Hayekian legal principles and banking structure
The latest CATO journal contains a truly fascinating article (at least to me) of George Selgin titled Law, Legislation, and the Gold Standard. Selgin roots his arguments in Hayekian legal theory, as developed by Hayek in his books The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty*.
Hayek differentiates ‘law’ (that is, general backward-looking ‘meta-legal’ rules that follow the principle of the rule of law) from forward-looking ‘legislation’, which is unfortunately too often described as ‘law’ despite not respecting the very fundamentals of the rule of law. As such, Hayek describes the rule of law as being
a doctrine concerning what the law ought to be, concerning the general attributes that particular laws should possess. This is important because today the conception of the rule of law is sometimes confused with the requirement of mere legality in all government action. The rule of law, of course, presupposes complete legality, but this is not enough: if a law gave the government unlimited power to act as it pleased, all its actions would be legal, but it would certainly not be under the rule of law. The rule of law, therefore, is also more than constitutionalism: it requires that all laws conform to certain principles.
Therefore, the rule of law, according to Hayek, relies on general ‘meta-legal’ rules that have progressively, spontaneously, if not tacitly, been discovered and evolved in a given society to facilitate social interactions and exchanges between individuals (“a government of law and not of men”). Those custom-based rules have certain attributes, namely that they be “known and certain”, apply equally to everyone, define a clear limit to the coercive power of government, require the separation of power and finally only allow the judiciary to exert discretionary rulemaking (within the boundaries of those meta-legal rules). Hayek explains that “under a reign of freedom the free sphere of the individual includes all action not explicitly restricted by a general law.”
Within this framework, Selgin describes the appearance of the gold standard as following the generic principle described by Hayek:
The difference between private or customary law and public law or legislation is, I submit, one of great importance for a proper understanding of the gold standard’s success. For, despite both appearances to the contrary and conventional wisdom, that success depended crucially upon the gold standard’s having been upheld by customary law rather than by legislation. It follows that any scheme for recreating a durable gold standard by means of legislation calling for the Federal Reserve or other public monetary authorities to stand ready to convert their own paper notes into fixed quantities of gold cannot be expected to succeed.
According to him, the gold standard and its definition was mostly a spontaneous monetary arrangement rooted in private commercial customs, and enforced through the private law of contracts. He sums up:
In short, countries abided by the rules of the gold standard game because that game was played by private citizens and firms, not by governments.
Consequently, a gold standard put in place and enforced by governments is unlikely to work. He continues:
Although it may seem paradoxical, our understanding of the classical gold standard suggests that, if that standard had been deliberately set up by governments to enhance their borrowing ability, it is unlikely that it would have worked as intended. This conclusion follows because, once public (or quasi-public) authorities, governed by statute law rather than the private law of contracts, become responsible for enforcing the rules of the gold standard game, the convertibility commitments crucial to that standard’s survival cease to be credible.
He, as a result, doubts about the ability of the gold standard to be ‘forced’ to return through government policy, and demonstrates that post-WW1 attempts to reinstate the gold standard were doomed from the start as states “tragically misunderstood the true legal foundations” of the famous 19th century monetary arrangement. But Selgin also believes that a ‘spontaneous’ return to gold would be unlikely because the public has been ‘locked-into’ a fiat money standard, and that customary law tends to reinforce that trend – by legitimizing the practice over time – rather than providing a way out. Moreover, he concludes, if a new commodity-like standard were to emerge, nothing guarantees that it wouldn’t be based on another sort of medium (including synthetic commodities such as cryptocurrencies).
Now that I have explained the basics of Selgin’s reasoning, I will try to understand what it involves for banking structure and regulation. While free banking systems, such as Scotland’s, have arguably spontaneously evolved following a custom-based legal framework, the structure of the whole of today’s financial system comprises barely anything ‘natural’ left, as Bagehot would point out. Banking, as we know it, is a pure product of decades, if not centuries, of accumulating layers of positive legislation and government discretionary policies. In short, there is now little overlap between banking and the rule of law**.
The inherent instability of banking systems regulated by statute-based law, as opposed to the relative stability of free banking systems (which Larry White referred to as ‘anti-fragile banking and monetary systems’), is therefore unsurprising seen through Hayek’s and Selgin’s lens: governments, even with the best of all possible intentions, could simply not come up with a banking arrangement that could outperform decades or centuries of experience and decentralised knowledge gains that were reflected in rule of law-compliant free banking. Their attempt at centralising and harmonising the “particular circumstances of time and place” were self-defeating.
But the question isn’t what’s wrong about today’s financial system, but can we do anything about it? Can we get back to a rather ‘pure’, rule of law-compliant, free banking system? And my answer is, unfortunately, rather Bagehotian: despite how much I wish to witness the re-emergence of a financial structure based on laissez-faire principles, I believe it’s unlikely to happen… (but wait, there’s a new hope)
Why? For the very reason mentioned by Selgin: regulations have shaped the financial structure for such a long time that innovations and practices have been established that seem now unlikely to disappear. Let me give two examples:
- Money market funds were originally created to bypass the US regulation Q, which has since then been abolished. But MMF are still major financial players and unlikely to disappear any time soon. They have become an established part of the financial structure.
- Mathematical model-based risk frameworks, which existed before the introduction of Basel regulations but were not as widespread, and certainly not as uniform. Basel rules and domestic regulators required common standards that are now used both by analysts and commentators as data, and by bankers for internal risk, capital and liquidity management purposes, despite their limitations and the distortion they insert into the decision-making process. Abolishing Basel and its local implementations (such as CRD4 or Dodd-Frank) are unlikely to remove what is now accepted as market practice. However, less uniformisation in models and uses are likely to appear over time.
What about the very basic component of our modern banking system, the main beneficiary of statutory law, namely the central bank? Bagehot declared that “we are so accustomed to a system of banking, dependent for its cardinal function on a single bank, that we can hardly conceive of any other”, and opposed a radical transformation of the system which, unfortunately, was there to stay. Yet I believe the probability of getting rid of central banks without causing too much disruption is higher than what Bagehot believed. There are a number of countries that do not rely on any central bank, use foreign currencies as medium of exchange, and seem to do perfectly fine (such as Panama). This seems to show that market practices and relationships with central banks aren’t that entrenched and other models currently do exist, and which could spread relatively quickly.
But what is, in my view, our best hope of getting back to a financial system that follows Hayekian legal principles is Fintech. While Fintech firms have to comply with a number of statute-based laws, they nevertheless remain relatively free (for now) of the all intrusive banking rulebooks and discretionary power of regulators. As such, the multiple IT-enabled Fintech firms and decentralised technologies offer us the best hope of reshaping the financial system in a rule of law-based, spontaneously-emerging, manner. Of course, there will be bumps along the road and some business models will fail and other succeed, but this learning process through trial and error is key in shaping a sustainable system along Hayekian decentralised and experience-based principles. For the sake of our future, let’s refrain from the temptation of legislating and regulating at the first bump.
*At the time of my writing, I have only read the first one, although the second one is next on my reading list
**Although I am not an expert, the evolution of accounting standards over time seems to me to have mostly happened along rule of law principles (although Gordon Kerr, and Kevin Dowd and Martin Hutchinson, would perhaps argue otherwise, which is understandable as IFRS comes from statute-based law systems).
Update: See this follow-up post, which includes some Public Choice theory insights
Photo: Bauman Rare Books