The Fear of Excess An Intellectual History of Paper Money in the Eighteenth-Century Britain

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David Michael Batt


Paper money occupied a deeply ambivalent place in works of British monetary writers in the eighteenth century. On the one hand, wrote Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, paper money’s ability to represent wealth in exchange without itself containing any intrinsic value was an unparalleled benefit to commerce and industry. On the other hand, having disburdened itself of any intrinsically valuable commodity, the abstract monetary sign of paper money would give rise to a fear of excess, a fear that in essence there was nothing which could limit its growth. In this paper, I will discuss the concept of paper money as it took shape in the writings of eighteenth-century monetary writers as an abstract monetary sign, introducing the idea of general economy of notes to help explore the ambivalent place occupied by paper money. What will become clear is the special role played by what I call the virtual character of paper money in giving rise to its ambivalent place within eighteenth-century discourse. For it was paper money’s virtual character which was the reason it could be so beneficial to commerce and industry while at the same time constantly threatening to explode into excess.

Keywords: Excess, Paper Money, Bataille, History of Economic Thought, History of Money


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