The Problems With the Fiat Money System

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Bitcoin Standard" by Saifedean Ammous. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What exactly is fiat currency? Where do fiat currencies derive their value?

The fiat currency derives its value solely from government decree, like U.S. dollars, British Pounds, or most other national currencies in use today. Fiat currencies have no intrinsic value because they are not backed by any commodity (e.g. gold or silver).

Saifedean Ammous discusses the social and economic problems with the fiat money system and how bitcoin could solve those problems.

Economic Problems That Fiat Money Exacerbates

Ammous points out that fiat money facilitates inflation, which gives people incentive to spend their money instead of save it. If the government expands the money supply, the value of money decreases in proportion to the increase in supply—a process we refer to as inflation. Inflation discourages saving because savings lose value over time. Ammous argues that savings are a good predictor of long-term economic performance because savings allow a society to build durable infrastructure. So, over the long term, a lack of savings leads to fragile infrastructure and poor economic performance. 

He also asserts that the fiat money system and the central banking systems that promulgate it artificially lower interest rates, enticing people and businesses to borrow money for risky business ventures. This increases the fraction of business ventures that fail, reducing economic stability, increasing unemployment, and wasting resources.

(Shortform note: In The Creature from Jekyll Island, Edward Griffin elaborates on this principle. He explains that the practice of fractional lending—where banks hold only a fraction of their deposits on hand and lend out the rest—increases the money supply, which reduces the cost of capital and thus depresses interest rates. According to Griffin, not only do these low interest rates encourage businesses to borrow money for risky investments, but government protections like deposit insurance, bailouts, and the option to borrow money from the Federal Reserve encourage banks to make risky loans.) 

Measuring Economic Performance

Ammous argues that savings are a good measure of economic performance and a good predictor of future economic performance, but other economists prefer other metrics.

The Austrian School of economic thought, of which Ammous is a proponent, teaches that the strength of an economy is represented mostly by the total savings of those participating in the economy and the hardness of the money that they use.

However, Keynesianism and Monetarism teach that the total value of all transactions taking place in an economy per unit of time is the primary measure of economic performance. In other words, the health of the economy is best measured by aggregate spending, not savings.

Social Problems That Fiat Money Exacerbates

Ammous further explains that, in principle, fiat money allows a government to spend all the resources of all its citizens, not just the funds that it collects in taxes or other revenue. This is because the government can finance any project just by printing more money. This has the same effect as a tax, since it takes value away from the people by devaluing their money, but usually people don’t perceive it as a tax.

Ammous argues that this is particularly problematic in war because it means nations can fight each other until they’ve completely exhausted the resources of their entire respective populations, not just until the government has exhausted its treasury. He points to World War I as an example of one of the first wars fought with fiat money, and conjectures that the war would have been resolved sooner and with less bloodshed if countries had stayed on the gold standard.

The Problems With the Fiat Money System

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  • Why bitcoin has the potential to replace the gold standard
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  • Why bitcoin will never be a global currency for day-to-day transactions

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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