War and Gold tells the history of money. It illustrates in rich historical detail how governments’ desire for to accumulate and conquer must be funded by debt. The risk is always that the treasure may not pay back the cost of the adventure. The story begins with 16th century Spain, the most extreme example of a western colonial power in the 16th century ruthless in its chase to discover as much gold as possible and, ultimately, financially gutted from having to wield a global war to in an effort to hold on to their trade routes with the El Dorado’s of the New World.
The gold standard, first made possible by the influx of silver and gold in Europe from returning Spanish conquistadors, would commonly be suspended during times of war. Cheaper standards, like paper, would be introduced as a means of wartime financing. Like the French in the Revolutionary Wars, like the British against Napoleon, and following their own example against the British in the 1770s, the Civil War Union government issued paper money to defeat an enemy during. War often the depreciation of national currency. With war, often comes the devaluation of national currencies.
Itself a long-time symbol of permanence and immutability, the gold standard was actually developed after the relative chaos of the paper currencies of the American and French Revolutions, and the suspension of gold payments by the Bank of England. It seemed a simple, almost natural idea, an expression of the ‘spontaneous order’ of the free market system. And despite these chaotic origins, the gold standard would come to symbolize stability in the world. Kwarteng argues that the dissolution of the gold standard in much of Europe at the dawn of World War I spurred the rise of a dominant American economy—the only national market in which gold convertibility was still honored at the time. Ironically, the resulting command of the American dollar would spark its ascension over gold as the new global monetary standard in 1976, a standard that fell, with the U.S. economy, in 2008 when, once more, the world unofficially turned back to gold.