By Lawrence White
Excerpt from CATO:
Milton Friedman (1951, 1960) provided influential back-of-the-envelope estimates of the costs devoted to extracting gold under what he called a “strict” gold standard. I have criticized those estimates elsewhere (White 1999, pp. 42-48) for exaggerating the volume of gold reserves used by actual gold-standard economies, and thus exaggerating the resource cost. Friedman’s estimates assumed a 100 percent gold reserve ratio against demand deposits (1951) or against all bank deposits (1960), whereas sophisticated banking systems in gold-standard economies historically operated on small prudential reserve ratios (as he elsewhere recognized). Plugging a historically observed 2 percent reserve ratio against all the bank liabilities in the broad monetary aggregate M2, rather than Friedman’s 100 percent, yields a resource cost estimate one-fiftieth of his 1960 figure, namely 0.05 percent rather than 2.5 percent of national income.
Recent data on gold production from the World Gold Council (2019) allow us to revisit the question with something better than casual empiricism, and to reach a conclusion. Plugging recent numbers from the World Gold Council into Friedman’s own model, it is fairly clear that gold coins and bullion in recent years have been produced in greater volumes than would have been the case under a gold standard with reasonable prudential reserve ratios, and thus gold-extraction resource costs have been higher under fiat money in practice. Note that this accounting effort provides an underestimate of the total resource costs induced by fiat money, because it neglects the costs incurred in acquiring silver, collectibles, cryptocurrencies, and other inflation hedges.