by Thomas Allen
Usury as used in this article means interest or fees charged on loans, or loans on which interest or fees are charged and not just exorbitant interest or fees. Loans may be of money or other goods. Anti-usurers are opponents of usury.
During the Middle Ages, moralists, the scholastics, claimed that charging interest on loans, usury, was immoral and, therefore, unlawful, although people devised convoluted ways to circumvent this prohibition against charging interest. Even today, some moralists maintain that charging interest on loans is immoral and should be prohibited. They based their argument against usury in part on the teachings of Aristotle and in part on the laws of Moses.
Since the Reformation, primarily since Calvin, most moralists have ceased believing that charging interest on loans is immoral. (Some have accused Calvin of being a crypto-Jew or an agent of the Jews for justifying usury.)
Moralists of the Middle Ages claim that if a lender charges interest on a loan, exacting hire for money lent, he is guilty of the sin of extortion. Modern moralists, as Dabney calls them, disagree. They hold that reasonable interest is as just as a reasonable hire for any work or instrument of work.
Aristotle argued that usury was against nature, unnatural, and beneath the dignity of citizenship. To Aristotle, even the use of money, though necessary, was tainted and not worthy of study. Money, gold and silver, was sterile. (If money is sterile, why are people willing to pay to use it?) If one planted seed in a chest of gold or silver coins, nothing would grow. (Planting seeds in a box of nebulous electronic money, which is what most of today’s money is, would prove even less fruitful. Nevertheless, if properly watered, seeds planted in a chest of coins will sprout, and these sprouts are eatable.) Moreover, a bag of coins stored for years does not increase by a single coin — thus, proving the barrenness of money. (Food stored for years will not increase in amount either, but unlike gold coins, the stored food will deteriorate and become worthless. Does this mean that food is barren?) Because the use of money was unnatural, usury was unnatural since it is an increase based on money. Only an increase from herds, farming, hunting, and war were natural. Thus, even trade and mechanical arts were unnatural. Money was something used by those involved in trade, and, therefore, its use was base and beneath the dignity of a citizen. Since trade for money was contrary to nature, so was usury on its use. To Aristotle, money was a mere medium of exchange and did not increase by passing from one person to another, so he saw no justification for interest. He never sought to discover why people paid interest and never developed a theory of interest.
In Exodus 22:25, Moses declares, “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” In Deuteronomy 23:19, he declares, “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury.” Most who condemn usury today overlook Deuteronomy 23:20, which reads, “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.” Thus, the laws of Moses allowed charging interest on loans to strangers. The scholastics interpreted “stranger” to be anyone who was not a Christian. Consequently, a Christian could not charge interest on loans to another Christian.
As the Church forbade Christians lending Christians money at interest, it drove borrowers to the Jews for loans. As a result, the Church gave the Jews a virtual monopoly on lending money, which largely explains why today Jews dominate banking. (Hypocrite that it was [is], while condemning usury as a venal sin, the Papacy lent and borrowed at interest, although it called the interest “fees,” “gratuities,” etc. — anything but “interest” or “usury.” By the Reformation, the Papacy was allowing charitable loans, called contracts, to pay interest while it continued its prohibition against interest-bearing business loans. Businesses often used “insurance contracts,” which guaranteed the lender a fixed rate of return, otherwise known as interest, instead of a percentage of the profit.) When Christian lending to Christians at interest became acceptable, Christians no longer had to borrow from Jews.
As Dabney explains, the modern moralists and the Middle Age moralists, the scholastics, do not disagree on morals, but they do disagree on a merely economic question. They disagree on money being an effective force or influence in the production or creation of new value. Whereas, the modern moralists argue that money is an effective force in the production or creation of new value, the scholastics argue that it is not. To the modernist, money is an exchangeable form of capital, and capital is the agent that creates new value. Thus, charging interest is not a moral issue; it is an economic issue.
The modern moralists and the scholastics agree on the major premise, but they disagree on the minor premise. Both agree that if a person takes something from another for nothing, he is guilty of extortion — the major premise. For the scholastics, the minor premise is that money lent yields nothing in the creation of new value. Therefore, the inference is that charging interest is extortion. For the modern moralists, the minor premise is that money lent is the capital that the borrower uses to create new values. Therefore, the inference is that when the lender receives interest on the money lent, he does not extort. As shown, the disagreement between the Middle Age moralists and the modern moralists is with the minor premise, which is an economic issue and not a moral issue. Much of the opposition to usury, then and now, comes from confusing interest with physical production and associating interest with money. Interest does not have to be in money; it can be in other goods.
Today, nearly all monetary loans are exchanges of credit. The borrower exchanges his credit for the lender’s credit, which is usually more readily acceptable by the public than is the borrower’s credit. The borrower gives the lender a note, usually written, but occasionally oral, promising to repay the lender the money or credit borrowed. In exchange for this promise, the lender gives the borrower the lender’s credit, although occasionally the lender will give his cash, which today is another form of credit, to the borrower. Today, the credit is lent as checkable deposits where the lender promises to pay all valid checks present against these deposits. (In the past, bank notes were commonly used. The lender promised to pay his notes, which were his credit instruments, when presented for payment.) For the use of the lender’s credit or cash, the lender charged a fee called interest.
