By Hilaire Belloc
Taken from ESSAYS OF A CATHOLIC,
Usury does not mean high interest. It means any interest, however low, demanded for an unproductive loan. It is not only immoral [on which account it has been condemned by every moral code-----Pagan-----Mohammedan-----or Catholic] but it is ultimately destructive of society. It has only been the rule of our commerce to take usury since the breakup of Europe following on the Reformation. Usury will destroy our society, but meanwhile there is no escape from it. We are coming near the end of its maleficent action, not through awaking to its evils but because it is reaching the end of its resources. The Great War loans, which are almost entirely usurious, have powerfully accelerated this process.
"The modern world is organized on the principle that money of its nature breeds money. A sum of money lent has, according to our present scheme, a natural right to interest. That principle is false in economics as in morals. It ruined Rome, and it is bringing us to our end.
Supposing a man comes to you and says: "There is a field next to mine which is a very good building site; if I put up a good little house on it I shall be able to let that house at a net profit-----all rates, taxes and repairs paid-of £100 a year. But I have no capital with which to build this house. The field will cost £50 and the house £950. Will you lend me £1,000, so that I can buy the field, put up the house, and enjoy this nice little income?" You would presumably answer, "Where do I come in? You get your £100 a year all right; but you only get it by my aid, and therefore I ought to share in the profits. Let us go fifty-fifty. You take £50 every year as your share for your knowledge of the opportunity and for your trouble, and hand me over the other £50. That will be five percent on my money, and I shall be content."
This answer, granted that property is a moral right, is a perfectly moral proposition. The borrower accepting that proposition certainly has no grievance. For a long time [theoretically, forever] you could go on drawing five percent on the money you lent, with a conscience at ease.
Now let us suppose that man comes to you and says: "I know the case of a man in middle age who has been suddenly stricken with a terrible ailment. Medical aid costing £1,000 will save his life, but he will never be able to do any more work. He has an annuity of £100 a year to keep him alive after the operation and subsequent treatment. Will you lend the £I,000? It will be paid back to you on his death, for his life has been insured in a lump payment for the amount of £I,000." You answer: "I will lend £1,000 to save his life, but I shall require of him half his annuity, that is £50 a year, for every year he may live henceforward; and he must scrape along as best he can on the remaining £50 of his annuity." That answer would make you feel a cad if you have any susceptibilities left, and if you have not-----having already become a cad through the action of what the poet has called "the soul's long dues of hardening and decay"-----it would be a caddish action all the same, though you might not be disturbed by it.
It seems therefore that there are conditions under which you may legitimately and morally lend £1,000 at five percent in perfect security of conscience, and others in which you cannot.
Now look at the matter from another angle.
When the American city of Boston was founded, three hundred years ago, a man in London proposing to emigrate thither left gold to the value of £1,000 with a London goldsmith, under a bond that the goldsmith might use the money until he or his heirs should demand it, but with the proviso that five percent on the capital should accrue at compound interest until it was withdrawn. The emigrant did not reappear. The goldsmith's business developed, as so many of them did, into a sort of bank as the seventeenth century wore on. By the beginning of the eighteenth it was a bank in due form, and its successor today is part of one of the great banking concerns of our time. The original deposit has gone on "fructifying," as the phrase goes, with the liability piling up, but no one claiming it.
At last, in this year 1931, an heir turns up and proves his title. The capital sum into which this modest investment of a thousand pounds at five percent has grown is to be paid over to him under an order of the court. Do you know how much it will come to?-----More than twice the annual revenue of the United States today.
Let us take a less fantastic example, and perhaps it will be more convincing. Supposing a man to have lent £10,000 on mortgage at six percent upon an English gentleman's estate at the beginning of the American War of Independence, in 1776: the said estate to pay £600 a year to the lender. The debt is not pressed. The embarrassed gentleman is allowed to add to the principal the annual payments due, so that the whole sums up at the rate of six percent compound interest.
That is not at all an impossible supposition. Do you know what the mortgage-holder could demand of that estate today? Nearly five million pounds a year!
Neither of these examples could arise in practice because the law forbids such prolonged accumulation, but the very fact that the law has been compelled to do so, is proof that there is something wrong with the current notion everywhere acted upon, that money "earns" a certain rate of interest and has a moral right to it without regard to the way in which the capital is employed.
For what is common to all these illustrations is the patent fact that interest on a loan may, under some circumstances of time or extent, be a demand for an impossible tribute. It may under some circumstances be a tribute which is not morally due, because it does not represent an extra production of wealth due to the original investment. It is under some circumstances a demand for wealth which is not connected with the produce of the original investment, and the payment of which is therefore not a payment of part profit, but a payment to be made, if possible, out of whatever other wealth the debtor can obtain; and a tribute which, beyond a certain point, cannot even be paid at all, because the wherewithal to pay it is not present in society.
