My previous article on free banking was a little hyperbolic for those of you accustomed to these pages.
Sorry about that.
But of course there are two meanings to the word “free”. That is to say, one can be “free” – but not as in beer:
Gratis versus libre is the distinction between two meanings of the English adjective “free”; namely, “for zero price” (gratis) and “with little or no restriction” (libre). The ambiguity of “free” can cause issues where the distinction is important, as it often is in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents.
The terms are largely used to categorise intellectual property, particularly computer programs, according to the licenses and legal restrictions that cover them, in the free software and open source communities, as well as the broader free culture movement. For example, they are used to distinguish freeware (software gratis) from free software (software libre).
Richard Stallman summarised the difference in a slogan: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.”
When the banks sell us “free” bank accounts, they’re really selling us that “free” drink they reward you with for entering a night club – that drink you just know you’ll end up paying for, and more, as the evening advances and the monopolistic circumstances you find yourself wrapped up in take their profit-generating toll.
So can we have the kind of banking which involves the “free speech” approach – instead of that unhappy cousin which is the “free cocktail” mind-distracting equivalent: that is to say, the kind in Western society we are currently so accustomed to suffering under?
This article from El País‘s English-language edition would seem to indicate we can:
The ethical banking sector, composed in Spain of only five entities and somewhere more than 50,000 clients, stands for total transparency. It only invests in the real economy, finances projects related to sectors such as renewable energies and ecological agriculture, and holds social justice to be its own particular Bible.
“I looked at the list of companies I had invested in, and none of them were to my liking. It was a pleasure to tell my bank to withdraw all my investments in the stock market. Then your conscience is a lot clearer, because your money is passing through an ethical filter,” says Víctor Maeso, member of an agricultural cooperative at Manresa, near Barcelona.
The story goes on to point out that not everyone is in favour of these ethical outposts. Certain campaigners seem to fear that ethical banking as described above might become ensconced in a kind of ghetto of good behaviours which none of the other banks would ever end up acquiring.
I can see their point. But I still think the idea is worth pursuing.
“Libre banking” instead of “gratis banking” then? A clear example – if there ever was one – of how open source can inform much more than simply software licences.