Defence of Usury

Jeremy Bentham, from the Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection
Bentham, Jeremy
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First Pub. Date
London: Payne and Foss
Pub. Date
4th edition. First edition used spelling of 'Impolity' in subtitle.




Crichoff, in White Russia, January 1787.


Among the various species or modifications of liberty, of which on different occasions we have heard so much in England, I do not recollect ever seeing any thing yet offered in behalf of the liberty of making one's own terms in money-bargains. From so general and universal a neglect, it is an old notion of mine, as you well know, that this meek and unassuming species of liberty has been suffering much injustice.


A fancy has taken me, just now, to trouble you with my reasons: which, if you think them capable of answering any good purpose, you may forward to the press: or in the other case, what will give you less trouble, to the fire.


In a word, the proposition I have been accustomed to lay down to myself on this subject is the following one, viz. that no man of ripe years and of sound mind, acting freely, and with his eyes open, ought to be hindered, with a view to his advantage, from making such bargain, in the way of obtaining money, as he thinks fit: nor, (what is a necessary consequence) any body hindered from supplying him, upon any terms he thinks proper to accede to.


This proposition, were it to be received, would level, you see, at one stroke, all the barriers which law, either statute or common, have in their united wisdom set up, either against the crying sin of Usury, or against the hard-named and little-heard-of practice of Champerty; to which we must also add a portion of the multifarious, and as little heard-of offence, of Maintenance.


On this occasion, were it any individual antagonist I had to deal with, my part would be a smooth and easy one. "You, who fetter contracts; you, who lay restraints on the liberty of man, it is for you" (I should say) "to assign a reason for your doing so." That contracts in general ought to be observed, is a rule, the propriety of which, no man was ever yet found wrong-headed enough to deny: if this case is one of the exceptions (for some doubtless there are) which the safety and welfare of every society require should be taken out of that general rule, in this case, as in all those others, it lies upon him, who alledges the necessity of the exception, to produce a reason for it.


This, I say, would be a short and very easy method with an individual: but, as the world has no mouth of its own to plead by, no certain attorney by which it can "come and defend this force and injury," I must even find arguments for it at a venture, and ransack my own imagination for such phantoms as I can find to fight with.


In favour of the restraints opposed to the species of liberty I contend for, I can imagine but five arguments.

1. Prevention of usury.
2. Prevention of prodigality.
3. Protection of indigence against extortion.
4. Repression of the temerity of projectors.
5. Protection of simplicity against imposition.

Of all these in their order.


Reasons for Restraint.—Prevention of Usury.


I will begin with the prevention of usury: because in the sound of the word usury lies, I take it, the main strength of the argument: or, to speak strictly, of what is of more importance than all argument, of the hold which the opinion I am combating has obtained on the imaginations and passions of mankind.


Usury is a bad thing, and as such ought to be prevented: usurers are a bad sort of men, a very bad sort of men, and as such ought to be punished and suppressed. These are among the string of propositions which every man finds handed down to him from his progenitors: which most men are disposed to accede to without examination, and indeed not unnaturally nor even unreasonably disposed, for it is impossible the bulk of mankind should find leisure, had they the ability, to examine into the grounds of an hundredth part of the rules and maxims, which they find themselves obliged to act upon. Very good apology this for John Trot: but a little more inquisitiveness may be required of legislators.


You, my friend, by whom the true force of words is so well understood, have, I am sure, gone before me in perceiving, that to say usury is a thing to be prevented, is neither more nor less than begging the matter in question. I know of but two definitions that can possibly be given of usury: one is, the taking of a greater interest than the law allows of: this may be stiled the political or legal definition. The other is the taking of a greater interest than it is usual for men to give and take: this may be stiled the moral one: and this, where the law has not interfered, is plainly enough the only one. It is plain, that in order for usury to be prohibited by law, a positive description must have been found for it by law, fixing, or rather superseding, the moral one. To say then that usury is a thing that ought to be prevented, is saying neither more nor less, than that the utmost rate of interest which shall be taken ought to be fixed; and that fixation enforced by penalties, or such other means, if any, as may answer the purpose of preventing the breach of it. A law punishing usury supposes, therefore, a law fixing the allowed legal rate of interest: and the propriety of the penal law must depend upon the propriety of the simply-prohibitive, or, if you please, declaratory one.