Meyer defines interest “as the price paid for the use of loanable funds. Loanable funds may be used either for purchase of consumer goods or as capital in the process of production.” Mund defines interest as “the price paid for the use of loanable funds (money or credit) which are to be repaid at a later date.”
According to Menger, interest is the payment for “the exchange of one economic good (the use of capital) for another (money, for instance).” By opposing the charging of interest, anti-usurers hold that money either is not an economic good or, if it is, not worthy of payment. As interest is the payment for the use of capital, the opponents of usury must assume that the use of capital has no value. If it does have value, then why is paying for this value immoral? If it does have value, then the anti-usurers believe that the user of capital is entitled to steal that value. Why is not such theft immoral?
According to Ely, “[i]nterest represents the difference in value between present and future goods.” In effect, people who oppose usury are claiming that the future value of a good is the same as its present value. However, by charging interest, the claim is that a good today is worth more than the same good in the future. That is, an ounce of gold or a loaf of bread is worth more to its holder today than it will be ten years later. Interest represents that difference in value. According to the anti-usurers, an ounce of gold or a loaf of bread ten years from now is worth the same to the holder as it is today. Usury assumes risk over time; zero interest assumes no risk over time. Usury assumes that present enjoyment and satisfaction is greater than future enjoyment and satisfaction; zero interest assumes that future enjoyment and satisfaction is greater in the future than they are in the present. That is, usury assumes that most people prefer to have an automobile today than ten years later. However, anti-usurers believe that people have no time preference and have no more desire for an automobile today than ten years later. If they do and are willing to pay a premium, interest, for an automobile today rather than waiting ten years, they are sinning — just as viewers of pornography are as guilty, as the producers and dealers are, of sin. Likewise, anti-usurers believe that given a choice between receiving a $100 today and a $100 a year later, people will be indifferent to when they receive the $100. (Most people would probably prefer the $100 today to a $101 a year later. However, a majority probably would prefer $200 a year later than $100 today. The $1 and $100 are interest paid for delayed satisfaction.) To the anti-usurers, present value and future value are equal, and, therefore, interest is not only immoral, it is not even needed.
According, Alchian and Allen, “Interest is the price of earlier availability, rather than later availability, of rights to use goods.” Whenever people evaluate and exchange present goods or money for future goods or money, interest is involved whether they realize it or not. Moreover, contrary to the implied, if not expressly stated, claim of the anti-usurers, present goods or money are more valuable than the same goods or money in the future. Interest represents that difference in the present and future value.
Interest is merely a result of people preferring something sooner rather than later. Why is paying for the expression and consideration of this preference a sin? It must be a sin because the moralist anti-usurers want to prohibit usury in the name of morality.
Rothbard states that “present money is worth more than present expectation of the same amount of future money” — the law of time preference. That is, the future always exchanges at a discount to present. This discount is the interest that bridges the time preference. Anti-usurers reject the law of time preference, and if it does exist, it is a sin.
North gives a similar definition: Interest “is the discount we apply to future goods as against present goods.” Moreover, “[i]t is not a uniquely monetary phenomenon.”
Anti-usurers argue that the future and future goods do not need to be discounted. Thus, they imply that the future is known; people do not live in an uncertain world. Furthermore, they assume that all people will live long enough to enjoy the future; therefore, people do not have to discount the future, i.e., charge interest.
As interest gives time economic value, the anti-usurers must maintain that time has, or should have, no economic value. An item will have the same value a year or a century from now as it has today. In spite of the assertions of the anti-usurers, time is a scarce economic resource that needs to be economized. (People are not God, who exists outside time; they are prisoners of time.)
As North notes, “Time is mankind’s only absolutely irreplaceable environmental resource.” Time is the foundation of all economic planning, and interest is the expression of this foundation. Anti-usurers must maintain that either time is irrelevant to economic planning or, if it is relevant, it has no value.
In the name of morality, anti-usurers would deny compensation, interest, to anyone who saves his money, a present good, and makes it available to entrepreneurs to produce future goods. According to the anti-usurers, this service of capital, saving, to provide an advance in time, as Rothbard calls it, should be without charge; it should be free. To charge for this service is extortion.
Usury rewards the farsighted and prudent — people who anticipate their future wants and needs and saves for it. Anti-usurers want to reward the spendthrift — the impulsive who must have immediate gasification. The anti-usurers would have the prudent to lend to the spendthrift at no charge.
Interest is payment for the use of capital. Anti-usurers have no problem with paying wages to managers and workers for their labor. Few would even deprive the entrepreneur or owner his profit for organizing and superintending, either directly or indirectly through managers, the operation of his business. However, they would deprive the capitalist, who may even be a lowly worker via his meager savings or retirement account, any return on the use of his capital. Thus, the entrepreneur deserves a return on his entrepreneurship; the manager deserves a return on his management; the worker deserves a return on his labor; yet the capitalist does not deserve a return on his capital.
