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Free Banking: Anti-Bernanke

by By George Selgin: Professor of Economics at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business, and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. — last modified Mar 25, 2012 05:20 PM
Despite the bright light streaming into my office window, reminding me of the beautiful spring weather here in Athens, I managed to spend most of yesterday afternoon listening to the first installment of Ben Bernanke's 4-part lecture series on "The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis." The lecture took place on Tuesday evening at George Washington University. The other parts will be given on the 22nd, 27th, and 29th of this month.

In this opening lecture Bernanke offers a brief overview of the role of central banks, their general origins, the specific origins of the Federal Reserve System, and the Fed's early performance.

It would of course be silly to expect any sitting central banker, much less the head of the world's most important central bank, to deliver an entirely candid lecture on the origins of central banking. But then again, Ben Bernanke is no run-of-the-mill central banker: he is a former academic economist and economic historian, and one with very high standing in the profession. So one might expect him to at least avoid gross distortions of the historical record to which his less academically-minded counterparts might be expected to resort. But no: as the lecture lumbered on (for Chairman Bernanke's classroom demeanor is all too reminiscent of his demeanor when testifying to Congress), it became increasingly evident that the man lecturing at Duquès Hall was at least 99 and 44/100ths percent pure Federal Reserve spokesman.

So like any central banker, and unlike better academic economists, Bernanke consistently portrays inflation, business cycles, financial crises, and asset price "bubbles" as things that happen because...well, the point is that there is generally no "because." These things just happen; central banks, on the other hand, exist to prevent them from happening, or to "mitigate" them once they happen, or perhaps (as in the case of "bubbles") to simply tolerate them, because they can't do any better than that. That central banks' own policies might actually cause inflation, or contribute to the business cycle, or trigger crises, or blow-up asset bubbles--these are possibilities to which every economist worth his or her salt attaches some importance, if not overwhelming importance. But they are also possibilities that every true-blue central banker avoids like so many landmines. Are you old enough to remember that publicity shot of Arthur Burns holding a baseball bat and declaring that he was about to "knock inflation out of the economy"? That was Burns talking, not like a monetary economist, but like the Fed propagandist that he was. Bernanke talks the same way throughout much (though not quite all) of his lecture.

In describing the historical origins of central banking, for instance, Bernanke makes no mention at all of the fiscal purpose of all of the earliest central banks--that is, of the fact that they were set up, not to combat inflation or crises or cycles but to provide financial relief to their sponsoring governments in return for monopoly privileges. He is thus able to steer clear of the thorny challenge of explaining just how it was that institutions established for function X happened to prove ideally suited for functions Y and Z, even though the latter functions never even entered the minds of the institutions' sponsors or designers!

By ignoring the true origins of early central banks, and of the Bank of England in particular, and simply asserting that the (immaculately conceived) Bank gradually figured-out its "true" purpose, especially by discovering that it could save the British economy now and then by serving as a Lender of Last Resort, Bernanke is able to overlook the important possibility that central banks' monopoly privileges--and their monopoly of paper currency especially--may have been a contributing cause of 19th-century financial instability. How currency monopoly contributed to instability is something I've explained elsewhere. More to the point, it is something that Walter Bagehot was perfectly clear about in his famous 1873 work, Lombard Street. Bernanke, in typical central-bank-apologist fashion, refers to Bagehot's work, but only to recite Bagehot's rules for last-resort lending. He thus allows all those innocent GWU students to suppose (as was surely his intent) that Bagehot considered central banking a jolly good thing. In fact, as anyone who actually reads Bagehot will see, he emphatically considered central banking--or what he called England's "one-reserve system" of banking--a very bad thing, best avoided in favor of a "natural" system, like Scotland's, in which numerous competing banks of issue are each responsible for maintaining their own cash reserves.

Besides ignoring the destabilizing effects of central banking--or of any system based on a currency monopoly--Bernanke carefully avoids any mention of the destabilizing effects of other sorts of misguided financial regulation. He thus attributes the greater frequency of banking crises in the post-Civil War U.S. than in England solely to the lack of a central bank in the former country, making one wish that some clever GWU student had interrupted him to observe that Canada and Scotland, despite also lacking central banks, each had far fewer crises than either the U.S. or England. Hearing Bernanke you would never guess that U.S. banks were generally denied the ability to branch, or that state chartered banks were prevented by a prohibitive federal tax from issuing their own notes, or that National banks found it increasingly difficult to issue their own notes owing to the high cost of government securities required (originally for fiscal reasons) as backing for their notes. Certainly you would not realize that economic historians have long recognized (see, for starters, here and here) how these regulations played a crucial part in pre-Fed U.S. financial instability. No: you would be left to assume that U.S. crises just...happened, or rather, that they happened "because" there was no central bank around to put a stop to them.

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