Cartoon by Lisa Rothstein

The new paper money had an attractive feature: it was guaranteed to trade for a specific weight of silver, and, unlike coins, could not be melted down or devalued. Before long, the banknotes were trading at more than their value in silver, and Law was made Controller General of Finances, in charge of the entire French economy. He also persuaded the government to grant him a monopoly of trade with the French settlements in North America, in the form of the Mississippi Company. He funded the company the same way he had funded the bank, with deposits from the public swapped for shares. He then used the value of those shares, which rocketed from five hundred livres to ten thousand livres, to buy up the debts of the French King. The French economy, based on all those rents and annuities and wages, was swept away and replaced by what Law called his “new System of Finance.” The use of gold and silver was banned. Paper money was now “fiat” currency, underpinned by the authority of the bank and nothing else. At its peak, the company was priced at twice the entire productive capacity of France. As Buchan points out, that is the highest valuation any company has ever achieved anywhere in the world.

It ended in disaster. People started to wonder whether these suddenly lucrative investments were worth what they were supposed to be worth; then they started to worry, then to panic, then to demand their money back, then to riot when they couldn’t get it. Gold and silver were reinstated as money, the company was dissolved, and Law was fired, after a hundred and forty-five days in office. In 1720, he fled the country, ruined. He moved from Brussels to Copenhagen to Venice to London and back to Venice, where he died, broke, in 1729.

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The great irony of Law’s life is that his ideas were, from the modern perspective, largely correct. The ships that went abroad on behalf of his great company began to turn a profit. The auditor who went through the company’s books concluded that it was entirely solvent—which isn’t surprising, when you consider that the lands it owned in America now produce trillions of dollars in economic value.


Today, we live in a version of John Law’s system. Every state in the developed world has a central bank that issues paper money, manipulates the supply of credit in the interest of commerce, uses fractional-reserve banking, and features joint-stock companies that pay dividends. All of these were brought to France, pretty much simultaneously, by John Law. His great and probably unavoidable mistake was to underestimate the volatility that his inventions introduced, especially the risks created by runaway credit. His period of brilliant success in France left only two monuments. One was created by the Duke of Bourbon, who cashed out his shares in the company and used the windfall to build the Great Stables at Chantilly. “John Law had dreamed of a well-nourished working population and magazines of home and foreign goods,” Buchan notes. “His monument is a cathedral to the horse.” His other legacy is the word “millionaire,” first coined in Paris to describe the early beneficiaries of Law’s dazzling scheme.

How did these once wild ideas become part of the very fabric of modern finance and government? Trial and error. It was not the case that smart people figured everything out at once and implemented it simultaneously, as Law tried to do. The modern economic system evolved, and evolution involves innovations, repetitions, failures, and dead ends. In finance, it involves busts and panics and crashes, because, as James Grant says in his lively new biography of the Victorian banker-journalist Walter Bagehot, “in finance and economics, we keep stepping on the same rakes.”

Bagehot (pronounced “badge-it”) knew all about those rakes. He grew up in the West of England in a family with strong links to a well-run local bank, Stuckey’s. After going to university and trying his hand at being a lawyer, he turned to journalism and to banking, the latter career paying for the former. He married the daughter of James Wilson, who had founded The Economist, in 1843—Bagehot became its third editor—and lived a life that was, from the outside, fairly uneventful. The interest in Bagehot comes from his dazzling, witty, paradox-loving writing, and in particular from his two key works, “The English Constitution” (1867), which sums up the unwritten order of Great Britain’s political institutions, and “Lombard Street” (1873), which explains how banking works. These books are still readable today, but they were of interest mainly to wonks until Ben Bernanke name-checked Bagehot as a crucial influence on the thinking behind the 2008 bank bailouts. That caused a revived interest, which led to the writing of Grant’s “Walter Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian.”


“Greatest” is a loaded word, especially since Grant—who is, among other things, the founder of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer—makes it clear that Bagehot was an unashamed misogynist and racist (“There are breeds in the animal man just as in the animal dog”) and an accomplished hypocrite. The last quality was useful from the journalistic point of view; Bagehot was brilliant at swapping sides without ever admitting that he had changed his mind. A Confederate victory in the Civil War, for instance, was “a certain fact,” and President Lincoln was “dishonest and foolish,” a settled view that didn’t preclude Bagehot from declaring, once the Union had prevailed, that “panic did not for a moment unnerve the iron courage of the American democracy.” His subsequent elegy for Lincoln is a genuinely lovely piece of writing: “Difficulties, instead of irritating him as they do most men, only increased his reliance on patience; opposition, instead of ulcerating, only made him more tolerant and determined.”

