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.


Mischiefs of the anti-usurious Laws.


In the preceding letters, I have examined all the modes I can think of, in which the restraints, imposed by the laws against usury, can have been fancied to be of service.


I hope it appears by this time, that there are no ways in which those laws can do any good. But there are several, in which they can not but do mischief.


The first, I shall mention, is that of precluding so many people, altogether, from the getting the money they stand in need of, to answer their respective exigencies. Think what a distress it would produce, were the liberty of borrowing denied to every body: denied to those who have such security to offer, as renders the rate of interest, they have to offer, a sufficient inducement, for a man who has money, to trust them with it. Just that same sort of distress is produced, by denying that liberty to so many people, whose security, though, if they were permitted to add something to that rate, it would be sufficient, is rendered insufficient by their being denied that liberty. Why the misfortune, of not being possessed of that arbitrarily exacted degree of security, should be made a ground for subjecting a man to a hardship, which is not imposed on those who are free from that misfortune, is more than I can see. To discriminate the former class from the latter, I can see but this one circumstance, viz. that their necessity is greater. This it is by the very supposition: for were it not, they could not be, what they are supposed to be, willing to give more to be relieved from it. In this point of view then, the sole tendency of the law is, to heap distress upon distress.


A second mischief is, that of rendering the terms so much the worse, to a multitude of those, whose circumstances exempt them from being precluded altogether from getting the money they have occasion for. In this case, the mischief, though necessarily less intense than in the other, is much more palpable and conspicuous. Those who cannot borrow may get what they want, so long as they have any thing to sell. But while, out of loving-kindness, or whatsoever other motive, the law precludes a man from borrowing, upon terms which he deems too disadvantageous, it does not preclude him from selling, upon any terms, howsoever disadvantageous. Every body knows that forced sales are attended with a loss: and, to this loss, what would be deemed a most extravagant interest bears in general no proportion. When a man's moveables are taken in execution, they are, I believe, pretty well sold, if, after all expences paid, the produce amounts to two thirds of what it would cost to replace them. In this way the providence and loving-kindness of the law costs him 33 per cent. and no more, supposing, what is seldom the case, that no more of the effects are taken than what is barely necessary to make up the money due. If, in her negligence and weakness, she were to suffer him to offer 11 per cent. per annum for forbearance, it would be three years before he paid what he is charged with, in the first instance, by her wisdom.


Such being the kindness done by the law to the owner of moveables, let us see how it fares with him who has an interest in immoveables. Before the late war, 30 years purchase for land might be reckoned, I think it is pretty well agreed, a medium price. During the distress produced by the war, lands, which it was necessary should be sold, were sold at 20, 18, nay, I believe, in some instances, even so low as 15 years purchase. If I do not misrecollect, I remember instances of lands put up to public auction, for which nobody bid so high as fifteen. In many instances, villas, which had been bought before the war, or at the beginning of it, and, in the interval, had been improved rather than impaired, sold for less than half, or even the quarter, of what they had been bought for. I dare not here for my part pretend to be exact: but on this passage, were it worth their notice, Mr. Skinner, or Mr. Christie, could furnish very instructive notes. Twenty years purchase, instead of thirty, I may be allowed to take, at least for illustration. An estate then of 100l. a year, clear of taxes, was devised to a man, charged, suppose, with 1500l. with interest till the money should be paid. Five per cent. interest, the utmost which could be accepted from the owner, did not answer the incumbrancer's purpose: he chose to have the money. But 6 per cent. perhaps, would have answered his purpose, if not, most certainly it would have answered the purpose of somebody else: for multitudes there all along were, whose purposes were answered by five per cent. The war lasted, I think, seven years: the depreciation of the value of land did not take place immediately: but as, on the other hand, neither did it immediately recover its former price upon the peace, if indeed it has even yet recovered it, we may put seven years for the time, during which it would be more advantageous to pay this extraordinary rate of interest than sell the land, and during which, accordingly, this extraordinary rate of interest would have had to run. One per cent. for seven years, is not quite of equal worth to seven per cent. the first year: say, however, that it is. The estate, which before the war was worth thirty years purchase, that is 3000l. and which the devisor had given to the devisee for that value, being put up to sale, fetched but 20 years purchase, 2000l. At the end of that period it would have fetched its original value, 3000l. Compare, then, the situation of the devisee at the 7 years end, under the law, with what it would have been, without the law. In the former case, the land selling for 20 years purchase, i.e. 2000l. what he would have, after paying the 1,500l. is 500l.; which, with the interest of that sum, at 5 per cent. for seven years, viz. 175l. makes, at the end of that seven years, 675l. In the other case, paying 6 per cent. on the 1,500l. that is 90l. a year, and receiving all that time the rent of the land, viz. 100l. he would have had, at the seven years end, the amount of the remaining ten pound during that period, that is 70l. in addition to his 1000.—675l. subtracted from 1,070l. leaves 395l. This 395l. then, is what he loses out of 1,070l., almost 37 per cent. of his capital, by the loving-kindness of the law. Make the calculations, and you will find, that, by preventing him from borrowing the money at 6 per cent. interest, it makes him nearly as much a sufferer as if he had borrowed it at ten.