One thing then is plain; that, antecedently to custom growing from convention, there can be no such thing as usury: for what rate of interest is there that can naturally be more proper than another? what natural fixed price can there be for the use of money more than for the use of any other thing? Were it not then for custom, usury, considered in a moral view, would not then so much as admit of a definition: so far from having existence, it would not so much as be conceivable: nor therefore could the law, in the definition it took upon itself to give of such offence, have so much as a guide to steer by. Custom therefore is the sole basis, which, either the moralist in his rules and precepts, or the legislator in his injunctions, can have to build upon. But what basis can be more weak or unwarrantable, as a ground for coercive measures, than custom resulting from free choice? 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 Titius, 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 Titius of ours?


Nor has blind custom, thus made the sole and arbitrary guide, any thing of steadiness or uniformity in its decisions: it has varied, from age to age, in the same country: it varies, from country to country, in the same age: and the legal rate has varied along with it: and indeed, with regard to times past, it is from the legal rate, more readily than from any other source, that we collect the customary. Among the Romans, till the time of Justinian, we find it as high as 12 per cent.: in England, so late as the time of Hen. VIII, we find it at 10 per cent.: succeeding statutes reduced it to 8, then to 6, and lastly to 5, where it stands at present. Even at present in Ireland it is at 6 per cent.; and in the West-Indies at 8 per cent.; and in Hindostan, where there is no rate limited by law, the lowest customary rate is 10 or 12. At Constantinople, in certain cases, as I have been well informed, thirty per cent. is a common rate. Now, of all these widely different rates, what one is there, that is intrinsically more proper than another? What is it that evidences this propriety in each instance? what but the mutual convenience of the parties, as manifested by their consent? It is convenience then that has produced whatever there has been of custom in the matter: What can there then be in custom, to make it a better guide than the convenience which gave it birth? and what is there in convenience, that should make it a worse guide in one case than in another? It would be convenient to me to give 6 per cent. for money: I wish to do so. "No," (says the law) "you shan't."—Why so? "Because it is not convenient to your neighbour to give above 5 for it." Can any thing be more absurd than such a reason?


Much has not been done, I think, by legislators as yet in the way of fixing the price of other commodities: and, in what little has been done, the probity of the intention has, I believe, in general, been rather more unquestionable than the rectitude of the principle, or the felicity of the result. Putting money out at interest, is exchanging present money for future: but why a policy, which, as applied to exchanges in general, would be generally deemed absurd and mischievous, should be deemed necessary in the instance of this particular kind of exchange, mankind are as yet to learn. For him who takes as much as he can get for the use of any other sort of thing, an house for instance, there is no particular appellation, nor any mark of disrepute: nobody is ashamed of doing so, nor is it usual so much as to profess to do otherwise. Why a man who takes as much as he can get, be it six, or seven, or eight, or ten per cent. for the use of a sum of money should be called usurer, should be loaded with an opprobrious name, any more than if he had bought an house with it, and made a proportionable profit by the house, is more than I can see.


Another thing I would also wish to learn, is, why the legislator should be more anxious to limit the rate of interest one way, than the other? why he should set his face against the owners of that species of property more than of any other? why he should make it his business to prevent their getting more than a certain price for the use of it, rather than to prevent their getting less? why, in short, he should not take means for making it penal to offer less, for example, than 5 per cent. as well as to accept more? Let any one that can, find an answer to these questions; it is more than I can do: I except always the distant and imperceptible advantage, of sinking the price of goods of all kinds; and, in that remote way, multiplying the future enjoyments of individuals. But this was a consideration by far too distant and refined, to have been the original ground for confining the limitation to this side.


Reasons for Restraint.—Prevention of Prodigality.


Having done with sounds, I come gladly to propositions; which, as far as they are true in point of fact, may deserve the name of reasons. And first, as to the efficacy of such restrictive laws with regard to the Prevention of Prodigality.


That prodigality is a bad thing, and that the prevention of it is a proper object for the legislator to propose to himself, so long as he confines himself to, what I look upon as, proper measures, I have no objection to allow, at least for the purpose of the argument; though, were this the principal question, I should look upon it as incumbent on me to place in a fair light the reasons there may be for doubting, how far, with regard to a person arrived at the age of discretion, third persons may be competent judges, which of two pains may be of greater force and value to him, the present pain of restraining his present desires, or the future contingent pain he may be exposed to suffer from the want to which the expence of gratifying these desires may hereafter have reduced him. To prevent our doing mischief to one another, it is but too necessary to put bridles into all our mouths: it is necessary to the tranquillity and very being of society: but that the tacking of leading-strings upon the backs of grown persons, in order to prevent their doing themselves a mischief, is not necessary either to the being or tranquillity of society, however conducive to its well-being, I think cannot be disputed. Such paternal, or, if you please, maternal, care, may be a good work, but it certainly is but a work of supererogation.


For my own part, I must confess, that so long as such methods only are employed, as to me appear proper ones, and such there are, I should not feel myself disinclined to see some measures taken for the restraining of prodigality: but this I can not look upon as being of the number. My reasons I will now endeavour to lay before you.


In the first place, I take it, that it is neither natural nor usual for prodigals, as such, to betake themselves to this method, I mean, that of giving a rate of interest above the ordinary one, to supply their wants.


In the first place, no man, I hope you will allow, prodigal or not prodigal, ever thinks of borrowing money to spend, so long as he has ready money of his own, or effects which he can turn into ready money without loss. And this deduction strikes off what, I suppose, you will look upon as the greatest proportion of the persons subject, at any given time, to the imputation of prodigality.


In the next place, no man, in such a country as Great Britain at least, has occasion, nor is at all likely, to take up money at an extraordinary rate of interest, who has security to give, equal to that upon which money is commonly to be had at the highest ordinary rate. While so many advertise, as are to be seen every day advertising, money to be lent at five per cent. what should possess a man, who has any thing to offer that can be called a security, to give, for example, six per cent. is more than I can conceive.


You may say, perhaps, that a man who wishes to lend his money out upon security, wishes to have his interest punctually, and that without the expence, and hazard, and trouble, and odium of going to law; and that, on this account, it is better to have a sober man to deal with than a prodigal. So far I allow you; but were you to add, that on this account it would be necessary for a prodigal to offer more than another man, there I should disagree with you. In the first place, it is not so easy a thing, nor, I take it, a common thing, for the lender upon security to be able to judge, or even to form any attempt to judge, whether the conduct of one who offers to borrow his money is or is not of such a cast, as to bring him under this description. The question, prodigal or not prodigal, depends upon two pieces of information; neither of which, in general, is very easy to come at: on the one hand, the amount of his means and reasonable expectations; on the other hand, the amount of his expenditure. The goodness or badness of the security is a question of a very different nature: upon this head, every man has a known and ready means of obtaining that sort of information, which is the most satisfactory the nature of things affords, by going to his lawyer. It is accordingly, I take it, on their lawyers opinion, that lenders in general found their determination in these cases, and not upon any calculations they may have formed, concerning the receipt and expenditure of the borrower. But even supposing a man's disposition to prodigality to be ever so well known, there are always enough to be found, to whom such a disposition would be rather an inducement than an objection, so long as they were satisfied with the security. Every body knows the advantage to be made in case of mortgage, by foreclosing or forcing a sale: and that this advantage is not uncommonly looked out for, will, I believe, hardly be doubted by any one, who has had any occasion to observe the course of business in the court of Chancery.


