The Meaning and Value of Gold

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in·trin·sic (¹n-tr¹nz¹k, -s¹k) adj. 1. Of or relating to the essential nature of a thing; inherent. --in·trinsi·cal·ly adv. ~ from the 1994 on-disk edition of The American Heritage Dictionary

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Does Gold Have Intrinsic Value? Does Anything?  

In libertarian and pro-gold circles, it is common to hear that "gold has intrinsic value." That sentiment is based on an important kernel of truth, although the wording is colloquial rather than precise; like the commonplace use of "weight" in situations where "mass" is meant or saying "the sun rises in the east" (when the Earth rotates instead), the assertion that "gold has intrinsic value" is true informally but not technically – in the case of value, because a necessary element is assumed and left unspoken. Because the informal meaning seems clear, I have been surprised to find frequent and often heated discussion on the topic, but then gold itself is an emotional topic for several reasons. The argument over gold's "intrinsic value" would be simply a minor squabble over semantics except for one thing: the question of gold's value, or lack thereof, is sometimes used to support positions that are not only wrong but actively harmful. Given the importance of gold to human well-being – a subject I expand upon below – and also given that I have used the phrase "gold has intrinsic value" myself, perhaps it is time to address the topic directly and to clarify my meaning.  

First: technically, value is a judgment, not a property. Value thus requires a conscious being to assess whatever is being valued. Value has two components: the thing which is valued and the person (or other being) who makes the valuation. Value cannot exist without consciousness; "X has value to a rock" is a meaningless statement, for example. Rocks cannot value; rocks are inanimate, insensate, and without consciousness. Nothing can be said to have value to a rock, or to most of the universe; ergo, nothing has intrinsic value in the sense of value-within-itself without reference to any living thing. But "Love and freedom have value to human beings" – now that is a different story, because humans are designed in such a way as to desire and to benefit from love and freedom. Even more obvious, because tangibles and short-term survival are involved, would be the statement "Food and water and air have value to human beings." Such things have value not least because they are required for life itself.*  

Life, then, values – must value – some things over others. Value is sparked into being by life itself; the value is bound up in the characteristics of the valued thing and in how those characteristics interact with the needs and desires of the living. To set value on things is an inescapable part of life; to assign value is a necessary thread in the process of being alive and even slightly conscious. Bright objects have value to magpies, which gather such objects for their nests. Mice have value (as food and as playthings) to cats. Seeing value in mice is inherent in the nature of being a cat, because cat DNA creates cat bodies with instincts to chase mice and other small animals, and the tools (eyes and ears, claws, legs for running, etc.) to do so. Without these tools drawing a cat to prey, cats would have gone extinct long ago. Mice thus have intrinsic value to cats, based on the inherent natures of cats and mice. Note that "intrinsic value" in this case requires both the cat (the assigner of value) and the mouse (the thing being valued); thus, the value of mice (in this case) is actually intrinsic to the intertwined properties of cat-and-mouse, not to the mouse itself.** More simply, mice have properties that are valuable to cats.  

Back to gold: does gold, can gold, have anything we might reasonably term intrinsic value? In the sense of an absolute, the answer is – as we have already seen – no. Properties are intrinsic, but value is a judgment. Value can only exist in reference to the one who values. Most of the universe cannot value anything, any more than it can enjoy the taste of cinnamon or appreciate the smile of a young child. But you can value gold, or cinnamon, or an innocent and charming smile. You are a human being, the preeminent appraiser of value in the known universe. Your biology, your needs, your desires, and your mind all bring value into being in this world. You create value by your very existence; the rock which cannot value anything – a gold-flecked quartz nugget, say, found in a stream – and which has no value on its own, becomes valuable if you value it, for nothing has meaning of any type until life creates that meaning.  

As with every human activity, assessing value can be done well or poorly; those who bought stock in Pets.com near its peak of $14/share did a poor job of assessing the stock's value – the stock crashed and the company soon vanished. Likewise, those who bought gold near its peak of $850/oz in 1980 were buying at the peak of a mania and their gold was soon worth much less, at least in dollar terms (value exists in other frameworks as well; as the saying goes, money isn't everything). One big difference between gold in 1980 and Pets.com in 2000 is that unlike Pets.com, gold's monetary value diminished but, as always, did not vanish. Gold hit a dollar low of roughly $250 in 1999, and has been in a strong if bumpy uptrend ever since – an uptrend with years left to go, as I have described in several previous columns.  

