I’ve referred often in these pages to the virtues of Canada’s late-19th century currency system, with its heavy reliance upon circulating notes issued by several dozen commercial banks, most of which commanded extensive nationwide branch networks. I’ve also lamented the fact that so few monetary economists today, let alone members of the general public, seem aware of that arrangement, the superiority of which, both absolutely and compared to its U.S. counterpart, was once widely celebrated. For I’m certain that, if more people were aware of it, the scales might drop from their eyes, plainly revealing the gigantic blunder our nation (and most others) committed by entrusting the management of paper currency to a government-sponsored monopoly managed by bureaucrats.
So you might expect me to be jumping for joy after seeing this new Bank of Canada Staff Working Paper by Ben Fung, Scott Hendry, and Warren E. Weber, on “Canadian Bank Notes and Dominion Notes: Lessons for Digital Currencies.” But no such luck: instead, after reading it, I’ve been in a blue funk.
How come? Because, instead of drawing badly-needed attention to the substantial merits of Canada’s private currency system, Messrs. Fung, Hendry, and Weber focus on its shortcomings, claiming that it suffered from serious flaws that only the government could fix. They then go on to argue that government intervention may also be needed to keep today’s private digital currencies from displaying similar flaws. In short, according to them, Canada’s experience, instead of casting doubt on the desirability of special government regulation of private currencies, supplies grist for regulators’ mill.
Is their perspective compelling? I don’t think so. As I plan to show, and as even a cautious reading of Fung et al.’s own assessment will suggest to persons familiar with other nations’ experiences, the imperfections of Canada’s private banknote currency were minor ones, especially in comparison to those of the concurrent U.S. arrangement. Nor is it even clear that they were genuine flaws, in the sense that implies market failure. The reforms that eventually eliminated the imperfections were, in any case, not imposed on Canada’s commercial bankers against their wishes, but instigated by those bankers themselves. Finally, the suggested analogy between Canada’s 19th-century banknotes and modern digital currencies, far from supplying solid grounds for supposing that unregulated digital currencies are likely to exhibit the same (real or presumed) shortcomings as their 19th-century Canadian counterparts, is so forced as to be utterly unconvincing. For all these reasons, those seeking to draw useful lessons from Canada’s private currency experience will be well-advised to look for them elsewhere.