This essay examines in detail the properties of a well functioning monetary system – defined as money plus the mechanisms to execute payments – in both the short and long run, drawing on both theory and the lessons from history. It stresses the importance of trust and of the institutions needed to secure it. Ensuring price and financial stability is critical to nurturing and maintaining that trust. In the process, the essay addresses several related questions, such as the relationship between money and debt, the viability of cryptocurrencies as money, money neutrality, and the nexus between monetary and financial stability. While the present monetary system, with central banks and a prudential apparatus at its core, can and must be improved, it still provides the best basis to build on.
The monetary system is the cornerstone of an economy. Not an outer facade, but its very foundation. The system hinges on trust. It cannot survive without it, just as we cannot survive without the oxygen we breathe. Building trust to ensure the system functions well is a daunting challenge. It requires sound and robust institutions. Lasting price and financial stability are the ultimate prize. The two concepts are inextricably linked, but because the underlying processes differ, in practice price and financial stability have often been more like uncomfortable bedfellows than perfect partners. The history of our monetary system is the history of the quest for that elusive prize. It is a journey with an uncertain destination. It takes time to gain trust, but a mere instant to lose it. The present system has central banks and a regulatory/supervisory apparatus at its core. It is by no means perfect. It can and must be improved.55 But cryptocurrencies, with their promise of fully decentralised trust, are not the answer.
Paraphrasing Churchill’s famous line about democracy, “the current monetary system is the worst, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time”.