Free banking: the limits of mathematical models
Theoretical economic worlds are so nice. Only equations and equilibria, and no need to bother about empirical evidences or simply historical facts: you design your nice imaginary world and you reach conclusions from it. Conclusions that have the potential to influence policymaking or economic teaching.
A new paper produced by a Philly Fed economist illustrates exactly that (see one of its nice systems of equations above). The paper is titled On the inherent instability of private money. Here is the abstract (my emphasis):
A primary concern in monetary economics is whether a purely private monetary regime is consistent with macroeconomic stability. I show that a competitive regime is inherently unstable due to the properties of endogenously determined limits on private money creation. Precisely, there is a continuum of equilibria characterized by a self-fulfilling collapse of the value of private money and a persistent decline in the demand for money. I associate these equilibrium allocations with self-fulfilling banking crises. It is possible to formulate a fiscal intervention that results in the global determinacy of equilibrium, with the property that the value of private money remains stable. Thus, the goal of monetary stability necessarily requires some form of government intervention.
That’s it. He just validated the existence of central banking. No need to go any further, the mathematics just demonstrated it: private currencies are unstable and we need government intervention for the better good.
What’s interesting though is that this paper does not contain a single reference to the now relatively large free banking literature of the likes of White, Selgin, Horwitz, Dowd, Salter, Sechrest, Cachanosky… Which, you’d admit, is curious for a paper discussing precisely that topic. Perhaps this would have helped him avoid the embarrassment of discovering that historical reality was, well, the exact opposite of the conclusions his equations reached. That in fact, private currency-based systems had been more stable than monopoly issuance-based ones (see here for the track record, but everywhere on this blog for other evidences, as well as numerous papers and books such as Selgin’s The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue).
Coincidentally, George Selgin published a new post a couple of days ago criticising the current state of monetary economics which, in his opinion, rely too much on abstract maths and not enough on historical evidence. Ben Southwood also mentioned this paper, along with the fact that even ‘far from perfect’ free banking systems (i.e. the 19th century US experience) outperformed central banking ones. He also asks a very good question:
My real issue is why this evidence isn’t breaking through? Why are so many smart, knowledgeable people opposed to free banking? Why is the ruling tendency now towards practically outlawing bank/debt finance altogether in favour of steps toward equity financing everything? I don’t have a good answer.
This is also something that worries me. Why does a paper on free banking not reference (let alone discuss) a single free banking paper or book? Why is this literature avoided? Is it inconvenient? Unless ignorance is the culprit, despite the fact that quite a few articles show up after a quick Google search for the terms ‘free banking’ or ‘competitive private note issuance’. What’s wrong with the mainstream academic world?