Power & Market

Rothbard on Free Banking in Scotland

Joakim Book has recently published an essay at AIER arguing that Rothbard was wrong to change his mind about free banking in Scotland. Rothbard had originally praised the episode of Scottish free banking in his 1983 book The Mystery of Banking, but then changed his mind in a 1988 essay on The Myth of Free Banking in Scotland. While the topic has been debated extensively throughout the 90s and 00s between free bankers and full-reserve advocates, it is worth responding to this latest argument against the Rothbardian position.

Setting the stage

Before moving on to answering Mr. Book’s specific charges against Rothbard, it is perhaps useful to briefly recount the background to the dispute over free banking. Is it possible to have stable fractional reserve banking in a free market, so-called free banking, where banks issue more bank notes and demand deposits than they have cash on hand to redeem? Or is such a system based on special privileges granted to banks, and will it inevitably result in bank panics and business cycles? Rothbard’s position was the second, while Lawrence White in the early 1980s, first in articles and then in his 1984 book Free Banking in Britain, advanced arguments for the feasibility of free banking on theoretical grounds while using the example of the Scottish experience with free banking 1716-1844 to show that it had also worked in practice. Rothbard’s initial praise for the Scottish experience was based on White’s first paper detailing the episode of free banking, but reading White’s 1984 book and reviewing the histories of Scottish banking himself made Rothbard change his mind and criticize the Scottish system, and White’s portrayal of it, harshly.

The present argument

The charges against Rothbard are three in number:

  1. Rothbard interprets the low failure-rate of Scottish banks as proof of government protection, whereas White and others see it as proof of the stability of the system.
  2. The Bank Restriction during the Napoleonic Wars apparently also applied to Scotland, meaning that the Scottish banks were rendered immune from the legal claims of their clients. This is “completely false” according to Mr. Book, as the only reason the Scottish bank customers did not demand specie was that they preferred bills of exchange and bank notes.
  3. Rothbard claims that the Bank of England was a lender of last resort to the Scottish banking system – which according to Book is a wrong-headed interpretation of the evidence.

As argument number 2 appears to me to get at the heart of the issue, I will deal with arguments 1 and 3 summarily before moving on.

Ad 1): Here I think we must return a Scots verdict – while it is true that we would regularly see firms go out of business in a free market, as more successful entrepreneurs displace the less competent, it seems to me that the banking sector is a special case. Presumably, the clients of the bank would not hold bank notes if they feared there was a risk of the bank going out of business, so people would only patronize very sound banks, meaning that the banking sector would be more stable than the surrounding economy. That’s just speculation, however. Since we don’t have any similar systems to compare the Scottish experience to (the English banks that White compares the Scottish to were artificially weakened due to government regulations meant to protect the Bank of England), we can’t say one way or the other what the low number of bankruptcies indicates.

Ad 3): It is hard to understand how Mr. Book can sustain this charge, let alone describe Rothbard’s position as a “strange historical twist”. It is true, as Mr. Book relates, that in the crisis of 1793 the British government, not the Bank of England, was the source of help for the Scottish banks (a fact that does little to sustain the notion of “free” banking in Scotland), but this is not news to Rothbard, who relates the exact same incident. Nor does it disprove Rothbard’s point about the importance of London for the Scottish banks, for while he does not say that the Bank of England was the lender of last resort to Scottish banks, he does cite the historians Frank W. Fetter and Sydney Checkland to the effect that “(r)edemption in London drafts was the usual form of paying note holders” and “the principal and ultimate source of liquidity [of the Scottish banks] lay in London, and, in particular, in the Bank of England.” That expert historians say something is obviously no guarantee that it’s true, but I think it behooves Mr. Book to realize that his argument is with these gentlemen, instead of making it seem like Rothbard invented the central role of the Bank of England to the Scottish system.

Getting gold in Scotland

Did Scottish banks at any point suspend convertibility, contrary to their legal obligations and the act of 1765 that governed Scottish banking? It is true, as Mr. Book alleges, that the Bank Restriction Act of 1797 only referred to the Bank of England and the Bank of Ireland – but that does not mean that Scottish bankers redeemed their bank notes in gold. As a leading authority on Scottish free banking notes, as soon as the leading bankers in Edinburgh got news of the suspension from the Bank of England, they met together and decided to follow suit.1  In clear violation of the law, the Scottish bankers en masse suspended redemption of their notes for the duration of the suspension in England. The result, as hard money advocates would predict, was a massive inflation in Scotland and erosion of the reserves of the Scottish banks. They went from having reserves of gold covering 10-20% of their outstanding issue of bank notes to only 0.5-3.2%.

