by Murray Rothbard, published 1962, 2007
Please note, this book is also available as a free PDF on the Mises.org website, which is how I read it [PDF]
Rothbard’s “The Panic of 1819” is a lot of things, but the thing it is most is yet another reminder of the old dictum “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”. Contained in this approximately 250-page reporting of the causes, consequences and social responses to the Panic of 1819 are the same behaviors and political programs that could be found in today’s headlines about corrupt Chinese banking practices, Chicago-school monetarism and Keynesian pump priming, including early recognition that attempts to kickstart “idle resources” logically implies a totalitarian command economy where the government manages all resources (and all people) at all times.
It’s all here, and more. There is nothing new under the sun.
How the business cycle gets started
Early on page 16 the reader is entreated to an excerpt from private correspondence between Pennsylvania politician Condy Raguet and European economist Richard Cantillon in which Raguet tries to clear Cantillon’s confusion as to how fractional reserve banking manages to operate to the point of a catastrophic bubble instead of wobbling and crashing under its own confusing weight:
You state in your letter that you find it difficult to comprehend, why person who had a right to demand coin from the Banks in payment of their notes, so long forebore to exercise it. This no doubt appears paradoxical to one who resides in a country where an act of parliament was necessary to protect a bank, but the difficulty is easily solved. The whole of our population are either stockholders of banks or in debt to them. It is not the interest of the first to press the banks and the rest are afraid. This is the whole secret. An independent man, who was neither a stockholder or debtor, who would have ventured to compel the banks to do justice, would have been persecuted as an enemy of society.
Today’s full reserve Austrian economists, caught between clueless and complacent bank executives, a massively indebted “ownership society” public, Keynesian and monetarist adherents and “free banking” friends who are anything but, simply has no place to turn for safety. He defaults to “enemy of society” status in the ensuing confusion though he seeks only to point out the folly of these fractional reserve systems which inevitably injure all in tying their fates by one string.
The Panic of 1819 followed the War of 1812. During the war, imports and exports came to a halt due to the sea being a battleground and many products which would’ve been imported were kept in their home (overseas) markets to furnish the war effort. As a result, the young States United of America saw the development and growth of domestic manufactures and exportable industries. However, when the war ended and international trade resumed, many domestic manufacturers found they weren’t actually competitive facing world markets (this makes sense because if they had been they probably would’ve developed before the war, not during it in a period of “isolationism”). This created a nascent strain of “protectionist” thinking and monied interests who saw a benefit to adding tariffs on imported products.
The end of the war and the resumption of trade saw a banking boom (fractional reserve) which finally ended in 1819 with the panic. From about 1819-1823 the country was in and out of what could be termed depressed economic conditions. In many ways the early country’s experience mirrored the present day experience from 2008-2009 onward, especially the contentious economic and political debates about how to respond.
Something I found fascinating was what happened to various “macro” economic metrics during the Panic (what we’d call a crash):
The credit contraction also caused public land sales to drop sharply, falling from $13.6 million in 1818 to $1.7 million in 1820, and to $1.3 million in 1821. Added to a quickened general desire for a cash position, it also led to high interest rates and common complaint about the scarcity of loanable funds.
That last bit is especially fascinating to me. I don’t know what the state of federal funded debt was in this time period as Rothbard doesn’t really go into the concept or existence of a “risk free rate” but it is interesting to see “deflation” leading to HIGHER rather than LOWER interest rates. In today’s topsy turvy world, low rates are supposed to be the result of the flight to safety during a depression while high rates are supposed to herald an economic recovery. However, it seems it was just the opposite in 1819.
I found myself charmed by the ability of so many in 1819 to see what was the cause of the bubble and the collapse, even politicians. For example, in an address supporting a “relief bill”, Illinois Senator Ninian Edwards observed:
The debtors, like the rest of the country, had been infatuated by the short-lived, “artificial and fictitious prosperity.” They thought that the prosperity would be permanent. Lured by the cheap money of the banks, people were tempted to engage in a “multitude of the wildest projects and most visionary speculations,” as in the case of the Mississippi and South Sea bubbles of previous centuries.
I enjoyed learning that even medical analogies to describe the cause and effect of monetary expansion and collapse were popular in 1819. One government committee, the Hopkinson Committee, arguing against “debt relief” legislation, noted:
palliatives which may suspend the pain for a season, but do not remove the disease, are not restoratives of health; it is worse than useless to lessen the present pressure by means which will finally plunge us deeper into distress.
