The gold standard is both a strongly advocated and vehemently opposed monetary regime. Both positions, however, usually rely on misconceptions on what the gold standard actually is and why it failed. Below, I will discuss (1) what the gold standard is, (2) what is not, and (3) why it failed.
What the gold standard is
Under a gold standard, gold is money . This means that gold is (1) the most common means of exchange, (2) it is a good store of value, and (3) it is a unit of account. While we can picture gold coins being used for transactions in small amounts, larger amounts are done with a substitute of gold, usually a banknote with a promise that the bearer can exchange it for gold. These banknotes are issued by central banks, and are convertible to gold at par.
One feature of the gold standard is that the change in gold reserves signals to the central bank if it is issuing too many (or too few) convertible banknotes. If the central bank over-issues banknotes, meaning that banknotes increase more than the value individuals want to hold, then consumption at the aggregate or national level increases. Since individuals now see more banknotes than they want to hold in their pockets, they will spend the extra cash. This means that, unless production has increased, imports will also increase.
But in the exporting country the domestic banknotes do not circulate. Therefore the importer has to pay for the imports with gold. If imports increase more than exports, then the central bank sees their reserves decreasing. In modern days, where central banks issue fiat money (that is, banknotes not backed by gold or any other commodity), central banks need to find a substitute to figure out if they are issuing too many banknotes. That substitute is usually inflation; if inflation rises, central bankers reason that money supply might be too loose.
A common concern with the gold standard is that is prone to unexpected and random discoveries of gold that could produce inflation and monetary imbalances. Surely, no regime would be perfect. It would be unwise to criticize the real-world shortcoming of the gold standard in comparison to, for instance, an idealized but unreal central banking regime that issues fiat money. The useful, and fair, comparison would be to compare the real gold standard with a real modern central bank rather than an ideal central bank…