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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.