Fiat Money as a Means of Shifting Some Resources to the Public Sector

Imagine for a moment a society without compulsion. People are working for themselves and each other. They might share, barter or agree to use a private money or monies in exchange. If everybody could somehow agree to share land and other natural resources, respect the wishes of all, contribute voluntarily to the production of infrastructure and provision of social services, agree to the modes of production in which they personally need to engage (whether wage labor, cooperatives or communes) and address all other individual and collective needs on a voluntary basis, there would be no need for government and no need for state money. A role for government arises when members of the community cannot find amicable solutions to all conflicts without some mechanism for orchestrating their collective will. Fiat money is a highly effective tool for this purpose.

A minimalist conception of government might confine it to the defining and upholding of property rights. More expansive conceptions also envisage a role for government in facilitating a degree of cooperative social and economic activity that might not otherwise occur. There is a range of possibilities, with big government at one end and small government at the other. Ultimately, the size of government has a political determination.

To the extent a transfer of resources from the private to public sector is deemed desirable, there will be a resort to compulsion of one form or another to ensure sufficient collective behavior. This will be so until we can all learn to cooperate voluntarily, without compulsion.

In a state money system, the compulsion necessary to transfer resources to the public sector is introduced through the tax obligation. Taxation compels a degree of cooperative behavior by withdrawing private spending power. This frees up some resources for use in the public sector. Without this compulsory withdrawal of private spending power, wealthy individuals and large corporations could impede the intended cooperative activity through their market clout.

By requiring that taxes be paid in the state money, the government also creates a demand for that money and helps to ensure its viability. The fact that individuals and businesses need to obtain fiat money in order to pay taxes ensures a willingness to sell goods and services to the government. Successful tax enforcement is a sufficient (though not necessary) condition for a money’s viability.

Even though there is compulsion in the mechanism for transferring goods and services to the public sector, there need not be any compulsion in the determination of government policy objectives. Ideally, the process will be open and democratic. (This aspect of fiat money is considered in greater depth in Taxation, Money, Freedom and Economy.) In terms of the transfer of resources to the public sector, the following can be discerned:

— Since fiat money originates with the government, and since taxes are payable only in the government’s own money, individuals and businesses cannot pay any tax until the government has spent or lent some money into existence. Government expenditure and lending are logically prior to tax payments, and in a sense “fund” tax payments. (This point is discussed further in Fiat Money and its Social Significance and What Everyone Should Know About Budget Deficits and Public Debt.) This does not mean that money is the source of real wealth, or that the government as monopoly issuer of fiat money creates all real wealth. It simply means that the government is able to command some of society’s real resources through its position as monopoly issuer of the very thing that is required to meet the tax obligation.

— The government cannot receive more in tax payments than it has previously created. Spending and lending create the government’s fiat money; tax payments destroy it. It is possible to run budget surpluses for a time. This is achieved by the non-government running down its accumulated net financial wealth in order to meet tax payments in excess of the government’s expenditure over the period. But continuous budget surpluses are unsustainable because they eventually push some individuals and businesses too far into debt, precipitating a financial crisis. (The posts Budget Deficits and Net Private Saving and Parable of a Monetary Economy elaborate on this point.)

— The government adds to the level of demand and income whenever it spends. If it employs people who would otherwise be unemployed to do work, the expenditure leads to the production of additional real output. If it places an order for goods produced by the private sector, it provides an impetus for production as long as the private firm has spare capacity with which to respond. Whenever there is excess capacity and idle resources, including unemployed labor, government expenditure can be used to activate production, adding to real output and employment.

— However, individuals and businesses will only be willing to transact with the government to the extent that the government’s money has value. If a state money drops sharply in value, a unit of it (e.g. a dollar) will not command as many goods and services as it did previously, and be less attractive as a form of wealth. Moreover, the non-government will be able to meet a given tax obligation with a smaller transfer of resources to the public sector, and so have less need of such transactions.

