In Honor of Ayn Rand: Alan Greenspan on the Gold Standard and Economic Freedom (1966)

Earlier I wrote a post on the gutting of Rep. Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve. In honor of Reason’s Radicals for Capitalism spotlight on Ayn Rand this week, allow me to expand on the topic of monetary policy by using the words of a member of Rand’s social and intellectual circle: Alan Greenspan.

Ironically enough, before becoming chairman of the Fed, Greenspan was an avid proponent of a gold standard and critic of the government fiat money system (a system based on paper money rather than backed by a precious metal such as gold, in which paper money can be created “out of thin air,” thus causing inflation and the erosion of the value of the dollar). Greenspan contributed to Rand’s newsletter and other publications.

In a 1966 essay entitled, “Gold and Economic Freedom,” reprinted in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Greenspan wrote:

Gold and economic freedom are inseparable, . . . the gold standard is an instrument of laissez-faire and . . . each implies and requires the other.

What medium of exchange will be acceptable to all participants in an economy is not determined arbitrarily. Where store-of-value considerations are important, as they are in richer, more civilized societies, the medium of exchange must be a durable commodity, usually a metal. A metal is generally chosen because it is homogeneous and divisible: every unit is the same as every other and it can be blended or formed in any quantity. Precious jewels, for example, are neither homogeneous nor divisible.

More important, the commodity chosen as a medium must be a luxury. Human desires for luxuries are unlimited and, therefore, luxury goods are always in demand and will always be acceptable. . . .

The term “luxury good” implies scarcity and high unit value. Having a high unit value, such a good is easily portable; for instance, an ounce of gold is worth a half-ton of pig iron. . . .

Under the gold standard, a free banking system stands as the protector of an economy’s stability and balanced growth.

In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation. There is no safe store of value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding illegal, as was done in the case of gold. . . .

The financial policy of the welfare state requires that there be no way for the owners of wealth to protect themselves. This is the shabby secret of the welfare statists’ tirades against gold. Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the “hidden” confiscation of wealth. Gold stands in the way of this insidious process. It stands as a protector of property rights. If one grasps this, one has no difficulty in understanding the statists’ antagonism toward the gold standard.

One might wonder how a man who wrote so passionately in opposing a monetary scheme that allows the government to print money backed by nothing, engage in deficit spending and the expansion of government, and erode the value of the dollar through the hidden tax of inflation could effectively become the nation’s economic dictator-in-chief. Rep. Paul is as confused by this as any other gold standard and free banking advocate. In a 2008 interview with The Daily Reckoning, Paul discussed this apparent enigma.

Q: You and former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan have famously knocked heads over the years. Can you tell me a little about that? Why it is that you seemed to be at times the only person that seemed to be keeping a very close eye on the goings-on at the Federal Reserve?

Ron Paul: Alan Greenspan from ’87 up to over a year ago was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the U.S. central bank. I see the central bank and the Federal Reserve System as unconstitutional in that they have this tremendous power and a monopoly control over money and credit, which is an ominous power. Greenspan, or any chairman of the Federal Reserve, is more powerful than even our president because he has so much control over the economy. But the interesting thing about Alan Greenspan was that he was a true believer in Austrian economics and in the gold standard. So in a private conversation I had with him I told him that I followed what he taught. In the 1960s he was very clear on his position on gold, that he liked gold and rejected the fiat monetary system, because if you have fiat money it leads to deficits and to the expansion of government – all of which he opposed.

So it’s rather ironic that now that Dr. Greenspan accepts the paper monetary system (which is a fiat system). He literally was the participant in these deficits, and I would bring this up to him in the committee because the Federal Reserve Board’s chairman always condemn deficits; it’s always Congress’s fault. But my point was Congress couldn’t do it if they weren’t complicit: If we don’t want a tax and we can’t borrow and then they have to print the money in order to accommodate the big spenders. If the Federal Reserve couldn’t do that, interest rates would go up and there would be restrain on spending. So he literally became one who once believed in the restraints of the gold standard to one who was converted into becoming the Federal Reserve Board Chairman – the one that ran this whole system of fiat money and central economic control. I would chastise him quite frequently about how can he be for a free market when he endorses a system of central economic planning by controlling the money? And when you think about it, the monetary unit is used in every single transaction, so if you can control one half of every single transaction you have a lot of power, and a lot of control.

Q: There is a story you are asked to tell often, about having Alan Greenspan sign a copy of a book called Gold and Economic Freedom. What happened there?

Ron Paul: In the 1960s, I was studying and reading Austrian economics and I received the Objectivist newsletter that Ayn Rand put out. Alan Greenspan had a piece in the newsletter and it was a delightful article – it said all the things I believed in. One day, we had a personal meeting with Greenspan just to get our pictures taken and chat for a few minutes, and we knew that was coming up. So I dug out my original copy, and I took that with me, so when we were getting ready to get our picture, I flipped it open to his article and said, “Do you remember this?” and he said he did. Then I asked him to autograph it, so he got out his pen and he was signing it, and I said, “Do you want to write a disclaimer on this article?” He said, “No, I wouldn’t do that. I just read this recently and I fully support everything I wrote.” Which is interesting because you don’t know exactly what he means. If he fully supports what he wrote, why was he managing a monetary system that was exactly opposite of what he wrote in 1966?

Adam Summers is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. He has written extensively on privatization, government reform, law and economics, and various other political and economic topics.