Not only has gold's value never vanished,*** it has remained high (relative to most physical things on a per-weight basis) for thousands of years; ancient Egyptians and others mined and used gold over 5,000 years ago. This brings us to the second answer for our question: yes, gold does have what can loosely or colloquially be termed intrinsic value, because gold has intrinsic properties that humans value – and the "to humans" part of the statement is obvious, inherent to the nature of value, and may therefore be assumed. The reasons for humans to value gold, while not as fundamental as the reasons for cats to value mice, are nonetheless powerful and inherent in the nature of man and in the ability of gold to satisfy certain of man's needs and desires. There are many such needs and desires that gold satisfies better than anything else, and unlike paper money or tech stocks or most other things one might name, gold is also nearly indestructible – the gold you own today will likely still be here on Earth when the planet itself is destroyed by our dying, expanding sun billions of years from now (or by whatever does destroy this planet). Near-universal and timeless appeal combined with near-indestructibility and genuine rarity make gold special indeed. To the extent the phrase "intrinsic value" means anything at all, gold thus qualifies. The commonplace, informal, shorthand use of the phrase may be technically inaccurate, but it nonetheless conveys a basic truth, and an important one, where gold is concerned.  

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Specific Reasons for Valuing Gold  

Contrary to the arguments of many anti-gold commentators, gold is an exceptionally useful material. Gold is incredibly malleable, does not tarnish, is an excellent conductor of electricity, can be drawn into extremely thin wire, and has many other useful properties. As noted, gold is also nearly indestructible; it does not disappear through corrosion as iron does, does not vanish into smoke in a fire, and is not dissolved or ruined by water, including salt water.  

A one-ounce gold coin from a ship lost at sea in the time of ancient Rome has precisely the same value (plus any numismatic value it may have attained) as does an ounce of gold mined yesterday – and after cleaning, the coin will be in the same condition it was 20 centuries ago. A simple list of gold's better-known uses makes the point that this metal has exceptional qualities that give it value to human beings for many reasons: see 8 Unusual Uses for Gold for some interesting lesser-known uses of the metal, and for a more general look at the topic consider The Many Uses of Gold, which covers these categories of gold usage:  

  • - Jewelry (The Primary Use of Gold)

  • - Financial Gold - Coinage, Bullion, Currency Backing

  • - Electronics

  • - Computers

  • - Dentistry

  • - Medicine

  • - Aerospace

  • - Awards and symbols of status

  • - Glassmaking

  • - Gold Gilding and Gold Leaf

"The Many Uses of Gold" (worth reading in full, with interesting details) contains an insightful comment about future uses of gold:  

"Gold is too expensive to use by chance. Instead it is used deliberately and only when less expensive substitutes can not be identified. As a result, once a use is found for gold it is rarely abandoned for another metal. This means that the number of uses for gold have been increasing over time.  

"Most of the ways that gold is used today have been developed only during the last two or three decades. This trend will likely continue. As our society requires more sophisticated and reliable materials our uses for gold will increase. This combination of growing demand, few substitutes and limited supply will cause the value and importance of gold to increase steadily over time. It is truly a metal of the future." [Emphasis added]  

Many of those newer uses for gold involve tiny amounts of gold in staggeringly large numbers of consumer products – in millions of cell phones, computers, LCD panels, and other electronic devices of many types, for example. Because the amount of gold per item is so small, reclaiming the metal when the product is discarded is not economical, yet because the number of such items is very large, the net result is to steadily remove a significant stream of physical gold from usable world inventory. This gold may someday be recovered (and a small amount is being recover ed now) but for the most part, now and in the foreseeable future, such now-common and expanding uses of gold represent a growing erosion of what would other wise be a near-eternal above-ground inventory. These newer uses of gold thus put price pressure on gold in a way that traditional uses (e.g., jewelry or coinage, where later recovery and recycling of the metal is not a problem) do not.  

Further more, gold is difficult and expensive to mine (although some gold may be found on the ground or in streams) and most of the easily and economically mined gold has already been mined, which means that, yes, "peak gold" is a near-future likelihood – in fact the peak may have already occurred. Combine that with the expanding number of uses for gold, and the supply/demand situation for gold will tighten considerably in coming years.  