— The value of fiat money depends on how scarce it is kept, and this in turn depends on how large the government’s expenditures are relative to the taxes it imposes. (See Value of the Currency.) If the government spends too much more than is needed for the purposes of paying taxes, fiat money loses value. “Too much more” means deficit spending in excess of what is consistent with the non-government’s desire to net save out of full-employment income, or, equivalently, net spending beyond the point required to close the output gap. Deficit spending beyond this point will cause “too much money to chase too few goods”.

— The appropriate size of the tax obligation depends on the extent to which society wishes resources to be transferred to the public sector. If society wants most activity to take place in the private sector, the necessary tax obligation is small, since the government will have less need to reduce private spending power. If a big role for government is desired, a bigger tax obligation is required. Otherwise the desired transfer of goods and services to the public domain cannot be carried out in a non-inflationary manner.

— The government can control the effects of its spending on prices by exogenously setting the terms of its transactions. For example, the government can exogenously set wage rates applicable to employment in the public sector. This will determine the prices of one hour of various kinds of labor in the public sector which in turn will influence wages and salaries in the private sector. In particular, wage rates and salary levels in the private sector will need to be competitive with those in the public sector. At a minimum, the government need only set one wage rate. More generally, as the monopoly issuer of its own money, the government is in a strong position to specify the prices it pays for goods and services supplied by the domestic private and external sectors. Likewise, it sets the terms on which it lends, including the collateral it requires from the borrower.

— Even so, the ability of the government to buy at stable prices depends on the availability of goods and services. If demand is already sufficient to sustain full-employment output, there is no further room for the government to increase its spending in a non-inflationary manner. If the community still demands further transfers of goods and services to the public domain, taxes would have to be increased to reduce private demand. Alternatively, if society prefers a larger role for the private sector, cutbacks in the government’s expenditure would be required.

Further Reading

Here are two scholarly analyses of the issues discussed in this post. The first is by Randall Wray, the second by Pavlina Tcherneva.

Money and Taxes: the Chartalist Approach

Chartalism and the tax-driven approach to money

2 thoughts on “Fiat Money as a Means of Shifting Some Resources to the Public Sector

  1. Nice recap of basics in “the global money games”. Two notes:

    “Deficit spending” should read “government net spending also incorrectly termed as ‘deficit spending'” – because ‘deficit’ conveys the meaning of ‘lacking the power to’ and one should not concede the idea that one wants to eradicate 😉

    “Spending and lending create the government’s fiat money; tax payments destroy it.”
    This sentence touches an important aspect of theory that waits to be fully analyzed. Fiat money creation can proceed either through spending or through lending. In theory, it is possible for a government not “to spend” at all and just “lend”. In practice, governments lend money through bank loans, as “bank money” is perfectly good to pay taxes. This includes, but is not limited to, the charade of governments “borrowing” a part of the money that they lend, therefore “borrowing” from themselves and the whole affair being presented as “the crisis of sovereign debt” (surely a demonstration of how humans can be intelligent! :).
    A striking case is the EZ – not a single case, just more acute. The EZ could be described as an inter-governmental pact to “not spend” and “only lend” a “single currency” (surely a demonstration of Europe becoming “the most dynamic knowledge society by 2010”! 🙁

  2. Good points as always, PG. I’m torn a bit on the terminology aspect. Like you, I prefer net spending to budget deficit, and do use it sometimes. But because the deficit terminology is so entrenched, it seems necessary to adopt it in come contexts to ensure a wide audience can follow the argument. This post, like the ‘parables’ post that follows, were intended as new additions to the ‘Posts to Read First’ page, which is designed especially for new readers who may be unfamiliar with MMT.

    I would like to see an expanded role for public lending through a government-owned bank. For example, interest-free loans for low-cost housing (although free low-cost housing would be better), low-interest loans for medium-cost housing, and positive-interest loans to private enterprise such that the interest payments function as a tax rather than being mostly captured by rentiers.

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