Sean O'Grady: The banks are in the right

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The Independent Online

Maybe, just maybe, we have now reached the natural limits of the crass, facile consumerism that kicked off the 1970s with Esther Rantzen, heaven help us, as its vicar on Earth. We have, sadly, reached a point where a rigid dogma dominates the public's economic thinking – that big companies are always wrong, profits are always excessive, banks always greedy, and bosses always fat cats.

Consumerism has become a new religion, complete with its high priests at Which? and its fatwas against anyone with the temerity to try to sell anything at more than cost price. Hence the jihad on the banks. It is a depressingly medieval outlook on economic life.

The truth is that when some chancers saw the opportunity to get their bank fees back (which they probably never even noticed paying in the first place) they jumped on the bandwagon and pursued the banks through the courts. Going overdrawn is not a human right. It is, in effect, thieving the bank's – ie other people's – money. Do you think they should let people do that with impunity? Or do you think bank customers ought to stop being so infantile, curb their spending and read their terms and conditions leaflet?

I've paid lots of bank charges in my time, mostly punitive, and have never thought of them as "unfair". Whenever I got stung for borrowing too much I told myself that I was a self-indulgent idiot and paid up. Like I would if I was caught fare dodging or overstaying on a parking meter.

Just as you have a civil contract with a railway company – you buy a ticket, they let you travel – so you have with your bank. Banks let you use their banking facilities, and you pay for them. Simple. If you breach that contract you should expect to be penalised.

It is irrelevant how much it costs a bank to send a letter or whatever; the point is that they are entitled to do so if they advertise their tariffs clearly and then you take the mickey. How much does it cost a railway operator to collect a penalty fare? Or a council to give you a parking ticket? Answer: it doesn't matter because it is beside the point.

What on earth are banks supposed to do? Levy charges that are considered "fair" by some self-appointed consumer watchdog? Maybe these ayatollahs of the marketplace should also be allowed to set the price of cars, chocolate and cigarettes as well. I don't think so. If customers are too lazy or stupid to move accounts, that's their lookout.

Bank charges are not the same as cowboy builders or missold pensions or cut 'n' shut motors. They are just the price of banking services, set in a competitive market. Is that really such an unnatural concept for us to grasp?