The Poetry of the Euro

PRINCETON – The purpose of creating a common currency has been largely and surprisingly forgotten in crisis-torn Europe. Instead, there seem to be more pressing concerns: gloomy speculation about the eurozone’s impending collapse and desperate attempts to find institutional fixes to its extensive governance problems.

But the euro was not just the outcome of an idiosyncratic quest to reduce the wear on pockets stuffed with odd national coins, or to facilitate intra-European trade. The bold European experiment reflected a new attitude about what money should do, as well as how it should be managed. In opting for a “pure” form of money, created by a central bank independent of national authority, Europeans self-consciously flew in the face of what had become the dominant monetary tradition. 

In the twentieth century, the creation of money – paper money – was usually thought to be the domain of the state. Money could be issued because governments had the power to define the unit of account in which taxes should be paid. This tradition went back well before paper, or fiat, currencies. For many centuries, even while metallic money circulated, the task of defining units of account – livres tournois, marks, gulden, florins, or dollars – remained a task of the state (or of those with political power).

Abuse of this role, with governments addressing excessive debt by inflating it away, was deeply destructive of political order in the first half of the twentieth century. After World War II, the liberal politicians most committed to European federalism saw this point clearly. The economist, central-bank governor, finance minister, and president of the Italian Republic, Luigi Einaudi, pleaded the case in the immediate aftermath of the war: “If the European federation takes away from the individual states the power of running public works through the printing press, and limits them to expenses that are financed solely by taxes and voluntary loans, it will by that act alone have accomplished a great work.”