested in the question of “what is good money” than “how do we find out what is good money”. The position he arrived at later in life was that “if we ever again are going to have a decent money, it will not come from government: it will be issued by private enterprise”.5 By “decent money” both mean, more or less, a standard of exchange which retains its value well across time – i.e., a noninflationary standard.
So far there is no disagreement except perhaps on emphasis. Rothbard agrees that “a free market economy and a devotion to the right of private property requires that everyone be permitted to issue whatever proposed currency names and tickets they wish.”6 Rothbard, however, despite a token nod to the selecting power of the market,7 categorically rules out token money.8
Rothbard does not rule out the use of paper in exchange. But for him paper can only ever be a “money substitute” – a legally enforceable claim on a deposit of actual specie – a “warehouse receipt” (Rothbard 1963b, ch. 12). Under such a restricted concept of money, he then characterizes fractional reserve banking as “fraud”.9 10
It should be obvious that the “warehouse receipt” model is not the only possible kind of monetary arrangement, nor even necessarily the only beneficent one. In principle, fractional reserve banking is no different than a parking lot which rents out more tickets than it has spaces, on the assumption that not everyone will park there at once.11 It is therefore difficult to imagine as “inherently fraudulent” an arrangement of which the depositor knows the full details well in advance of depositing. It would certainly be fraudulent if the bank tried to pass off its paper as a warehouse receipt, but no bank does this, because this is simply not what the dollar is.
Hayek furthermore points out many problems with a strict metallic standard which Rothbard seems to merely wish away.12 Gold inflow through mining, for example, disarranges prices in the same way that a government printer might.13 Furthermore the use of a hard commodity as specie tends to divert more resources towards its production than might be socially desirable, an issue which I have not seen Rothbard address. Presumably it is irrelevant to his consideration.
This is, of course, not to argue that token money is inherently superior to gold; only that gold is not a total remedy for the pathologies of monetary monopoly. Hayek as we have already seen readily admits that our current system of centrally-issued paper money is “one of the most unstable arrangements imaginable”. But to suggest that gold is therefore ideal is a false dichotomy. It is a second-best – a safeguard where we cannot (or have not thought to) divest the government of its monopoly over money issue.14
Rothbard was, of course, familiar with these arguments. And despite his categorical insistence on 100% reserves, he readily admits that a spontaneously ordered fractional-reserve “free-banking” system would constrain banks enough in their issue to eliminate the business cycle (Rothbard 1963b, pp. 46ff; 1963a pp. 26ff). Rothbard’s choice of 100% commodity reserves then appears simply to be a result of his ethical system.
However, despite his ethical system, there is plenty of evidence and logic to suggest that Rothbard’s rigid system is vitiated by the weaknesses of a strict commodity standard described above. Rothbard responds directly to Hayek on these points in The Case for a Genuine Gold Dollar. He does not argue that competitive token money would be necessarily distortive or inflationary – rather, his essential argument is that the market would not accept Hayek’s money, citing Mises’ account of how a commodity is chosen to serve money.
But this chiding suggests Rothbard is either a disingenuous or a careless reader. Hayek is not unaware of Mises’ regression theorem.15 He in fact paraphrases it in his prediction that, suddenly faced with a free market in money, people will initially flock to what they know to be a safe store of value – i.e. gold.16 It is only as the disadvantages of gold become apparent and as the market matures that trust in particular institutions and strong competitive checks will be built up to the point that competitive token money becomes possible. Hayek does not expect anyone to accept private token money right off the bat. Rather, as governments in recent history have shown, token money will be accepted after a period of convertibility brings it into general use.
It is, furthermore, a useless argument that “such a market-basket currency has never emerged spontaneously from the workings of the market”. It is exactly Hayek’s point that we have never had the chance to see what would emerge from the market. “The monopoly of government of issuing money has not only deprived us of good money but has also deprived us of the only process by which we can find out what would be good money” (Hayek 1977, p. 20). Rothbard has failed to separate prescription from prediction in Hayek’s work. The “market basket” based money against which he writes is the latter. It is nothing more than a sketch of what a truly free market in money could look like. Nor does he rule out hard money: no doubt he would expect hard and token money to coexist for a long time, possibly indefinitely. And if the particulars of the “market basket” tokens could not, as Rothbard suggests, be realized except by imposition from the top down,17 it is the prediction that is revised, not the prescription.
Were it simply a difference of opinion as to what the market would accept given full freedom, then there is no practical difference between the programs of the two men. But an ideal Rothbardian regime would deprive us of the discovery process no less than a central bank does today: a fractional-reserve free-banking system is the key transitional step from the initial “hard” private currencies to sound token money, which is perhaps the reason why Rothbard cannot fathom how it might come to be accepted in a free market. His identification of fractional-reserve banking with fraud rules out from the get-go much of the experimentation Hayek foresees.
The fundamental prescriptive difference between the two then, is that Hayek believed money to be a technical problem, best solved by the market, where Rothbard believed it to be an institutional problem, best solved by an economist. This is why the vagueness of Hayek’s predictions and their allowance for human discretion in regulating monies seemed distasteful to Rothbard. And this is why, even though it comports with neither of their predictions, Hayek would welcome something like Bitcoin into the market, where Rothbard would scorn it. Bitcoin indeed should demonstrate the impossibility of deducing ideal monetary arrangements a priori. No mid-century economist could have predicted its emergence. A priori deduction can only be applied to a given monetary arrangement: the economist can no more talk about the absolute “best” type of money than he can about the “best” type of computer chip. Innovation is always possible. And of course, a state monopoly is no better at solving technical monetary problems than it is at solving technical industrial problems. Things can plod along passably well, as economies have done since the rise of central banking, but it’s still no substitute for market innovation and competition.
Bitcoin demonstrates that a private token money can indeed be issued and accepted. But if in fact public distrust of private money had been so strong as to never accept an inconvertible currency, then Rothbard’s theoretical acuity would be demonstrated without enforcing his particular definition of fraud. If his monetary theory holds, there will be no reason to force all money contracts into the warehouse receipt model. And if it doesn’t, then imposing his model will be the exact sort of sclerotic regulation which he fought so stridently against in the rest of his system.
Contrast with Rothbard, Murray. “The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View,” reprinted in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, p. 208:
While it is true that traditional morals, etc. are not rationally justifiable, this is also true of any possible moral code, including any that socialists [and presumably, the Rothbardians] might ever be able to come up with. (emphasis in original)
[I]t would not be very difficult for Libertarian lawyers and jurists to arrive at a rational and objective code of libertarian legal principles and procedures based on the axiom of defense of person and property.
Hayek however regards this ideal as perhaps desirable in theory, but ultimately “fictitious”, even under a gold standard. In Denationalisation of Money (p. 88) he writes that “no real money can ever be neutral in this sense, and that we must be content with a system that rapidly corrects the inevitable errors.”
One crucial distinction between a credit expansion and entry of new gold onto the loan market is that bank credit expansion distorts the market’s reflection of the pattern of voluntary time preferences; the gold inflow embodies changes in the structure of voluntary time preferences.