In a sense, this highfalutin hypocrisy and lack of principle is the point of Bagehot. His work on the English constitution focussed on a paradox: the pomp and circumstance of monarchy had an important function, he argued, precisely because the monarch had no real power. Bagehot’s work on banking similarly focussed on the difference between appearances and realities, specifically the gap between the air of solidity and respectability cultivated by Victorian banks and the evident fact that they kept collapsing and going broke. There were huge bank crises in 1797, in 1825, in 1847, and in 1857, all of them caused by the oldest and simplest reason of bankruptcy in finance: lending money to people who can’t pay it back.

In theory, all the money in circulation during the era of Victorian banking was backed up by deposits in gold. One pound in paper money was backed by 123.25 grains of actual gold. In practice, that wasn’t true. There were multiple occasions—usually linked to the cost of that old classic, war with France—when the government suspended the convertibility of paper money to gold. In addition, banks could print their own money. They often didn’t have enough gold to sustain the value of their notes, in the event of customers coming to the bank and demanding conversion. That phenomenon, the dreaded “bank run,” was a direct outcome of the fractional-reserve banking prefigured by John Law. A system in which banks don’t hold cash reserves equivalent to their outstanding loans works fine, unless enough people turn up at the bank and simultaneously want their paper money turned into its metal equivalent. Unfortunately, that kept happening, and banks kept going broke. The issues at stake were the same as those that had shaped the career of John Law, and which are on people’s minds again today: What is money? Where does it derive its value? Who finally guarantees the value of debts and credits?

Bagehot had answers to all those questions. He thought that money, real money, was gold, and gold alone. All the other forms of currency in the system were merely different kinds of credit. Credit was indispensable to a functioning economy, and helped make everybody rich, but in the final analysis only gold was legal tender, according to the strict definition of the term—money that cannot be refused in settlement of a debt. (U.S. currency makes sure you know it is legal tender: it says so right there on the front.) Bagehot loved a paradox, and this was one: all the credit in the system was essential to the economy, but it wasn’t really money, because it wasn’t gold, which underpinned the value of everything else.

So where was all the gold? In the Bank of England. The role of that once private company had evolved. Bagehot thought it was the Bank of England’s job to hold the gold, so that all the smaller banks didn’t have to. Instead, the smaller banks took deposits, made loans, and issued paper money. If they got into trouble—which they tended to do—the big bank would bail them out. Why shouldn’t all the other banks hold their own gold, and take care of their own solvency? Bagehot the banker-writer was completely frank about the reason. “The main source of the profitableness of established banking is the smallness of the requisite capital,” he wrote. The modern way of putting this would be to talk about the bank’s return on equity. The less equity the bank needed to keep as a margin of safety, the more money it could lend, and, therefore, the more profit it could make. Gold was essential in order to guarantee the currency, but the bankers didn’t want it taking up valuable space on their balance sheets. Better to let the government do that, in the form of the Bank of England.

We still have a version of this system, in which government guarantees underpin the profitability of banks. The central bank’s crucial role is to lend money freely at a time of crisis—to be what is called “the lender of last resort.” Grant, who admits to “a libertarian’s biases,” sees this doctrine as the seed of “deposit insurance, the too-big-to-fail doctrine, and the rest of the modern machinery of socialized financial risk.”


Like John Law and Walter Bagehot, I’m the child of a man who worked in a bank, and, as such, I had a banker’s-son question running through my mind as I read Grant’s entertaining book: what happened to Bagehot’s bank? The answer is that Stuckey’s was taken over by another bank, Parr’s, in 1909. Parr’s was part of the larger National Westminster Bank, which was taken over by the Royal Bank of Scotland, in 2000. R.B.S., as it is unaffectionately known in the U.K., grew through takeovers to become, in the early years of this century, the biggest company in the world, as measured by the size of its balance sheet. Then came the credit crunch, and the moment—the latest version of the old familiar one—when things turned out not to be worth what they were supposed to be worth. The biggest bank in the world came, according to its chairman, to within “a couple of hours” of complete collapse. The outcome was a huge bailout, and the nationalization of R.B.S., with costs to the British taxpayer of forty-five billion pounds. Not much about that story would have surprised John Law or Walter Bagehot. Maybe, though, both men—the man who almost bankrupted a country and the supreme advocate of bankers’ bailouts—would be amused to see just how little we have learned. As for the question of what to do about the bankers responsible for the crash, Kublai Khan would probably have had some ideas. ♦