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He sells only time, which belongs to God. Although the identification of the value of time and its relationship to interest was used here in an argument against usury, this point is actually a crucial aspect of the argument in defense of the practice. The Scholastics came to similar conclusions about usury as those reached by earlier Christian thinkers, but they sought to defend their views not only by reference to scripture, but also by reference to their observational understanding of the economics of the practice.
The economic worth of usury—its productivity or unproductively—became their central concern. Does usury have a productive function? What are the facts? This is the long arm of Aristotle at work. It would take hundreds of years for this perspective to develop fully, but the type of arguments made during the late Middle Ages were early contributions to this crucial development.
As virtuous as this new method was, however, the Scholastics were still coming to the conclusion that usury is unproductive and immoral, and it would not be until the 16th century and the Reformation that usury would be partially accepted by the Church and civil law. For the time being, usury remained forbidden—at least in theory.
Church officials, particularly from the 12th century on, frequently manipulated and selectively enforced the usury laws to bolster the financial power of the Church.
When it wanted to keep its own borrowing cost low, the Church enforced the usury prohibition. At other times, the Church itself readily loaned money for interest. Monks were among the earliest moneylenders, offering carefully disguised interest-bearing loans throughout the Middle Ages. The most common way to disguise loans—and the way in which banking began in Italy and grew to be a major business—was through money exchange.
The wide variety of currencies made monetary exchange necessary but difficult, which led to certain merchants specializing in the field. With the rapid growth of international trade, these operations grew dramatically in scale, and merchants opened offices in cities all across Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.
These merchants used the complexities associated with exchange of different currencies to hide loans and charge interest. For example, a loan might be made in one currency and returned in another months later in a different location—although the amount returned would be higher i. This is one of many mechanisms usurers and merchants invented to circumvent the restrictions.
Although the merchant credit extended by these early banks was technically interest, and thus usury, both the papal and civic authorities permitted the practice, because the exchange service proved enormously valuable to both.
In addition to financing all kinds of trade across vast distances for countless merchants, such lending also financed the Crusades for the Church and various wars for various kings. So while the Church continued to forbid usury and punish transgressors, it also actively engaged in the practice. What was seen as moral by the Church apparently was not seen as wholly practical by the Church, and opportunity became the mother of evasion.
The Church also engaged in opportunistic behavior when it came to restitution. The death of a wealthy merchant often provided the Church with windfall revenue.
In the 13th century, the Pope laid claim to the assets of deceased usurers in England. Also of note, Church officials regularly ignored the usury of their important friends—such as the Florentine bankers of the Medici family—while demonizing Jewish moneylenders and others.
In theory, the Church was staunchly opposed to usury; in practice, however, it was violating its own moral law in myriad ways. The gap between the idea of usury as immoral and the idea of usury as impractical continued to widen as the evidence for its practicality continued to grow. The Church would not budge on the moral status, but it selectively practiced the vice nonetheless.
This selective approach often correlated with the economic times. When the economy was doing well, the Church, and the civil authorities, often looked the other way and let the usurers play.
In bad times, however, moneylenders, particularly those who were Jewish, became the scapegoats. This pattern continues today with anti-interest sentiment exploding whenever there is an economic downturn. Sometime around , a new term was coined to replace certain forms of usury: In cases where the practice was illegal, it would continue to be called usury. Compensation for a loan was illegal if it was a gain or a profit, but if it was reimbursement for a loss or an expense it was permissible.
Therefore, interest was sometimes allowed, but usury never. So, increasingly, moneylenders were allowed to charge interest as a penalty for delayed repayment of a loan, provided that the lender preferred repayment to the delay plus interest i. Loans were often structured in advance so that such delays were anticipated and priced, and so the prohibition on usury was avoided.
Many known moneylenders and bankers, such as the Belgian Lombards, derived their profits from such penalties—often percent of the loan value. It even became permissible on occasion for a lender to charge interest if he could show an obvious, profitable alternative use for the money.
If, by lending money, the lender suffered from the inability to make a profit elsewhere, the interest was allowed as compensation for the potential loss. Indeed, according to some sources, even risk—economic risk—was viewed as worthy of compensation. Therefore, if there was risk that the debtor would not pay, interest charged in advance was permissible. These were major breakthroughs. But despite all these breakthroughs and the fact that economic activity continued to grow during the later Middle Ages, the prohibition on usury was still selectively enforced.
