Making Money: Coin, Currency and the Coming of Capitalism

Christine Desan Oxford University Press, 496 pages, $85

Money may feel as solid as the Bank of England, but it is an ever-shifting phenomenon. People have gone from using gold or silver coins, to paper notes, then plastic cards and the modern practice of "quantitative easing."

To some on the Republican right in America, this evolution is a rake's progress, in which QE is a debasement of the currency, leading to hyperinflation and economic ruin. They want a return to the gold standard, linking the amount of money to a country's gold reserves.

But in a new book, "Making Money," Christine Desan, a Harvard law professor, challenges the view of money's history as a fall from grace. She is part of the "cartalist" school, which argues that money did not develop spontaneously from below, but was imposed from above by the state or ruler. A sovereign might offer tokens as payments for goods and services, and agree to accept those tokens back to meet taxes or debts, for example.

In essence, history has seen a battle between money's role as a store of value and its role as a means of exchange. This battle is still going on. Desan displays exemplary scholarship in detailing money's origins, and though its academic style is hard work for the general reader, it is worth the effort.