We’ve established what the usurer is, and are just haggling over the price

September 19, 2015 § 28 Comments

If there is one thing that writing and debating the Usury FAQ has demonstrated, it is the pervasiveness with which people use the same words to mean very different things.

When we talk about one person “owing” another person something, we are basically saying that one person has some sort of specific and concrete moral obligation to another. But there are all sorts of different kinds of specific, concrete moral obligations; and it is a basic mistake to treat incommensurable obligations as if they were commensurable.

I do address this in a number of places in the Usury FAQ, following the lead of St. Thomas Aquinas (not because he is an authority, but because he is correct). The incommensurability of different kinds of “owing” may be one of the most difficult sticking points for folks who are struggling with understanding the subject.

There are many different and incommensurable senses of “owing” which arise in entirely distinct kinds of situations. Husbands and wives owe each other the marriage debt. If I accidentally kill my neighbor’s horse, I owe him a replacement. If I steal someone’s money or car, I owe its return and acceptance of due punishment. If I borrow money from a friend or a charity organization when I am in need, I owe both what I borrowed and a debt of gratitude once I am back on my feet. If I rent an apartment from a landlord, I owe him the rent or my departure from the property and possibly forfeiture of a deposit. And if I accept money from an investor, I owe him his share of the fruits of that investment.

One accurate way to characterize usury is that it conflates incommensurable senses of “owing”. The usurer profits from kinds of “owing” under full recourse terms and conditions — conditions in which profit is intrinsically unjust. He is like a “friend” who lends money to someone in need and insists that it be returned in the form of the marriage debt.

§ 28 Responses to We’ve established what the usurer is, and are just haggling over the price

  • Svar says:

    I assumed usury is basically any practice that puts profits over local or national community.

    Basically anything that Father Coughlin would rail against, may he forever rest in peace.

  • Zippy says:

    Svar:
    Usury is a specific kind of moral wrong like contraception, not a generic vice like greed or inchastity.

  • Svar says:

    Well, I hate usury… but apparently I was hating the wrong thing.

    I considered financial cheating, price-gouging, refusing to pay workers a living wage (usually via outsourcing or illegal immigration) and other perfidious behavior to be usury on top of exorbitant high interest on loans.

    There needs to be a general focus on economic exploitation, like how Fr. Coughlin did.

  • William Luse says:

    “I assumed usury is basically any practice that puts profits over local or national community.”

    To believe this is to advocate socialism…or worse.

    “There needs to be a general focus on economic exploitation, like how Fr. Coughlin did.”

    Bernie Sanders is doing that right now. Father C. wouldn’t have liked him though. Sanders is a Jew.

  • Scott W. says:

    “usury on top of exorbitant high interest on loans”
    And just to show I’ve been paying attention to Zippy’s lessons, it isn’t the rate of interest that makes it usury (say, 5% not usury, 20% usury). It’s the charging of any interest in which the loaner has recourse to the person if the loanee defaults, correct?

  • Zippy says:

    Scott:

    Right: non-usurious “loans” for interest are always contractual claims which terminate in specifically named property, and which are fully satisfied by the lender’s recourse to that specifically named property to recover his principal and interest. Whether things do or do not go as hoped by the various parties, the non-usurious investor’s claims fully terminate in specifically named property. “From these [non-mutuum] contracts honest gain may be made…” – Vix Pervenit.

    Usury is any gain or increase contractually charged against personal “debt”, that is, against obligations guaranteed by a person as opposed to terminating in specifically named property.

  • Zippy says:

    Also, as always, it is important to keep in mind that “not usurious” doesn’t mean “morally licit” (See Q11 of the FAQ).

    John Noonan had me snookered for a while (perhaps he had himself snookered), because he contends (IIRC) that the usury doctrine is dependent upon medieval just price theory. Whatever the case about who said what, though, it is simply false that usury doctrine is in any way dependent upon some broader economic theory of just prices. It isn’t.

    Usury is any gain whatsoever from mutuum loans, that is, from personally guaranteed loans where what is borrowed is returned in kind as opposed to in particular (Q35).

    Svar is right that a broader understanding of morality in economics would be very beneficial. But that is a much bigger project than explaining the usury doctrine specifically and providing some background on why it specifically is not the backward ignorant thing that most modern people (who, it turns out, are simply ignorant themselves) assume it to be.

  • Svar says:

    “To believe this is to advocate socialism…or worse.”

    So what do you propose? Unfettered capitalism which espouses profits for the sake of profits? Henry Ford was a capitalist but he put national and local community before profits.

    In this world, the first principle is national and local community and this principle translates well into the next world because community is the fertile soil upon which faith in Christ and brotherly love thrives. Ultimately, I could care less about the economic system we use as long as it is meant to serve Man and help him adhere to the First Things. What we have is a system that Man serves and that is bass-ackwards.

    All of the deep-seated moral problems we have now are a product of rootlessness and atomization and the complete disintegration of local and national community.

    BTW, what is “or worse”? As in what, in your mind, is worse than socialism?

    “Bernie Sanders is doing that right now. Father C. wouldn’t have liked him though. Sanders is a Jew.”

    Well, Fr. Torquemada was a Jew too and Fr. Florian Abrahamowicz is a part-Jew and I’m sure Fr. Coughlin respected the former and would have respected the latter if he was still alive. Christ was a Jew and so were the Apostles and the vast majority of the Old Christians.

    Remember the sort of things that Christ said about the Jews? Remember how Fr. Torquemada had them expelled from Iberia? Do you remember the incendiary words from the Early Church Fathers like St., John of Chrysostom or St. Augustine (and basically all of the other ones)? Or how about G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc and their “problematic” views on the Jews?

    I feel that you are trying to say that Fr. Coughlin has no credibility because of his anti-Semitism which is untrue. If anti-Semitism was negatively correlated with credibility then what of the credibility of that Very First Christian who died on the Cross? Will you reject Him as well?

    I wouldn’t vote for Sanders because he’s no Huey Long, Samuel Gompers or Jack London, he’s weak and not fit for leadership. I’d rather vote Trump because he sounds like a protectionist and he definitely sounds like a nationalist.

  • Svar says:

    “Svar is right that a broader understanding of morality in economics would be very beneficial. But that is a much bigger project than explaining the usury doctrine specifically and providing some background on why it specifically is not the backward ignorant thing that most modern people (who, it turns out, are simply ignorant themselves) assume it to be.”

    Yeah, I completely agree with you regarding usury, just now feel that it is way too narrow of a focus after I learned what usury means exactly.

  • Zippy says:

    The role of Talmudic Judaism in the development of modernity and liberalism, and even in the acceptance of usury specifically, is an interesting question of forensic history. I am not sure it is of anything other than academic interest though; because when it comes to the things that matter we are all Jews now.

    The ‘solution’, as I explained in my previous post and others, simply can not be to figure out who is the oppressor-untermensch and crush him. The solution is repentance. The disease is made up of ideas in the modern mind, not genes in some particular slice of genome.

  • Zippy says:

    Svar:

    … feel that it is way too narrow of a focus …

    And yet despite that, and despite the doctrine’s simplicity and concrete applicability to everyday life, it encounters a wall of genuine confusion and deliberate obfuscation in every direction. Even if I had some overarching theory of morality in economics I doubt I have the energy required to systematize it and get five or six readers to understand it, let alone agree with it.

  • Svar says:

    “And yet despite that, and despite the doctrine’s simplicity and concrete applicability to everyday life, it encounters a wall of genuine confusion and deliberate obfuscation in every direction. Even if I had some overarching theory of morality in economics I doubt I have the energy required to systematize it and get five or six readers to understand it, let alone agree with it.”

    I think what you are mostly dealing with are those conservatives who have bought into the GOP party line about globalism, Free Trade, and neoliberalism and think that having any semblance of morality in economics is a commie socialist line.

    What we have know is a mutated form of capitalism, managerial capitalism one that takes power away from BOTH the owners of capital and the laborers and puts it into the hands of a rent-seeking bureaucratic class. The wide-eyed ideal of some small-town boy from lower-middle (i.e. working class) conditions becoming a rich man due to his own ingenuity is long gone. Our current society will not and can not produce that sort of individual, we will never produce another Henry Ford under the current system but we will (and have) produced thousands of Jordan Belforts and Bernie Madoffs.

    At the same time, this sort of conservative, so awash in GOP and NeoCon (which is a movement founded by former Trotskyites btw, Srdja Trifkovic refers to them as the bastard children of Trotsky) ideals, sees economics in a binary sort of like a Marxist: there is either capitalism or socialism/communism. This ignores the fact that capitalism arose from the death of feudalism and that the capitalism we have now is not the same as the original capitalism. It also ignores the fact that during the interwar era, multiple different economic ideas were being experimented with.

    Capitalism had it’s hey-day and in all honesty, it has led to what we see today, socialism is a failed system, and going back to feudalism is unrealistic and ridiculous. The only way to go is to move forward and develop a new system. The first step of that is to let go of capitalism

  • Zippy says:

    Well, what folks make of the usury doctrine and its broader implications and concomitants is itself beyond the scope of my objectives here, and in some ways runs counter to them. I’d be gratified just to have enough folks understand usury (including the reasons why it is considered morally wrong) well enough so that every single conversation about it and only it specifically didn’t go off into the weeds. Broadening the discussion to economics more generally usually has the effect of obscuring the specific subject, since in fact you don’t really have to commit to any specific economic theory in order to understand usury.

    However, those looking to pop the balloon of modernity’s self deceptions could do worse than to have a highly focused needle which penetrates all the way through at one of its weakest points. I’m sure many folks have had the experience of being unable to pop a balloon by sitting on it, etc. only to see it burst instantly when touched with a sharp needle.

  • Svar says:

    “The role of Talmudic Judaism in the development of modernity and liberalism, and even in the acceptance of usury specifically, is an interesting question of forensic history.”

    I don’t know if what we are seeing is a purposeful and intentional subversion or a sort of Spenglerian natural biological degeneration. I feel that the Jews are more of an opportunistic secondary infection which only can occur in an already weakened host but I am still not sure. I’ll have to think about it longer.

    “I am not sure it is of anything other than academic interest though;”

    I will have to respectfully disagree, Jewish involvement in things like finance, the media, and politics has exacerbated the deep-seated malaise we deal with. We can not ignore the fact that the Jews play a large role in things that break down morality (go to the Jewish Daily Forward if you want to see the Jews pat themselves on the back for these sorts of things, here’s an example regarding gay rights: http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/311026/us-jews-among-biggest-backers-of-same-sex-marriage-data-show/ There is much, much more) and that denature both local and national community.

    There are real consequences to their actions, consequences that you rail against on this blog. I just feel that talking about Cultural Marxist Leftism and not talking about the Jews (not all the time, but when it needs to be discussed) is like discussing AIDS while ignoring HIV.

    “because when it comes to the things that matter we are all Jews now.”

    How so and in what sense?

    “The ‘solution’, as I explained in my previous post and others, simply can not be to figure out who is the oppressor-untermensch and crush him. The solution is repentance. The disease is made up of ideas in the modern mind, not genes in some particular slice of genome.”

    Genes may play a decent role in Jewish behavior (I don’t believe in a conscious Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion Jewish conspiracy because if it were a grand and vast conspiracy they would actually put in an effort in making their detrimental effects seem less obvious when in reality they do the exact opposite. I am truly convince that they can not control themselves) and we have to come to terms with the fact that the modern Ashenazim Jew is not the same as the Hebrews that once inhabited the Levant in the days of Christ (and even then, they were a troublesome group of people but far, far better than they are now) due to various bottlenecks and evolutionary pressures.

    There is also the cultural context which forms the Jewish mind and I believe the poison and the venom within the Talmud plays an equally large factor in Jewish behavior.

    At the same time, every now and then, you have a Jew (or part-Jew) who breaks away from his cultural programming and these Jews (or part-Jews) end up being the biggest advocates of the country they align themselves to (which they do after throwing off the shackles of nomadic Jewish hyper-tribalism) and especially of Christ, Whom they inevitably get pulled towards.

    With all that being said, regarding the Jews that are harmful, we can’t force Jews to repent, you can’t force anyone to repent. What we can do is minimize their influence in our culture, in our political system, and in our economic system. I’m not saying go Waffen-SS on them, but what are they going to do when we take away all of their (mostly ill-gotten) money and seize their media organs (in the hypothetical case we do have power)?

  • Svar says:

    “Well, what folks make of the usury doctrine and its broader implications and concomitants is itself beyond the scope of my objectives here, and in some ways runs counter to them. I’d be gratified just to have enough folks understand usury (including the reasons why it is considered morally wrong) well enough so that every single conversation about it and only it specifically didn’t go off into the weeds. Broadening the discussion to economics more generally usually has the effect of obscuring the specific subject, since in fact you don’t really have to commit to any specific economic theory in order to understand usury.”

    Well there is an underlying principle as to why usury is wrong since usury is, like you said, a specific sin not a general one. The reason why usury is wrong is for these reasons: it is unfair, it is exploitative, and it is adverse to the formation of a cohesive and high-trust community. As for the effects on the sinner, it seems that usury is more of a symptom of an extreme greed. And we all know what the wages of sin are…

  • Zippy says:

    Svar:

    How so and in what sense?

    In the following sense:

    Suppose that all Jews currently alive on Earth suddenly disappeared. Maybe they all got on board a giant spacecraft and went to some kibbutz in space — it isn’t that we became even more nazified than we already are and exterminated the born ones alongside the unborn ones we are already exterminating, in other words, it is just that they all up and went somewhere else so all of their present day powers and influence devolved to the modernist gentiles Left Behind.

    My contention is that this would have pretty much no effect whatsoever.

    Modern liberal gentiles would fill in every place which was vacated by a modern liberal Jew, attitudes about freedom and equality and sodomy and usury and abortion and fornication and economic exploitation wouldn’t budge in the slightest, etc. Average IQ would go down a small but immaterial amount. The overall effect would be entirely negligible, in keeping with the size of the population which departed. In this way the HIV analogy falls down, precisely because eliminating HIV brings the progression and spread of disease to a halt.

  • Svar says:

    “My contention is that this would have pretty much no effect whatsoever.”

    I disagree. If say the Jews all left, what we would see is a saner foreign policy as opposed to one that favors the Jewish rogue state, far less economic exploitation in the form of Free Trade and usury, and more importantly, “modern gentile liberals” will not be able to invoke the Holocaust as a way to browbeat the Silent Majority into accepting their insidious political machinations.

    I mean look at the situation now. The political zeitgeist is changing rapidly and the anger against Leftist excesses (and GOP establishment complicity) have come to a head and some of this has spilt over towards the Jews.

    Leftist whining and guilting can only work for so long.

  • Zippy says:

    Lots of people seem to attribute magical qualities to the Jews. Some think it is good jewjew, some think it is bad. I think it is frankly superstitious.

  • Svar says:

    “Lots of people seem to attribute magical qualities to the Jews. Some think it is good jewjew, some think it is bad. I think it is frankly superstitious.”

    I find it ridiculous as well to see the Jews as magical. They stopped being magical the moment the Old Covenant was broken.

    I personality see Jews as basically high-functioning gypsies with much lower sexual morals. That is the most accurate assessment without going into the ridiculous conspiracy theorist area of the Protocols or the sickeningly obsequious dispensationalism of Evangelicals (and even some Catholics!).

    Ultimately, I’m more of Spenglerite than a Gibsonite. I feel that the West is doomed anyway and there is nothing we can do at this point. Civilizations must die just like how men must.

    Hopefully Christ will be reborn in the hearts of those who build a new civilization from the ashes. That is what truly matters in the bitter end.

  • Many things have been attributed to the Spanish clerics in the Middle Ages for according to many (Acton Inst, and the who succor it) what they believed/taught is the basis for Manchester Liberalism but those making the claim have, so far, been unable to cite any footnote of any social doctrine encyclical referencing those churchmen which is what one would expect to find is the claims of the Christian Libertarians and the agnostic Jews are correct.

  • Zippy says:

    Amateur Brain Surgeon:
    According to Noonan, the Spanish Jesuits were indeed the source of modern attitudes about usury. But it isn’t a uniform picture. Many Jesuits understood the connection between what I call “recourse” in my FAQ and the specific nature of usurious contracts.