Usurers were often forced to pay restitution; many were driven to poverty or excommunicated; and some, especially Jewish moneylenders, were violently attacked and murdered. It was still a very high-risk profession. It was common to hear stories of usurers going mad in old age out of fear of what awaited them in the afterlife.
On these their streaming eyes appeared to feast. Profits, Dante believed, should be the fruits of labor—and usury entailed no actual work. He believed that the deliberate, intellectual choice to engage in such an unnatural action as usury was the worst kind of sin.
It is a wonder that anyone—let alone so many—defied the law and their faith to practice moneylending. In this sense, the usurers were truly heroic. By defying religion and taking risks—both financial and existential—they made their material lives better.
And by doing so, they made possible economic growth the likes of which had never been seen before. It was thanks to a series of loans from local moneylenders that Gutenberg, for example, was able to commercialize his printing press.
By the end of the Middle Ages, although everyone still condemned usury, few could deny its practical value. Its moral status was divinely decreed and appeared to be supported by reason, yet merchants and businessmen experienced its practical benefits daily.
The thinkers of the day could not explain this apparent dichotomy. The start of the 16th century brought about a commercial boom in Europe. It was the Golden Age of Exploration. Trade routes opened to the New World and expanded to the East, bringing unprecedented trade and wealth to Europe. To fund this trade, to supply credit for commerce and the beginnings of industry, banks were established throughout Europe.
Genoese and German bankers funded Spanish and Portuguese exploration and the importation of New World gold and silver. Part of what made this financial activity possible was the new tolerance, in some cities, of usury. The Italian city of Genoa, for example, had a relatively relaxed attitude toward usury, and moneylenders created many ways to circumvent the existing prohibitions.
This is likely one reason why southern Europe, which was heavily Catholic, lagged behind the rest of Europe economically from the 17th century onward. Martin Luther — , a leader of the Reformation, believed that usury was inevitable and should be permitted to some extent by civil law.
Luther believed in the separation of civil law and Christian ethics. This view, however, resulted not from a belief in the separation of state and religion, but from his belief that the world and man were too corrupt to be guided by Christianity. Christian ethics and the Old Testament commandments, he argued, are utopian dreams, unconnected with political or economic reality. He deemed usury unpreventable and thus a matter for the secular authorities, who should permit the practice and control it.
And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill. In other words, usury should be allowed by civil authorities as in Genoa because it is inevitable men will be men , but it should be condemned in the harshest terms by the moral authority.
This is the moral-practical dichotomy in action, sanctioned by an extremely malevolent view of man and the universe. John Calvin, — , another Reformation theologian, had a more lenient view than Luther. He rejected the notion that usury is actually banned in the Bible. Since Jews are allowed to charge interest from strangers, God cannot be against usury. There is a difference, he believed, between taking usury in the course of business and setting up business as a usurer. If a person collects interest on only one occasion, he is not a usurer.
The crucial issue, Calvin thought, is the motive. If the motive is to help others, usury is good, but if the motive is personal profit, usury is evil. Calvin claimed that the moral status of usury should be determined by the golden rule.
It should be allowed only insofar as it does not run counter to Christian fairness and charity. But it could be charged in cases where the borrower is wealthy and the interest will be used for Christian good.
Thus he concluded that interest could neither be universally condemned nor universally permitted—but that, to protect the poor, a maximum rate should be set by law and never exceeded. Although the religious authorities did little to free usury from the taint of immorality, other thinkers were significantly furthering the economic understanding of the practice. In a book titled Treatise on Contracts and Usury , Molinaeus, a French jurist, made important contributions to liberate usury from Scholastic rationalism.
Against the argument that money is barren, Molinaeus — observed that everyday experience of business life showed that the use of any considerable sum of money yields a service of importance. Unfortunately, like Galileo, Molinaeus was to suffer for his ideas: The Church forced him into exile and banned his book.
Nevertheless, his ideas on usury spread throughout Europe and had a significant impact on future discussions of moneylending. The prevailing view that emerged in the late 16th century and that, to a large extent, is still with us today is that money is not barren and that usury plays a productive role in the economy. Usury, however, is unchristian; it is motivated by a desire for profit and can be used to exploit the poor.
It can be practical, but it is not moral; therefore, it should be controlled by the state and subjected to regulation in order to restrain the rich and protect the poor. This Christian view has influenced almost all attitudes about usury since. Moreover, the Protestants were the first to explicitly assert and sanction the moral-practical dichotomy—the idea that the moral and the practical are necessarily at odds.
Because of original sin, the Protestants argued, men are incapable of being good, and thus concessions must be made in accordance with their wicked nature. Men must be permitted to some extent to engage in practical matters such as usury, even though such practices are immoral. Although still limited by government constraints, the chains were loosened, and this enabled economic progress through the periodic establishment of legal rates of interest.
The rate was set at 10 percent. However, seven years later it was repealed, and usury was again completely banned. In an argument in to reinstate the bill, Mr. Molley, a lawyer representing the business interests in London, said before the House of Commons:. Since to take reasonably, or so that both parties might do good, was not hurtful;.
God did not so hate it, that he did utterly forbid it, but to the Jews amongst themselves only, for that he willed they should lend as Brethren together; for unto all others they were at large; and therefore to this day they are the greatest Usurers in the World. But be it, as indeed it is, evil, and that men are men, no Saints, to do all these things perfectly, uprightly and Brotherly;. But it may be said, it is contrary to the direct word of God, and therefore an ill Law; if it were to appoint men to take Usury, it were to be disliked; but the difference is great between that and permitting or allowing, or suffering a matter to be unpunished.
This is the moral-practical dichotomy stated openly and in black-and-white terms, and it illustrates the general attitude of the era. The practice was now widely accepted as practical but still regarded as immoral, and the thinkers of the day grappled with this new context.
The license was to be sold by the state for a fee. Again, interest and usury were pitted against morality. But Bacon saw moneylending as so important to commerce that the legal rate of interest had to offer sufficient incentive to attract lenders. Bacon recognized that a higher rate of interest is economically justified by the nature of certain loans. The economic debate had shifted from whether usury should be legal to whether and at what level government should set the interest rate a debate that, of course, continues to this day, with the Fed setting certain interest rates.
As one scholar put it: In spite of this progress, artists continued to compare usurers to idle drones, spiders, and bloodsuckers, and playwrights personified the moneygrubbing usurers in characters such as Sir Giles Overreach, Messrs.
Mammon, Lucre, Hoard, Gripe, and Bloodhound. Probably the greatest work of art vilifying the usurer was written during this period— The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare — , which immortalized the character of the evil Jewish usurer, Shylock. In The Merchant of Venice , Bassanio, a poor nobleman, needs cash in order to court the heiress, Portia.
Bassanio goes to a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, for a loan, bringing his wealthy friend, Antonio, to stand as surety for it. The conflict between Shylock and Antonio incorporates all the elements of the arguments against usury. Antonio, the Christian, lends money and demands no interest. As Shylock describes him:.
He is portrayed as the lowly, angry, vengeful, and greedy Jew. It is clear that Shakespeare understood the issues involved in usury. Antonio, provoking Shylock, says:. As late as , medieval moral and economic theories were alive and well, even if they were increasingly out of step with the economic practice of the time.
During the Enlightenment, the European economy continued to grow, culminating with the Industrial Revolution. This growth involved increased activity in every sector of the economy.
Banking houses were established to provide credit to a wide array of economic endeavors. The Barring Brothers and the House of Rothschild were just the largest of the many banks that would ultimately help fuel the Industrial Revolution, funding railroads, factories, ports, and industry in general. Economic understanding of the important productive role of usury continued to improve over the next four hundred years. Yet, the moral evaluation of usury would change very little.
The morality of altruism—the notion that self-sacrifice is moral and that self-interest is evil—was embraced and defended by many Enlightenment intellectuals and continued to hamper the acceptability of usury. After all, usury is a naked example of the pursuit of profit—which is patently self-interested. Further, it still seemed to the thinkers of the time that usury could be a zero-sum transaction—that a rich lender might profit at the expense of a poor borrower. Even a better conception of usury—let alone the misconception of it being a zero-sum transaction—is anathema to altruism, which demands the opposite of personal profit: In the midth century, northern Europe was home to a new generation of scholars who recognized that usury served an essential economic purpose, and that it should be allowed freely.
Three men made significant contributions in this regard. Other Dutch scholars agreed with him, and, partially as a result of this, Holland became especially tolerant of usury, making it legal at times. He argued that a creditor has the right to dispose of his money in any way he wishes and at whatever rate the market will bear, because it is his property. Turgot was also the first economist to fully understand that the passing of time changes the value of money.
He saw the difference between the present value and the future value of money—concepts that are at the heart of any modern financial analysis. Time, he argued, belongs to the individual who uses it and therefore time could be sold. During the same period, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham — wrote a treatise entitled A Defense of Usury. Since innovative trades inherently involved high risk, they could only be funded at high interest rates. Limits on permissible interest rates, he argued, would kill innovation—the engine of growth.
Correcting another medieval error, Bentham also showed that restrictive usury laws actually harmed the borrowers. Such restrictions cause the credit markets to shrink while demand for credit remains the same or goes up; thus, potential borrowers have to seek loans in an illegal market where they would have to pay a premium for the additional risk of illegal trading.
My neighbours, being at liberty, have happened to concur among themselves in dealing at a certain rate of interest. I, who have money to lend, and Titus, who wants to borrow it of me, would be glad, the one of us to accept, the other to give, an interest somewhat higher than theirs: Why is the liberty they exercise to be made a pretence for depriving me and Titus of ours. An explicitly utilitarian attempt at a moral defense of usury was launched in in the anonymously published Letters on Usury and Interest.
The ultimate reason, the author argued, is one of utility:. Here, then, is a sure and infallible rule to judge of the lawfulness of a practice. Is it useful to the State? Is it beneficial to the individuals that compose it? Either of these is sufficient to obtain a tolerance; but both together vest it with a character of justice and equity. In fact, if we look into the laws of different nations concerning usury, we shall find that they are all formed on the principle of public utility.
In those states where usury was found hurtful to society, it was prohibited. In those where it was neither hurtful nor very beneficial, it was tolerated. In those where it was useful, it was authorized. In ours, it is absolutely necessary. I say in this nation; which, as long as it continues to be a commercial one, must be chiefly supported by interest; for interest is the soul of credit and credit is the soul of commerce.
Although the utilitarian argument in defense of usury contains some economic truth, it is morally bankrupt. Utilitarian moral reasoning for the propriety of usury depends on the perceived benefits of the practice to the collective or the nation. But what happens, for example, when usury in the form of sub-prime mortgage loans creates distress for a significant number of people and financial turmoil in some markets?
How can it be justified? The utilitarian argument collapses in the face of any such economic problem, leaving moneylenders exposed to the wrath of the public and to the whips and chains of politicians seeking a scapegoat for the crisis.
Although Salmasius, Turgot, and Bentham made significant progress in understanding the economic and political value of usury, not all their fellow intellectuals followed suit. The father of economics, Adam Smith — , wrote: Yet, Smith also believed that the government must control the rate of interest.
He believed that unfettered markets would create excessively high interest rates, which would hurt the economy—which, in turn, would harm society. Although Smith was a great innovator in economics, philosophically, he was a follower. He accepted the common philosophical ideas of his time, including altruism, of which utilitarianism is a form. Like Bentham, he justified capitalism only through its social benefits.
If his projections of what would come to pass in a fully free market amounted to a less-than-optimal solution for society, then he advocated government intervention. Government intervention is the logical outcome of any utilitarian defense of usury. Following Bentham and Smith, all significant 19th-century economists—such as David Ricardo, Jean Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill—considered the economic importance of usury to be obvious and argued that interest rates should be determined by freely contracting individuals.
But the moral-practical dichotomy inherent in their altruistic, utilitarian, social justification for usury remained in play, and the practice continued to be morally condemned and thus heavily regulated if not outlawed. Despite their flaws, the thinkers of the Enlightenment had created sufficient economic understanding to fuel the Industrial Revolution throughout the 19th century. Economically and politically, facts and reason had triumphed over faith; a sense of individualism had taken hold; the practicality of the profit motive had become clear; and, relative to eras past, the West was thriving.
Morally and philosophically, however, big trouble was brewing. As capitalism neared a glorious maturity, a new, more consistent brand of altruism, created by Kant, Hegel, and their followers, was sweeping Europe. At the political-economic level, this movement manifested itself in the ideas of Karl Marx — Marx, exploiting the errors of the Classical economists, professed the medieval notion that all production is a result of manual labor; but he also elaborated, claiming that laborers do not retain the wealth they create.
According to Marx, moneylending and other financial activities are not productive, but exploitative; moneylenders exert no effort, do no productive work, and yet reap the rewards of production through usury. What is the profane basis of Judaism? What is the worldly cult of the Jew? What is his worldly god? Money is the jealous god of Israel, beside which no other god may exist. Money abases all the gods of mankind and changes them into commodities. Marx believed that the Jews were evil—not because of their religion, as others were clamoring at the time—but because they pursued their own selfish interests and sought to make money.
And Marxists were not alone in their contempt for these qualities. Artists who, like Marx, resented capitalists in general and moneylenders in particular, dominated Western culture in the 19th century.