In short, so long as a prodigal has any thing to pledge, or to dispose of, whether in possession, or even in reversion, whether of a certain or even of a contingent nature, I see not, how he can receive the smallest benefit, from any laws that are, or can be made to fix the rate of interest. For, suppose the law to be efficacious as far as it goes, and that the prodigal can find none of those monsters called usurers to deal with him, does he lie quiet? No such thing: he goes on and gets the money he wants, by selling his interest instead of borrowing. He goes on, I say: for if he has prudence enough to stop him any where, he is not that sort of man, whom it can be worth while for the law to attempt stopping by such means. It is plain enough then, that to a prodigal thus circumstanced, the law cannot be of any service; on the contrary, it may, and in many cases must, be of disservice to him, by denying him the option of a resource, which, how disadvantageous soever, could not well have proved more so, but would naturally have proved less so, than those which it leaves still open to him. But of this hereafter.


I now come to the only remaining class of prodigals, viz. those who have nothing that can be called a security to offer. These, I should think, are not more likely to get money upon an extraordinary rate of interest, than an ordinary one. Persons who either feel, or find reasons for pretending to feel, a friendship for the borrower, can not take of him more than the ordinary rate of interest: persons, who have no such motive for lending him, will not lend him at all. If they know him for what he is, that will prevent them of course: and even though they should know nothing of him by any other circumstance, the very circumstance of his not being able to find a friend to trust him at the highest ordinary rate, will be sufficient reason to a stranger for looking upon him as a man, who, in the judgment of his friends, is not likely to pay.


The way that prodigals run into debt, after they have spent their substance, is, I take it, by borrowing of their friends and acquaintance, at ordinary interest, or more commonly at no interest, small sums, such as each man may be content to lose, or be ashamed to ask real security for; and as prodigals have generally an extensive acquaintance (extensive acquaintance being at once the cause and effect of prodigality), the sum total of the money a man may thus find means to squander, may be considerable, though each sum borrowed may, relatively to the circumstances of the lender, have been inconsiderable. This I take to be the race which prodigals, who have spent their all, run at present, under the present system of restraining laws: and this, and no other, I take it, would be the race they would run, were those laws out of the way.


Another consideration there is, I think, which will compleat your conviction, if it was not compleat before, of the inefficacy of these laws, as to the putting any sort of restraint upon prodigality. This is, that there is another set of people from whom prodigals get what they want, and always will get it, so long as credit lasts, in spite of all laws against high interest; and, should they find it necessary, at an expence more than equal to an excess of interest they might otherwise have to give. I mean the tradesmen who deal in the goods they want. Every body knows it is much easier to get goods than money. People trust goods upon much slenderer security than they do money: it is very natural they should do so: ordinary profit of trade upon the whole capital employed in a man's trade, even after the expence of warehouse-rent, journeymen's wages, and other such general charges are taken into the account, and set against it, is at least equal to double interest; say 10 per cent. Ordinary profit upon any particular parcel of goods must therefore be a great deal more, say at least triple interest, 15 per cent.: in the way of trading, then, a man can afford to be at least three times as adventurous, as he can in the way of lending, and with equal prudence. So long, then, as a man is looked upon as one who will pay, he can much easier get the goods he wants, than he could the money to buy them with, though he were content to give for it twice, or even thrice the ordinary rate of interest.


Supposing any body, for the sake of extraordinary gain, to be willing to run the risk of supplying him, although they did not look upon his personal security to be equal to that of another man, and for the sake of the extraordinary profit to run the extraordinary risk; in the trader, in short in every sort of trader whom he was accustomed to deal with in his solvent days, he sees a person who may accept of any rate of profit, without the smallest danger from any laws that are, or can be made against usury. How idle, then, to think of stopping a man from making six, or seven, or eight per cent. interest, when, if he chuses to run a risk proportionable, he may in this way make thirty or forty per cent. or any rate you please. And as to the prodigal, if he cannot get what he wants upon these terms, what chance is there of his getting it upon any terms, supposing the laws against usury to be away? This then is another way, in which, instead of serving, it injures him, by narrowing his option, and driving him from a market which might have proved less disadvantageous, to a more disadvantageous one.


As far as prodigality, then, is concerned, I must confess, I cannot see the use of stopping the current of expenditure in this way at the fosset, when there are so many unpreventable ways of letting it run out at the bung-hole.


