Many ancient communities, for instance, took cattle as their standard of value but used more manageable objects as means of payment. Exchange involving the use of money is a great improvement over barter, since it permits elaborate specialization and provides generalized purchasing power that the participants in the exchange may use in the future. The growth of monetary institutions has largely paralleled that of trade and industry; today almost all economic activity is concerned with the making and spending of money incomes.
From the earliest times precious metals have had wide monetary use, owing to convenience of handling, durability, divisibility, and the high intrinsic value commonly attached to them. Whether an article is to be regarded as money does not, however, depend on its value as a commodity, except where intrinsic worth is necessary to make it generally acceptable in exchange. The relation between the face value of an object used as money and its commodity value has actually become increasingly remote (see coin).
Paper currency first appeared about 300 years ago; it was usually backed by some
standard commodity of intrinsic value into which it could be freely converted on demand, but even during the early development of currency, issuance of inconvertible paper money, also called fiat money, was not infrequent (see, for example, Law, John). The world's first durable plastic currency was introduced by Australia in a special issue in 1988 and in a regular issue in 1992. Plastic bills are more resistant to counterfeiting than paper, and a number of countries now issue plastic currency. In the 21st cent. the use of debit cards, credit cards, and smartphone apps to make electronic payments has increasingly supplanted currency in both retail and personal transactions.
The importance of money has been variously interpreted. While the advocates of mercantilism tended to identify money with wealth, the classical economists, e.g., John Stuart Mill, usually considered money as a veil obscuring real economic phenomena. Since the mid-20th cent., a group known as the monetarists has given increasing attention to the role of money in determining national income and economic fluctuations.
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