A Simple Example to Explain Some Austrian Economic Principles

Patrick Barron, Going Postal
Schönbrunn Palace is the former summer residence of the imperial family. It was completed in 1780 during the reign of Maria Theresa, the palace was the favourite residence of the Habsburg monarchs.
Dennis JarvisLicence CC BY-SA 2.0

Simple examples can be used to explain what seem at first glance to be complex economic principles. I’ll use a hypothetical yet commonplace experience to explain how money may be used for only one of three purposes–it can be held/hoarded, saved/invested, or spent. Furthermore, my example will show that foregoing consumption–i.e., either holding or investing–is necessary for non-inflationary lending and that credit decisions must always be made by the entity taking the risk and especially not government. Here’s the scenario:

Let’s assume that my colleague and I go to McDonald’s for lunch. When my colleague reaches for his wallet to pay for his five dollar Happy Meal, he finds that he left his wallet on his desk. I lend him the money and we have an enjoyable lunch. When we return to work, he repays the debt.

What economic lessons that can be learned from this simple story?

  1. Expanding the money supply is NOT required in order to increase lending.

When I gave my colleague five dollars, total loans in the economy expanded yet the money supply remained unchanged. Upon returning to work, my colleague retrieved his wallet off his desk and repaid his loan. At that point loans in the economy fell by five dollars yet the money supply remained unchanged. Therefore it is a fallacy that expanding the money supply is necessary in order to increase lending.

  1. A prior act of foregoing consumption IS required to expand loans.

Let’s expand somewhat on our previous example. Where did I get the five dollars that I lent to my colleague? I had to have foregone previous consumption in order to have this amount available to lend to my colleague. Fortunately for my colleague I did not consume all that I could have.

  1. The holder or hoarder of money does not harm the economy.

The act of carrying that extra five dollars in my wallet can be characterised as holding or hoarding. Hoarding is not the same as investing. Had I invested my money I would not have had the additional five dollars in my wallet. Instead the five dollars would have gone into some production process that would yield increased benefits later in time. Instead I desired the flexibility to spend the money for some unforeseen purpose. Lucky for my colleague that I didn’t spend it on some frivolity or invest it in longer term production. Instead I hoarded five dollars and was able to lend it to him in order to purchase his lunch. Although the term hoarding is often used disparagingly, one can see that it serves a useful, economic and social purpose.

  1. Money cannot be used at the same time for more than one of three purposes.

I had a choice of what to do with my unspent (unconsumed) five dollars. I could have carried it in my wallet, an act of holding or hoarding in order to take advantage of unforeseen circumstances. Or I could have invested in production, such as lend it to my son to buy gasoline for his summer lawn mowing business. Or I could have spent it on consumption, perhaps upgrading from a five dollar Happy Meal to a Big Mac, super sized fries, and a milk shake. Of course had I invested it or spent it, I would not have had money to lend to my colleague for lunch. The important point is that I could not do both hoard the money and invest it and/or spent it. Furthermore, we can see that there is no room in our simple example for a “multiplier effect” that emanates from the lending process, as is claimed by those who defend fractional reserve banking. I could lend the money only once.

  1. The lender of money assumes the risk of non-repayment.

There was little possibility that my colleague would not repay his loan to me. However, I doubt that I would have lent my five dollars to just anyone who happened to be in McDonald’s at the same time as we were. Let’s assume that the person on front of me had been a stranger and not my colleague. I probably would not have lent him the money, despite the probability that he was a good credit risk. The important point is that I would not have known him.  “Know your borrower” is rule number one in banking. The age old truism is still valid that good character is the best trait in a borrower. I would have known the character of my colleague but not that of a total stranger.

Yet much borrowing (and resultant defalcations) on loans today are made by giant firms based upon numerical credit scores. The lender never meets his borrower. The loan production offices that generate the loans applications do not know their applicants. Many of these loans are then sold to a government owned entity, such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

Furthermore, lending also has become a tinder box of political risk. For example, the infamous Community Reinvestment Act requires banks to make loans that do not meet their lending criteria. If the borrower and his property reside in an arbitrarily and ill-defined underserved area, the bank must lower its credit standards. The result is higher loan losses. We would not desire a government mandate that I be allowed to loan my colleague five dollars to pay for his lunch at McDonald’s only if I also lend five dollars to complete strangers.

We must look askance also at outright loans by government or government loan guarantees to politically connected borrowers. We taxpayers are the true holders of the loan and will suffer if the loan is not repaid. The Export-Import Bank is a prime example. We taxpayers are on the hook for non-payment of government loans to foreigners so that they can buy the products of politically connected groups. It’s simple corruption disguised as a legitimate banking function. It would be absurd for the government to design a program to lend money only to people who desired to buy lunch at McDonald’s in order to help the world’s largest fast food chain maintain its sales in a highly competitive environment. It is no different just because the program helps foreigners buy American products. In both cases the real lender is the American taxpayer.


Simple examples from everyday life help us clarify our thinking about what at first appear to be highly complex economic problems.

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