The term Wildcat Bank refers to a particularly unsound and risky bank chartered under state law in the United States. They flourished after the national bank was decommissioned when a bank was started in a small town. When the banks acquired enough assets their owners would leave town with all deposits. The debt, which hurt many people, eventually became a reason for the Panic of 1857.
Wildcat banks were banks that issued money without proper gold in stock to back up the supply. These banks were often short-lived. Unfortunately, since these banks were issuing large amounts of money, many people lost their investment as the worth of their bank note dropped. These banks became a large problem, and were eventually restricted by the US Government.
Critical in the development “free” banking was the ability of individual banks to gains the privilege of issuing bank notes without being chartered by the state legislature:
In 1838 New York State passed a free banking law. Before this date all incorporated banks had been chartered by states and had been granted the note-issuing privilege. Under free banking, charters could be obtained without a special act of the state legislature. The main requirement for new banks was that they post collateral of government bonds equal in value to the notes to be issued. In principle, noteholders were protected because, if the bank failed, proceeds from the sale of the collateral would be used to reimburse them. Free banking was soon adopted by other states. Because there was little regulation of new banks, many banks failed and bank fraud occurred. The free-banking years of 1837 to 1863 are also known as the Wildcat Banking era. [Encarta]
What we have seen in the last 25 years is the return of wildcat banking, brought about largely through a very insalubrious mixture of government intervention and deregulation. Financial institutions have, in effect, used the securitization of debt to create a kind of money, which they’ve used to leverage more debt that is subsequently used to drive up asset and real estate prices and drive up the current account deficit.
One of the causes of this wretched state of affairs is the false dichotomy introduced by two ideologies which, although they seem poles apart, have each helped bring about the current mess. I have in mind free market fundamentalism on the one side and anti-market fundamentalism on the other. Both of these ideologies are more interested in their pet ideas than they are in understanding the facts of the matter. The free market fundamentalist won’t acknowledge any exception to his conviction that markets are purely “self-regulating” and that the only role of the state is to protect private property and uphold contracts between freely acting parties. The anti-market fundamentalist suffers from a pathological detestation of market processes and results. The debate about economic problems in too many instances has degenerated into a tug of war between these two unrealistic extremes—that is, into a debate between knee-jerk “deregulation” on the one side and knee-jerk anti-market regulation on the other. But the real issue is not between deregulation and regulation, but between pro-market regulation and anti-market regulation. Markets in an advanced, industrial society require a framework of law in order to flourish. Whether one wants to call these laws “regulations” or not is merely a matter of semantics. But laws are needed to define the extent and limitations of property rights, to determine which kind of contracts should be enforced, and to prevent systematic fraud and irrationality from harming the integrity and efficiency of the market.
Now Rand and her apologists clearly belong to the extreme wing of free market fundamentalist camp, where ideology trumps good judgment. Laissez-faire is a slogan, not an insight or a coherent policy. It is a product of rationalism, rather than of experience and wisdom.