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Should the State or the Market Provide Digital Currency?

Cato Institute | Lawrence H. White | Spring/Summer 2021

public vs private - Should the State or the Market Provide Digital Currency?The fact that the historical development of payment systems has been driven by private initiative, not state action, is often overlooked.

The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State

Proposals for central bank expansion from wholesale into retail payments often appear to subscribe to what Dierdre McCloskey and Alberto Mingardi (2020) call “the myth of the entrepreneurial state.” McCloskey and Mingardi conclude from economic history that dynamic economic growth — during and since the Industrial Revolution — is disproportionately founded on bottom‐​up innovation and competition. Top‐​down direction and state‐​owned enterprises, because they need not make profits to continue, more often do harm than good. Even cherry‐​picked examples of state entrepreneurship can fall apart on inspection.

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It is a myth that Al Gore invented the internet. It is likewise a myth that DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) invented the internet: it funded data lines and packet‐​switching research, but it did not intend or anticipate that innovative users and private entrepreneurs would develop email, let alone e‐​commerce. It is a myth that the Pony Express is an example of technological innovation by the U.S. Post Office (it was a private firm, not under contract to the Post Office). The reason for the disproportionate success of private enterprise at finding gains from trade is the incentive provided by profit and loss. McCloskey and Mingardi (2020: 74) write:

“Political decision‐​making is less directly aimed at human welfare than is market decision‐​making” because “a market profit comes only when other humans find themselves better off when they purchase a product.”

Survival of a subsidized state‐​owned enterprise does not require a market profit.

It would not be necessary to make these elementary points if those who call for central bankers to provide retail payment services would address the elementary question posed by McCloskey and Mingardi (2020: 74):

“Why would someone with no skin in the game do better than people who have plenty of such skin?” Why would you expect good retail service from people who have no experience at providing it, and who have little to gain (or lose) by doing a good (or poor) job?

Ignoring this question leads to the error they call “vindicating bureaucracies over market forces.”

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In a recent paper, Markus K. Brunnermeier and Dirk Niepelt (2019: 27) ask, “When does a swap between private and public money leave the equilibrium allocation and price system unchanged?” They conclude: “Our results imply that CBDC coupled with central bank pass‐​through funding need not imply a credit crunch nor undermine financial stability” (p. 27). By “pass‐​through funding,” they mean that the central bank automatically lends to commercial banks all the funds it gains by the migration of commercial bank deposits into CBDC. Requiring that a CBDC incorporate such a mechanism can be motivated by recognizing that financial intermediation would be less efficient in the hands of a state monopoly than in a competitive private market. Accordingly, the authors write: “By funding the banks rather than purchasing bank assets, the central bank avoids interfering directly with the credit allocation mechanism — only banks screen and monitor investment projects” (p. 29). But leaving the volume of commercial bank intermediation unchanged is only one side of the balance sheet. The authors regrettably do not explicitly consider the inefficiency of a state‐​owned monopoly at providing retail payments.5

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