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Living in our modern world, we have certain assumptions about how money works. But historically, money has taken many more forms than we are used to. That’s actually good news for writers: if you want to do something cool with your setting’s system of money, there’s a wealth of concepts to play with (no pun intended).

In this post, I’m not trying to give you a crash course on what money is. (There’s a decent article on Wikipedia that does the job, though it is perhaps too heavily influenced by David Graeber’s work.) Instead, let’s drill down and ask when a particular form of money might be more useful, to the political regime, than other forms.

In a nutshell, people tend to form different kinds of economic relationships depending on the kind of interpersonal relationships they have:

  • A family unit tends to be run as a dictatorship (with all financial decisions being made by the head) or a political community (different members have different inputs into the decision process, and eventually some sort of guiding consensus is reached). Family members might loan each other money or buy and sell between them, but these relationships are often highly conditioned by the “normal” expectations between family members.
  • Good friends or neighbors will often give each other reciprocal gifts, trying to stay more or less in balance over the long run; or they will extend and receive loans of goods or services, trusting that debts will be settled in some form in the future. Cash deals might occur, but in general cash feels somehow gauche, cheapening the social bonds between people.
  • With more casual acquaintances or people you don’t know well, but who live in the same economic community as you, you tend to do business on a cash basis—using a shared currency that is preferred in that economic community. Loaning money to people you may never see again is unwise, but you still operate in a shared social-economic framework and share a currency that you, and the people around you, value.
  • If two utter foreigners meet—living in entirely separate societies, sharing no long-term economic relationships so that they do not have a mutually-valued currency to use—they will resort to barter, directly exchanging useful goods that each party has and the other party wants. They cannot rely on any shared system of economic value, because there is none. Instead, the scope of the relationship is narrowed to the purely functional. (In today’s world, this has become vanishingly rare; even people on opposite sides of the globe can transact in dollars, euros, or bitcoin.)

From this sketch, it seems that the less trust you share with someone else, the more likely you will do business with tangible goods (like wheat, cows, or gold and silver coins) rather than relationship goods (like debt and gratitude).

Unsurprisingly, we see in history that money has taken several forms, but we can lump them into four main categories: commodities, representative currency or tokens, coins, and fiat. In real life these ideal forms sometimes mixed with each other at the margins, but we can start by understanding the pure forms.

Commodities

In trade relationships, some communities will tend to produce particular trade goods like olive oil, tin, colorful beads, and the like, and trade them for other goods from other communities. Over time, settled trade routes tend to develop, with predictable trade goods and expectations surrounding their exchange. Eventually, commodities like grain, timber, spices, or precious metals develop standard forms, measurements, and relative values with each other. For example, in the Ancient Near East, the Mesopotamian sheqel became a standard weight for gold, silver, and copper, used widely across the region. Egypt used a different system of weights and measures, as did the seafaring Mediterranean societies, and international traders had to be fluent with all three systems.

In a more modern context, think of how cigarettes are used as money in prison, or in areas wracked by war and dislocation.

For commodities to play the role of money usually means that there is no better money available. Trust is low, shared economic frameworks are weak or absent, and political authority is fragmented. A government would usually prefer a different monetary system if possible, because the other systems provide more ways for government to skim off the top or enforce its own authority (see below). On the other hand, if the government itself controls a commodity source—a gold mine, or wheat fields, or similar—then it will be happy for a barter system to standardize around its commodity.

Tokens

Commodities are heavy. They are also expensive to transport. (One estimate was that to carry gold bullion from Rome to Naples in the Renaissance era, it cost about 10% of the gold’s value in pack animals and bodyguards!) Unavoidable if you actually need the commodity for functional reasons; but if you only need it as money, wouldn’t it be nice if you could carry a piece of paper that could be traded to some trusted authority in exchange for, say, 100 bushels of wheat?

Alternatively, tokens can represent not an asset, but a liability—I borrow money from you, and in return give you a piece of parchment or paper or a stone tablet that entitles the bearer to get money from me. The paper represents my debt; it also makes it easier to borrow, since the lender can sell the debt to another party if she needs the money early.

