The Origins of the Modern Concept of Money

French economists and the purchasing power of money

by Alain Béraud (, THéorie Economique, Modélisation et Applications (THEMA), Université de Cergy-Pontoise (France)


When French economists read The Purchasing Power of Money, they were primarily interested in the equation of exchange and the reformulation that Fisher proposed regarding the quantity theory of money. This reading led them to ponder the meaning that should be given to this theory and to study its empirical significance. Some of them, namely Rueff and Divisia, went further still and considered Fisher’s work as a starting point for their own analyses, which were related in particular to the monetary index, the integration of money into general equilibrium theory and the analysis of monetary phenomena in an open economy.

Keywords: quantity theory of money; price index; theory of purchasing power parity; marginal utility of money; integration of money into general equilibrium.


Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-03-30. Alain Béraud, its author, offers a detailed account of how many French economist criticised Irving Fisher’s (1867–1947) quantity theory of money while others supported it. In particular, he explores the extent to which Firsher’s ideas appear within the work of two great French economists, namely François Divisia (1889-1964) and Jacques Rueff (1896-1978).

Alain Béraud – Professeur de Sciences Économiques
(Université de Cergy-Pontoise)

Fisher’s formulation of the equation of exchange (where the total price of commodities sold equals the total value of the money that was given in exchange) is now part and parcel of every undergraduate programme in economics. It is integral and fundamental to the current understanding of macroeconomic management. Given this plus the rise of digital payments, mobile-phone wallets and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, it is important to remember and indeed timely, to have an in depth discussion about how our conception of money – then measured as notes and coins – came to be and how it was shaped by dissenting views. In this regard says Béraud:

From the time of its publication through to the 1930s, The Purchasing Power of Money was the reference work for French economists who interpreted it as the modern, rigorous version of quantity theory. But this theory was hardly popular. It is therefore not surprising that many French economists, while recognising its merits, fiercely criticised it. It was only in the 1920s that Rueff and Divisia, both graduates of the École Polytechnique where they had been students of Clément Colson, used this book to develop their own analyses of monetary phenomena. Here, I have defended the idea that their contributions were certainly original but were nonetheless based on ideas that Fisher had supported.

Front of French frank coin (1996), commemorating the life of Jacques Rueff

As noted above, through his narrative Béraud compares and contrasts how the work of Fisher was incorporated into the ideas of French economists. He also offers a rich discussion of the reasons why there was dissent and why many took exception and actively criticised Fisher’s work.

The picture that emerges from Béraud’s work allows us to see how economist of the early 20th century on both sides of the Atlantic are engaging in a type of debate that now dominates the discipline, namely highly quantitative and empirically based. Something that, I thought, only took place after World War II – and thus, happy to be set straight. Moreover, this sort of debate was something that, according to Walter Friedman’s brief biography of Fisher, characterised Fisher’s early contributions to our understanding of macroeconomic phenomena. However, we are not provided by Béraud with enough detail to ascertain if a debate with such characteristics was widespread in France or whether it is Béraud’s reconfiguration of the debate between monetary factors and prices, that which leads us to emphasise its quantitative, formal, empirical aspects.

It was also interesting to know that the contemporary discussion of Fisher’s ideas was hampered by lack of available data. For instance, Béraud notes that at this point in time: “data on bank deposits [was unavialble]. Only some establishments published monthly statements.” Here, in my view, some more context as to how and when such measures came to be mainstream and a brief reference to the overall construction of macroeconomic statistics in France would have given a bit more sense of perspective to the discussion.

In the same vein, I would have liked, as a manner of introduction, some context as to why, how relevant and how widespread the debate of Fisher’s ideas was in France during the interwar period. It seems French economists are very concerned with determining exchange rates and the future of the Gold Standard at the end of the First World War. But this is only mentioned in passing. For the international reader it would have also been helpful to have an introduction as to the broad configuration of French economists groups or lines of work at this point in time.

But for all my comments and on balance, this paper makes an interesting read.

François Divisia (1889-1964) – a founding member of the “Econometric Society”


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