25 August 2016

The Origins of Money

I'm sure that you all "know" how money started.

Societies were bartering, and it became too unwieldy, and so money was created as a proxy for value that reduced the friction in the transactions.

It's an elegant theory. The only problem is that no one has ever found an example of this ever.

No examples in archeology, none in mythology, none.

Also, how does one develop a sufficient velocity to commerce to justify the creation of money?

You need money to create the levels of commerce that justify its creation.

It's a chicken egg thing.

An alternate theory, and one that has some actual evidence behind it, is that money grew out of a system of debts and fines that were driven by the expansion of government.

This origin story actually works the way that human minds do:
Most of us have an idea of how money came to be. It goes something like this: People wanted to exchange goods for other goods, but it was difficult to coordinate. So they started exchanging goods for money, and money for goods. This tells us that money is a medium of exchange. It’s a nice and simple story. The problem is that it may not be true. We may be understanding money entirely wrong.

The above story assumes that first there was a market, and then people introduced money to make the market work better. But some people find this hard to believe. Those who subscribe to the Chartalist school [the belief that money originated with the states attempt to influence their own economy] of thought give a different history. Before money was used in markets, they say, it was used in primitive criminal justice systems. Money started as—and still is—is a record of debt. It is a way to keep track of what one person owes another. There’s anthropological evidence to back up this view. Work by Innes, and Wray suggest that the origins of money are more like this:
In a pre-market, feudal society, there was usually a system to maintain justice in the community. If someone committed a crime, the authority, let’s call him the king, would decide that the criminal owed a fine to the victim. The fine could be a cow, a sheep, three chickens, depending on the crime. Until that cow was brought forward, the criminal was indebted to the victim. The king would record the criminal’s outstanding debt.

This system changed over time. Rather than paying fines to the victim, criminals were ordered to pay fines to the king. This way, resources were being moved to the king, who could coordinate their use for the benefit of the community as a whole. This was useful for the King, and for the development of the society. But the amount of resources coming from a criminal here and there was not impressive. The system had to be expanded to draw more resources to the kingdom.

To expand the system, the king created debt-records of his own. You can think of them as pieces of papers that say King-Owes-You. Next, he went to his citizens and demanded they give him the resources he wanted. If a citizen gave their cow to the king, the king would give the citizen some of his King-Owes-You papers. Now, a cow seems more useful than a piece of paper, so it seems silly that a citizen would agree to this. But the king had thought of a solution. To make sure everyone would want his King-Owes-You papers, he created a use for them.

He proclaimed that every so often, all citizens had to come forward to the kingdom. Each citizen would be in big trouble, unless they could provide little pieces of paper that showed the king still owed them. In that case, the king would let the citizen go, and not owe them any longer. The citizen would be free to go off and acquire more King-Owes-You papers, to make sure he would be safe the next time, too. This way, all the citizens needed King-Owes-You papers to stay out of trouble. That made King-Owes-You papers widely accepted, and consequently, also a useful medium of exchange. This lead to the rise of markets.
Not only does this better match the way humanity works, the creation of money is the other is a Kumbaya moment that really hasn't ever occurred in the history of finance.

The author goes on to explain how we actually have relatively recent history to explain this:  The Spanish conquest of the Americas, where the locals saw the need for money only when their oppressors started demanding taxes.


Stephen Montsaroff said...

The degree of historical inaccuracy in this post cannot be overstated.

For the record, the first coinage in the west was Lydia, in about the 6-7th C BCE.

There are lots of records of exchange and tax prior to that. Coins replaced not so much barter, but the weighing of precious metals.

Yes, coinage helped with taxation -- but a large part of taxation until the middle ages was in kind. This includes the Roman Empire.

Post a Comment