A very old and well known story is told in Genesis 11. It is the story of the curse of Babel:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
I retell this tale not for the sake of the theology but for the sake of our present debates. In what follows, the names have been omitted in the hope that I may be excused any hint of misrepresentation…
When I first approached a prominent worldwide leader of the Austrian School, in frustration at the pitiful state of economic debate, to ask who were the UK’s best Austrians, with a view to starting a UK-based Austrian-School think tank, things seemed ever so easy. I had mostly read Mises and a touch of Rothbard. I understood the Austrian school and the monetary theory of the trade cycle but I was not broadly read into the scholarly debate over money.
And then I discovered the curse of Babel amongst the monetary scholars of the free-market.
One eminent free-market British academic believes that central banking, fiat money and fractional reserve deposit taking are institutions which have evolved naturally in society and which should be preserved. He believes the Bank of England should be privatised.
Most Monetarists seem to think central banking and fiat money are just fine, together with the Keynesians, some of whom at least think they are free market, but some advocate various forms of full-reserve banking.
Most, perhaps all, Austrians think the central banks are a plain instrument of statism which should be abolished, together with deposit insurance, legal tender laws and various other privileges. They reject fiat money outright, more often than not, as a creature of interventionism and a tool of the enemies of liberty.
But one faction believes that fractional reserve deposit taking is a breach of sound property rights — a thoroughly libertarian concept — and that it emerged out of fraud to be legitimised by the state.
The other faction pay little heed to the theory of property rights in demand deposits, emphasising freedom of contract. They believe fractional reserve deposit taking is a natural and honest phenomenon which enjoys the consent of depositors. They argue that full-reserve deposit taking is only ever a product of the state and deride the full-reservers willingness to restrict freedom.
Amongst all this, the protagonists accuse one another variously of economic or legal ignorance or a misinterpretation of history. All sides have their scholars and their literature. Both factions claim the term “free banking” as a rejection of central banking. Sometimes they claim the support of the same scholars…
It seems once we go beyond money as the means of exchange, universal agreement stops. Truly, when it comes to the institutional arrangements for money, we are under the curse of Babel.
It is a pity then that money is dying.
Right across the western world and perhaps shortly in China, we see state-supplied money running out of control, with all the distortions and maladjustments that implies, across sectors, regions and time. It seems the state’s response to every setback is more borrowing and more debasement. Unable to sensibly measure the money supply and unsure whether circumstances are inflationary or deflationary, the authorities wrestle to prop up a system damned by its own inadvertent design, a design which emerged out of the failure of Bretton Woods, itself a system condemned to a youthful death.
Five years ago, I would have wondered how the monetary authorities of the Weimar Republic could be so stupid…
At The Cobden Centre, we are agreed that honest money is a product of the market subject to the laws of property and contract, not the will of authority. With Richard Cobden, we agree that the very terms of regulating and managing the currency are an absurdity: the currency should regulate itself. Unfortunately and despite endless study, we seem to be able to agree neither what the proper institutions of such a system would be nor how to get there.
We have previously published an admittedly incomplete list of ten plans for reform. Since I agree with Sir Mervyn King (PDF) in that “of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today”, I could happily accept most of them as a step forward. Perhaps Bagus’ “button-pushing” withdrawal of the state would have disruptive consequences beyond our imagination but it seems mere perseverance with our present system is little more predictable, except in as much as it shall fail.
The original curse of Babel was cast, it seems, to prevent a people speaking as one: for speaking as one, nothing they planned to do would be impossible for them. Perhaps we shall not aspire so high, but we must change if we are to rise above the level of The People’s Front of Judea and win a battle which, it seems, must be won in our lifetimes.