Working Paper No. 28

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

Not long ago a colleague of mine, who works regularly with legislators, attended a conference at which the lunch speaker, a famous economist, began by telling everyone why governments regulate financial institutions. The reasons the economist gave consisted of various (supposed) financial-market failures. Said the colleague to me later: “I just wanted to stand up and shout, ‘That’s got nothing to do with it!’”

I relate this because some readers may otherwise fail to appreciate the importance of a work whose chief revelation is that financial legislation — and consequently the general structure of financial systems — are shaped by politics. My colleague didn’t need to be told, but others, including many economists, evidently do.

In Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises & Scarce Credit, Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber tell them. Banking arrangements, they argue, are “not a passive response to some efficiency criterion but rather the product of political deals that determine which laws are passed” (pp. 13 and 38).1 What’s more, the laws such deals give rise to are, more often than not, detrimental to bank safety and soundness. In few words, banking instability has its roots, not in any fragility inherent to commercial banking, but in deals struck between governments and various interest groups.

Fragile by Design is at once an alternative interpretation of the history of banking and a contribution to the debate on the causes of the recent crisis. Though other reviewers have tended to focus their attention on the latter contribution, many of Fragile by Design’s most important insights, as well as many of its more serious flaws, are independent of its take on the subprime crisis. It is to those insights and flaws that I wish to draw attention.

1 Where parentheses contain page numbers only, the reference is to Calomiris and Haber (2014).

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George Selgin is Director of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives