On October 13, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a new-world financial order. “We must create a new international financial architecture for the global age,” Brown said. “We must have a new Bretton Woods.”
Brown’s statement echoed the sentiments of French and EU president Nicolas Sarkozy, who on September 26 said, “We must rethink the financial system from scratch, as at Bretton Woods.”
So is a new “Bretton Woods” a good idea? Before we can answer that question, we need to take a look at the original Bretton Woods System, which was the world’s first fully negotiated international monetary order. What inspired global leaders to create it, and what ultimately led to its demise?
The Monetary Role of Gold
By 1900, most Western European nations had evolved from centrally planned monarchies to pseudo-capitalist republics. This resulted in the heyday of the International Gold Standard, in which market economies of the West engaged in relatively free trade, facilitated by the ultimate global currency of gold.
Gold, according to Austrian economist Carl Menger, emerged as money millennia ago. In fact, gold’s monetary nature predates the existence of the nation-state. It is “real money” in the sense that no one has to be forced to accept it: they do so willingly. And thus, gold presents a problem for nation-state governments—they can’t manipulate it as easily as paper money.
True, nation-states dating back to the Roman Empire and before have attempted to make money a state institution through the implementation of “monetary policy.” The chief tactics of these ancient states were coin clipping and debasement (mixing cheap alloys in with gold) and forcing people under “legal tender” laws to accept devalued coins at full face value. These monetary tricks ultimately led to the ruination of numerous empires throughout history, with the Romans being neither the first nor the last.
The End of the International Gold Standard
Fast-forwarding 150 decades or so, the nation-states of the early 20th century were in a similar bind: they couldn’t finance the wars they wanted to fight under the strictness of a gold standard. “War,” after all, as Randolph Bourne said, “is the health of the state,” as it lends itself to an intense concentration of government power. But early twentieth-century bureaucrats found it difficult or impossible to fund wars through taxation without inspiring domestic revolts. The other option—printing money—wasn’t feasible under a gold standard, since each paper note had to be backed by real gold. So what were war-makers to do?
What aggressive governments did do, time and time again, was temporarily suspend the convertibility of notes. Typically under a gold standard, individuals could trade in a fixed number of dollars (or pounds or francs, etc.) for an ounce of gold. To make war, governments would simply print up extra notes and all money unconvertible for the duration of the conflict—and then devalue their currencies after the war. European nations did this countless times, and the U.S. suspended convertibility during the Civil War, World War I and World War II. But then the Allied nations of that final conflict had a better idea: why not do away with the International Gold Standard once and for all and inflate without limit?
The Creature from Bretton Woods, NH
Unfortunately for them, nation-states had not yet developed the means of social control necessary to impose fiat currencies on the world. So instead, global leaders did the next best thing—they abandoned the too-restrictive International Gold Standard in favor of a new monetary order: the Bretton Woods System.
For three weeks in July of 1944, 730 delegates from all 44 World War II Allies met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, as part of the UN’s Monetary and Financial Conference. By the time they were done, they had created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). These entities—created by “democratic nations” with no democratic approval—would be the enforcers of the new world-financial order.
Ostensibly, the IMF and IBRD were supposed to facilitate “free trade.” In truth, just like modern “free trade” agreements, the IMF and IBRD inhibited and indeed prohibited truly free trade and, instead, created rules to promote government-managed and controlled trade.
Regardless, if we can believe the architects of the post-war order, Bretton Woods was intended to end the protectionist currency manipulation that occurred under the International Gold Standard. Under the gold standard, a country with a trade deficit could simply revalue its currency relative to gold, thereby encouraging exports and discouraging imports. But under Bretton Woods, all member nations had to “peg” their currencies to a weight of gold, plus or minus 1 percent.
The Death of Bretton Woods I
The U.S. dollar, however, had a different role under Bretton Woods: it would take the place of gold and serve as the world’s reserve currency. Only the U.S. dollar could be converted to gold (at $35 an ounce), and only foreign central banks could do the converting. Following Frank D. Roosevelt’s draconian Gold Confiscation Act of 1933, private ownership of gold was banned in the U.S. and remained illegal into the 1970s.
When Bretton Woods was set up, the U.S. held about 60% of world gold reserves. However, beginning with the New Deal, the ever-expanding federal government had quite an appetite and, like empires of old, preferred to fund its growth via monetary trickery instead of taxation. Thus, the government’s central bank—the always eager-to-inflate Federal Reserve—created far more dollars than there were ounces of gold backing them.
This led to an old-fashioned bank run. Foreign governments were smart enough to know there wasn’t enough gold to back all of the dollars in circulation, so they raced to redeem their dollars while they still could. By 1970, the U.S. held just 16% of world gold reserves.
Clearly, the system was unsustainable, so on August 15, 1971, President Nixon “closed the gold window” and reneged on America’s promise to redeem paper dollars in gold, severing the U.S. dollar’s 179-year tie to gold and converting the greenback into a full-fledged fiat currency.
The Birth of Bretton Woods II?
It’s said that the nations that came together for Bretton Woods I all shared a belief in “capitalism.” Austrian economists would scoff at this notion. One of the primary architects of the Bretton Woods System and the notorious IMF was John Maynard Keynes, a Fabian socialist and advocate for central planning in a “mixed economy.” Keynes attended Bretton Woods on behalf of the UK and argued for a world central bank issuing fiat notes known as “bancos.” The U.S., then a creditor nation, resisted. Now, of course, the United States—the world’s biggest and most broke debtor—would have no such leverage.
World leaders are meeting next month to talk about the possibility of setting up a new Bretton Woods System. If these leaders share a common belief, you can be sure it isn’t in capitalism, and you can bet all the fiat money in the world that gold will not play a role in Bretton Woods II. A much more likely scenario is that John Maynard Keynes will finally get his wish, 64 years later, and we’ll have a world central bank and the beginnings of true global government. Everything else Keynes advocated has failed so miraculously and led to so much misery, one can only imagine how bad life under the “banco” might be.