Since the gold standard was abandoned in 1971, many people have sought to return to such a standard in order to combat inflation and rein in central banks. Keynesians and others who support fiat currency and central banking present several criticisms of this approach. One of these criticisms is particularly nonsensical, but occurs with increasing frequency: that there is not enough gold in the world to back the quantity of currency in existence, and thus returning to gold would set off a deflationary spiral while destroying several industries that depend on gold. Let us address this question from a scientific standpoint, return to economic matters, and address the claimed effects.
Let us begin by finding the absolute limit of what gold can do for a monetary system. As the United States dollar is the world reserve currency at the time of this writing, it makes sense to use it as the currency to peg to gold. The smallest unit of gold is the atom, and the smallest unit of dollars is the penny. The most extreme possible case would be to set one penny equal to one atom of gold. What would this look like in practice? Any basic text on chemistry can lead us to the answer. The only stable isotope of gold is Au-197, and its molar mass is 196.967. This means that in about 197 grams of gold, or 6⅓ troy ounce coins of the type minted by many governments and private mints, there will be Avogadro’s constant of atoms, which is 6.022140857×10^23. Setting one penny equal to one atom of gold, this is $6.022×10^21 or $6.022 sextillion easily fitting in one’s hand.
This amount of money is so large that people cannot truly understand it due to the lack of a frame of reference for it. Few people will handle anything beyond millions of dollars at any point in their lives. Large businesses may deal with billions of dollars. The most powerful governments have budgets in the trillions of dollars. According to a History Channel documentary, the dollar value of the entire planet is in the quadrillions of dollars, checking in at $6,873,951,620,979,800, and subtracting Earth’s gold content leaves $6,862,465,304,321,880. As the limit of one penny per atom allows one to hold the current market value of a million Earths in one’s hand, it is clear that science imposes no physical limit to make a gold standard infeasible.
Another useful exercise is to try setting the value of all available gold equal to the value of the rest of the planet. The total available gold content at present amounts to 186,700 metric tons. Defining this amount of gold to be worth the above figure of $6,862,465,304,321,880 gives a gold price of $36,756.64 per gram or $1,143,259.40 per troy ounce. This is very expensive by current standards, but current standards do not come close to economizing the entire planet. The actual price would therefore be far lower than this, but this exercise is useful for setting an upper bound.
Perhaps critics of restoring sound money mean to say that the gold standard could not be reintroduced at current gold prices. In this, they are correct; at the time of this writing, gold trades at $1,284 per troy ounce. Multiplied by the 186,700 metric tons of gold available, this gives $7.707 trillion of gold-backed currency, which is not enough for the United States economy, let alone the entire world. The solution, then, is to devalue fiat currencies to fit the available gold supply. According to the CIA World Factbook, the gross world product in 2015 was $75.73 trillion. Covering this with the available gold gives a gold price of $12,616.75 per troy ounce, which is an order of magnitude above current prices, but not outlandish.
Gold has gained several practical applications in recent times, particularly in medicine and technology. Critics claim that returning gold to monetary use would devastate these industries, along with the jewelry industry. In each case, critics are overreacting. Research toward creating substitutes which work nearly as well in electronics is promising. Gold salts in medicine have numerous side effects, monitoring requirements, limited efficacy, and very slow onset of action. Finally, there is no particular reason why we should care about an industry that produces impractical novelties to the extent of protecting it through fiat currency. It would be better to free up jewelers to do something more productive and helpful to others.
The other major criticism is that returning to a gold standard will cause a harmful episode of deflation. Paul Krugman writes,
“[W]hen people expect falling prices, they become less willing to spend, and in particular less willing to borrow. After all, when prices are falling, just sitting on cash becomes an investment with a positive real yield – Japanese bank deposits are a really good deal compared with those in America — and anyone considering borrowing, even for a productive investment, has to take account of the fact that the loan will have to repaid in dollars that are worth more than the dollars you borrowed.”
But those who are less willing to spend or borrow are necessarily more willing to save, which will allow them to spend more later or fund new businesses and investments. There is also the matter that one cannot hold out forever; one must eventually purchase goods and services. That the technology industry thrives despite producing the most deflationary goods shows that there is nothing harmful about this. It turns out that the value of using a current computer over the next year is worth more than holding out for a more powerful computer next year. It is also true that holding out for more food next month does not work if one cannot survive until then without food now. One may object that this would concentrate wealth in the hands of those who can hold out, but this is a feature rather than a bug because it redistributes resources to those who have been good stewards of resources.
Those who have already borrowed face a larger debt burden in a deflationary environment, and though creditors experience an equal gain, creditors are unlikely to increase their spending to offset the reduced spending of debtors. But again, this is a feature rather than a bug because it incentivizes saving over borrowing while pushing some debtors into default, thus punishing unwise lenders with loss of principal and unwise borrowers with bad credit ratings.
With falling prices, profits and wages usually have to fall as well. But profits are a function of prices and costs, which are also prices. This leaves profits largely unaffected on a percentage basis. Wages are prices as well, and the need to cut nominal wages in a deflationary environment could both incentivize firms to release their worst employees and provide pushback against minimum wage laws.
Finally, there is the belief that the sort of deflation that may be caused by returning to gold would cause a recession. But the above rebuttals deprive this problem of any mechanism by which it might occur. In fact, the empirical evidence suggests that deflation is linked to economic expansion, as occurred in the United States during the 19th century. The only period in which a correlation between deflation and depression does appear is the Great Depression (1929-34), and this may be linked to the central bank policies of the 1920s, which fraudulently inflated the money supply beyond the set gold exchange rates of the time.
While a free market in money would be the most desirable condition from a libertarian perspective, returning to a gold standard is a superior option to that of allowing fiat currency and central banking to continue as they are. The concerns about a lack of gold supply for returning to a gold standard are without merit, and the fears of deflation and devastation to industry are unfounded.