Posted by: Andy Duncan | August 15, 2016

The Mystery of Banking

The Mystery of Banking_Rothbard

If What Has Government Done To Our Money? is an hors d’oeuvre, then The Mystery of Banking is the main appetizer in our quest to understand how the current global financial crisis arose. Far meatier than its predecessor, The Mystery of Banking paints the Mona Lisa’s face, where the earlier book simply sketches out the smile.

There are some who say that Murray N. Rothbard’s greatest work is Man, Economy, and State, which they hail as the successor to Human Action. Others say that the mantle of his greatest work lies with The Ethics of Liberty, the pulsating heart of the American libertarian movement. Yet more people declare that it must be Conceived in Liberty, the stunning four-volume series describing the genesis of the American Revolution.

Everyone, of course, is right, because all choices are subjective. However, if I were to be forced to become a Robinson Crusoe and made to occupy a desert island (with hopefully an inexhaustible supply of gin and tonic), and only allowed by some great Dictator in the sky to take just one Rothbard masterpiece, then it would have to be The Mystery of Banking. (Though I might also be tempted by the history of economic thought, but that’s a different thread in a different story.)

The Mystery of Banking has become an underground classic, with dog-eared copies of the book fetching hundreds of dollars on Amazon before the Mises Institute republished a new edition, also making available a lovingly produced PDF of the book online. (There is also a stunning version available on Scribd.)

The book has gained a hardcore underground following because it maps out the incredibly dense maze of fractional-reserve banking, the Aladdin’s nest of myth and fantasy that, since the Florentine banking domination of the Medici clan, has taken the Western world to the brink of absolute financial collapse more times than Madonna has reengineered her underwear. Man, Economy, and State and Conceived in Liberty are perhaps the greater works due to their sheer undiluted mass, but pound for pound, The Mystery of Banking packs a far more devastating power-to-weight ratio, like a water-slashing racing boat skating between high-momentum supertankers.

From its opening, with its dedication to three hard money champions — Thomas Jefferson, Charles Holt Campbell, and Ludwig von Mises — The Mystery of Banking is a remorseless Austrian dissection of what lies at the heart of the Western world’s financial system, which some might say is “absolutely nothing at all,” and which others might say is “fractional-reserve banking.” (Or do I repeat myself?)

Professor Rothbard spends the first hundred pages of his incisive book describing money, its origins in barter, its purposes, its uses, and its evolution, eventually leading toward the creation of loan banking and free banking from the late medieval period onward.

Rothbard then describes a more developed world in which 20 dollars became a fixed weight of gold just under one ounce, and how the mathematical genius Isaac Newton defined the pound as a fixed weight of gold just under a quarter of an ounce. (From these fixed weights and their stable exchange rate, the division of labor between the two currency areas can thus be easily integrated into a single wealth-creating whole.)

Although Man, Economy, and State remains the more powerful book, The Mystery of Banking is far more dangerous to the establishment, because it blows the gaff on their monopoly of money management and reveals who always benefits first from their nefarious practices of printing money directly from thin air (i.e., the government and its friends) and who pays for this benefit (i.e., everyone else).

Although this is obvious to all when a private counterfeiter spends his ill-gotten “money” in local stores, government has wrapped so many emerald-colored curtains around the alchemy of their nationalization of the money supply, that this wealth-transference effect is much harder to discern with government-regulated fractional-reserve banking.

Rothbard shreds these curtains, making it clear how the government always benefits first and why they are motivated to do it — even given an ability to tax — and how they have escaped detection for so long, with otherwise-intelligent economic commentators in recent times demanding that governments engage in quantitative easing to “help” the rest of us, which is like a householder demanding that a burglar steal his possessions in order to help with his insurance claim.

Rothbard blows away the rulers of the emerald city through clear analogy and example, such as beaming down the Angel Gabriel from heaven to double the supply of money in everyone’s pockets overnight, before examining the results of such an action in the morning — thus revealing that any supply of money is equally optimal. This leads to some startling implications.

However, this is just one example. There are many others like it in the book.

Having carefully used historical precedent to reveal the history of money, in the second half of the book Rothbard gradually unweaves the most insidious double-blind deception in history, which is the rise of central banking and the creeping nationalization of the banking industry to follow the nationalization of money. Starting in England, and then spreading like a virus to the rest of the world, Rothbard lifts stone after stone in his unrelenting mission to expose the light-shy creatures underlying central banking, allowing none of these segmented arthropods to escape back into the darkness and the slime before he scores them with his acidic pen.

The final section of the book examines a Rothbardian seven-part plan, in the Cobden and Bright tradition, to return us all to a hard-money standard. The annotated highlights of this plan are

  • Redefining money to be a fixed weight of gold
  • Government gold deposits to be returned to their rightful owners, i.e., the holders of government paper money
  • Central banks to be abolished
  • Fractional-reserve banking to be replaced by 100 percent gold reserve banking for all demand deposits
  • Banks to become free to issue their own gold-certificate cash notes
  • The complete denationalization of money and the removal of government guarantees on bank accounts, to reintroduce the “healthy gale” of bank runs back into the banking industry. (One of Rothbard’s alleged favorite movie scenes is the collapse of the bank of Danglars in The Count of Monte Cristo!)
  • The abolition of government mints to be replaced once again by the private minting of gold money.