    Here is St. Francis Xavier, SJ, instructing confessors (emphasis mine):

    ‘When in the sacred tribunal of penance you have heard all that your penitents have prepared themselves to confess of their sins, do not at once think that all is done, and that you have no further duty to discharge. You must go on further to inquire, and by means of questions to rake out the faults which ought to be known and to be remedied, but which escape the penitents themselves on account of their ignorance.

    Ask them what profits they make, how, and whence? what is the system that they follow in barter, in loans, and in the whole matter of security for contracts?

    You will generally find that everything is defiled with usurious contracts, …’

    Dominic Soto, the great Spanish theologian, stated the principle like this:

    “he is truly the owner to whom the good perishes if it is lost.”

    His rival Navarrus maintained (according to Noonan) that there was no usury so long as the lender maintained some control over the disposition of the property, whatever it was, even if he was exposed to no loss. Control entitled the investor to profit, even when all risk was absorbed by someone other than the investor.

    Note how the ball gets hidden here. There is no property in incarnate reality which is not exposed to loss, so “exposed to no loss” really means that the claims terminate in open-ended fashion against some person who guarantees no loss personally, as opposed to defined property which — however large it might be in aggregate, as in the balance sheet of an insurance company — is always exposed to loss.

    So we are back to the basic distinction between a mutuum loan (rooted in the contractual commitment of the borrower qua person to return what was borrowed in kind, as opposed to in particular) vs an investment societas (where all contractual claims terminate ultimately in some defined property, whatever the vicissitudes of fate) in which the investor is entitled to his share of profit or rent, because his claims represent an ownership interest in some property which actually exists.

    What I label with the English word “recourse” (for pedagogical reasons I explain in a footnote to the FAQ) is central to usury doctrine, and there appears to be some truth to the claim that our current ‘see no evil’ pastoral weltanschauung w.r.t. usury is a product of disputes among late medieval Spanish clerics.

  • Zippy says:

    ABS:

    You are right though that – as far as I have been able to determine – the notion of a licit mutuum for gain never makes it into any doctrinal statement by the Magisterium of the Church, at any level of authority whatsoever. That’s the dog that doesn’t bark.

    That’s why I keep warning people that Humanae Vitae could easily become the new Vix Pervenit. Once doctrine has been papered over by pastoral faux ‘mercy’ long enough, everyone just forgets the doctrine and (either truly or willfully) can’t even make sense of it anymore.

    This despite the fact that usury is in its essence very, very simple (much simpler than contraception/NFP): if you lend and expect the thing lent to be used up by the borrower and paid back (secured by his personal guarantee) in kind at some later date, you may not make any gain whatsoever on that loan without committing the execrable sin of usury.

  • […] (money or anything else) and expect the thing lent to be used up by the borrower and paid back (secured by his personal guarantee) in kind at some later date, you may not contract for any gain whatsoever on that loan without […]

  • Dear Zippy. What a smashing quote by St. FX. Thank you.

    You and Mr. Noonan, and most everybody else, are light years ahead of me but just following your ideas can really profit the layman interested in all things Catholic.

    God Bless you for all of your great work.

    As an aside, have you heard/read of Michael Hoffman’s book claiming we changed our teaching on Usury?

    ABS has read several lengthy exchanges on same in
    “Culture Wars” where Anthony Santarelli seems to have picked the flesh off of the body of evidence presented by Mr. Hoffman and left but a skeleton claim but Mr. Santarelli really complicated matters.

    Just wondering…

    Your warning about praxis being a sapper of doctrine is quite crucial right now, isn’t it?

    Even if the current captious contentions were not part of what motivated your timely return, it sure as hell is quite helpful to me and, ABS is nothing if not solipsistic; so, keep-up you great work.

  • Zippy says:

    Svar:

    I find it ridiculous as well to see the Jews as magical.

    And yet the views you express treat them as if they actually were magical.

  • […] I haven’t covered in too much depth.  In this post I talked about different senses of ‘owing’, and grasping the multivocity of […]

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