The “banks,” wrote Matt Klein in March, “are hedge funds grafted onto critical infrastructure.”
Writing during the latest banking crisis in the US, I was commenting on the inherent tension between banks, which are risk-taking and profit-making institutions, and their vital role in the economy, and therefore the imperative that the public insulates them from the worst consequences of those risks, at least most of the time.
One could plausibly argue, in light of the current spate of stories about the closure of accounts from various political figures, that a similar tension exists regarding free speech.
Banks are private companies, and on one level, it makes intuitive sense, from a liberal or free market perspective, that they should be able to choose who they do business with. After all, the Supreme Court finally ruled in Read v. Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others (the infamous “gay pie” case from a few years ago) that people cannot be forced to promote a message they disagree with.
However, access to banking is not pleasant; it is increasingly essential to simply participate in the modern economy. That’s why the state legally compels the largest banks to provide so-called Basic Bank Accounts, free, to anyone who needs them.
But is that basic protection enough? It ensures that you can receive wages and pay bills in an economy where many institutions are no longer set up to pay or receive cash. But it nonetheless means that people can be locked out of a wide range of banking services and, if normalised, would inevitably have the effect of suppressing the expression of sanction-prone views by banks.
In addition, it’s hard to argue that simply banking an individual or organization is the same as promoting it, at least unless disengaging people with certain views is sufficiently normalized.
Therefore, Jeremy Hunt is right to be concerned about these reports, and they should be fully investigated. There must be strict rules that prohibit banks from withdrawing service based on the political views of their customers, and a regulator empowered to harm them if those rules are broken.
The Chancellor should consider extending such regulation to electronic payment processors such as Paypal and online crowdfunding platforms, which play an increasingly important role in economic life and political campaigns, but currently have relatively little hands. free to engage in discriminatory practices.
Backbench Conservative MPs already began agitating for action against Paypal last year. But crowdfunders should not be left out; Regardless of what you think of the Canadian truckers’ protest, GoFundMe’s role in Justin Trudeau’s coordinated attack on their finances (which also included the freezing of hundreds of bank accounts) bodes sadly for how an increasingly going without cash could lead to new and dangerous power imbalances between individual citizens, financial institutions and the state.
(And that’s before we get to the thorny question of the private companies that control parts of the modern public square, like Twitter.)
It is important to emphasize that none of these actions require taking a look at the individual cases that have made headlines. The Yorkshire Building Society, which is accused of closing a vicar’s accounts for his views on LGBT issues, insists it “only makes the difficult decision to close a savings account if a customer is rude, abusive, violent or discriminates somehow”. , and that may be true in this case.
Similarly, Nigel Farage’s suggestion that MI5 might be behind the closure of his accounts should probably be taken for what it is: a statement from a man who makes money by persuading people to invest in gold and silver rather than traditional financial products. Not even the most savvy financier or the most sinister government can write off a stash of Krugerrands under their mattress – buy it today!
Rather than some grand conspiracy, it seems far more likely that these bank moves have a similar origin to bottom-up pressure from publishers’ employees not to publish certain books, or the growing dissatisfaction of the younger generation. of lawyers with taxi. principle of rank that guarantees the right of all people to equal protection before the law.
However, that does not mean that the results are not a problem. It would not be acceptable for an increasing number of views to become unpublishable just because it was the result of pressure from junior employees, any more than it would be acceptable to sacrifice the principle of fair representation because lawyers do not feel like representing certain clients.
Ultimately, when any institution provides the “essential infrastructure” of a free society, be it economic, financial, or legal, the state is right to ensure that the gains from doing so are balanced by a duly enforced obligation to provide it equally. .