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Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Australia’s Gold Standard Blunder Has Striking Parallels With the United States and the UK

Governments don’t like gold because they can’t print it is a truism worth canonizing in the Book of Proverbs.

Image Credit: iStock

From the center of the continental United States to the middle of Australia is 9,241 miles. It’s a little further from London to Sydney—about 10,572 miles. But in economic matters—the laws of economics being both immutable and universal—the distances between the world’s cities and countries are far smaller.

I was recently reminded of this fact while researching the economic history of the Land Down Under. Curious to find out if Australia’s move away from a gold standard bore any similarities to events in the US and the UK, I discovered that the parallels are striking.

The United States and the United Kingdom (indeed, most of the world) began the 20th Century with currencies tied to the yellow metal. In the U.S., the dollar was “as good as gold”—defined as approximately 1/20 of an ounce. (The United States government steadfastly honored its commitment to redeem dollars for gold at $20.67 per ounce.)

Sir Isaac Newton, as head of the Mint, established the official ratio of gold to the British pound in 1717. An ounce of gold equated to £4.25. Except for the years of the Napoleonic Wars, that rate remained virtually unchanged until 1914. Prices of goods and services were stable, and citizens had to learn about “inflation” from history books. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries, which yielded the greatest improvement in living standards in world history, was essentially financed by sound, metallic money.

Australia became a nation on January 1, 1901, when six British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania—unified to form a Commonwealth. For nearly a decade, each former colony circulated its own money (both gold coin and gold-backed paper). A remarkably stable arrangement, the different currencies traded against each other at par (one for one). Then in 1910, the Parliament created a single national currency, the Australian pound, and pegged it to the British pound, which effectively tied Aussie money to gold.

So far, so good. Then came, in the summer of 1914, the calamity of the First World War. Government expenditures soared and while taxes and borrowing did as well, both Britain and Australia suspended the redemption of their paper currencies into gold so they could print lots of paper money. A late entrant into the conflict (in 1917), the US did not go that far but it did make gold exports nearly impossible.

Peter Yule in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War writes,

The Australian government decided in August 1914 to pay for the war primarily by printing money and borrowing rather than increasing taxation…The expenditure on the war was vastly greater than any previous object of government expenditure in Australian history, with the sole exception of railway construction.

Reflecting huge increases in the paper money supply, prices in all three nations took off during the war. In Britain, for example, the rate of price inflation in 1914 was zero. By 1917, prices were rising at an annual rate exceeding 25 percent. The government of Australia quadrupled the quantity of paper notes, yielding a 50 percent hike in the price level there by war’s end. Inflation in America jumped by 18 percent in 1918 alone.

Let’s pause to note that governments everywhere finance their spending primarily by taxing, borrowing, and printing. Toss in a few pennies here and there from asset sales and user fees and that’s pretty much it. Raising taxes is painful and sometimes politically difficult. Borrowing by issuing debt instruments such as bonds simply requires tax money later (for both principal and interest).

Printing money is a tax too—people pay for it in higher prices—but politicians can get off the hook by blaming shopkeepers for that. Bottom line: Inflation doesn’t make war any cheaper, it simply pays for it in a way that’s less direct than taxing and borrowing. And it brings with it a host of other problems, such as booms and busts and the erosion of savings.

Governments don’t like gold because they can’t print it is a truism worth canonizing in the Book of Proverbs. When a nation is on a gold standard, the adulteration or abandonment of it is an ever-present danger as governments go to war, engage in deficit spending, create central banking cartels, and otherwise scheme to debase the currency for short-term political and economic advantage.

After the inflation of World War I, Britain under Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill attempted to restore a gold standard at the pre-War rate—essentially pretending it hadn’t printed a deluge of paper pounds. Australia mimicked British policy by maintaining its currency’s peg to the pound. As I explained in detail in “Winston Churchill’s Gold Standard Folly,” this was an unsustainable blunder. Australia abandoned the gold standard just six years later (in 1929), and Britain ditched it in 1931. Franklin Roosevelt seized the monetary gold of American citizens in 1933. All three countries, as well as the rest of the world, have been inflating their paper steadily ever since.

From a lifetime of experience, Ron Manners knows the mining business. He knows gold as well as he knows his native Australia and chairs the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation in Perth. Among the titles I carry, one is FEE’s Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. When I advised Ron that I was working on this article, he told me a revealing story.

Somebody smashed into his car about a year ago, totaling it. What did he do? He retrieved a one-kilo bar of gold from his personal stash. He bought it a half century ago when gold sold for about 150 Australian dollars (AUD) per ounce and a kilo of it could buy a new car. He took the gold to a dealership a few months ago and bought a brand-new car with it.

Look at it this way: A roughly comparable new car in 1973 cost about 5,300 AUD, or one kilo of gold. Adjusted for inflation, that car is priced in Australian paper dollars today at about 57,000. But its price in terms of gold is the same—one kilo. That’s why Manners says, “We need a gold standard. It’s the only true measure of things and the only way to keep governments honest.”

Australia’s Prime Minister during most of World War I and until 1923 was a colorful, independent figure named Billy Hughes. He frequently clashed with US President Woodrow Wilson, who famously labeled Hughes “a pestiferous varmint.” For inflicting decades of currency debasement upon the peoples of Australia, Britain and America, “pestiferous varmint” is a badge that political leaders in all three countries deserve.

For Additional Information, See:

The International Gold Standard and U.S. Monetary Policy From World War I to the New Deal by Leland Crabbe

Winston Churchill’s Gold Standard Folly by Lawrence W. Reed

The Abuse of Money, Part I by Lawrence W. Reed

The Abuse of Money, Part II by Lawrence W. Reed

The First World War Impact on Australian Economy at UKEssays.com

Historical Gold Prices


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.