What I have said hitherto is confined to the case of those who have present value to give, for the money they stand in need of. If they have no such value, then, if they succeed in purchasing assistance upon any terms, it must be in breach of the law; their lenders exposing themselves to its vengeance: for I speak not here of the accidental case, of its being so constructed as to be liable to evasion. But, even in this case, the mischievous influence of the law still pursues them; aggravating the very mischief it pretends to remedy. Though it be inefficacious in the way in which the legislator wishes to see it efficacious, it is efficacious in the way opposite to that in which he would wish to see it so. The effect of it is, to raise the rate of interest, higher than it would be otherwise, and that in two ways. In the first place, a man must, in common prudence, as Dr. Smith observes, make a point of being indemnified, not only for whatsoever extraordinary risk it is that he runs, independently of the law, but for the very risk occasioned by the law: he must be insured, as it were, against the law. This cause would operate, were there even as many persons ready to lend upon the illegal rate, as upon the legal. But this is not the case: a great number of persons are, of course, driven out of this competition by the danger of the business; and another great number, by the disrepute which, under cover of these prohibitory laws or otherwise, has fastened itself upon the name of usurer. So many persons, therefore, being driven out of the trade, it happens in this branch, as it must necessarily in every other, that those who remain have the less to with-hold them from advancing their terms; and without confederating, (for it must be allowed that confederacy in such a case is plainly impossible) each one will find it easier to push his advantage up to any given degree of exorbitancy, than he would, if there were a greater number of persons of the same stamp to resort to.


As to the case, where the law is so worded as to be liable to be evaded, in this case it is partly inefficacious and nugatory, and partly mischievous. It is nugatory, as to all such, whose confidence of its being so is perfect: it is mischievous, as before, in regard to all such who fail of possessing that perfect confidence. If the borrower can find nobody at all who has confidence enough to take advantage of the flaw, he stands precluded from all assistance, as before: and, though he should, yet the lender's terms must necessarily run the higher, in proportion to what his confidence wants of being perfect. It is not likely that it should be perfect: it is still less likely that he should acknowledge it so to be: it is not likely, at least as matters stand in England, that the worst-penned law made for this purpose should be altogether destitute of effect: and while it has any, that effect, we see, must be in one way or other mischievous.


I have already hinted at the disrepute, the ignominy, the reproach, which prejudice, the cause and the effect of these restrictive laws, has heaped upon that perfectly innocent and even meritorious class of men, who, not more for their own advantage than to the relief of the distresses of their neighbour, may have ventured to break through these restraints. It is certainly not a matter of indifference, that a class of persons, who, in every point of view in which their conduct can be placed, whether in relation to their own interest, or in relation to that of the persons whom they have to deal with, as well on the score of prudence, as on that of beneficence, (and of what use is even benevolence, but in as far as it is productive of beneficence?) deserve praise rather than censure, should be classed with the abandoned and profligate, and loaded with a degree of infamy, which is due to those only whose conduct is in its tendency the most opposite to their own.


