Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

I always enjoy reading whatever George Selgin has to say about monetary theory and monetary policy and I mostly find myself in agreement with him.

George always is very positive towards the views of Milton Friedman, which is something I true enjoy as longtime Friedmanite. I particular like George’s 2008 paper “Milton Friedman and the Case against Currency Monopoly”, in which he describes Friedman’s transformation over the years from being in favour of activist monetary policy to becoming in favour of a constant growth rule for the money supply and then finally to a basically Free Banking view.

I believe that George’s arguments make a lot of sense I and I always thought of Milton Friedman as a much more radical libertarian than it is normally the perception. In my book (it’s in Danish – who will translate it into English?) on Friedman I make the argument that Friedman is a pragmatic revolutionary.

To radical libertarians like Murray Rothbard Milton Friedman seemed like a “pinko” who was compromising with the evil state. Friedman, however, did never compromise, but rather always presented his views in pragmatic fashion, but his ideas would ultimately have an revolutionary impact.

I there are two obvious examples of this. First Friedman’s proposal for a Negative Income Tax and second his proposal school vouchers. Both ideas have been bashed by Austrian school libertarians for compromising with the enemy and for accepting government involvement in education and “social welfare”. However, there is another way to see both proposals and is as privatization strategies. The first step towards the privatization of the production of educational and welfare services.

Furthermore, Friedman’s proposals also makes people think of the advantages if the freedom of choice and once people realize that school vouchers are preferable to a centrally planned school system then they might also realize that free choice as a general principle might be preferable.

In a similar sense one could argue that Scott Sumner and other Market Monetarists are pragmatic revolutionaries when they argue in favour of nominal GDP targeting.

Why is that? Well, it is a well-known result from the Free Banking literature that a privatization of the money supply will lead to money supply becoming perfectly elastic to changes in money demand. Said, in another way any drop in velocity will be accompanied by an “automatic” increase in the money, which effectively would mean that a Free Banking system would “target” nominal NGDP. Hence, as I have often stated NGDP targeting “emulates” a Free Banking outcome. In that sense Sumner’s proposal for NGDP targeting is similar to Friedman’s proposal for school vouchers. It is a step toward more freedom of choice. Scott therefore in many ways also is a pragmatic revolutionary as Friedman was.

There is, however, one crucial difference between Friedman and Sumner is that, while Friedman was in favour of a total privatization of the school system and just saw school vouchers as a step in that direction Scott does not (necessarily) favour Free Banking. Scott argues in favour of NGDP targeting based on its own merits and not as part of a privatization strategy. This is contrary to the Austrian NGDP targeting proponents like Steve Horwitz who clearly see NGDP targeting as a step towards Free Banking. Whether Scott favours Free Banking or not does, however, not change the fact that it might very well be seen as the first step towards the total privatization of the money supply.

Sumner’s proposal the implementation of NGDP futures could in a in similar fashion be seen as a integral part of the privatization of the money supply.

Friedman famously paraphrased the French Word War I Prime Minister George Clemenceau who said that “war is much too serious matter to be entrusted to the military” to “money is much too serious a mater to be entrusted to central banker”. Scott Sumner’s proposal for NGDP targeting within a NGDP futures framework in my view is the first step to taken away central bankers’ control of the money supply…but don’t tell that to the central bankers then they might never go along with NGDP Tageting in the first place.

For Scott own view of the Free Banking story see: “An idealistic defense of pragmatism” – he of course might as well have said “A revolutionary defense of pragmatism”.


Update: I just found this fantastic quote from George Selgin (from comment section of Scott’s blog): ‘I only wish…that Scott would draw inspiration from Cato the Elder, andend each of his pleas for replacing current Fed practice with NGDP targeting with: “For the rest, I believe that the Federal Reserve System must ultimately be destroyed.”’

Leave a comment


  1. I don´t think that last quote, about Central Bank destruction, is useful. Risks turning MM´s into a “fringe group”!

  2. Marcus, I think it is quite precis description the difference in “strategy” between the Market Monetarists and the Free Banking school. Free Banking theorists like George Selgin demands the privatization of the money supply, while Market Monetarist argue that it ultimately be the consequences of NGDP Targeting, but that it don’t have to be so.

    Theoretically, however, Free Banking theorists and Market Monetarists have a lot in common.

  3. c8to

     /  October 24, 2011

    i really hope he doesn’t put that quote at the end…its hard to get someone to adopt a policy when you are out to destroy them…

  4. c8to, note that it was George Selgin and NOT Scott Sumner who said it.

  5. J.D. Kerscher

     /  February 15, 2013

    The biggest thing to realize is the control they have over any industry by controlling the ultimate tool that is a commodity within itself. You can look back to the beginnings of the United States after the Revolution. It was observed how the central bank chartered (which was not a part of the government, yet) did bring stability to surrounding currency issued by state banks. It was then made harder to compete with national banks after the national bank acts and further implementation of folding the control of currency into the federal government leading to the creation of the Fed. I believe that if we were to charter a different bank every 20 years, as what was first done, it would stimulate the flow of control to be more fluid than remain stagnant as it does now.

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