The difficulty and expense of mining gold adds to gold's value in two ways: the more obvious way is to make gold expensive in dollar (or other currency) terms: scarce + expensive to obtain new supply + useful and highly desired = high dollar value. The second and more important way in which the difficulty of increasing the supply of gold adds to the metal's value is that when used as a nation's money, gold cannot be easily inflated – much less hyper inflated – which greatly restrains the growth of government. In short, gold can be used in a way that restrains the growth of tyranny, and which thus dramatically improves human well-being.  

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Gold's Most Valuable Property  

The intrinsic properties of gold (and to a lesser extent, of silver) make it a natural choice for use as money. Christopher Weber outlines the reasons why in A Short History of International Currencies:  

"Anthropologists, archeologists and historians have discovered that for most every group of people that have ever existed, what was chosen as money had at least five proper ties to it.  

"1. It had accepted value to everyone. That's obvious. But what is less obvious is that in all societies, what emerged as money was some commodity that was valued by people for itself first, before it became money.  

"2. It was durable. What's the use of money if it falls apart in a short time? It had to hold its value as long as possible. That's why lettuce has never been money, though in America during the 1930s, this word was used as slang for money since dollars were green, thin and 'leafy'.  

"3. It was easily divisible. It could be broken down into small pieces or amounts for small purchases.  

"4. Even when it was broken down into small pieces, however , it still had to be consistent in value and quality. One unit of it, gram, ounce or whatever , had to be the exact same as any other unit of the same weight or appearance. Otherwise, there would be chaos.  

"5. Finally, money had to be convenient to use."  

Gold has one more property that makes it a compelling choice for use as money: "new gold" cannot be created easily or rapidly, as can paper or electronic money. Significant monetary (and thus price) inflation is impossible when gold is the currency – an incredible boon to human well-being – but even more important is that gold-as-money limits government expansion and power. This property is crucial to the protective function of gold; indeed, when gold is used as money, this property saves more lives and prevents more misery than do even measures of public sanitation, modern medical care, and other projects or policies specifically aimed at human well-being.  

To understand that truth, one must be willing to see at least the vague outline of coercive government's true nature; to face, if only briefly and tangentially, the outright evil and the horrifying, inhuman power of systematic coercion by government. Henry David Thoreau put it well in Civil Disobedience: "That government is best which governs not at all" – another way of saying that the only good coercive government is no coercive government. Why is that true? Because government is nothing but systematic coercion against the people, and coercion is a crime. The results are known to all of us, but the truth it is too horrifying for most to accept:  

War: the direct and purposeful mass-murder of human beings and the destruction of villages, towns, cities, or even entire nations, entire regions – or, here in the 21st Century, perhaps of the Earth itself.  

Tyranny: the cold and often violent suppression of human rights and freedoms, including such stunningly-cruel features as torture, unjust imprisonment, confiscation of income and property, and the erosion, corruption, or outright destruction of market freedoms necessary for human well-being – leading to widespread poverty and hunger or even famine. Simple murder by governments, perpetrated in a thousand ways, was responsible for 262,000,000 deaths in the 20th Century, according to research by R. J. Rummel. Attempting to give that mind-numbing number some impact, Professor Rummel adds:  

"Just to give perspective on this incredible murder by government, if all these bodies were laid head to toe, with the average height being 5', then they would circle the earth ten times. Also, this democide murdered 6 times more people than died in combat in all the foreign and internal wars of the century. Finally, given popular estimates of the dead in a major nuclear war, this total democide is as though such a war did occur, but with its dead spread over a century." [Emphasis added]  

Rummel also points out that this horror is almost invisible in both popular and academic literature: "the ignorance of the incredible murder by government is a moral, intellectual, and academic scandal. It is the biggest and most significant black hole in our educational system and literature."**** The State and its captured media do everything possible to minimize public awareness of the State's cruelty and to actually make the State appear benevolent, and the natural human tendency to defend against knowledge of such horror makes people eager to believe the propaganda.  

Can gold prevent such horrors? No, not entirely, but gold can and does reduce the likelihood of such horrors when used as a nation's money. Gold as money provides a strong limiting factor on the resources available to government, and in so doing, gold saves and improves the lives of millions. War, for example, is incredibly expensive – America's Iraq adventure has already cost perhaps $3 trillion, counting the future costs of care for wounded soldiers and replacement of materiel. Without the Federal Reserve to constantly expand the supply of money, it would have been impossible for the already-bankrupt and dramatically indebted U.S. to have begun wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan – neither of which had attacked America or even threatened us.  

