Thursday, September 29, 2011
The first time I met Friedrich Hayek was in 1980 at California, where he was staying at the home of another economist. Then a young editor for the Wall Street Journal, I’d asked to call on the Nobel laureate for a book review I was writing. His host invited me for dinner. Before the meal, Hayek and I retreated, alone, to the far end of the host’s living room, for a chat.We were but a few minutes into our conversation when, suddenly, Hayek clapped a hand over his nose and mouth and started coughing convulsively, before slumping onto the couch. I raced back to the host to exclaim that Professor Hayek seemed to be in trouble, only to be told that it was okay, he was just taking his snuff. A jolt of the divine herb, it seems, and the sage was back on his feet.
Hayek died 12 years later at the age of 93. I never came to know him well. But this week I found myself imagining that were his long-ago collapse-into-a-coughing fit to occur in front of me today, I’d whip out a copy of a new bill in Congress, H.R. 1098, called the Free Competition in Currency Act of 2011, and wave that under the great economist’s nose. It’s hard to think of anything, even a pinch of the strongest snuff, being a greater pick-me-up for his spirits.
For Hayek was an advocate of, among other things, private money — competing currencies — and HR 1098 would end a ban on them that has obtained here in America since the Civil War. The new bill in Congress, introduced in March by Rep. Ron Paul, would repeal the legal tender laws, prohibit taxation of certain coins and bullion, and clean up other sections of our coinage laws.
It is not a measure the Congress is going to pass in a hurry. But it is being nursed by advocates of monetary reform, and it would be unwise to discount it entirely. Few, after all, gave Congressman Paul much of a chance to win passage of a measure to audit the Federal Reserve, but when it eventually passed it was with an overwhelming, bipartisan vote. It may yet be enforced by the courts.
The Free Competition in Currency Act is far more important. It comes amid a historic collapse in the value of the dollar to less than a 1,600th of an ounce of gold. The dollar has gained a bit of value in recent days, but it is still worth less than a sixth of what it was worth as recently as, say, the start of President George W. Bush’s first term.
One of the things the government has done in the face of that collapse is seek to enforce a prohibition against private “uttering” — that is, putting into use — of coins of gold, silver, or other metal as current money and making or even possessing likenesses of such coins. H.R. 1098 would end the ban on private uttering of coins and, presumably, stop any current prosecution of such uttering.
The drive for the bill is animated, if only in part, by the case of Bernard von NotHaus, who was convicted in March of issuing a private medallion called the Liberty Dollar. The government prosecuted von NotHaus even though the coins he issued were made of silver and are today worth much more, in terms of Federal Reserve Notes, than when they were issued.