Is private currency history repeating itself?


As I and others have said before, free banking & competitive currency provision either completely ignored, or unfairly dismissed by opponents who really don't know too much about the system. A recent example came on the FT's Alphaville blog. By author Izabella Kaminska, and entitled "Private money vs totally-public money, plus some history", it purported to show how cryptocurrency was just a rerun of earlier monetary struggles, looking specifically at the formation of the Bank of England:

As the BoE’s historical timeline helpfully points out, the BoE came into being when a private syndicate decided to risk all in 1688 by providing the UK government with funding when no-one else was prepared to do so. This ultimately proved to be a very good decision. It turns out lending money to government on terms you can enforce and control can be very profitable, especially if it leads to wise public investments that improve the wealth of the nation and make it easier to collect taxes as a result.

Soon enough the Bank’s success meant it could raise financing for both the government and private interests from almost anyone, issuing notes and deposits to all those who were prepared to do so.

Before the Bank knew it, its notes had become the most liquid and trusted in the land.

Open and shut then—free banking evolves naturally into superior central banking! Or maybe not. As George Selgin pointed out in the comments.

Ms. Kaminska goes out of her way to dismiss the famously efficient and stable Scottish system as an "oligopoly" without even bothering to offer any evidence that the banks in that system colluded or otherwise behaved differently than they might have had entry into the industry been unrestricted. (For her information on the Scottish system Ms. Kaminska relies on a single blog post that in turn draws on some untrustworthy sources, happily ignoring the extensive literature on the other side of the question.)

Ms. Kaminska then imagines that the English system's only fault lay, not in the dangerous concentration of privileges in the Bank of England, awarded it not owing to any enlightened concern about stability but simply in return for its fiscal support of the English government, but to the fact that that monopoly was as yet not complete!  In fact a currency monopoly is extremely dangerous because it immunizes the monopoly bank from the normal discipline of routine settlement, making it capable of acting as a sort of Pied Piper to less privileged banks.  (Peel's Act itself, in turn, caused trouble by undermining the English system's ability to accommodate changes in the British public's demand for currency.)

In light of these facts, Ms. Kaminska's claim that English banking crises were caused by smaller joint-stock note issuing rivals, which were at last allowed to compete with it, albeit only outside of the main, metropolitan market, beginning in 1833, is utterly--I was going to write "laughably" except there's nothing fun about it--mistaken, as she might have discovered had she bothered to read, say, Walter Bagehot's Lombard Street, say, instead of copying and pasting from the Bank of England's own self-serving web pages. She would there have come across Bagehot's careful account of how England's artificially centralized "one reserve" system, dominated by the Bank of England in consequences of its accumulated privileges, exposed it to financial crises to which Scotland and other less centralized ('"natural") banking systems were immune.