World War I provides an obvious example of central banking's dangers: this sudden and dramatic escalation of America's militarism abroad began shortly after the creation of the fiat-currency-cancer called, misleadingly, the "Federal Reserve" – along with the income tax, both of which were signed into law in 1913. (The gold standard was still nominally in place; creating the Fed was a stealth attack, the economic effects of which only became too obvious to ignore in 1933, when FDR took American's gold coinage from the people by force).  

The income tax and the Fed gave President Wilson the money to pursue his insane policy of "war for peace," which he cleverly called "making the world safe for democracy." Instead of making the world safe, one result of our entry into this European war – a war we had no reason to join – was to crush Germany so completely that it was unable to avoid being forced into paying staggering reparations. (Without America's participation in the war, Germany would likely have been able to negotiate a more favorable surrender). Paying those reparations was beyond the country's ability, and so the Weimar government began inflating its currency – printing up money from thin air to pay its bills, in other words. The resulting hyperinflation destroyed the middle class, making their life savings worthless in a matter of months, and leading to the turmoil that, in due time, helped bring the National Socialists and their charismatically insane leader to power . This is how one great evil begets another: illegally bypassing the gold standard in America brought about (with help from other factors) Adolph Hitler 's rise to power and the subsequent deaths of perhaps 60 or 70 million people in war, in death camps, and in other ways.  

Gold-as-money could have saved those millions. It could also have prevented the incredible pain and misery of hundreds of millions of other victims who were maimed, crippled, blinded, or other wise wounded; who were systematically tortured or terrorized; who lost loved ones or were orphaned; whose homes or businesses were destroyed by violence or economic turmoil.  

To be clear: central banking (the Fed and other central banks around the world) has the sole function of siphoning vast sums of wealth from the people to the power elite in and out of government, and the eventual result is always pain, poverty, and misery – and frequently war. The Pentagon and its mutually-parasitic network of hundreds (thousands?) of war-related corporations, small companies, and contractors can exist in their present, bloated form only because the twin evils of the Fed and the income tax funnel (one by stealth and one by coercion) an ocean of wealth from the American people to the American government and to those feeding at the government trough.  

The U.S. government spends roughly half its entire budget paying for past, present, and future war. Is there any chance that this is "the will of the people"? Of course not; when asked, Americans consistently oppose war and most war-related spending. Americans want a national defense; they do not want foreign military bases in over a hundred countries and other programs that cost billions or even trillions of dollars for no good or honest purpose.  

There are problems with the manner in which gold standards have been implemented, but there is no arguing the historic reality of the effectiveness of a gold standard; hyperinflations (as in Zimbabwe today and dozens of other times and places in history) have never occurred with a gold standard in place, and military adventurism is far less likely (and when it occurs, is more likely to be brief) when government cannot simply print up money to pay for assaulting other nations. In contrast, episodes of fiat (non-gold-standard) currency fueling tyranny and war would fill a book.  

In the term "fiat currency" I include debasement of precious metal coins in ancient Rome and elsewhere – which turned what had been a gold standard into a fiat currency – pointing to the major problem with the typical implementation of a gold standard: government is involved, and since government is naked power and coercion, every government attracts sociopaths who want power over others and who want to own and control more of everything.  

Fiat currency is the holy grail for those sociopaths: the One True Ring of power, of control, of wealth stolen in secret and drained from the people silently and constantly, hour by hour, year after year. It is fitting that the other monetary metal, silver , is in some stories a protection against vampires, for only the monetary restraint of gold or silver as money can prevent this vampire-like, stealth form of theft and the resulting spiral of tyranny.  

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The Meaning of Gold  

The most important meaning of gold in human life is this: integrity, safety, and well-being.  

Gold is, for all practical purposes, eternal. Gold is wealth in direct form that cannot be defaulted on. Gold-as-money replaces the scams of money-changers and of central banks with direct and honest value by weight. When used as money, the dollar value of gold is, by definition, unchanging, and the money thus has integrity. Because gold cannot be printed up or other wise dramatically and constantly increased in supply, price inflation is typically zero or less under a gold standard (as was true in America from the late 1700s through the early 1900s); your savings are thus safe in a way they can never be when central banks are at work inflating a fiat money supply. Even that most dangerous and violent of institutions, coercive government, is restrained and forced into a semblance of honesty by a functioning gold standard. Gold-as-money cannot prevent war and tyranny – for that, a large increase in both widespread emotional health and in understanding of and respect for liberty will be necessary – but gold-as-money absolutely does reduce the ability of coercive government to inflict death, poverty, and other misery. Less war and tyranny would be – if not enough – at least a powerful step in the right direction.  

