Creation Stories: Myths About the Origins of Money
Christine A. Desan
Harvard Law School
July 30, 2013
Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 13-20
A myth about the origins of money has long organized modern approaches to the medium. According to that creation story, money is the natural product of human exchange. It can be analogized to a commodity like silver that comes to hand out of the decentralized activity of trading or a convention like language that arises out of a consensus about the value of an item. But if we consider clues about money’s origins and extrapolate from its continuing practice, another story comes into focus. It suggests that money is a constitutional project, a mode of governance for a material world. Money is a means of mobilizing resources across a collective, one created when people advance in-kind value to a stakeholder in return for a unit that represents that advance. The process both entails material value – the advance to the stakeholder is real – and converts it into a form that everyone else recognizes – the advance holds independent value because it offers a countable measure that can be transferred to make final payments. Money creation tied to a fiscal backbone can be expanded in response to the demand for cash: that practice accords both with modern economic theory and the English medieval history that furnishes the setting here. In contrast to the dominating myths about money, the “stakeholder” creation story explains how each of money’s functions is institutionalized and how that activity shapes “the market” that is made by money.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 68
Keywords: money, definitions of money, history of money, money creation
JEL Classification: A12, B22, B25, E4, E42, K00, K3, N1, Z1
Date posted: April 17, 2013 ; Last revised: July 30, 2013
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