For all true followers of hard money, The Mystery of Banking is an essential element on the pathway to understanding how and why we can achieve the goal of honest money, which even the former alchemist Isaac Newton knew was impossible to manipulate over the long term. Let us also hope that if the Rothbardian plan outlined above comes to pass, the new international name for the fixed weight of gold will be “The Rothbard” in memory of this hero of hard money, whether this is one gram, ten grams, or a good old-fashioned Troy ounce of gold.

Posted by: Andy Duncan | April 18, 2010

Economics for Real People

While Economics in One Lesson is almost the definitive starting point for those new to the Austrian School, after you have finished reading it there still remain many mysterious doors in front of you in a maze of subjective choice, all of them tempting you towards the next port of call in your quest to shake off the nostrums of Keynesian economics.

There are perhaps two major pathways to explore in this maze. The first is to acquire an Austrian-style understanding of what iscurrently happening in the financial markets and the global economy. To do this, we must first understand how the international central banking system works, which is based upon fractional reserves; So what is fractional reserve banking? When did it start? Why did it start? Who started it? How does it work? And where will it take us?

As Churchill said of the old Soviet Union, fractional reserve banking is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Therefore, to see inside it we need to be guided into this enigmatic riddle by a man wearing X-Ray glasses. This bespectacled man is Murray Rothbard, and the book in which he makes it all sharply clear as day is The Mystery of Banking (which is freely available as a beautifully produced Scribd book).

But before we head off gleefully down this pathway, you might want to consider tackling the second major pathway instead, which is the road to understanding what has been happening in the financial markets and the global economy for the pastseveral hundred years (or even for the past few thousand years, since financial markets were first created in Sumeria, Egypt, Meso-America, and China, and possibly before even that in the Stone Age).

The first major milepost on this second road is the book Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises, perhaps the outstanding publication of the entire Austrian School, since 1870 onwards.

However, Human Action is a forbidding book which can easily scare off the faint of heart. To warm yourself up for it, you might consider a much lighter book instead, which is Economics for Real People (PDF), by Gene Callahan, who has broken his book down into four major parts, all of which make Human Action much easier to access afterwards:

  • The Science of Human Action
  • The Market Process
  • Interference with the Market
  • Social Justice, Rightly Understood

Mr Callahan’s book is a sort of half-way house between Economics in One Lesson and Human Action, and at just over 300 pages is meaty enough to give you something to get your teeth into, but short enough to give you time to breathe in and out while you’re reading it.

In the meantime, before deciding which one of the two parallel pathways to go down first, while completing Economics in One Lesson, you might want to watch a series of videos put together by The Mises Institute, each of them covering a single chapter of Hazlitt’s classic introduction to the Austrian School:

  • Video 1: The Lesson
  • Video 2: The Broken Window
  • Video 3: Public Works Mean Taxes
  • Video 4: Credit Diverts Production
  • Video 5: The Curse of Machinery
  • Video 6: Disbanding Troops and Bureaucrats
  • Video 7: Who’s Protected by Tariffs?
  • Video 8: “Parity” Prices
  • Video 9: How the Price System Works
  • Video 10: Minimum Wage Laws
  • Video 11: The Function of Profits
  • Video 12: The Assault on Saving

These videos are all available via a misesmedia playlist.

Posted by: Andy Duncan | April 18, 2010

An Introduction to Austrian Economics

For those coming to to Austrian Economics for the first time, it can seem a daunting process.

There are hundreds of books to choose from and many different strands of the tradition, mainly emanating from Menger, via Wieser through to Hayek and Kirzner, or via Böhm-Bawerk through to Mises and Rothbard, with much cross-fertilisation along the way. Fortunately, there is an easy beginning, which is the book Economics in One Lesson (available online in either HTML or PDF format), by Henry Hazlitt, who for many years attended the Mises Seminar, in New York.

If even this is too much for the uninitiated, there is an excellent series of 11 lectures delivered by arguably the two most important current representatives of the Misesian line of Austrian Economics; Jörg Guido Hülsmann and Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

The lectures covered are:

  • Mises and the Austrian School (Hülsmann)
  • Value, Utility and Price (Hülsmann)
  • Division Of Labor and Money (Hoppe)
  • The Theory of Banking (Hoppe)
  • Capital and Interest (Hoppe)
  • Praxeology: The Austrian Method (Hoppe)
  • Business Cycle Theory (Hülsmann)
  • The Economics of Deflation (Hülsmann)
  • Theory and History (Hoppe)
  • Welfare Economics (Hülsmann)
  • Law and Economics (Hoppe)

You can access these lectures directly via YouTube. Or for ease of use, you can click through each lecture, one after the other, on the Lew Rockwell site.