Integrity, safety, and well-being: if you sense a lack of these characteristics in the world, it is in part because the most important role of gold has been over thrown by the dishonesty and corruption of central banking. That tragedy happened a century ago, as one nation after another abandoned the gold standards that had kept money honest and governments partially restrained for more than a century. America's total government expense went from under 5 per cent of GDP in 1913 to a monster that now consumes close to half the entire GDP (although numbers vary depending on source and assumptions). America's on-book federal debt is closing in on $10 trillion. As for inflation of the money supply, recall that a $20 bill could be exchanged, by law, for a $20 gold coin containing nearly an ounce of gold. Imagine how much counterfeit money it would take to dilute the nation's money supply to the extent we see today, where it takes $819 to buy an ounce of gold! (For the current gold price, see top of page at 321gold.com). The Federal Reserve is a scheme so devious and complex that it can scarcely be believed, and indeed few people understand it. If you have not yet educated yourself about this abomination, I suggest starting with the 41-minute Money, Banking, and the Federal Reserve (41 min) by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.  

The income tax and the Federal Reserve have together transformed America from a reasonably free nation, with a small government answer able to the people, into a leviathan of tyranny larger than anything the world has ever known. A quick way to see how much of our lives and wealth has been appropriated by government – even since after World War II, when government had already grown to staggering size – is to look at the size of the private versus government sectors:

Today, the entire world financial system is in crisis because of central banking – which is to say, because we have allowed the power elite to replace the integrity and safety of gold-as-money with the fraud and theft-by-inflation of the Federal Reserve, and by other central banks in nations around the world.  

The present crisis will not end well – episodes of fiat currency never have, throughout history – but there is hope, at least, that in the after math, enough people will understand the problem to force a return to honest money: that is, to gold.  

Bob Chapman of The International Forecaster describes our situation with characteristic flair and directness:  

"Anything is better than what we have now, which is a military-industrial-financial complex run by satanic trillionaires who denude citizens of their earnings with rampant fraud and corruption, who slaughter our children, and what should be our foreign friends, with continual wars for profit and who are trying to make us all into serfs in the ultimate feudal system to be run by the would-be lords of the universe, but not until they wipe out billions of useless eaters with pogroms, plagues, wars, famine and eventually nukes, biochemical warfare and other weapons of mass destruction."  

Because that will sound inflammatory, alarmist, and downright paranoid to many readers, let me point out that Chapman and his newsletter have a strong record of being right, and ahead of the curve, in their projections.  

Will people demand a return to the integrity, safety, and resulting well-being of a genuine gold standard? Our children's fate, and indeed the fate of the Earth itself, is at stake. We won't last much longer in the 21st Century with our present system.  

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This column was suggested to me by Victor Aquilar's Gold Does Not Have Intrinsic Value.  

Notes:  

* There is a well-known "subjective theory of value" which includes the idea (as the Wikipedia article on the topic puts it) that "goods that are in unlimited supply, or in a greater supply than that demanded, would have no value." This is primarily a theory of monetary value – which explains why such a theory would place no value whatsoever on clean air or healthy food, assuming plentiful supplies of both. There are problems with such a theory, but I am not discussing them in this column. Here, I am interested in "value" in a broader sense.  

** Note also that "intrinsic" in this sense is a sliding scale, in that some things are only slightly of interest to a particular species and other things are only of interest to a few members of the species, based on unusual quirks in those individuals. Fresh air has universal value to human beings, but most other things do not, including things which are fairly popular at some place and time (various forms of fashion, for instance).  

*** Naturally, by tightening up definitions and limiting time and place, one can find situations where gold has no value. (The same may be said of even something as essential as food, for that matter). Someone alone in the mid-Atlantic whose small boat has just capsized has no immediate use for gold, and the density of the metal would be a significant liability if one were trying to remain afloat.  

**** Personal correspondence.  

 

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 107

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.