Free Banking and Contract Law (1949)

Ludwig von Mises
Issue CCXXXII - January 19, 2010
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[This article is excerpted from chapter 17 of Human Action: The Scholar's Edition and is read by Jeff Riggenbach.]

The attitudes of the European governments and their satellites with regard to banking were from the beginning insincere and mendacious. The pretended solicitude for the nation's welfare, for the public in general, and for the poor ignorant masses in particular was a mere blind. The governments wanted inflation and credit expansion, they wanted booms and easy money. Those Americans who twice succeeded in doing away with a central bank were aware of the dangers of such institutions; it was only too bad that they failed to see that the evils they fought were present in every kind of government interference with banking. Today even the most bigoted étatists cannot deny that all the alleged evils of free banking count little when compared with the disastrous effects of the tremendous inflations which the privileged and government-controlled banks have brought about.

It is a fable that governments interfered with banking in order to restrict the issue of fiduciary media and to prevent credit expansion. The idea that guided governments was, on the contrary, the lust for inflation and credit expansion. They privileged banks because they wanted to widen the limits drawn to credit expansion by conditions prevailing on the unhampered market or because they were eager to open to the treasury a source of revenue. For the most part both of these considerations motivated the authorities. They were convinced that the fiduciary media are an efficient means of lowering the rate of interest, and asked the banks to expand credit for the benefit of both business and the treasury. Only when the undesired effects of credit expansion became visible, were laws enacted to restrict the issue of banknotes—and sometimes also of deposits—not covered by specie. The establishment of free banking was never seriously considered precisely because it would have been too efficient in restricting credit expansion. For rulers, writers, and the public were unanimous in the belief that business has a fair claim to a "normal" and "necessary" amount of circulation credit and that this amount could not be attained under free banking.

(The notion of "normal" credit expansion is absurd. Issuance of additional fiduciary media, no matter what its quantity may be, always sets in motion those changes in the price structure the description of which is the task of the theory of the trade cycle. Of course, if the additional amount issued is not large, neither are the inevitable effects of the expansion.)

Many governments never looked upon the issuance of fiduciary media from a point of view other than that of fiscal concerns. In their eyes the foremost task of the banks was to lend money to the treasury. The money-substitutes were pacemakers for governmentissued paper money. The convertible banknote was merely a first step on the way to the nonredeemable banknote. With the progress of statolatry and the policy of interventionism these ideas have become general and are no longer questioned by anybody. No government is willing today to give any thought to the program of free banking because no government wants to renounce what it considers a handy source of revenue. What is called today financial war preparedness is merely the ability to procure by means of privileged and government-controlled banks all the money a warring nation may need. Radical inflationism, although not admitted explicitly, is an essential feature of the economic ideology of our age.

But even at the time liberalism enjoyed its highest prestige and governments were more eager to preserve peace and well-being than to foment war, death, destruction, and misery, people were biased in dealing with the problems of banking. Outside of the Anglo-Saxon countries public opinion was convinced that it is one of the main tasks of good government to lower the rate of interest and that credit expansion is the appropriate means for the attainment of this end.

Great Britain was free from these errors when in 1844 it reformed its bank laws. But the two shortcomings of the Currency School vitiated this famous act. On one hand, the system of government interference with banking was preserved. On the other hand, limits were placed only on the issuance of banknotes not covered by specie. The fiduciary media were suppressed only in the shape of banknotes. They could thrive as deposit currency.

In carrying the idea implied in the Currency Theory to its full logical conclusion, one could suggest that all banks be forced by law to keep against the total amount of money-substitutes (banknotes plus demand deposits) a 100 per cent money reserve. This is the core of Professor Irving Fisher's 100 per cent plan. But Professor Fisher combined his plan with his proposals concerning the adoption of an index-number standard. It has been pointed out already why such a scheme is illusory and tantamount to open approval of the government's power to manipulate purchasing power according to the appetites of powerful pressure groups. But even if the 100 per cent reserve plan were to be adopted on the basis of the unadulterated gold standard, it would not entirely remove the drawbacks inherent in every kind of government interference with banking. What is needed to prevent any further credit expansion is to place the banking business under the general rules of commercial and civil laws compelling every individual and firm to fulfill all obligations in full compliance with the terms of the contract. If banks are preserved as privileged establishments subject to special legislative provisions, the tool remains that governments can use for fiscal purposes. Then every restriction imposed upon the issuance of fiduciary media depends upon the government's and the parliament's good intentions. They may limit the issuance for periods which are called normal. The restriction will be withdrawn whenever a government deems that an emergency justifies resorting to extraordinary measures. If an administration and the party backing it want to increase expenditure without jeopardizing their popularity through the imposition of higher taxes, they will always be ready to call their impasse an emergency. Recourse to the printing press and to the obsequiousness of bank managers, willing to oblige the authorities regulating their conduct of affairs, is the foremost means of governments eager to spend money for purposes for which the taxpayers are not ready to pay higher taxes.

Free banking is the only method available for the prevention of the dangers inherent in credit expansion. It would, it is true, not hinder a slow credit expansion, kept within very narrow limits, on the part of cautious banks which provide the public with all information required about their financial status. But under free banking it would have been impossible for credit expansion with all its inevitable consequences to have developed into a regular—one is tempted to say normal—feature of the economic system. Only free banking would have rendered the market economy secure against crises and depressions.

Looking backward upon the history of the last hundred years, one cannot help realizing that the blunders committed by liberalism in handling the problems of banking were a deadly blow to the market economy. There was no reason whatever to abandon the principle of free enterprise in the field of banking. The majority of liberal politicians simply surrendered to the popular hostility against moneylending and interest taking. They failed to realize that the rate of interest is a market phenomenon which cannot be manipulated ad libitum by the authorities or by any other agency. They adopted the superstition that lowering the rate of interest is beneficial and that credit expansion is the right means of attaining such cheap money. Nothing harmed the cause of liberalism more than the almost regular return of feverish booms and of the dramatic breakdown of bull markets followed by lingering slumps. Public opinion has become convinced that such happenings are inevitable in the unhampered market economy. People did not conceive that what they lamented was the necessary outcome of policies directed toward a lowering of the rate of interest by means of credit expansion. They stubbornly kept to these policies and tried in vain to fight their undesired consequences by more and more government interference.

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