"This suffering," it may be said, "having already been taken account of, is not to be brought to account a second time: they are aware, as you yourself observe, of this inconvenience, and have taken care to get such amends for it, as they themselves look upon as sufficient." True: but is it sure that the compensation, such as it is, will always, in the event, have proved a sufficient one? Is there no room here for miscalculation? May there not be unexpected, unlooked-for incidents, sufficient to turn into bitterness the utmost satisfaction which the difference of pecuniary emolument could afford? For who can see to the end of that inexhaustible train of consequences that are liable to ensue from the loss of reputation? Who can fathom the abyss of infamy? At any rate, this article of mischief, if not an addition in its quantity to the others above-noticed, is at least distinct from them in its nature, and as such ought not to be overlooked.


Nor is the event of the execution of the law by any means an unexampled one: several such, at different times, have fallen within my notice. Then comes absolute perdition: loss of character, and forfeiture, not of three times the extra-interest, which formed the profit of the offence, but of three times the principal, which gave occasion to it.*1


The last article I have to mention in the account of mischief, is, the corruptive influence, exercised by these laws, on the morals of the people; by the pains they take, and cannot but take, to give birth to treachery and ingratitude. To purchase a possibility of being enforced, the law neither has found, nor, what is very material, must it ever hope to find, in this case, any other expedient, than that of hiring a man to break his engagement, and to crush the hand that has been reached out to help him. In the case of informers in general, there has been no troth plighted, nor benefit received. In the case of real criminals invited by rewards to inform against accomplices, it is by such breach of faith that society is held together, as in other cases by the observance of it. In the case of real crimes, in proportion as their mischievousness is apparent, what can not but be manifest even to the criminal, is, that it is by the adherence to his engagement that he would do an injury to society, and, that by the breach of such engagement, instead of doing mischief he is doing good: in the case of usury this is what no man can know, and what one can scarcely think it possible for any man, who, in the character of the borrower, has been concerned in such a transaction, to imagine. He knew that, even in his own judgment, the engagement was a beneficial one to himself, or he would not have entered into it: and nobody else but the lender is affected by it.

Notes for this chapter

See Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 4to, 1789. Ch. 14. On the proportion between punishments and offences.

End of Notes


Efficacy of anti-usurious laws.


Before I quit altogether the consideration of the case in which a law, made for the purpose of limiting the rate of interest, may be inefficacious with regard to that end, I can not forbear taking some further notice of a passage already alluded to of Dr. Smith's: because, to my apprehension, that passage seems to throw upon the subject a degree of obscurity, which I could wish to see cleared up, in a future edition of that valuable work.


"No law" says he,*2 "can reduce the common rate of interest below the lowest ordinary market rate, at the time when that law was made. Notwithstanding the edict of 1766, by which the French king attempted to reduce the rate of interest from five to four per cent. money continued to be lent in France at five per cent. the law being evaded in several different ways."


As to the general position, if so it be, so much, according to me, the better: but I must confess I do not see why this should be the case. It is for the purpose of proving the truth of this general position, that the fact of the inefficacy of this attempt seems to be adduced: for no other proof is adduced but this. But, taking the fact for granted, I do not see how it can be sufficient to support the inference. The law, we are told at the same time, was evaded: but we are not told how it came to be open to evasion. It might be owing to a particular defect in the penning of that particular law: or, what comes to the same thing, in the provisions made for carrying it into execution. In either case, it affords no support to the general position: nor can that position be a just one, unless it were so in the case where every provision had been made, that could be made, for giving efficacy to the law. For the position to be true, the case must be, that the law would still be broken, even after every means of what can properly be called evasion had been removed. True or untrue, the position is certainly not self-evident enough to be received without proof: yet nothing is adduced in proof of it, but the fact above-noticed, which we see amounts to no such thing. What is more, I should not expect to find it capable of proof. I do not see, what it is, that should render the law incapable of "reducing the common rate of interest below the lowest ordinary market rate," but such a state of things, such a combination of circumstances, as should afford obstacles equally powerful, or nearly so, to the efficacy of the law against all higher rates. For destroying the law's efficacy altogether, I know of nothing that could serve, but a resolution on the part of all persons any way privy not to inform: but by such a resolution any higher rate is just as effectually protected as any lower one. Suppose the resolution, strictly speaking, universal, and the law must in all instances be equally inefficacious; all rates of interest equally free; and the state of men's dealings in this way just what it would be, were there no law at all upon the subject. But in this case, the position, in as far as it limits the inefficacy of the law to those rates which are below the "lowest ordinary market rate," is not true. For my part, I cannot conceive how any such universal resolution could have been maintained, or could ever be maintained, without an open concert, and as open a rebellion against government; nothing of which sort appears to have taken place: and, as to any particular confederacies, they are as capable of protecting any higher rates against the prohibition, as any lower ones.