While this development hardly speaks to the purported stability of so-called free banking, it does not contradict Mr. Book’s charge that specie redemption was still possible in Scotland. After all, since the action of the Scottish banks in refusing to redeem their notes was clearly illegal, presumably a disgruntled client desirous of gold could take his bank to court. Why didn’t anybody do this? Surprisingly, we need only read the article on the bank restriction by George Selgin that Mr. Book himself links to in support of his claims to realize why. For the Bank Restriction Act did affect Scottish banks: while it did not make Bank of England notes legal tender, if anyone insisted on using such notes in payment of debts, “he was to be protected from arrest for debt” (Selgin quoting Frank W. Fetter). In other words, the legal remedies available to persons insisting on payment in gold were severely curtailed – in Scotland particularly so, as the Act deprived bank creditors of the right to summary diligence, a special procedure under Scots law for the enforcement of debts.

As is to be expected, the suspension of convertibility in Scotland lead to the complete disappearance of silver and gold coins from circulation2 , per the working of Gresham’s Law, and bank notes proliferated, leading to the above-mentioned outcome that bank reserves dwindled to a fraction of what they were before the suspension.

All this leads us back to Rothbard. Rothbard claimed both less and more than Mr. Book attributes to him. He didn’t claim that the Act of 1797 applied to Scottish banks, merely that they used the opportunity to suspend convertibility – and this not on his own authority, but on that of Professors White and Checkland. However, Rothbard also claimed much more than simply a temporary suspension in Scotland during the early 1800s. It is worth quoting him at length since this claim seems to have escaped Mr. Book’s attention:

Now I come to the nub: that, as a general rule, and not just during the official suspension period, the Scottish banks redeemed in specie in name only; that, in substance, depositors and note holders generally could not redeem the banks' liabilities in specie. The reason that the Scottish banks could afford to be outrageously inflationary, i.e. keep their specie reserves at a minimum, is that, in practice, they did not really have to pay.

[Quoting Professor Checkland] The Scottish system was one of continuous partial suspension of specie payments. No one really expected to be able to enter a Scots bank … with a large holding of notes and receive the equivalent immediately in gold or silver. They expected, rather, an argument, or even a rebuff. At best they would get a little specie and perhaps bills on London. If they made serious trouble, the matter would be noted and they would find the obtaining of credit more difficult in future.

Rothbard goes on to describe a legal battle in the 1750s over the redemption of bank notes that ended up with a nominal victory for the cause of redemption, but in reality the courts refused to force the banks to pay up. The clear conclusion must be that convertibility of Scottish bank notes were only sporadically enforced throughout the existence of the much-vaunted system of free banking in Scotland.

This result should not surprise us, as the system was inherently unstable. While Mr. Book focuses on the issue of bankruptcy rates, this is not Rothbard’s main reason to deem the system unstable. Instead, he focuses on the fact (again using Checkland as his source) that throughout the existence of an independent Scottish banking system, the Scottish banks expanded and contracted credit in a long series of business cycles, as also Huerta de Soto has pointed out. What the Scottish bankers did was secure legal privileges in order to be able to engage in fraudulent credit expansion, and it is only after reading deeper in the history of Scottish banking that Rothbard realized this and subsequently changed his mind on the issue. Far from criticizing Rothbard, Mr. Book, who himself writes often and persuasively about the role of financial history, should recognize him as a kindred spirit – and accept the Rothbardian strictures on free banking in Scotland, based as they are on sound theory and historical inquiry.

Conclusion

The goal of this essay has been to show that, contrary to Mr. Book’s criticism, Rothbard’s change of mind on the issue of free banking in Scotland was based on a better understanding of the episode and was not, as Mr. Book alleges, “the imposition of perfectionist normative judgments” on the historical record. More generally, we have again shown that the claim that Scottish experience validates free banking theory is not supported by the evidence. On the contrary, the attempts by Mr. Book and other free bankers to explain away or ignore the myriad examples of government privilege and intervention in the Scottish case is starting to sound like a no true Scotsman fallacy – they are either ignored, or explained away as not really affecting the financial system.

Free banking has not passed the free market test, at least not in any of the cases that have been brought forward by the free bankers to support their claims. True free banking would indeed be a very stable system – but one with very high reserves. As Mises said:

Suspension of the bank-notes’ convertibility and legal-tender provisions had transformed the ‘hard’ currencies of many countries into questionable paper money. The logical conclusion to be drawn from these facts would have been to do away with privileged banks altogether and to subject all banks to the rule of common law and the commercial codes that oblige everybody to perform contracts in full faithfulness to the pledged word. Free banking would have spared the world many crises and catastrophes.

And:

It is a mistake to associate with the notion of free banking the image of a state of affairs under which everybody is free to issue bank notes and to cheat the public ad libitum. People often refer to the dictum of an anonymous American quoted by Tooke: "Free trade in banking is free trade in swindling." However, freedom in the issuance of bank notes would have narrowed down the use of bank notes considerably if it had not entirely suppressed it. It was this idea which Cernuschi advanced in the hearings of the French Banking Inquiry of October 24, 1865: "I believe that what is called freedom of banking would result in a total suppression of bank notes in France. I want to give everybody the right to issue bank notes so that nobody should take any bank notes any longer."

  • 1Lawrence White, Free Banking in Britain: Theory, Experience and Debate, 1800-1845, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 46
  • 2Ibid., 46-7
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