I thought that pain pill and hangover analogies were something recent and peculiar to adherents of the Austrian school but critics knew of these rhetorical flourishes even two hundred years ago, at least!
On the topic of “flight to safety”, I did make note of one paragraph which seemed to suggest that while interest rates on bank debt and other commercial lending may have risen, interest rates fell dramatically on tax-backed (ie, “guaranteed”) government issues, for example:
“A Pennsylvanian” pointed to United States and City of Philadelphia 6 percent bonds being currently at 3 percent about par– indicating a great deal of idle capital waiting for return of public confidence before being applied to the relief of commerce and manufacturing. Thus, in the process of criticizing debtors’ relief legislation, the “Pennsylvanian” was led beyond a general reference to the importance “confidence” to an unusually extensive analysis of the problems of investment, idle capital, and the rate of interest.
This theme of “idle capital” was remarked on more than once in the text and by various parties with differing viewpoints. This is a particular fetish of Keynesians and monetarists who cite the existence of “idle capital” as an excuse for government to raise public spending to “put it to work.” It is fascinating to see these early Americans predicted Keynesianism by almost 150 years!
Another thing I found remarkable was the prevalence of either state-owned banks (federal, with the Bank of the United States, or individual states) or strong political pushes to establish these banks in response to the ensuing depression and the stress this created on the banking system. In other words, nationalization of the banking industry as a political prop to collapsing FRB institutions is nothing new:
The Alabama experience highlights the two basic measures for monetary expansion advocated or effected in the states: (1) measures to bolster the acceptance of private bank notes, where the banks had suspended specie payment and where the notes were tending to depreciate; and (2) creation of state-owned banks to issue inconvertible paper notes on a large scale. Of course, the very fact of permitting non-specie paying banks to continue in operation, was a tremendous aid to the banks.
People refer to the United States economy and monetary system at various points in time being “free market”, and while it’s true that tax rates and business regulations were generally less cumbersome near the nation’s founding than today, it is also true that there has been a virulent strain(s) of interventionist thinking and policy-making from very early on. It wasn’t until 1971 with Richard Nixon’s closing of the gold window that the US currency finally went fully inconvertible, and yet already in 1820 (if not earlier), people were calling for inconvertible paper currencies issued by state-owned banks. Some free market!
The whole episode seems to beg a question that, sadly, Rothbard did not explicitly address or explore, namely, Why did banks need to be chartered by the government in the first place? Although there were calls during the response to the economic crisis for various forms of occupational licensing and business regulation (aimed at stemming the flood of superior imports damaging local industries), the reality is that any other business but banking, such as butchering, baking, sawmilling, leather tanning, import/export, etc., did not require special permission granted by a session of the local legislature, state or federal. Why was banking different, requiring an act of congress to get the enterprise going?
Besides the fact that many such banks seemed to be public-private partnerships which included state “capital” injected into them, the only answer I have managed to come up with so far that makes any sense is that the banks were all set up on a fractional reserve basis, and a blessing by the government served to either 1.) grant legitimacy to an illegitimate institution or 2.) create the pretense and wishful thinking of providing some kind of “legal oversight” to what everyone at the outset understood to be an essentially criminal organization operating with a special legal privilege or 3.) both.
Because every bank had to be chartered, when the FRB system inevitably hit a bump in the road as it did in 1819 and many banks wished to suspend redeemability of their bank notes to stem outflows of specie, their status as creatures of the public legal mechanism meant they could run to the legislature for permission to violate their own contracts– and they almost always got the permission granted. Now, for example, if angry pitchfork-wielding townsfolk show up to break into the vault, take their gold and lynch the bankers, the Sheriff might step in with his posse to make sure everyone remembered their role.
Keynesians and monetarists and Chinese bankers
Continuing the theme of “everything new is old”, I was struck by commentary from a Pennsylvanian congressman named Henry Jarrett suggesting that government relief money might serve to prime the pump of the economy:
An inconsiderable sum of money, for which the most ample security could be given, being loaned to a single individual in a neighborhood, by passing in quick succession, would pay perhaps a hundred debts.
Kind of sounds like George W. Bush urging Americans to go shopping after 9/11, in order to get confidence in the economy back. It’s a crass Keynesian tactic inspired by a confused understanding of the relationship between production, consumption and the role of money in the economy.
