The intimate asymmetrical dance of usury, slavery, and economic libertinism
January 1, 2013 § 8 Comments
“Are we not ashamed to pay usury? Not contented within the limits of our own means, we do by giving pledges and entering into contracts, fabricate the yoke of our slavery.” – Plutarch
In applying the Simple Usury Test it becomes obvious that the critical distinction between usurious lending and non-usurious lending is collateral. If the loan is secured by specified tradable collateral and only that specified tradable collateral, with no further moral or legal obligation beyond surrender of that collateral on the part of the borrower to repay principal or interest, it is not usury. This naturally shifts the focus to what constitutes legitimate tradable collateral, and commenter Antonym points out that in the past the custom of selling onesself into slavery to pay off a debt was common practice. If it is not intrinsically immoral to sell onesself into slavery, even in the most desperate of circumstances, it seems to follow that no lending contracts are usury.
An economic libertine has no principled way to oppose the practice of selling onesself into slavery, because for an economic libertine the essence of the justice of a contract is mutual consent: if the contract is mutually consensual that is sufficient for it to be “permitted”, that is, enforced by the police, courts, bully pulpit and guns of the government. So it is perfectly natural for economic libertines to fail to see what is unjust about usury.
I would suggest (perhaps counterintuitively) that it is not intrinsically immoral to sell onesself into slavery in desperate circumstances; but at the same time, it is intrinsically immoral for a lender to take usury on a loan. The reason is because the person who commits the intrinsically unjust act is the one who purchases and takes possession of the chattel slave (whether from the enslaved himself or from someone else). In the case of usury the person who commits the intrinsically unjust act is the lender who takes usury on the loan, not the borrower who acts out of desperation. The act of the borrower is asymmetrical to the act of the lender, as the act of the victim is always asymmetrical to the act of the criminal.
Now, this is not a blanket permission slip to sell onesself into slavery nor to borrow from a usurer on a whim. It is merely a conclusion that neither action is intrinsically immoral, and therefore may be justifiable in some circumstances under some rubric of material cooperation with evil. The work involved in justifying a particular act of material cooperation with evil – or concluding that it is not justified – always depends on the particular circumstances.
St. Thomas Aquinas gives us his view of the matter (ST II-II, Q78, A4):
I answer that, It is by no means lawful to induce a man to sin, yet it is lawful to make use of another’s sin for a good end, since even God uses all sin for some good, since He draws some good from every evil as stated in the Enchiridion (xi). Hence when Publicola asked whether it were lawful to make use of an oath taken by a man swearing by false gods (which is a manifest sin, for he gives Divine honor to them) Augustine (Ep. xlvii) answered that he who uses, not for a bad but for a good purpose, the oath of a man that swears by false gods, is a party, not to his sin of swearing by demons, but to his good compact whereby he kept his word. If however he were to induce him to swear by false gods, he would sin.
Accordingly we must also answer to the question in point that it is by no means lawful to induce a man to lend under a condition of usury: yet it is lawful to borrow for usury from a man who is ready to do so and is a usurer by profession; provided the borrower have a good end in view, such as the relief of his own or another’s need. Thus too it is lawful for a man who has fallen among thieves to point out his property to them (which they sin in taking) in order to save his life, after the example of the ten men who said to Ismahel (Jeremiah 41:8): “Kill us not: for we have stores in the field.”
 Someone who purchases a slave in order to gain his freedom is clearly doing something categorically different, since the purchaser does not ‘take possession’ of the ‘slave’ in the pertinent sense.