Credit Theory of Money
"Credit Theorists insisted that money is not a commodity but an accounting tool. In other words, it is not a “thing” at all. You can no more touch a dollar or a deutschmark than you can touch an hour or a cubic centimeter. Units of currency are merely abstract units of measurement, and as the credit theorists correctly noted, historically, such abstract systems of accounting emerged long before the use of any particular token of exchange.
The obvious next question is: If money is a just a yardstick, what then does it measure? The answer was simple: debt. A coin is, effectively, an IOU. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that a banknote is, or should be, a promise to pay a certain amount of “real money” (gold, silver, whatever that might be taken to mean), Credit Theorists argued that a banknote is simply the promise to pay something of the same value as an ounce of gold. But that’s all that money ever is. There’s no fundamental difference in this respect between a silver dollar, a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin made of a copper-nickel alloy designed to look vaguely like gold, a green piece of paper with a picture of George Washington on it, or a digital blip on some bank’s computer. Conceptually, the idea that a piece of gold is really just an IOU is always rather difficult to wrap one’s head around, but something like this must be true, because even when gold and silver coins were in use, they almost never circulated at their bullion value.
A gold coin is a promise to pay something else of equivalent value to a gold coin. After all, a gold coin is not actually useful in itself. One only accepts it because one assumes other people will.
In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings.
This element of trust of course makes everything more complicated. Early banknotes circulated via a process almost exactly like what I’ve just described, except that, like the Chinese merchants, each recipient added his or her signature to guarantee the debt’s legitimacy. But generally, the difficulty in the Chartalist position—this is what it came to be called, from the Latin charta, or token—is to establish why people would continue to trust a piece of paper. After all, why couldn’t anyone just sign Henry’s name on an IOU? True, this sort of debt-token system might work within a small village where everyone knew one another, or even among a more dispersed community like sixteenth-century Italian or twentieth-century Chinese merchants, where everyone at least had ways of keeping track of everybody else. But systems like these cannot create a full-blown currency system, and there’s no evidence that they ever have. Providing a sufficient number of IOUs to allow everyone even in a medium-sized city to be able to carry out a significant portion of their daily transactions in such currency would require millions of tokens."
Confirmation by Keynes
"John Maynard Keynes himself was much more open to what he liked to call the “alternative tradition” of credit and state theories than any economist of that stature (and Keynes is still arguably the single most important economic thinker of the twentieth century) before or since. At certain points he immersed himself in it: he spent several years in the 1920s studying Mesopotamian cuneiform banking records to try to ascertain the origins of money—his “Babylonian madness,” as he would later call it. His conclusion, which he set forth at the very beginning of his Treatise on Money, his most famous work, was more or less the only conclusion one could come to if one started not from first principles, but from a careful examination of the historical record: that the lunatic fringe was, essentially, right. Whatever its earliest origins, for the last four thousand years, money has been effectively a creature of the state. Individuals, he observed, make contracts with one another. They take out debts, and they promise payment.
The State, therefore, comes in first of all as the authority of law which enforces the payment of the thing which corresponds to the name or description in the contract. But it comes doubly when, in addition, it claims the right to determine and declare what thing corresponds to the name, and to vary its declaration from time to time—when, that is to say it claims the right to re-edit the dictionary. This right is claimed by all modern States and has been so claimed for some four thousand years at least. It is when this stage in the evolution of Money has been reached that Knapp’s Chartalism—the doctrine that money is peculiarly a creation of the State—is fully realized . . . To-day all civilized money is, beyond the possibility of dispute, chartalist.
This does not mean that the state necessarily creates money. Money is credit, it can be brought into being by private contractual agreements (loans, for instance). The state merely enforces the agreement and dictates the legal terms. Hence Keynes’ next dramatic assertion: that banks create money, and that there is no intrinsic limit to their ability to do so: since however much they lend, the borrower will have no choice but to put the money back into some bank again, and thus, from the perspective of the banking system as a whole, the total number of debits and credits will always cancel out."