Tokens allow for commerce to be much more efficient that having to rely on raw commodities as money. But they also tend to restructure commerce around those trusted authorities that hold the raw commodities in storage—merchants, banks, temples, governments, and the like. Thus, wherever possible, the regime will want to encourage such tokens both to generate more economic activity and to keep the economy’s focus on itself. Governments especially love debt tokens, since they can thus borrow large sums by creating new money (right up to the point that the money loses its value…).

Tokens can also be an especially useful way to make tax collection easier. One fascinating example of this was in colonial America. Colonial governments would issue “bills of credit” as paper notes that could be used to pay the bearer’s tax bill. The bills had an expiration date; so as the expiration grew closer, people with large tax burdens would tend to collect these bills and then use them to pay the taxman, at which point the bills would be burned. In theory, issuance of bills of credit would be restricted to a reasonable level, commensurate with the general tax burden. However, colonial governments often were tempted to issue too much “free money,” with results so dire that the American Constitution specifically banned the states from issuing bills of credit (see Art. 10).

On a more “squishy” level, a token currency can strengthen communal bonds compared to commodities, since each transaction implicitly endorses the token system undergirding the currency.

Coinage

Surprisingly, gold and silver coins were a later development than token money, first emerging (as far as we know) in the 6th century BCE in Asia Minor. They combined the “intrinsic” value of a commodity with the “brand power” of the issuing government. So in political situations that were on the less stable side, or that featured lots of trade between neighboring (and sometimes hostile) countries, a coin-based system might make more sense than a token system.

Why issue coins? Two main reasons:

  • If your coins became desirable, or else you actually banned the use of foreign coins within your realm, it would stimulate local demand for the coins.
  • If you issued your coins for more than the raw metal was worth—either because of the abovementioned demand for the coins, or because you were secretly debasing the coinage with base metals—then you would earn a profit on the difference, called seigniorage.

Thus, there were two competing impulses: to keep the currency strong so people would want to use it, or to lower the precious-metal content in order to make short-term gains (at the expense of an eventual economic crisis). Stable societies tended to prefer a strong currency. If people trusted that Tyre’s silver drachma actually contained a drachma of silver, they would prefer Tyrian coins to those of (for example) Rome, which frequently debased their silver denarii with copper. As a result, coins that were known to be sound tended to circulate at a premium, compared to coins from less stable governments.

A heavily debased coin, meanwhile, could effectively act more as a fiat currency (see below) than one backed by valuable metal. (This illustrates that the categories we are discussing are more conceptual than actual; a currency can have attributes from multiple categories.)

Fiat

Fiat is the system we generally use today: governments issue money that only has value because they say it does, and they demand that taxes and other debts are paid with that currency. Governments would obviously want to issue fiat currency, if they can; it basically lets them expropriate a vast amount of value by “growing money on trees,” so to speak.

The drawback is that weak or unstable regimes quickly see their currencies become worthless. Even regimes that aren’t in danger of collapse can destroy their currencies, by issuing too much of it. Hyperinflation is basically impossible for commodities or coins (even heavily debased coins), but is historically common for fiat currencies. The temptation for governments to overspend seems far too powerful in the long run.

Now, fiat currencies do have some virtues. Under prudent management, they can allow the money supply to be much more responsive to economic conditions than even a token-based system, avoiding deflationary spirals that can crush debtors. In the United States, we managed to somehow not mess up a period of low inflation for roughly thirty years. (But that seems to be over for now.)

In general, a fiat currency is a way for governments to try and create a store of value (and borrow lots of money in the process) through sheer force of will. Sometimes it works. But more than any other form of currency, fiat relies fundamentally on trust in the issuing government. No more trust, no more fiat money.

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Hopefully, this has been a useful look at different currencies, and some of the conflicts that can be expressed through them. And as we know, conflict = plot.

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)