How Much Should a Kilogram Be Worth?

For all those interested in monetary policy, let me refer to a piece by my former boss and mentor, Seth Lipsky, former WSJ editor, owner of the New York Sun, and author of a new book on the Constitution. It’s in the latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis, and, with typical Lipskylike flair, compares the dollar to the kilogram. Let’s just say this: it’s not your father’s article on hard currencies. Here’s a sample:

Now, the record is clear in respect of how America’s founders viewed money. Many of them went into the Second United States Congress, where they established the value of the dollar at 371 ¼ grains of pure silver. The law through which they did that, the Coinage Act of 1792, noted that the amount of silver they were regulating for the dollar was the same as in a coin then in widespread use, known as the Spanish milled dollar. The law said a dollar could also be the free-market equivalent in gold. The Founders did not expect the value of the dollar to be changed any more than the persons who locked away that kilogram of platinum and iridium expected the cylinder to start losing mass. In fact, in this same 1792 law, they established the death penalty for debasing the dollar.

Today, members of the Federal Reserve Board don’t worry about how many grains of silver or gold are behind the dollar. They couldn’t care less. And this is what I believe is the most worrisome threat to property rights today. When the value of a dollar plunges at a dizzying rate—at one point in recent months it collapsed to less than 1

/1,400 of an ounce of gold—Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke goes up to Capitol Hill and declares merely that he is “puzzled.” No “new urgency” to redefine the dollar for him. The fact is that we’ve long since ceased to define the dollar, and it can float not only against other currencies but even against 371 ¼ grains of pure silver.

So, the New York Sun asked, why not float the kilogram? After all, when you go into the grocery to buy a pound of hamburger, why should you worry about how much hamburger you get—so long as it’s a pound’s worth? A pound is supposed to be .45359237 of a kilogram. But if Congress can permit Mr. Bernanke to use his judgment in deciding what a dollar is worth, why shouldn’t he—or some other Ph.D. from M.I.T.—be able to decide from day to day what a kilogram is worth?