What are those circumstances? What are the conditions distinguishing a demand for payment of interest which is legitimate in morals from a demand which is illegitimate?
The distinction lies between a demand for part of the product of a productive loan, which is moral, and the immoral demand for either (1) interest on an unproductive loan, or (2) interest greater than the annual increment in real wealth which a productive loan creates. Such a demand "wears down"-----"eats up"-----"drains dry" the wealth of the borrower, and that is why it is called Usury. A derivation inaccurate in philology, but sound in morals, rightly connects "usura" "usury," with the idea of destroying, "using up," rather than with the original idea of "usus," "a use."
Usury, then, is a claiming of interest upon an unproductive loan, or of interest greater than the real increment produced by a productive loan. It is the claiming of something to which the lender has no right, as though I should say: "Pay me ten sacks of wheat a year for the rent of these fields" after the fields had been swallowed up by the sea, or after they had fallen to producing annually much less than ten sacks of wheat.
I must here reluctantly introduce a colloquial meaning of the word "Usury" which confuses thought. People talk of "usurious interest" meaning very high interest. It is obvious how the confusion arose. Very high interest is commonly greater than the real wealth produced even by a productive loan, and to demand it is, in effect, to demand more than the produce of the original loan; but there is nothing in the rate of interest per se which renders such interest usurious. You may demand one hundred percent on a loan and be well within your moral rights.
For instance, a small claim which was producing 500 ounces of gold a year has a sudden opportunity for producing 200 times as much, 100,000 ounces, if capital the equivalent of only 1,000 ounces can be obtained for development. The lender of that new capital is under no moral obligation to give all the vastly increased profits as a present to the borrower. He can legitimately claim his portion; he might well ask for half the new produce, that is 50,000 ounces per annum, 500 percent on his loan, for that very high interest would only come to half the new wealth produced. To ask for that 500 percent would not be an exaction of tribute from wealth that was not present, nor for wealth that was not created by the capital invested.
Strictly speaking, then, usury has nothing to do with the amount of interest demanded, but with the point whether there is or is not produced by the capital invested an increment at least equal to the tribute demanded.
If authority is asked for so obvious a position in morals it may be found in every great moral system sanctioned by the religious and permanent social philosophies adopted by men. Aristotle 1 forbids it, St. Thomas forbids it. The Mohammedan system of ethics condemns it [and in practice condemns it unintelligently because it forbids many loans that are useful]. 2 In particular we have the luminous decision of the Fourth Lateran Council .
So far, so good. Next let us note the very interesting development of modern times since the break-up of our common European moral and religious system at the Reformation. After that disaster usury gradually became admitted. It grew to be a general practice sanctioned by the laws, and the payment of it enforced by the civil magistrate. In England it was under the reign of Cecil, in the year 1571, that interest, though limited to ten percent, became legal without regard to the use made of the loan. The birth year of what may be called "Indiscriminate Usury" is 1609, when, under Calvinism, the Bank of Amsterdam started on its great career of stimulating fortunate capacity and ruining the unfortunate.
In general the governments which broke away from the unity of Christendom one after the other introduced legalized usury, and thus got a start over the conservative nations which struggled to maintain the old moral code. To the new moral, or rather immoral, ideas thus introduced we owe the rapid development of banking in the "reformed" nations, the financial hold they acquired and maintained for three centuries. Everyone at last fell into line, and today Usury works side by side with legitimate profit, and, confused with it, has become universal throughout what used to be Christian civilization. It is taken for granted that every loan shall bear interest, without inquiring whether it be productive or unproductive. The whole financial side of our civilization is still based on that false conception. [emphasis added]
A very interesting essay might be written upon the ultimate fruits of such a conception in our own time. Were it ever written a good title for it would be, "The End of the Reign of Usury." For it is becoming pretty clear that the inherent vice of the system under which long ago the Roman Imperial social scheme broke down is beginning to break down our own international financial affairs. With this difference, however: that theybroke down from private usury, we from public.
But that is by the way; to return to our muttons. Usury being a demand for money that is not there [a tribute levied, not upon the produce of capital, but upon a margin beyond that produce, or even upon no produce at all], Usury being therefore, when once it is universally admitted, at first a machine for ultimate draining of all wealth into the hands of lenders and for reducing the rest of the community to economic servitude at last; Usury being at last a system which must break down of its own weight-----when the demand made is greater than all productivity can meet-----why, it may be asked, has it been practiced with success for so long? Why does it seem to be at the root of so vast a progress in production throughout the world?" (snip) ...
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