At the recent Mises Seminar in Sydney there was a speech by Chris Leithner that explicitly called for the banning of fractional reserve (FR) banking. Leithner and other Australian libertarians (including Michael Conaghan & Benjamin Marks from Liberty Australia) follow the lead of some American libertarians (Walter Block, HH Hoppe, JG Hulsmann — BHH) and argue that FR-banking is fraud and should be banned, and further that it is economically damaging and causes inflation.
These two issues need to be addressed separately. The first is a deontological issue about whether FR-banking is consistent with a free world. The second is a consequentialist issue about whether FR-banking leads to bad outcomes. It is possible that FR-banking is consistent with freedom and yet leads to bad outcomes, and then those libertarians who accept the “non-aggression principle” would have to tolerate FR-banking even if they don’t like those outcomes. But before delving into that debate, it is worthwhile quickly explaining what we are actually talking about with FR-banking.
Vaults, loans & banks
Anything can be money. In jail (and POW camps) cigarettes have been used as money. In the early years of Australian settlement, rum was used as money. In some small island nations, shells have been used as money. Through much of history, precious metals (especially gold and silver) have been used as money. And today, the most common sort of money is “fiat” paper money that is created by government but is intrinsically worthless (ie it has no value except as money). This is not the place to go into a debate about what should be money or who should decide, but the important point is simply that there is some original supply of money that then becomes the standard “unit of account” and “store of value” and “medium of exchange” in an economy. For the sake of this discussion, this original supply will be called “base money” and in Australia it is created by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA).