The debate over whether Fractional Reserve Banking is ethical to proceed over approximately a decade (the late 1980s/ early 1990s to the early 2000s). Resulting from subsequent papers repudiating the previous claims over the researchers on the other side of the issue. It should be noted that in these series of retaliatory papers that technical arguments were presented in tandem with ethical justifications for or against this practice. For the sake of brevity, I chose to focus on the ethical considerations of the topic. However, this does not exclude a potential technical comparison of Fractional Reserve Banking in the future.
To any reader who has never thoroughly examined nor given a second thought to Fractional Reserve Banking, I hope reading this series of essays was illuminating. Fractional Reserve Banking is arguably the most prevalent banking system globally. Yet, something that impacts our lives daily we never think to question its inner mechanics let alone whether it is ethical. The ethics of banking extend beyond whether the patrons are benefiting at the expense of someone else, either through easy access to loans or interest payment on savings. There are potential ramifications to the economy.
Distortions in the credit market are precisely the impetus for business cycle calamities such as the cataclysmic burst of the Housing Bubble in 2007. Providing loans backed up by fiduciary media is nothing more than a house of cards waiting to fall done. Artificially manipulating factors such as prices, interests, and money supply can only facilitate the misallocation of resources. Such indicators operate as unspoken signals to consumers and entrepreneurs. Due to this fact, these distortions create an illusory image of the loan market and naturally economic agents respond accordingly (p.108). A fact that both George Selgin and Lawrence White are too quick to refute and dismiss (p.102). This carries the implications of defrauding the economy as a whole versus being isolated to the bank’s customers. Even if you are the type to limit all your transactions to precious metals or cryptocurrency, it is worthwhile to read up on this topic.
Summary of Compelling Arguments From the Austrian School:
It is difficult to say whether the Free-Bankers or the Austrians are on the right side of the debate. Both camps provided some truly convincing arguments. The Austrian opposition notes how ownership can only legitimately be taken on by one person and Fractional Reserve Bank obfuscates this immutable law of property ownership. From a contractual standpoint, that the agreements between banks and clients in such an argument are illegitimate. Since the terms are not only unclear to the typical layman but are a categorical misrepresentation. Presenting fiduciary media as actual money. The disingenuous nature of this faulty contract is only compounded by the fact that these claims for money are based upon the banknotes that are not back by currency or specie. Attempting to redeem them for actual currency is analogous to using a deed for a boat and attempt to claim ownership of a house. Also that it is a false analogy to argue that any devaluation of present money caused by the issue of fiduciary media is no different than an increase in the supply of a good due to protection or harvesting.
This is because the increase in the supply of lumber from harvesting more oak trees is derived from legitimate market processes and in-turn does not seek to directly devalue anyone else’s property. Also, that in no way can Fractional Reserve Banking represent the Demonstrated preference of bank clients. Demonstrated preference can only be expressed with one’s property. Fractional Reserve Banking by its very nature disrupts this relationship.
Summary of Compelling Free-Banking Arguments:
The Free-Bankers also bring up some compelling moral defenses in favor of Fractional Reserve Banking. They are even bold enough to directly claim the practice is not fraudulent. Through a banking client electing to accept the terms of service regardless of their understanding, the contract is still valid. It would be one thing if these banks purported to practice 100 percent reserve banking, but function as a Fractional Reserve institution. These contracts are formulated between consenting adults, it would be antithetical to the principle of individual freedom to prohibit such arrangements. The real trouble comes from government interference. One only needs to look at the large array of protections awarded to backs through the FDCI to see the true culprit in shielding unsavory banking practices from insolvency or litigation. Also, the ignorance or the naiveté of the consumer is not a reasonable justification for banning a product or service. Even though the risk of a bank run is present, it is a relatively rare occurrence from a historical standpoint. If faced with a potential bank run the bank can issue an option clause suspending redemption, solving the issue through valid contractual recourse. Speaking of redeeming bank deposits. A customer assumes the risk of not being able to redeem money when they agree to open an FRB account. They assume the risk. In turn, for the opportunity cost of having their liquid money held and the potential risk of a bank run/ insolvency, they receive an interest payment. Overall, patrons must prefer Fractional Reserve systems to 100 percent reserve banking. There have never been any governmental decrees in modern history that all banking must be done via a Fractional Reserve System. Despite its flaws, ultimately, the people prefer being paid interest payments versus having to pay warehousing fees.
Can There Be a Compromise?
There are certain aspects of both arguments that appear to be flawed. The Free-Bankers are too lackadaisical when it comes to distortions in the credit structure enabled by Fractional Reserve Banking. The Austrians to some extent seem too rigid in their interpretation of property ownership. Under many of their arguments likening the practice to a Ponzi scheme. Yet, to be conceptually consistent would not these same economists also take issue with multi-level-marketing? Then again it could also be counter-argued that MLM schemes and Fractional Reserve Banking while present similar confusions, property rights have much greater degree clarity in MLM arraignments.
Back in 2000, the economist Jorg Guido Hulsmann wrote an article in the Independent Review refuting the Fractional Reserve practice of creating “money”. Hulsmann (see page 108) much like his anarcho-capitalist counterparts Hoppe and Block are opposed to government intervention. If FRB is morally and technically flawed how can we address the issue of it short-comings without introducing state involvement? In this twenty-year-old article, Hulsmann presents a summary of points previously made by Hoppe and Block that would alleviate some of the issues relating to the categorical confusion. It should be noted that Hulsmann in that these suggestions for informal rules and norms of banking presume no state involvement in banking. Also, the author details the intimate relationship between the FRB and the government. Going so far as to refer to it as a “handmaiden” of government (p.108). Making it easy to infer that Hulsmann believes that the intertangled marriage between Fractional Reserve Banking and government is an unbreakable bond. However, let’s take these suggested conditions as theoretical and contingent upon a banking system free of regulation. See his suggestions below:
“…Fractional reserve banks would have to use a different language than they commonly use because words such as “deposit” are deceptive. They would have to make it clear that money “deposited” with them is, in fact, a credit of unspecified duration. And the “banknotes” they issue would have to be presented not as money titles but as some sort of very liquid IOUs..”
“..On the “FR notes,” one would have to find a promissory note of the following type:
The FR Bank promises the holder of this note to try to redeem it out of its gold reserves. Because FR notes are not 100 percent covered by gold presently in our bank, in case we cannot redeem, the following rules apply. . . . (p.108)”