Thus much indeed must be admitted, that the low rate in question, viz. that which was the lowest ordinary market rate immediately before the making of the law, is likely to come in for the protection of the public against the law, more frequently than any other rate. That must be the case on two accounts: first, because by being of the number of the ordinary rates, it was, by the supposition, more frequent than any extraordinary ones: secondly, because the disrepute annexed to the idea of usury, a force which might have more or less efficacy in excluding, from the protection above spoken of, such extraordinary rates, cannot well be supposed to apply itself, or at least not in equal degree, to this low and ordinary rate. A lender has certainly less to stop him from taking a rate, which may be taken without disrepute, than from taking one, which a man could not take without subjecting himself to that inconvenience: nor is it likely, that men's imaginations and sentiments should testify so sudden an obsequiousness to the law, as to stamp disrepute to-day, upon a rate of interest, to which no such accompaniment had stood annexed the day before.


Were I to be asked how I imagined the case stood in the particular instance referred to by Dr. Smith; judging from his account of it, assisted by general probabilities, I should answer thus;—The law, I should suppose, was not so penned as to be altogether proof against evasion. In many instances, of which it is impossible any account should have been taken, it was indeed conformed to: in some of those instances, people who would have lent otherwise, abstained from lending altogether; in others of those instances, people lent their money at the reduced legal rate. In other instances again, the law was broken: the lenders trusting, partly to expedients recurred to for evading it, partly to the good faith and honour of those whom they had to deal with: in this class of instances it was natural, for the two reasons above suggested, that those where the old legal rate was adhered to, should have been the most numerous. From the circumstance, not only of their number, but of their more direct repugnancy to the particular recent law in question, they would naturally be the most taken notice of. And this, I should suppose, was the foundation in point of fact for the Doctor's general position above-mentioned, that "no law can reduce the common rate of interest below the lowest ordinary market rate, at the time when that law was made."


In England, as far as I can trust my judgment and imperfect general recollection of the purport of the laws relative to this matter, I should not suppose that the above position would prove true. That there is no such thing as any palpable and universally-notorious, as well as universally-practicable receipt for that purpose, is manifest from the examples which, as I have already mentioned, every now and then occur, of convictions upon these statutes. Two such receipts, indeed, I shall have occasion to touch upon presently: but they are either not obvious enough in their nature, or too troublesome or not extensive enough in their application, to have despoiled the law altogether of its terrors or of its preventive efficacy.


In the country in which I am writing, the whole system of laws on this subject is perfectly, and very happily, inefficacious. The rate fixed by law is 5 per cent.: many people lend money; and nobody at that rate: the lowest ordinary rate, upon the very best real security, is 8 per cent.; 9, and even 10, upon such security, are common. Six or seven may have place, now and then, between relations or other particular friends: because, now and then, a man may choose to make a present of one or two per cent. to a person whom he means to favour. The contract is renewed from year to year: for a thousand roubles, the borrower, in his written contract, obliges himself to pay at the end of the year one thousand and fifty. Before witnesses, he receives his thousand roubles: and, without witnesses, he immediately pays back his 30 roubles, or his 40 roubles, or whatever the sum may be, that is necessary to bring the real rate of interest to the rate verbally agreed on.


This contrivance, I take it, would not do in England: but why it would not, is a question which it would be in vain for me to pretend, at this distance from all authorities, to discuss.

Notes for this chapter

B. ii, c. 10, vol. ii, p. 45, edit. 8vo. 1784.

End of Notes

10 of 15


Virtual Usury allowed.


