- Liberty Dollars
November 28, 2007
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
WASHINGTONRecently, The Washington Post carried a front-page story
about a federal raid on the headquarters of the National Organization
for the Repeal of the Federal Reserve Act and Internal Revenue Code
(Norfed). The Indiana-based company, which advocates "sound money,"
has been selling coins and paper certificates backed by gold and
silver for years, in effect trying to compete with the dollar.
The government ignored Norfed's "Liberty Dollars" for a long
timeuntil the group started selling thousands of coins with Ron
Paul's likeness to show support for the Republican presidential
candidate. Paul also wants to abolish the Federal Reserve.
To the public at large, the activities of Norfed seem utopian, naive
and even downright fraudulent. The idea that the world's greatest
economy could be run without a central bank and private parties could
replace the government as issuers of currency is one that many people
will find scary. With the dollar in something of a free fall and the
United States in the midst of a housing and credit crisis that has
sent some of the nation's top CEOs packing, Americans will be looking
for financial security, not monetary adventures.
And yet it is precisely in such a financially wobbly environment that
the actions of Norfed should invite a critical look at the way money
is managed. Some of the country's greatest economists, including Nobel
Prize winners, have been saying for years that the Federal Reserve has
probably caused more problems than it has solved since its creation in
1913. Its role in the last century's boom and bust cycles is a matter
of record; it looks as though it played a similar role in the current
housing market crisis too.
While the creation of the Federal Reserve was essentially a response
to a series of bank runs, those crises were mild compared to the ones
that were to follow. In 1913, the United States was under the gold
standard. Although the government issued currency, the fact that
currency was tied to gold meant the authorities could not manipulate
the money supply easily. The Fed's initial mission was to guarantee
the convertibility of deposits into currency on demand. A few decades
later, the United States abandoned the gold standard and the Federal
Reserve became the country's most powerful economic institution,
exercising its monopoly in issuing currency based on the discretionary
power of its board of governors.
All in all, financial instability has been far greater since the
creation of the Federal Reserve. What did the Great Depression teach
us? Essentially that even with the best of intentions, it is
impossible for the authorities to manage the supply of money in
accordance with the exact needs of the economy. A country's economy is
the sum of millions of people making decisions that no single
individual is in a position to anticipate. As economist Murray
Rothbard showed in his book "America's Great Depression," in the 1920s
the Federal Reserve pumped up the money supply, expanding credit by
more than 60 percent. Because the economy was very productive, this
monetary expansion did not show up in the regular inflation figures.
But, as is always the case with inflation, many resources went to the
wrong kind of investmentsuntil the crisis hit. The late Milton
Friedman showed how the Fed made things worse by not providing the
system with enough liquidity once the Depression was obvious.
The current housing market and debt market crises are in good part the
children of the Federal Reserve. By cutting rates 13 times between
2001 and 2003, and then keeping them very low for years, monetary
policy contributed to the housing bubble. That is not to say other
factorsincluding financial instruments that made it difficult to see
that the underlying foundation was not as solid as it seemeddid not
play a part too. But, once again, the Fed has turned out to be a
factor of financial instability.
In this context, Norfed's attempt to prove to the Fed that the market
is ready to trust private currency backed by gold is a welcome
occasion to take a second look at some of the economic institutions we
take for granted. Naive and utopian? You bet. But that is probably
because of how far the world has moved from the time when money was
too important to be left to the politicians.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow and Director of The Center on
Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru
and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London
School of Economics. He is widely published and has lectured on world
economic and political issues including at the Mont Pelerin Society,
Naumann Foundation (Germany), FAES Foundation (Spain), Brazilian
Institute of Business Studies, Fundación Libertad (Argentina), CEDICE
Foundation (Venezuela), Florida International University, and the
Ecuadorian Chamber of Commerce. He is the author of the Independent
Institute books The Che Guevara Myth and Liberty for Latin America.
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