It was also interesting to see how many people back then could sense there was a problem with the way the banking system operated, but were confused into thinking banking in and of itself was illegitimate, rather than simply the practice of issuing a greater supply of banknotes than the amount of specie held in reserve. Consider a campaign circular for a candidate for Congress from mid-Tennessee, who said:
banking in all its forms, in every disguise is a rank fraud upon the laboring and industrious part of society; it is in truth a scheme, whereby in a silent and secret manner, to make idleness productive and filch from industry, the hard produce of its earnings
If you substitute “banking in all its forms” with “fractional reserve banking”, you’ve got a pretty accurate description of the nature of the problem.
It’s also worth quoting at length the argument of “An Anti-Bullionist”, who thought that the economic crisis of 1819 was caused by specie money specifically, rather than abuse of specie money via fractional reserves. In its place he sought to create a fully inconvertible paper currency issued by the government which would of course be “well regulated” and serve to protect the economy from the inevitable deflationary death spiral of the specie system he believed he was witnessing. Shades of later monetarist thinking abound:
His goal was stability in the value of money; he pointed out that specie currency was subject to fluctuation, just as was paper. Moreover, fluctuations in the value of specie could not be regulated; they were dependent on export, real wages, product of mines, and world demand. An inconvertible paper, however, could be efficiently regulated by the government to maintain its uniformity. “Anti-Bullionist” proceeded to argue that the value of money should be constant and provide a stable standard for contracts. It is questionable, however, how much he wished to avoid excessive issue, since he also specifically called a depreciating currency a stimulus to industry, while identifying an appreciating currency with scarcity of money and stagnation of industry. One of the particularly desired effects of an increased money supply was to lower the rate of interest, estimated by the writer as currently 10 percent. A lowering would greatly increase wealth and prosperity. If his plan were not adopted, the writer could only see a future of ever-greater contractions by the banking system and ever-deeper distress.
Even chartalists will be happy to see that early proponents of the “American System” of nationalist public-private industry were representing their views in the debates of the early 1820s, for example:
Law pointed to the great amount of internal improvements that could be effected with the new money. He decried the slow process of accumulating money for investment out of profits. After all, the benefit was derived simply from the money, so what difference would the origin of the money make? And it would be easy for the government to provide the money, because the government “gives internal exchangeable value to anything it prefers.”
Why even have a private industry? Or money, for that matter?
Luckily, advocates of laissez-faire existed in this time period, too, and they were not silent. Commenting on one proposal to deal with “idle capital” by Matthew Carey, the “Friends of Natural Rights” wrote:
The people of the United States being in a very unenlightened condition, very indolent and much disposed to waste their labor and their capital… the welfare of the community requires that all goods, wares, mechandise and estates… should be granted to the government in fee simple, forever… and should be placed under the management of the Board of Trustees, to be styled the Patrons of Industry. The said Board should thereupon guarantee to the people of the United States that thenceforth neither the capital nor labor of this nation should remain for a moment idle.
It is a vulgar notion that the property which a citizen possesses, actually belongs to him; for he is a mere tenant, laborer or agent of the government, to whom all the property in the nation legitimately belongs. The government may therefore manage this property according to its own fancy, and shift capitalists and laborers from one employment to another.
Finally, I don’t seem to have made a good note of the specific passage that caught my attention in this regard but I chuckled when reading the description of the operations of the average bank before collapse. These bankers would set up a new bank and pay only a fraction of capital with specie, the rest would be constituted by additional promissory notes from other banking institutions (which were themselves fractional). The bankers would pay themselves dividends, in specie, while the bank operated, and issue themselves and their friends enormous loans with which they’d purchase real goods and services, all while the real specie capital of their bank depleted. When crisis hit and they could not redeem their depositors’ money, they’d get legal permission to suspend redemption, ask for infusions of new capital from state authorities and/or set up a brand new bank whose purpose was to steady the previous institution. Ultimately, the bank would collapse and this too would work in their interest because they’d already hauled off the specie via dividends to themselves, and many of them were debtors of the bank who now had loans due in a worthless currency that was easy to obtain.
It reminded me a lot of the present Chinese state capitalist model.
“The Panic of 1819” is not light reading and for some readers it may not even be interesting reading. It depends a lot on how fascinating you find in depth examinations of “minor” historical economic events.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t surprising, well-written (for all the facts and data, Rothbard still manages to weave together a narrative that helps the reader appreciate the nuances of the various factions and viewpoints of the time) and at times, depressingly relevant. People who care about economic and financial history and unique, formative episodes in the early history of this country, will find a lot of insights and curiosities in this work. I strongly recommend it.