Besides covering the cost of time-preference, part of the interest covers the cost of administrative expenses of transferring money from one person to another. Opponents of usury assume that this cost is either negligible or at least not worthy of compensation. Another part of the interest covers the cost of risk. Most anti-usurers assume that all loans are risk free. The few who realize that loans do involve risk to the lender believe that such risk should not be compensated. Why would anyone want to risk his money at no cost, zero interest, and give up the present enjoyment and satisfaction that it can bring so that another can satisfy his desires, either in consumption or production, today?
As Mises notes, when the natural or ordinary interest is zero, no consumption occurs even into eternity. High interest rates show that people want to consume in the present and near term. Low interest rates show that people are willing to wait longer to enjoy consumption. At zero interest, which is what the anti-usurers demand, present consumption ceases, and everyone’s labor and resources go toward future consumption. Thus, people would starve as they invest all their labor and resources in capital goods. Do anti-usurers expect lenders to be so future oriented that they will choose death over usury?
Hunger prevents the natural rate of interest from becoming zero. If food is available, people will eventually eat it before they starve. Thus, the present value of food will eventually exceed its future value, which means people start applying an interest rate to saving their food for future use, and consuming it in the present.
Therefore, anti-usurers have to resort to the coercive power of government to suppress interest to zero. As contradictory as it seems, if the government forces interest to zero, as the anti-usurers want it to do, people will consume their capital. As a result, future goods will become more scarce and eventually cease to exist. Again, people will starve because they have consumed their “seed corn.” The few who survive would return to the hunter-gatherer stage of humanity. Thus, when the government outlaws usury, it forces people to become extremely present oriented.
Is starvation what the anti-usurers want? If they succeed in outlawing all interest, starvation is what they will get.
High interest rates occur when people are present oriented; they have a high time preference. Low interest rates occur when people are future oriented; they have a low time preference. Future oriented people value future income and satisfaction more than present oriented people value them. Generally, future oriented people and societies are much wealthier and more advance than are present oriented people and societies. The burden of time is much higher for present oriented people and societies than it is for future oriented people and societies.
Anti-usurers seem to prefer present orientation to future orientation. They seem to prefer people consuming everything as quickly as possible to prevent delaying satisfaction, for that implies interest. However, as they demand zero interest, they seem to want to convert everyone to an extremely future-oriented person, who consume nothing in the present.
Everything, and every action, carries an interest rate whether noticed or not. Interest guides people in their consumption. Even the farmer uses interest when he decides how much of his crop to consume now and how much to save for planting next season.
Likewise, when a shipwrecked sailor rations his water consumption, he is employing time preference, interest. By weighing immediately quenching his thirst against quenching his thirst in the future, he is employing time preference, which interest represents.
Today, many opponents of usury oppose charging interest on loans for immoral reasons rather than moral reasons. They merely want to use other people’s capital, money, to satisfy immediately their consumptive desires without any cost to themselves. With a forced zero-interest loan, the borrower is taking something, the use of another’s capital to save time, from another, the lender, for nothing, which the moralists consider extortion.
Morally, one may be obliged to lend to a destitute Christian in dire need of the necessities of life at no interest (Exodus 22:25) and perhaps without the thought of repayment. (Actually, today with governments stealing the wealth of the productive and giving it to the poor to provide not only the necessities of life, but also many luxuries, no need really exists to lend to the poor and needy.) However, he should ensure that money lent goes for necessities and not for frivolous consumption or pleasure. (Perhaps a better solution is to give the person in need the necessities needed and allow the recipient to pay for them later when he can. [One should never lend any more money to any friend, relative, or acquaintance than he is willing to give them as a gift because he is not likely to be repaid.]) Nevertheless, no one is morally obliged to lend money interest free to invest in a business, to speculate, or to satisfy consumptive desires.
Likewise, loans to Christian churches, Christian schools, and Christian charities should be interest free. But, then, why not just donate the funds?
In a highly Christianized society, interest rates will be low, but not zero. They are low because Christians are, or should be, future oriented. As noted above, future orientation causes interest rates to be low.
Anti-usurers need to decide if they want a future oriented society in which the wealth of mankind will continue to climb, or a present oriented society in which wealth declines toward the hunter-gatherer level. If they want a future oriented society with increasing wealth, they need to cease insisting on zero interest, outlawing usury. If they insist on zero interest, outlawing usury, they will create a present oriented society with declining wealth for all. As Christianity is future oriented and outlawing usury is present oriented, the anti-usurers are promoting an unchristian society.
As the above discussion shows, usury, the payment for time, is essential to life. Without usury, civilization would not and could not exist. Without usury, mankind would only exist in a hunter-gatherer society. Moreover, anti-usurers promote a highly contradictory and impossible society: They want people to be extremely present oriented, have a high time preference, and extremely future oriented, have a low time preference, simultaneously. Anti-usurers are nothing more than promoters of “something for nothing.” In short, anti-usurers prefer lower-class living, present orientation, to higher-class living, future orientation.
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Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.