"Primordial debt theory ... has been developed largely in France, by a team of researchers—not only economists but anthropologists, historians, and classicists—originally assembled around the figures of Michel Aglietta and Andre Orléans,30 and more recently, Bruno Théret, and it has since been taken up by neo-Keynesians in the United States and the United Kingdom as well.
"The core argument is that any attempt to separate monetary policy from social policy is ultimately wrong. Primordial-debt theorists insist that these have always been the same thing. Governments use taxes to create money, and they are able to do so because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself. It exists long before money and markets, and money and markets themselves are simply ways of chopping pieces of it up.
At first, the argument goes, this sense of debt was expressed not through the state, but through religion. To make the argument, Aglietta and Orléans fixed on certain works of early Sanskrit religious literature: the hymns, prayers, and poetry collected in the Vedas and the Brahmanas, priestly commentaries composed over the centuries that followed, texts that are now considered the foundations of Hindu thought. It’s not as odd a choice as it might seem. These texts constitute the earliest known historical reflections on the nature of debt.
Actually, even the very earliest Vedic poems, composed sometime between 1500 and 1200 bc, evince a constant concern with debt—which is treated as synonymous with guilt and sin.
There are numerous prayers pleading with the gods to liberate the worshipper from the shackles or bonds of debt. Sometimes these seem to refer to debt in the literal sense—Rig Veda 10.34, for instance, has a long description of the sad plight of gamblers who “wander homeless, in constant fear, in debt, and seeking money.” Elsewhere it’s clearly metaphorical. In these hymns, Yama, the god of death, figures prominently. To be in debt was to have a weight placed on you by Death. To be under any sort of unfulfilled obligation, any unkept promise, to gods or to men, was to live in the shadow of Death. Often, even in the very early texts, debt seems to stand in for a broader sense of inner suffering, from which one begs the gods—particularly Agni, who represents the sacrificial fire—for release. It was only with the Brahmanas that commentators started trying to weave all this together into a more comprehensive philosophy. The conclusion: that human existence is itself a form of debt.
Sacrifice (and these early commentators were themselves sacrificial priests) is thus called “tribute paid to Death.” Or such was the manner of speaking. In reality, as the priests knew better than anyone, sacrifice was directed to all the gods, not just Death—Death was just the intermediary. Framing things this way, though, did immediately raise the one problem that always comes up, whenever anyone conceives human life through such an idiom. If our lives are on loan, who would actually wish to repay such a debt? To live in debt is to be guilty, incomplete. But completion can only mean annihilation. In this way, the “tribute” of sacrifice could be seen as a kind of interest payment, with the life of the animal substituting temporarily for what’s really owed, which is ourselves—a mere postponement of the inevitable.
Different commentators proposed different ways out of the dilemma. Some ambitious Brahmins began telling their clients that sacrificial ritual, if done correctly, promised a way to break out of the human condition entirely and achieve eternity (since, in the face of eternity, all debts become meaningless.)35 Another way was to broaden the notion of debt, so that all social responsibilities become debts of one sort or another. Thus two famous passages in the Brahmanas insist that we are born as a debt not just to the gods, to be repaid in sacrifice, but also to the Sages who created the Vedic learning to begin with, which we must repay through study; to our ancestors (“the Fathers”), who we must repay by having children; and finally, “to men”—apparently meaning humanity as a whole, to be repaid by offering hospitality to strangers.36 Anyone, then, who lives a proper life is constantly paying back existential debts of one sort or another; but at the same time, as the notion of debt slides back into a simple sense of social obligation, it becomes something far less terrifying than the sense that one’s very existence is a loan taken against Death. Not least because social obligations always cut both ways. Especially since, once one has oneself fathered children, one is just as much a debtor as a creditor.
What primordial-debt theorists have done is to propose that the ideas encoded in these Vedic texts are not peculiar to a certain intellectual tradition of early Iron Age ritual specialists in the Ganges valley, but that they are essential to the very nature and history of human thought."