And in The Brothers Karamazov , Dostoyevsky writes:. It was known too that the young person had. It was not that she lent money on interest, but it was known, for instance, that she had for some time past, in partnership with old Karamazov, actually invested in the purchase of bad debts for a trifle, a tenth of their nominal value, and afterwards had made out of them ten times their value.
Popular sentiment concerning usury was reverting to a dark-ages type of hatred. Like the Church of the Middle Ages, people found themselves simultaneously condemning the practice and engaging in it.
The concept of moneylending was again split into two allegedly different concepts: This artificial division enabled the wealthier, more powerful, more influential people to freely engage in moneylending with the one hand, while continuing to condemn the practice with the other.
Loans made to lower-risk, higher-income borrowers would be treated as morally acceptable, while those made to higher-risk, lower-income borrowers would remain morally contemptible. From the 19th century onward, in the United States and in most other countries, usury laws would restrict the rates of interest that could be charged on loans, and there would be an ongoing battle between businessmen and legislators over what those rates should be.
These laws, too, are still with us. As Bentham predicted, such laws harm not only lenders but also borrowers, who are driven into the shadows where they procure shady and often illegal loans in order to acquire the capital they need for their endeavors. And given the extra risk posed by potential legal complications for the lenders, these loans are sold at substantially higher interest rates than they would be if moneylending were fully legal and unregulated.
In the United States, demand for high-risk loans has always existed, and entrepreneurs have always arisen to service the demand for funds. They have been scorned, condemned to Hell, assaulted, jailed, and generally treated like the usurers of the Middle Ages—but they have relentlessly supplied the capital that has enabled Americans to achieve unprecedented levels of productiveness and prosperity. The earliest known advertisement for a small-loan service in an American newspaper appeared in the Chicago Tribune in November By , the industry was prospering.
Loans collateralized by furniture, diamonds, warehouse receipts, houses, and pianos were available called chattel loans. The first salary loan office offering loans made in advance of a paycheck was opened by John Mulholland in Kansas City in Within fifteen years he had offices all across the country. Some loans were made at very high rates, occasionally over percent a month.
The reason rates were so high is because of the number of defaults. With high rates in play, the losses on loans in default could ordinarily be absorbed as a cost of doing business. Because of the social stigmatization and legal isolation of the creditors, legal recourse against a defaulting borrower was generally unavailable to a usurer.
Yet these back-alley loans provided a valuable service—one for which there was great demand—and they enabled many people to start their own businesses or improve their lives in other ways.
Of course, whereas most of these borrowers paid off their loans and succeeded in their endeavors, many of them got into financial trouble—and the latter cases, not the former, were widely publicized. The moneylenders were blamed, and restrictions were multiplied and tightened. In spite of all the restrictions, laws, and persecutions, the market found ways to continue.
The effective compound annual interest rate on such a loan was in excess of 18 percent. And penalties would be assessed for any delinquent payments. And, as in the Middle Ages, such lending became common as the demand for capital was widespread. Consequently, these banks multiplied and thrived—for a while. Credit card lenders charge high interest rates to high-risk customers, and penalties for delinquency.
And borrowers use these loans for consumption as well as to start or fund small businesses. To this day, credit card interest rates are restricted by usury laws, and legislation attempting to further restrict these rates is periodically introduced. In , in New York, a moneylender who issued loans to people who could not get them at conventional banks appeared before a court on the charge of usury.
In the decision, the judge wrote:. You are one of the most contemptible usurers in your unspeakable business. The poor people must be protected from such sharks as you, and we must trust that your conviction and sentence will be a notice to you and all your kind that the courts have found a way to put a stop to usury.
Men of your type are a curse to the community, and the money they gain is blood money. This ruling is indicative of the general attitude toward usurers at the time. The moral-practical dichotomy was alive and kicking, and the moneylenders were taking the blows. The most influential economist of the 20th century was John Maynard Keynes — , whose ideas not only shaped the theoretical field of modern economics but also played a major role in shaping government policies in the United States and around the world.
He also agreed with Adam Smith that government must control interest rates; otherwise investment and thus society would suffer. And he revived the old Reformation idea that usury is a necessary evil:. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.
Although Keynes and other economists and intellectuals of the day recognized the need of usury, they universally condemned the practice and its practitioners as foul and unfair. Thus, regardless of widespread recognition of the fact that usury is a boon to the economy, when the Great Depression occurred in the United States, the moneylenders on Wall Street were blamed.