Whether any harm is done to society, upon the whole, by letting so much money drop at once out of the pockets of the prodigal, who would have gone on wasting it, into the till of the frugal tradesman, who will lay it up, is not worth the enquiry for the present purpose: what is plain is, that, so far as the saving the prodigal from paying at an extraordinary rate for what he gets to spend, is the object of the law, that object is not at all promoted, by fixing the rate of interest upon money borrowed. On the contrary, if the law has any effect, it runs counter to that object: since, were he to borrow, it would only be, in as far as he could borrow at a rate inferior to that at which otherwise he would be obliged to buy. Preventing his borrowing at an extra rate, may have the effect of increasing his distress, but cannot have the effect of lessening it: allowing his borrowing at such a rate, might have the effect of lessening his distress, but could not have the effect of increasing it.


To put a stop to prodigality, if indeed it be worth while, I know but of one effectual course that can be taken, in addition to the incompleat and insufficient courses at present practicable, and that is, to put the convicted prodigal under an interdict, as was practised formerly among the Romans, and is still practised among the French, and other nations who have taken the Roman law for the ground-work of their own. But to discuss the expediency, or sketch out the details of such an institution, belongs not to the present purpose.


Reasons for Restraint.—Protection of Indigence.


Besides prodigals, there are three other classes of persons, and but three, for whose security I can conceive these restrictive laws to have been designed. I mean the indigent, the rashly enterprizing, and the simple: those whose pecuniary necessities may dispose them to give an interest above the ordinary rate, rather than not have it, and those who, from rashness, may be disposed to venture upon giving such a rate, or from carelessness combined with ignorance, may be disposed to acquiesce in it.


In speaking of these three different classes of persons, I must beg leave to consider one of them at a time: and accordingly, in speaking of the indigent, I must consider indigence in the first place as untinctured with simplicity. On this occasion, I may suppose, and ought to suppose, no particular defect in a man's judgment, or his temper, that should mislead him, more than the ordinary run of men. He knows what is his interest as well as they do, and is as well disposed and able to pursue it as they are.


I have already intimated, what I think is undeniable, that there are no one or two or other limited number of rates of interest, that can be equally suited to the unlimited number of situations, in respect of the degree of exigency, in which a man is liable to find himself: insomuch that to the situation of a man, who by the use of money can make for example 11 per cent., six per cent. is as well adapted, as 5 per cent. is to the situation of him who can make but 10; to that of him who can make 12 per cent., seven and so on. So, in the case of his wanting it to save himself from a loss, (which is that which is most likely to be in view under the name of exigency) if that loss would amount to 11 per cent. 6 per cent. is as well adapted to his situation, as 5 per cent. would be to the situation of him, who had but a loss amounting to ten per cent. to save himself from by the like means. And in any case, though, in proportion to the amount of the loss, the rate of interest were even so great, as that the clear saving should not amount to more than one per cent. or any fraction per cent. yet so long as it amounted to any thing, he would be just so much the better for borrowing, even on such comparatively disadvantageous terms. If, instead of gain, we put any other kind of benefit or advantage—if, instead of loss, we put any other kind of mischief or inconvenience, of equal value, the result will be the same.


A man is in one of these situations, suppose, in which it would be for his advantage to borrow. But his circumstances are such, that it would not be worth any body's while to lend him, at the highest rate which it is proposed the law should allow; in short, he cannot get it at that rate. If he thought he could get it at that rate, most surely he would not give a higher: he may be trusted for that: for by the supposition he has nothing defective in his understanding. But the fact is, he cannot get it at that lower rate. At a higher rate, however, he could get it: and at that rate, though higher, it would be worth his while to get it: so he judges, who has nothing to hinder him from judging right; who has every motive and every means for forming a right judgment; who has every motive and every means for informing himself of the circumstances, upon which rectitude of judgment, in the case in question, depends. The legislator, who knows nothing, nor can know any thing, of any one of all these circumstances, who knows nothing at all about the matter, comes and says to him—"It signifies nothing; you shall not have the money: for it would be doing you a mischief to let you borrow it upon such terms."—And this out of prudence and loving-kindness!—There may be worse cruelty: but can there be greater folly?


