All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1981


Money is a medium of exchange.

A medium of exchange is a good which people acquire neither for their own consumption nor for employment in their own production activities, but with the intention of exchanging it at a later date against those goods which they want to use either for consumption or for production.

Nothing can enter into the function of a medium of exchange which was not already previously an economic good to which people assigned exchange value before it was demanded as such a medium.

Money is the thing which serves as the generally accepted and commonly used medium of exchange. This is its only function. All other functions which people ascribe to money are merely particular aspects of its primary and sole function, that of a medium of exchange.

What is employed as money is a commodity which is used also for nonmonetary purposes. Under the gold standard, gold is money and money is gold. It is immaterial whether or not the laws assign legal tender quality only to gold coins minted by the government. What counts is that these coins really contain a fixed weight of gold and that every quantity of bullion can be transformed into coins. Under the gold standard the dollar and the pound sterling were merely names for a definite weight of gold. We call such a money commodity money.

A second sort of money is credit money. Credit money evolved out of the use of money- substitutes. It was customary to use claims, payable on demand and absolutely secure, as substitutes for the sum of money to which they gave claim.

As long as these claims had been daily maturing claims against a debtor of undisputed solvency and could be collected without notice and free of expense, their exchange value was equal to their face value; it was this perfect equivalence which assigned to them the character of money substitutes.

Fiat money is money consisting of mere tokens which can neither be employed for any industrial purposes nor convey a claim against anybody. The important thing to be remembered is that with every sort of money, demonetization—i.e., the abandonment of its use as a medium of exchange—must result in a serious fall of its exchange value.

In the course of history various commodities have been employed as media of exchange. A long evolution eliminated the greater part of these commodities from the monetary function. Only two, the precious metals gold and silver, remained. In the second part of the nineteenth century more and more governments deliberately turned toward the demonetization of silver.

The choice of the good to be employed as a medium of exchange and as money is never indifferent. It determines the course of the cash-induced changes in purchasing power. The question is only who should make the choice: the people buying and selling on the market, or the government? It was the market which in a selective process, going on for ages, finally assigned to the precious metals gold and silver the character of money. For two hundred years the governments have interfered with the market’s choice of the money medium. Even the most bigoted étatists [statists] do not venture to assert that this interference has proved beneficial.

  • Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) taught in Vienna and New York and served as a close adviser to the Foundation for Economic Education. He is considered the leading theorist of the Austrian School of the 20th century.