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III. Government Meddling With Money

7. Permitting Banks to Refuse Payment

The modern economy, with its widespread use of banks and money-substitutes, provides the golden opportunity for government to fasten its control over the money supply and permit inflation at its discretion. We have seen in section 12, page 20, that there are three great checks on the power of any bank to inflate under a "free banking" system: (1) the extent of the clientele of each bank; (2) the extent of the clientele of the whole banking system, i.e., the extent to which people use money-substitutes, and (3) the confidence of the clients in their banks. The narrower the clientele of each bank, of the banking system as a whole, or the shakier the state of confidence, the stricter will be the limits on inflation in the economy. Government's privileging and controlling of the banking system has operated to suspend these limits.

All these limits, of course, rest on one fundamental obligation: the duty of the banks to redeem their sworn liabilities on demand. We have seen that no fractional-reserve bank can redeem all of its liabilities; and we have also seen that this is the gamble that every bank takes. But it is, of course, essential to any system of private property that contract obligations be fulfilled. The bluntest way for government to foster inflation, then, is to grant the banks the special privilege of refusing to pay their obligations, while yet continuing in their operation. While everyone else must pay their debts or go bankrupt, the banks are permitted to refuse redemption of their receipts, at the same time forcing their own debtors to pay when their loans fall due. The usual name for this is a "suspension of specie payments." A more accurate name would be "license for theft;" for what else can we call a governmental permission to continue in business without fulfilling one's contract?

In the United States, mass suspension of specie payment in times of bank troubles became almost a tradition. It started in the War of 1812. Most of the country's banks were located in New England, a section unsympathetic to America's entry into the war. These banks refused to lend for war purposes, and so the government borrowed from new banks in the other states. These banks issued new paper money to make the loans. The inflation was so great that calls for redemption flooded into the new banks, especially from the conservative nonexpanding banks of New England, where the government spent most of its money on war goods. As a result, there was a mass "suspension" in 1814, lasting for over two years (well beyond the end of the war); during that time, banks sprouted up, issuing notes with no need to redeem in gold or silver.

This suspension set a precedent for succeeding economic crises; 1819, 1837, 1857, and so forth. As a result of this tradition, the banks realized that they need have no fear of bankruptcy after an inflation, and this, of course, stimulated inflation and "wildcat banking." Those writers who point to nineteenth century America as a horrid example of "free banking," fail to realize the importance of this clear dereliction of duty by the states in every financial crisis.

The governments and the banks, persuaded the public of the justice of their acts. In fact, anyone trying to get his money back during a crisis was considered "unpatriotic" and a despoiler of his fellowmen, while banks were often commended for patriotically bailing out the community in a time of trouble. Many people, however, were bitter at the entire proceeding and from this sentiment grew the famous "hard money" Jacksonian movement that flourished before the Civil War.11

Despite its use in the United States, such periodic privilege to banks did not catch hold as a general policy in the modern world. It was a crude instrument, too sporadic (it could not be permanent since few people would patronize banks that never paid their obligations)—and, what's more, it provided no means of government control over the banking system. What governments want, after all, is not simply inflation, but inflation completely controlled and directed by themselves. There must be no danger of the banks running the show. And so, a far subtler, smoother, more permanent method was devised, and sold to the public as a hallmark of civilization itself—Central Banking.

  • 11. See Horace White, Money and Banking (4th Ed., Boston: Ginn and Co., 1911), pp. 322-327.
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