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Arguments From Centuries-Old Authority


Most of the reading I’ve done about the period suggests that claims about the framers hating paper money are accurate. To expand on Matt’s point a bit, the real lesson here is that this kind of “originalist” argument is just stupid. Obviously, we’ve learned a great deal since 1787, and moreover American political economy is so radically different there’s no reason to privilege what the framers believed about the relative merits of paper and metal money at all. Unless the framers specifically and unambiguously prohibited something in the Constitution — which is not the case here, unless you think the money supply is wholly unrelated to interstate and international commerce — there’s no reason to put any more weight on the framers’ opinions about paper money than we put on their opinions about slavery and white supremacy. That is, their arguments are worth considering only to the extent that the arguments remain relevant and persuasive, which in this case they definitely aren’t.

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  • Murc

    I believe this is another of those situations in which dusting off that hoary old chestnut is appropriate; paper money in a fiat system is a deeply shitty currency system, except for all the OTHER ones.

    • Darth Revan

      Yeah; the difficulty with currencies is that they’re all institutional. The only difference between a banknote and a gold coin is a single level of abstraction; if the institution breaks down to the point where people are actually trading their banknotes for gold, there’s no reason to believe that gold will retain any institutional value to prevent you from being completely screwed anyway.

  • Hogan

    Weight supremacy?

    I think the consensus of the Founders would be “if you’re going to have paper money, don’t screw it up the way we did during the revolution.”

  • Western Dave

    Alexander Hamilton wasn’t a Framer?

    • DocAmazing

      No. He was a Roofer.

      Hey, I don’t get to indulge in carpentry humor very often…

      • Scott Lemieux

        Yes, another problem with originalism is that the framers and ratifiers frequently disagreed about things.

  • DrDick

    Does anyone have a 2×4 or Louisville Slugger that we can use to drive into these impossibly thick skulls the fact that all money is symbolic and has no actual value other than that arbitrarily assigned by the society? There is really no difference between paper money and gold or sterling currency in this regard. All are valuable only because we say that they are.

    • ajay

      Gold’s intrinsically valuable, DrDick. You can use it to make pretty shiny things.

      • jayarr

        The shininess of gold is no better or worse than the shininess of platinum. Its only value comes from scarcity.

  • Emily

    So the only method of payment that is inherently of value is food/barter goods? Maybe that’s what they should be pushing for. The barter economy.

  • David Nieporent

    Unless the framers specifically and unambiguously prohibited something in the Constitution

    Ah, yes. I well remember the tenth amendment: “The powers not specifically and unambiguously prohibited to the federal government are reserved to the federal government.”

    (N.B. I am not endorsing the gold standard as a matter of policy (or even as a constitutional matter, though for some reason you seem to treat those as the same thing.))

    • Mary Rosh

      but given that this is an enumerated power that doesn’t really fly

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