Fatalistically Flawed: A Review Essay on Fragile by Design, by Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber

27 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2015 Last revised: 10 Feb 2015

See all articles by George Selgin

George Selgin

The Cato Institute; University of Georgia

Date Written: February 2, 2015


In Fragile by Design (2014), Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber argue that banking crises, instead of being traceable to inherent weaknesses of fractional-reserve banking, have their roots in politically-motivated government interference with banking systems that might otherwise be robust. The evidence they offer in defense of their thesis, and their manner of presenting it, are compelling. Yet their otherwise persuasive work is not without significant shortcomings. These shortcomings consist of (1) a misleading account of governments’ necessary and desirable role in banking; (2) a tendency to overlook the adverse historical consequences of government interference with banks’ ability to issue paper currency; (3) an unsuccessful (because overly deterministic) attempt to draw general conclusions concerning the bearing of different political arrangements on banking structure; and (4) an almost complete neglect the of role of ideas, and of economists’ ideas especially, in shaping banking systems, both for good and for evil. The last two shortcomings are especially unfortunate, because they suffuse Fragile by Design with a fatalism that is likely to limit its effectiveness in sponsoring needed change.

Keywords: banking crises, fractional reserve banking, free banking, central banks, currency monopoly, branch banking, deposit insurance

JEL Classification: E42, E53, E58, G21, L51, N21, N22, N23, N24

Suggested Citation

Selgin, George, Fatalistically Flawed: A Review Essay on Fragile by Design, by Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber (February 2, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2559462 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2559462

George Selgin (Contact Author)

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