An interesting experiment is take out a bank note from your wallet or purse and ask your friends and family , “Why does this piece of paper have value?” You’ll get a range of answers. Some people may think “gold”. They will be completely wrong. There was a time when they would have been right. Once you could demand a fixed weight in gold in exchange for a pound or a dollar, but those days are long gone. Some may say “ Because you can buy things with it” — an answer that only begs the question! “Faith” will be another possible answer. Everyone will accept it because everyone else will!
There is the “because it is legal tender” argument. But, do we all do what we are supposed to purely because the law may require it? Do drug dealers happily accept cash, in dollars or pounds, for their wares because they are concerned to comply with legal requirements?
There must be another reason.
Suppose I wanted to establish my own currency. I’d start with a collection of business cards or even old Christmas cards, and write on the back of each one, 1 Martin, 5 Martins , 10 Martins etc. How would I ensure they were worth anything?. I could promise everyone that each ‘Martin’ would be redeemable for $1 or £1. If I was sufficiently well regarded in the neighbourhood then that would work, up to a point. That’s exactly what some countries do. They peg their currencies to another currency, usually the US$ or the Euro. These currencies work on the basis of an IOU. However, if confidence is insufficient in the ability of that country to maintain the peg then speculators move in to try to make a killing by forcing its value down. It can be a dangerous game to play as many countries have found to their cost. If I can’t redeem the IOU at what I promise then technically I’m in default.
So what else could I do? Legally not much. But, if I were unscrupulously, not to say criminally, inclined, I could start a protection racket. I’d tell all my neighbours there was a problem with gangs of hooligans who came into the area at night to break windows and damage cars etc. I’d offer to protect everyone but the cost would be a signed business card of 5 Martins or however much I considered each person and household could afford. They would want to know how to acquire my signed business cards and I’d suggest they could paint my house, mow my lawn or clean my car or whatever. My signed business cards would acquire a value to me. I’d get work done for nothing! People from out of the area, who weren’t covered by any offer of protection would also work for me to acquire the Martins and either sell them to those who were in need of protection, or exchange them for an agreed value of goods and services. My business cards would be just like money. I’d be have to issue just enough Martins to enable my neighbours to acquire the cards at not too great a cost but not too many that they started to lose their value!
Martins would have an exchange rate! I would naturally keep an eye on what that was and use fiscal policies to control its value. My business card would still be an IOU but this time it would be a much vaguer IOU. There would be no guarantee that a ‘Martin’ would be worth anything other than 10% of 10 Martins.
Whereas everyone else would think of Martins as money, to me, as an issuer they would be useful but I wouldn’t view them in the same light as users of Martins. There would be no point in saving them up, for example, just in case I was short of them at some time in the future. I’d always be in debt in the sense that I’d always have issued more Martins than get returned to me. Would I have to balance my budget and only spend, in Martins, what I received in Martins? No of course not!
If I were arrested and thrown into jail then my cards would be instantly worthless. If another racketeer took over my patch he might, to establish some form of ‘customer relationship’, offer to redeem some of them but he would not have to.
My neighbours will be pleased to know that protection racketeer isn’t exactly my choice of profession. I’m not confident I’d be able to frighten people sufficiently to keep their mouths shut! But governments aren’t similarly constrained. They send us tax bills so we can pay for their protection from all sort of threats, both real and imagined. If we don’t pay we don’t get our windows and cars damaged but we do run the risk of being jailed! Libertarians probably like the idea that Governments run legalised protection rackets. Liberals and Socialists less so but that’s essentially the way things are. It is the power of the State which gives the $$ and ££ their value.
So whereas Bob will take a £5 note or a $5 bill in payment from Ann because Bob knows that Col will take it from him, it cannot be an infinite chain. The chain is possible because at the end of it, Zoe has a tax bill to pay. It maybe a TV licence or car registration, and she needs that £5 note to help pay it.
If a government ceases to exist, for any reason, as happened when East Germany dissolved itself in 1989, its currency becomes worthless. There’s no need to pay the protection money, sorry taxes, any longer! The new racketeers, sorry the new unified German Government, weren’t completely heartless though. They did offer to exchange Ostmarks for Deutschmarks up to a certain value!