Origins and evolution of money
FREE MARKET MONEY: collectibles
Humans enjoy collecting or making, displaying, storing and trading collectibles because of genetically evolved instincts.
Homo Sapiens displaced Neanderthals 37000 years ago despite being physically weaker. Both had a similar brain size and used the same hunting tools. But, Homo Sapiens took pleasure from collecting shells, making jewelry out of them, showing them off and trading them. H. Sapiens had a collecting instinct, Neanderthals did not.
Thanks to this hobby, the H. Sapiens unconsciously created a proto-money that provided him the ability to store and transfer wealth, which enabled:
-mitigation of aggression: after a battle, tribute was a more lucrative form of exploitation for the victor, than the use of further violence against the defeated.
-delayed reciprocity: increased food sharing.
-specialization: increased production.
This proto-money meant a first step towards civilization and a social coordination advantage that made H. Sapiens to prevail.
Which attributes made an object valuable?
- It was hard to forge its value, so their value was accurately approximated by simple observations (unforgeable costliness = recognizable value), often serving as a mnemonic representing a privilege.
- Provided security against accidental lost and theft. It was usually easy to wear and hide (portability and storability).
The Neolithic era (10,000 BC until 1,200 BC) meant an intermediate phase for money between jewelry and coins, when some collectibles/jewelry increasingly took a divisible and fungible form (commodity). Standard sizes and assayability were often valued over beauty.
FREE MARKET MONEY: commodity money
Around 700 BC, the lydians, inhabitants of modern Turkey, invented coinage.
The kings of Lydia, through government mints, became the first issuers of gold and silver coins.
Until then, money still consisted in collectibles made out more of precious metals but still with a lack of uniform value. Only large merchants could assay metal, as it was too costly for retail.
Coin mints plus harshly enforced laws against counterfeiting coins enabled easy assayability at the cost that the mint could itself "self-counterfeit", i.e. debase coins.
*Debasement is the process in which a new coin with the same denomination was issued by a mint although it had less content of precious metal.
Coins led to the growth of existing markets (Lydia was a trading centre) and helped tax collectors to estimate value. The greater wealth flowing through markets, now available to be taxed, boosted the king’s revenues. Tax collectors had (almost literally) hit a gold mine.
Abuse in the debasement of centralized issued coins frequently caused hyperinflation of prices, civilizational decline and societal collapse (e.g. Roman Empire).
Outside of this western Eurasian area, many non-coinage forms of money persisted.
FIAT MONEY appears:
First paper claims on coin deposits emerged in the 7th century, in China. Private agents began issuing paper receipts redeemable for entrusted precious metals. In the 10th century, the Chinese government limited the service of issuing these notes to specific establishments to which it granted licenses. In the 12th century, Song dynasty decided to take direct control of the system and price inflation appeared (caused by monetary inflation). In the 13th century, the paper became issued exclusively by the government and not backed by any precious metal. It was a system of pure fiat money. Fiat printing (the equivalent of coin debasement) abuse ended up collapsing the system. In the 15th century, monetary metals became the main form of money again.
Towards the 16th century, in the West, paper receipts began to assume money functions through bills of exchange and promissory notes which allowed trade across hostile lands, and from the 17th century, through bank notes representing a certain amount of precious metals stored in vaults (hopefully).
During the 18th century, the technological advances of the industrial revolution made easier to counterfeit coins. As fake coins spread, use of bank notes grew (eliminating the costly assayability/validation coin flaw).
Money (silver and specially gold then) became held in centralized vaults, which was also encouraged by the improved transferability provided by banks thanks to advances in communications (e.g. telegraph) and transportations (e.g. train).
Bank notes further increased the need of trust, i.e. vulnerability to third parties.
Private vaults committed fraud by issuing more certificates than gold they held (fractional reserve banking), which in turn led to a even further centralization of metal that was stored on the largest banks. These banks became controlled by governments and eventually became paper note-issuing monopolies of precious metals. The first country was Britain, which advised by Isaac Newton, introduced the "gold standard" in 1717.
By 1900 around 50 other countries adopted the same standard.
At the beginning of WWI, in 1914, the major European powers decided to suspend the convertibility of banknotes for gold, in order to fund their operations by printing at will. The gold receipts that were commodity money until then, turned into fiat; which, by the end of the war in 1918, had lost most of its value (to different degree depending on the country).
Near the WWII end, in 1944, the victors designed the Bretton Woods system as the new economic order: the participating countries would peg their currencies to the US dollar which in turn would be pegged to gold at 35$ per ounce. Each country's gold reserves would be transported to the US, which would guarantee its redeemability.
In practice this would have required the supply of any currency including the US dollar, to increase at not higher rate than gold reserves. However, most currencies were printed at a higher rate than the US dollar, which also increased at a higher rate than the stored gold.
It is not possible to keep a fixed exchange rate under these conditions.
In 1971, President Nixon announced that US dollar would no longer be convertible to gold.
Since then, central banks print pure fiat money with self-granted monopolies.
*Image: the nature of the US dollar changed radically during 20th century. From a gold certificate before 1933, to certificates supposedly backed by gold but not redeemable in it, to pure fiat money after 1971.
FREE MARKET MONEY: bitcoin
In 2009, bitcoin appeared. A digital and easily verifiable scarce good. Integrated in a censorship resistance peer-to-peer network that enables it to be transferred without permission in a trust-minimized way.
Since then, and for the first time in history, financial self-sovereignty is possible.