The Poetry of the Euro

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.

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).

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