A forgotten 300-year-old-solution to Alex Salmond's money problems

Adam Smith or David Hume were no slouches when it came to economics but on the subject of monetary policy, the palm goes not to those superstars of the Scottish Enlightenment but to a man born a generation before them and much less well known.

One of the centrepieces of the SNP’s manifesto for Scottish independence is a pledge to keep the British pound. As far as Alex Salmond is concerned, the future of money is the status quo. Meanwhile, on 18 November, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, endorsed the viability of digital money in a letter to the US Congress. Within a week, the price of a single Bitcoin – the best-known web-based currency – had passed $1,200 (11 months ago, it was worth just $13.50). For the technocracy of Silicon Valley, the future of money is in the cloud.

These two seemingly unrelated developments are linked. They represent alternative answers to the questions at the centre of all monetary history: who should govern our money and how? The remarkable thing is that both answers were exposed as dangerous errors centuries ago. While the geeks behind Bitcoin can be excused their ignorance of this, the history-loving Scottish First Minister most definitely cannot – because the man who first explained these answers’ failings was none other than the greatest monetary thinker that Scotland has ever produced.

I don’t mean Adam Smith or David Hume. They were no slouches when it came to economics but on the subject of monetary policy, the palm goes not to those superstars of the Scottish Enlightenment but to a man born a generation before them and much less well known: John Law of Lauriston.

While Smith and Hume spent their formative years swotting in the libraries of Oxford and Edinburgh, respectively, Law – the mathematically gifted son of a prosperous Edinburgh goldsmith – hightailed it down to London to learn the practical business of modern banking from the entrepreneurs, inventors, gamblers and quacks who were busy fomenting the financial revolution that was sweeping London in the 1690s.

When he returned to Edinburgh, all the talk was of a possible union with England. The key economic question, then as now, was what to do about the currency. The conventional answer was the one that Alex Salmond echoes today: to adopt the pound sterling, under the control of the then newly founded Bank of England.

John Law was having none of it. He had discovered an economic truth that we know only too well today – that monetary policy has profound effects on employment, output and the distribution of wealth. As a result, he concluded, it would be “contrair to reason to limit the industry of the people” by acquiescing in the use of a currency “not in our power, but in the power of our enemies”.

How many citizens of Spain, where unemployment is at 27 per cent, or of Italy, where GDP today has fallen to the level of 13 years ago, wish their leaders had listened to the laird of Lauriston’s 300-year-old advice that letting other people manage your money is sheer madness? Yet the SNP’s plan, bizarrely, is to re-create the eurozone within the British Isles.

If letting other people decide the value of your currency is daft, what is the alternative? Law first toyed with the idea of creating a national currency with a value that would be linked to Scotland’s stock of land. That was a similar idea to the solution the English were to settle on in time – a gold standard that fixed the value of the pound to that of precious metal.

The principle behind such commodity-based systems is that the simplest way of avoiding a monetary standard controlled by one’s enemies is to plump for one controlled by nobody at all. No one, after all, can conjure up gold, or land, out of nothing.

That is also the logic of Bitcoin. A physical commodity in fixed supply is replaced by a virtual one subject to a preprogrammed ceiling – but the principle is the same. Don’t let someone else manipulate the supply of the money you use; better that it should be free from manipulation by anyone at all.

This second answer to the perennial question of monetary governance is also flawed. The problem – learned the hard way over the course of two centuries under the operation of the gold standard – is that an arbitrary monetary standard is just that: arbitrary.

There is no reason whatsoever to expect gold discoveries to keep pace with economic growth. The supply of land – let alone of Bitcoins – is even less flexible. The result is a ruinous tendency to deflation. The flip side of the relentless rise in price of a single Bitcoin is the relentless fall in the price of everything else, as measured in Bitcoins.

So John Law jettisoned this second answer, too. Having failed to convince his fellow Scots to reject the Acts of Union, he went to France. There, his avant-garde ideas found a readier audience and he engineered an unlikely ascent that culminated in his appointment as the country’s minister of finance.

In 1719, he took France off its gold standard and introduced paper money, issued at the discretion of the national government. It was the first European fiat currency regime, regulated by the world’s first deliberate monetary policy.

Thus Law furnished a third answer to the central question of monetary history – and it is one for the ages. Rather than ceding the control of one’s money to someone else – the Alex Salmond solution – or abandoning it to the vagaries of blind chance – the Bitcoin solution – the ideal way is to manage one’s money oneself and in one’s own national interest.

Such enlightenment, it seems, can be fleeting. David Hume has his statue on Edinbugh’s Royal Mile and there is one of Adam Smith on the High Street. John Law, on the other hand, hasn’t even made it into the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Much worse than this is that his teachings, too, have been utterly forgotten by those who claim to be the staunchest defenders of his beloved homeland.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond at the launch of the White Paper for Scottish Independence in November 2013. Photo: Getty.

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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