The folly of those who persist, as is supposed, without reason, in not taking advice, has been much expatiated upon. But the folly of those who persist, without reason, in forcing their advice upon others, has been but little dwelt upon, though it is, perhaps, the more frequent, and the more flagrant of the two. It is not often that one man is a better judge for another, than that other is for himself, even in cases where the adviser will take the trouble to make himself master of as many of the materials for judging, as are within the reach of the person to be advised. But the legislator is not, can not be, in the possession of any one of these materials.—What private, can be equal to such public folly?


I should now speak of the enterprizing class of borrowers: those, who, when characterized by a single term, are distinguished by the unfavourable appellation of projectors: but in what I shall have to say of them, Dr. Smith, I begin to foresee, will bear so material a part, that when I come to enter upon that subject, I think to take my leave of you, and address myself to him.


Reasons for Restraint.—Protection of Simplicity.


I come, lastly, to the case of the simple. Here, in the first place, I think I am by this time entitled to observe, that no simplicity, short of absolute idiotism, can cause the individual to make a more groundless judgment, than the legislator, who, in the circumstances above stated, should pretend to confine him to any given rate of interest, would have made for him.


Another consideration, equally conclusive, is, that were the legislator's judgment ever so much superior to the individual's, how weak soever that may be, the exertion of it on this occasion can never be any otherwise than useless, so long as there are so many similar occasions, as there ever must be, where the simplicity of the individual is equally likely to make him a sufferer, and on which the legislator cannot interpose with effect, nor has ever so much as thought of interposing.


Buying goods with money, or upon credit, is the business of every day: borrowing money is the business, only, of some particular exigency, which, in comparison, can occur but seldom. Regulating the prices of goods in general would be an endless task, and no legislator has ever been weak enough to think of attempting it. And supposing he were to regulate the prices, what would that signify for the protection of simplicity, unless he were to regulate also the quantum of what each man should buy? Such quantum is indeed regulated, or rather means are taken to prevent buying altogether; but in what cases? In those only where the weakness is adjudged to have arrived at such a pitch, as to render a man utterly unqualified for the management of his affairs: in short, when it has arrived at the length of idiocy.


But in what degree soever a man's weakness may expose him to imposition, he stands much more exposed to it, in the way of buying goods, than in the way of borrowing money. To be informed, beforehand, of the ordinary prices of all the sorts of things, a man may have occasion to buy, may be a task of considerable variety and extent. To be informed of the ordinary rate of interest, is to be informed of one single fact, too interesting not to have attracted attention, and too simple to have escaped the memory. A few per cent. enhancement upon the price of goods, is a matter that may easily enough pass unheeded; but a single per cent. beyond the ordinary interest of money, is a stride more conspicuous and startling, than many per cent. upon the price of any kind of goods.


Even in regard to subjects, which, by their importance would, if any, justify a regulation of their price, such as for instance land, I question whether there ever was an instance where, without some such ground as, on the one side fraud, or suppression of facts necessary to form a judgment of the value, or at least ignorance of such facts, on the other, a bargain was rescinded, merely because a man had sold too cheap, or bought too dear. Were I to take a fancy to give a hundred years purchase instead of thirty, for a piece of land, rather than not have it, I don't think there is any court in England, or indeed any where else, that would interpose to hinder me, much less to punish the seller with the loss of three times the purchase money, as in the case of usury. Yet when I had got my piece of land, and paid my money, repentance, were the law ever so well disposed to assist me, might be unavailing: for the seller might have spent the money, or gone off with it. But, in the case of borrowing money, it is the borrower always, who, according to the indefinite, or short term for which money is lent, is on the safe side: any imprudence he may have committed with regard to the rate of interest, may be corrected at any time: if I find I have given too high an interest to one man, I have no more to do than to borrow of another at a lower rate, and pay off the first: if I cannot find any body to lend me at a lower, there cannot be a more certain proof that the first was not in reality too high. But of this hereafter.

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