For the most part, modern economists know Gesell because of Keynes. I'll quote Keynes on Gesell in its entirety because it's a neat little section of a neat little chapter in The General Theory. He has some interesting things to say about economists that fly under the radar, "crackpot" ideas, and Marxists here too:
It is convenient to mention at this point the strange, unduly neglected prophet Silvio Gesell (1862-1930), whose work contains flashes of deep insight and who only just failed to reach down to the essence of the matter. In the post-war years his devotees bombarded me with copies of his works; yet, owing to certain palpable defects in the argument, I entirely failed to discover their merit. As is often the case with imperfectly analysed intuitions, their significance only became apparent after I had reached my own conclusions in my own way. Meanwhile, like other academic economists, I treated his profoundly original strivings as being no better than those of a crank. Since few of the readers of this book are likely to be well acquainted with the significance of Gesell, I will give to him what would be otherwise a disproportionate space.
Gesell was a successful German merchant in Buenos Aires who was led to the study of monetary problems by the crisis of the late ’eighties, which was especially violent in the Argentine, his first work, Die Reformation im Münzwesen als Brücke zum socialen Staat, being published in Buenos Aires in 1891. His fundamental ideas on money were published in Buenos Aires in the same year under the title Nervus rerum, and many books and pamphlets followed until he retired to Switzerland in 1906 as a man of some means, able to devote the last decades of his life to the two most delightful occupations open to those who do not have to earn their living, authorship and experimental farming.
The first section of his standard work was published in 1906 at Les Hauts Geneveys, Switzerland, under the title Die Verwirklichung des Rechtes auf dem vollen Arbeitsertrag, and the second section in 1911 at Berlin under the title Die neue Lehre vom Zins. The two together were published in Berlin and in Switzerland during the war (1916) and reached a sixth edition during his lifetime under the title Die natürliche Wirtschaftsordnung durch Freiland und Freigeld, the English version (translated by Mr. Philip Pye) being called The Natural Economic Order. In April 1919 Gesell joined the short-lived Soviet cabinet of Bavaria as their Minister of Finance, being subsequently tried by court-martial. The last decade of his life was spent in Berlin and Switzerland and devoted to propaganda. Gesell, drawing to himself the semi-religious fervour which had formerly centred round Henry George, became the revered prophet of a cult with many thousand disciples throughout the world. The first international convention of the Swiss and German Freiland-Freigeld Bund and similar organisations from many countries was held in Basle in 1923. Since his death in 1930 much of the peculiar type of fervour which doctrines such as his are capable of exciting has been diverted to other (in my opinion less eminent) prophets. Dr. Büchi is the leader of the movement in England, but its literature seems to be distributed from San Antonio, Texas, its main strength lying to-day in the United States, where Professor Irving Fisher, alone amongst academic economists, has recognised its significance.
In spite of the prophetic trappings with which his devotees have decorated him, Gesell’s main book is written in cool, scientific language; though it is suffused throughout by a more passionate, a more emotional devotion to social justice than some think decent in a scientist. The part which derives from Henry George, though doubtless an important source of the movement’s strength, is of altogether secondary interest. The purpose of the book as a whole may be described as the establishment of an anti-Marxian socialism, a reaction against laissez-faire built on theoretical foundations totally unlike those of Marx in being based on a repudiation instead of on an acceptance of the classical hypotheses, and on an unfettering of competition instead of its abolition. I believe that the future will learn more from the spirit of Gesell than from that of Marx. The preface to The Natural Economic Order will indicate to the reader, if he will refer to it, the moral quality of Gesell. The answer to Marxism is, I think, to be found along the lines of this preface.
Gesell’s specific contribution to the theory of money and interest is as follows. In the first place, he distinguishes clearly between the rate of interest and the marginal efficiency of capital, and he argues that it is the rate of interest which sets a limit to the rate of growth of real capital. Next, he points out that the rate of interest is a purely monetary phenomenon and that the peculiarity of money, from which flows the significance of the money rate of interest, lies in the fact that its ownership as a means of storing wealth involves the holder in negligible carrying charges, and that forms of wealth, such as stocks of commodities which do involve carrying charges, in fact yield a return because of the standard set by money. He cites the comparative stability of the rate of interest throughout the ages as evidence that it cannot depend on purely physical characters, inasmuch as the variation of the latter from one epoch to another must have been incalculably greater than the observed changes in the rate of interest; i.e. (in my terminology) the rate of interest, which depends on constant psychological characters, has remained stable, whilst the widely fluctuating characters, which primarily determine the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital, have determined not the rate of interest but the rate at which the (more or less) given rate of interest allows the stock of real capital to grow.
But there is a great defect in Gesell’s theory. He shows how it is only the existence of a rate of money interest which allows a yield to be obtained from lending out stocks of commodities. His dialogue between Robinson Crusoe and a stranger is a most excellent economic parable — as good as anything of the kind that has been written — to demonstrate this point. But, having given the reason why the money-rate of interest unlike most commodity rates of interest cannot be negative, he altogether overlooks the need of an explanation why the money-rate of interest is positive, and he fails to explain why the money-rate of interest is not governed (as the classical school maintains) by the standard set by the yield on productive capital. This is because the notion of liquidity-preference had escaped him. He has constructed only half a theory of the rate of interest.
The incompleteness of his theory is doubtless the explanation of his work having suffered neglect at the hands of the academic world. Nevertheless he had carried his theory far enough to lead him to a practical recommendation, which may carry with it the essence of what is needed, though it is not feasible in the form in which he proposed it. He argues that the growth of real capital is held back by the money-rate of interest, and that if this brake were removed the growth of real capital would be, in the modern world, so rapid that a zero money-rate of interest would probably be justified, not indeed forthwith, but within a comparatively short period of time. Thus the prime necessity is to reduce the money-rate of interest, and this, he pointed out, can be effected by causing money to incur carrying-costs just like other stocks of barren goods. This led him to the famous prescription of “stamped” money, with which his name is chiefly associated and which has received the blessing of Professor Irving Fisher. According to this proposal currency notes (though it would clearly need to apply as well to some forms at least of bank-money) would only retain their value by being stamped each month, like an insurance card, with stamps purchased at a post office. The cost of the stamps could, of course, be fixed at any appropriate figure. According to my theory it should be roughly equal to the excess of the money-rate of interest (apart from the stamps) over the marginal efficiency of capital corresponding to a rate of new investment compatible with full employment. The actual charge suggested by Gesell was 1 per mil. per month, equivalent to 5.4 per cent. per annum. This would be too high in existing conditions, but the correct figure, which would have to be changed from time to time, could only be reached by trial and error.
The idea behind stamped money is sound. It is, indeed, possible that means might be found to apply it in practice on a modest scale. But there are many difficulties which Gesell did not face. In particular, he was unaware that money was not unique in having a liquidity-premium attached to it, but differed only in degree from many other articles, deriving its importance from having a greater liquidity-premium than any other article. Thus if currency notes were to be deprived of their liquidity-premium by the stamping system, a long series of substitutes would step into their shoes — bank-money, debts at call, foreign money, jewellery and the precious metals generally, and so forth. As I have mentioned above, there have been times when it was probably the craving for the ownership of land, independently of its yield, which served to keep up the rate of interest; — though under Gesell’s system this possibility would have been eliminated by land nationalisation.