Rolling Back the Progressive Era
Finance and democracy: from mutual reinforcement to antagonism
The relationship between banking and democracy has taken many twists over the centuries. Earlier this year, democratic opposition to the ECB and IMF attempt to impose austerity and privatization selloffs succeeded when Iceland’s President Grímsson insisted on a national referendum on the Icesave debt payment that Althing leaders had negotiated with Britain and the Netherlands (if one can characterize abject capitulation as a real negotiation). To their credit, a heavy 3-to-2 majority of Icelanders voted “No,” saving their economy from being driven into the debt peonage.
Democratic action historically has been needed to enforce debt collection. Until four centuries ago royal treasuries typically were kept in the royal bedroom, and loans to rulers were in the character of personal debts. Bankers repeatedly found themselves burned, especially by Habsburg and Bourbon despots on the thrones of Spain, Austria and France. Loans to such rulers were liable to expire upon their death, unless their successors remained dependent on these same financiers rather than turning to their rivals. The numerous bankruptcies of Spain’s autocratic Habsburg ruler Charles V exhausted his credit, preventing the nation from raising funds to defeat the rebellious Low Countries to the north.
The problem facing bankers was how to make loans permanent national obligations. Solving this problem gave an advantage to parliamentary democracies. It was a major factor enabling the Low Countries to win their independence from Habsburg Spain in the 16th century. The Dutch Republic committed the entire nation to pay its public debts, binding the people themselves, through their elected representatives who earmarked taxes to their creditors. Bankers saw parliamentary democracy as a precondition for making sound loans to governments. This security for bankers could be achieved only from electorates having at least a nominal voice in government. And raising war loans was a key element in military rivalry in an epoch when the maxim for survival was “Money is the sinews of war.”
As long as governments remained despotic, they found that their ability to incur more debt was limited. At this time “the legal position of the King qua borrower was obscure, and it was still doubtful whether his creditors had any remedy against him in case of default.” Earlier Dutch-English financing had not satisfied creditors on this count. When Charles I borrowed 650,000 guilders from the Dutch States-General in 1625, the two countries’ military alliance against Spain helped defer the implicit constitutional struggle over who ultimately was liable for British debts.
The key financial achievement of parliamentary government was thus to establish nations as political bodies whose debts were not merely the personal obligations of rulers, but truly public and binding regardless of who occupied the throne. This is why the first two democratic nations – the Netherlands and Britain after its 1688 dynastic linkage between Holland and Britain in the person of William I, and the emergence of Parliamentary authority over public financing – developed the most active capital markets and became Europe’s leading military powers. “A funded debt could not be formed so long as the King and Parliament were fighting for the mastery,” concludes the financial historian Richard Ehrenberg. “It was only after the  revolution that the English State became what the Dutch Republic had long been – a real corporation of individuals firmly associated together, a permanent organism.”