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The Origins of Central Banking: Solutions to the Free-Rider Problem

Author: J. Lawrence Broz
Spring 1998
International Organization


This article explains (1) the origins of central banking and (2) variations in the spread and durability of central banks across nations. Early central banks helped bind governments to honor their debts and thereby furthered governments' capacities to efficiently finance military expenditures. The origins of central banking are problematic because government credit-worthiness and efficient wartime fiscal policy are public goods, subject to the free-rider problem. Applying a variant of the joint-products model, I argue that governments offered private benefits (monopoly privileges) to select creditors to induce participation in central banks. To explain cross-national differences, I argue that the level of domestic political decentralization negatively affected the incidence and durability of central banking. Countries with decentralized political systems faced regulatory competition from strong local authorities as licensers of banking monopolies, making it difficult to adopt or sustain central banking. Qualitative and statistical evidence from Europe and the United States to about 1850 support the arguments.

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