There is much confusion over what the legal tender law does. I have read articles, written by people who are otherwise knowledgeable about economics, claiming that legal tender forces merchants to accept dollars under threat of imprisonment. Recently, I wrote a short article for Forbes clarifying how legal tender law works in the US.
Legal tender law has nothing to do with merchants. If you want to sell steak dinners in your restaurant for silver, you may legally have at it. Unfortunately, the tax code discourages your would-be customers as I wrote in another article.
The legal tender law targets the lender. It grants to debtors a right to repay a debt in dollars. In practice, this means that if you lend gold, the debtor gets a free put option at your expense. If the gold price rises, he can repay in dollars. If it falls, of course he will be happy to repay in gold. It’s a rotten deal for the lender.
The relationship between lender and borrower is mutually beneficial, or else it would not exist. The parties are exchanging wealth and income, creating new wealth and new income in the process. The government is displeased by this happy marriage, and busts it up by sticking a gun in the lender’s face. His right to expect his partner to honor a signed agreement is violated.
Because no lender will lend gold under such circumstances, gold is relegated to hoarding and speculation only. This strikes a blow to savers, because the best way to save is to lend and earn interest. Savers are forced to choose between hoarding gold, getting no yield, or holding dollars and getting whatever yield crumbs are dropped by the Fed.
If there’s no lending in gold, what takes its place? The Fed force-feeds credit in ever-larger amounts, and at ever-falling interest rates.
The Fed is supposed to make its credit decisions in order to optimize two variables. First, employment shouldn’t be too high or too low. Second, consumer prices shouldn’t rise too quickly or too slowly. The Fed has little ability to predict employment and prices, and even less control over them.
Most Fed critics focus on the quantity of money. Is there too much, or too little? Is the rate of increase too fast or too slow? Is monetary policy too tight or too loose? Lost in this noise is any discussion of who the lender is.
If you buy Treasury bonds, then you know you are lending to the government. You are enabling welfare spending, and a few cases of lending to such worthy activities as housing speculation.
What if you don’t? Well if you deposit dollars in a bank, you are funding the bank’s purchase of Treasury and other bonds. You know, or reasonably ought to know, that this money is being lent.
But suppose you don’t even do that. Suppose you keep a wad of dollar bills under the mattress. You are still lending. The dollar is the Fed’s credit paper. You are financing the Fed’s activities, which consist of buying Treasury bonds and various other bonds.
You’re the patsy. You are the lender.
Anybody who wants to earn dollars is bringing demand for dollars to the market—in other words, making a bid on dollars. With what do they bid? They bid with their labor, with tangible goods, and with land. All assets today are bidding on the dollar, though most people look at it inside out. They think that all assets are offered for sale at the right price.
In any case, this universal bid on the dollar provides credit to the Fed. By placing wealth in the Fed’s hands, everyone gives it their savings to lend out.
Forget about what this does to consumer prices. There are much more serious implications. In place of the delicate, mutually beneficial relationships involved in lending, the Fed sucks the savings from the people, and pumps it out at high pressure. The Fed’s indiscriminate deluge of credit is not a substitute for individual thinking, planning, acting, and lending.
The consequence is incalculable destruction.
The legal tender law does not attack the ability to do a trade here and now, “cash on the barrel head.” It attacks something subtler but just as important. It destroys your ability to plan long range, to prepare for the passage of time. Time is a universal in the human experience. We all work during our adulthood with urgency, because some day we will grow old and be unable to work. To plan for that day, we save while we work and lend our savings to earn interest.
The motivation to borrow also comes from planning for the passage of time. The entrepreneur wants to start or grow a business now, while he has the opportunity, and energy. That’s why he is willing to pay interest out of part of his profits.
In a loan, the borrower gets money immediately, but the lender gets paid later. Time is an integral part of the deal, as one party prefers to be paid later.
In the free market, nothing comes between the saver and the entrepreneur. In central banking, by contrast, the legal tender law attacks the very heart of the free market, like an insidious poison. It disenfranchises the saver, enabling the Fed to plunder his nest egg and undermine his retirement plans.
At the same time, the Fed abuses the hapless entrepreneur too. It lures him to borrow with the promise of low rates, and then like Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown, cuts the interest rate again. This drives down his profit margin and plunders his capital.
Legal tender law takes away your ability to plan for the future. It replaces a hundred million individual decisions whether or not to have tea, with a giant high-pressure fire hose that blasts hot wastewater indiscriminately. No matter whether they open the spigot further, or close it slightly, the scalding deluge of Fed credit is not in any way equivalent to the individual planning, saving, and borrowing that would go on if we had a free market.