For more than two hundred years, practically all of even the most free market advocates have assumed that money and banking were different from other types of goods and markets. From Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, the presumption has been competitive markets and free consumer choice are far better than government control and planning – except in the realm of money and financial intermediation.
This belief has been taken to the extreme over the last one hundred years, during which governments have claimed virtually absolute and unlimited authority over national monetary systems through the institution of paper money.
At least before the First World War the general consensus among economists, many political leaders, and the vast majority of the citizenry was that governments could not be completely trusted with management of the monetary system. Abuse of the monetary printing press would always be too tempting for demagogues, special interest groups, and shortsighted politicians looking for easy ways to fund their way to power, privilege, and political advantage.
The Gold Standard and the Monetary "Rules of the Game"
Thus, before 1914 the national currencies of practically all the major countries of what used to be called the "civilized world" were anchored to market-based commodities, either gold or silver. This was meant to place money outside the immediate and arbitrary manipulation of governments. Any increase in gold or silver money required private individuals to find it profitable to prospect for it in various parts of the world, mine it out of the ground and transport it to where it might be refined into usable forms, and then mint part of any new supplies into coins and bullion, with the rest made into various commercial and industrial products demanded on the market.
The paper currencies controlled by governments and their central banks were supposed to be issued only as claims to – as money substitutes for – quantities of the real gold or silver money deposited by members of the society in banks for safekeeping and the convenience of everyday business in the marketplace.
Government central banks were meant to see that the society's medium of exchange was properly assayed and minted, and to monitor and police private banks and itself to make sure that the "rules" of the gold (or silver) standard were properly followed.
Bank notes were to be issued or deposit accounts increased in the banking system as a whole only when there had been net additions to the quantity of the commodity money within the economy. Any withdrawals of the commodity money from the banking system was to be matched by a decrease in the total quantity of bank notes in circulation and in deposit accounts payable in money.