[...] State power and finance are, in fact, Siamese twins, sometimes at odds with one another but always interdependent. Money is, as it were, the oldest public–private partnership: at one and the same time private property and public good; tradeable commodity and central-bank monopoly; credit and debt; a creature of the market and of the ‘grey area’ between market and state. The relationship undergoes continuous permutation. Yet despite its ever-changing and often downright bizarre forms, money can be traced to just two sources, both located in the force-field between states and markets. One is the creativity of all sorts of traders seeking new devices—in the modern jargon—to cut transaction costs, from promissory notes to bitcoin, assisted and exploited in equal measure by a growing financial sector which buys and sells, for profit, the commercial paper used by traders to extend credit to one another. The second is the need of states to finance their activities through debt or taxes—usually both—and to keep their economies in good health by providing businesses with safe means of exchange and abundant opportunities for ‘plus-making’. [...]
Money speaks, it is said, and its first words are always: trust me. Given the obscure circumstances of its production, this seems to be asking a lot. As economic exchange became more extended and opportunities for confidence tricks—from John Law to Standard and Poor’s—proliferated, so trust in money, essential for the capitalist economy, had to be safeguarded by state authority. States, or their rulers, have since time immemorial made money trustworthy by certifying it with their stamp of approval. This afforded them an opening to appropriate a fraction of its value in the form of what is called seigniorage, as well as providing manifold occasions for abuse, such as debasing the currency. An important contribution to the credibility of states as stewards of money was the seventeenth-century invention of permanent public debt, in parallel with the transition from personal to parliamentary rule and the introduction of regular taxation. These developments guaranteed the state’s creditors the reliable servicing of outstanding balances. Public debt could now be subdivided into low-denomination debt certificates, and these could circulate as means of payment, because the state could be trusted to accept them in payment of taxes, or in exchange for whatever it had promised to deliver when issuing its debt as currency. Moreover, private credit as extended by banks to trustworthy debtors could be denominated in public debt, making the sovereign state the economy’s debtor of last resort.