This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot
“The Hollow Men” (1925)

The world is not ending. Despite the wrenching turmoil in global financial markets and morbid allusions to the death throes of capitalism, it ain’t over. Not until people quit believing in themselves, not until people quit believing in a better future.

But the whimpering is real, and justified, because it hurts to have your world come crashing down. And global financial markets are definitely crashing, even when the impact is momentarily softened through massive injections of artificial money—“artificial” because the fiat money does not represent a store of genuine value but rather an airy government claim to future wealth yet to be created.

In the aftermath of this financial catastrophe, as we sort out causes and assign blame, with experts offering various solutions—More regulation! Less complex financial instruments!—let’s not lose sight of the most fundamental component of finance. No credit-default swap, no exotic derivative, can be structured without stipulating the monetary unit of account in which its value is calculated. Money is the medium of exchange—the measure, the standard, the store of value—which defines the very substance of the economic contract between buyer and seller. It is the basic element, the atom of financial matter.

It is the money that is broken.

These days, we don’t often refer to the validity of the money itself but rather to “monetary policy” and how the Federal Reserve has managed to calibrate the money supply to economic activity over the last two decades. There are plenty of critiques; the most pointed ones blame former Fed chief Alan Greenspan for keeping interest rates too low, too long.

During his 19 years at the monetary helm—from 1987 to 2006—Mr. Greenspan served under four different U.S. presidents. At least one of them, George H.W. Bush, blamed Mr. Greenspan for keeping interest rates too high. The stock market crash that occurred in October 1987, two months after Mr. Greenspan’s confirmation under Ronald Reagan, sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 508 points (23%). It required huge injections of liquidity, which subsequently needed to be mopped up with tighter monetary policy. “I reappointed him,” the elder President Bush said. “And he disappointed me.”

President Clinton likewise reappointed Mr. Greenspan—and soon learned the terms of the trade-off for reduced short-term interest rates: Bring down the fiscal budget deficit. Spurred on by a Republican Congress, it actually happened; the federal budget was balanced in 1998. All too briefly, the Fed’s biggest concern was how to carry out future monetary policy if we ran out of government debt securities for open-market operations. The fiscal deficit subsequently ballooned after 2001, due to spending in excess of revenue growth, while interest rates and unemployment—and inflation, counterintuitively—remained low. One thing for sure: We will have more than enough government debt securities.

There’s a reason for this short diversion into Mr. Greenspan’s long watch. While he is readily demonized today—Italy’s finance minister recently characterized him as the man who, after Osama bin Laden, “hurt America the most”—Mr. Greenspan is also the man who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and whose honorary titles include Knight Commander of the British Empire and Commander of the French Legion d’honneur.

So how does such an accomplished central banker turn out to be a monetary doofus?

Scapegoats are wonderfully convenient receptacles for our collective disappointment, but that’s all. When credit markets seize up, when financial instruments disintegrate, when the dollar fails—it’s not because Alan Greenspan was not sufficiently omniscient. He wasn’t, true. But no one ever was. No one ever could be.

If capitalism depends on designating a person of godlike abilities to manage demand and supply for all forms of money and credit—currency, demand deposits, money-market funds, repurchase agreements, equities, mortgages, corporate debt—we are as doomed as those wretched citizens who relied on central planning for their economic salvation.

Think of it: Nothing is more vital to capitalism than capital, the financial seed corn dedicated to next year’s crop. Yet we, believers in free markets, allow the price of capital, i.e., the interest rate on loanable funds, to be fixed by a central committee in accordance with government objectives. We might as well resurrect Gosplan, the old Soviet State Planning Committee, and ask them to draw up the next five-year plan.

“There are numbers of us, myself included, who strongly believe that we did very well in the 1870 to 1914 period with an international gold standard.” It would be easy to dismiss this statement as a quaint relic from Mr. Greenspan’s earlier days as an Ayn Rand acolyte; his article on “Gold and Economic Freedom” appears in her 1966 compendium “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.” But Mr. Greenspan said it, rather emphatically, last October on the Fox Business Network. He was responding to the interviewer’s question: “Why do we need a central bank?”

Whatever well-intentioned reasons existed in 1913 for creating the Federal Reserve—to provide an elastic currency to soften the blow of economic contractions caused by “irrational exuberance” (and that will never be conquered, so long as humans have aspirations)—one would be hard-pressed to say that the financial fallout from this latest money meltdown will have less damaging consequences for the average person than would have been incurred under a gold standard.

Moreover, the mission of the central bank has been greatly compromised. Can anyone have faith that Fed policy decisions going into the future will deliver more reliable money? Don’t we already know in our bones that the cost of this latest financial nightmare will be born by all of us who store the value of our labor and measure our purchasing power in the form of dollars? As John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist, observed in his “Tract on Monetary Reform,” published in 1923:

“It is common to speak as though, when a Government pays its way by inflation, the people of the country avoid taxation. We have seen that this is not so. What is raised by printing notes is just as much taken from the public as is a beer-duty or an income-tax. What a Government spends the public pay for. There is no such thing as an uncovered deficit.”

The entire world has been affected by the breakdown of the U.S. financial system, thanks to the globalization of investment capital. But the free flow of capital—along with free trade—is a good thing, the best path to global prosperity. The problem is that the role of the dollar as the world’s primary reserve currency has been called into serious question, both by allies and adversaries. Writing in the People’s Daily, Chinese economist Shi Jianxun laments: “The world urgently needs to create a diversified currency and financial system and fair and just financial order that is not dependent on the United States.”

Let’s do exactly that. It is time to take on the task of establishing a new foundation for international economic relations and financial relations—one dedicated to open markets and based on monetary integrity. Every country is responsible for anchoring its own currency to the universal reserve asset, and every citizen has the right to convert the national currency into the universal reserve asset.

That’s how a gold standard works. A bimetallic system, linked to silver and gold, works the same way. In either case the money is fixed to a common anchor—and thus automatically functions as a common currency to serve the needs of legitimate producers and consumers throughout the world.

How would such an approach cure financial market ills? Nothing can rescue humans from occasionally making bad choices or succumbing to herding instincts. But on the same principle as democracy and free elections, embedded in the aggregate judgment of individuals over time is a wisdom that outperforms the most ostensibly savvy administrator. Sound money would go a long way toward eliminating the distortions that pervert financial decisions and credit allocations. Price signals do matter; if they don’t, then free markets don’t matter, and capitalism doesn’t work. In which case, let government dictate demand and regulate supply.

No, we need to fix the money. Literally.

One of the candidates for president of the United States might issue the call for international monetary reform. Bad timing? The memo that resulted in the 1944 Bretton Woods international monetary agreement was written three weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The next global conference need not take place in Bretton Woods, N.H., but rather Paris or Shanghai. Countries should participate on a voluntary basis, no coercion, in full recognition that the goal is to hammer out a new financial order where the validity of the monetary unit of account is not determined by hollow men roaming the marble halls of government central banks.

This is where the new world of sound money begins. This is where the unknown ideal of capitalism takes form.