Having proved, as I hope, by this time, the utter impropriety of the law's limiting the rate of interest, in every case that can be conceived, it may be rather matter of curiosity, than any thing else, to enquire, how far the law, on this head, is consistent with itself, and with any principles upon which it can have built.


1. Drawing and re-drawing is a practice, which it will be sufficient here to hint at. It is perfectly well known to all merchants, and may be so to all who are not merchants, by consulting Dr. Smith. In this way, he has shewn how money may be, and has been, taken up, at so high a rate, as 13 or 14 per cent. a rate nearly three times as high as the utmost which the law professes to allow. The extra interest is in this case masked under the names of commission, and price of exchange. The commission is but small upon each loan, not more, I think, than ½ per cent.: custom having stretched so far but no farther, it might be thought dangerous, perhaps, to venture upon any higher allowance under that name. The charge, being repeated a number of times in the course of the year, makes up in frequency what it wants in weight. The transaction is by this shift rendered more troublesome, indeed, but not less practicable, to such parties as are agreed about it. But if usury is good for merchants, I don't very well see what should make it bad for every body else.


2. At this distance from all the mountains of legal knowledge, I will not pretend to say, whether the practice of selling accepted bills at an under value, would hold good against all attacks. It strikes my recollection as a pretty common one, and I think it could not be brought under any of the penal statutes against usury. The adequateness of the consideration might, for aught I know, be attacked with success, in a court of equity; or, perhaps, if there were sufficient evidence (which the agreement of the parties might easily prevent) by an action at common law, for money had and received. If the practice be really proof against all attacks, it seems to afford an effectual, and pretty commodious method of evading the restrictive laws. The only restraint is, that it requires the assistance of a third person, a friend of the borrower's; as for instance: B, the real borrower, wants 100l. and finds U, a usurer, who is willing to lend it to him, at 10 per cent. B has F, a friend, who has not the money himself to lend him, but is willing to stand security for him, to that amount. B therefore draws upon F, and F accepts, a bill of 100l. at 5 per cent. interest, payable at the end of a twelvemonth from the date. F draws a like bill upon B: each sells his bill to U for fifty pound; and it is indorsed to U accordingly. The 50l. that F receives, he delivers over without any consideration to B This transaction, if it be a valid one, and if a man can find such a friend, is evidently much less troublesome than the practice of drawing and re-drawing. And this, if it be practicable at all, may be practised by persons of any description, concerned or not in trade. Should the effect of this page be to suggest an expedient, and that a safe and commodious one, for evading the laws against usury, to some, to whom such an expedient might not otherwise have occurred, it will not lie very heavy upon my conscience. The prayers of usurers, whatever efficacy they may have in lightening the burthen, I hope I may lay some claim to. And I think you will not now wonder at my saying, that in the efficacy of such prayers I have not a whit less confidence, than in that of the prayers of any other class of men.


One apology I shall have to plead at any rate, that in pointing out these flaws, to the individual who may be disposed to creep out at them, I point them out at the same time to the legislator, in whose power it is to stop them up, if in his opinion they require it. If, notwithstanding such opinion, he should omit to do so, the blame will lie, not on my industry, but on his negligence.


These, it may be said, should they even be secure and effectual evasions, are still but evasions, and, if chargeable upon the law at all, are chargeable not as inconsistencies but as oversights. Be it so. Setting these aside, then, as expedients practised or practicable, only behind its back, I will beg leave to remind you of two others, practised from the day of its birth, under its protection and before its face.


The first I shall mention is pawnbroking. In this case there is the less pretence for more than ordinary interest, inasmuch as the security is, in this case, not only equal to, but better than, what it can be in any other: to wit, the present possession of a moveable thing, of easy sale, on which the creditor has the power, and certainly does not want the inclination, to set such price as is most for his advantage. If there be a case in which the allowing of such extraordinary interest is attended with more danger than another, it must be this: which is so particularly adapted to the situation of the lowest poor, that is, of those who, on the score of indigence or simplicity, or both, are most open to imposition. This trade however the law, by regulating, avowedly protects. What the rate of interest is, which it allows to be taken in this way, I can not take upon me to remember: but I am much deceived, if it amounts to less than 12 per cent. in the year, and I believe it amounts to a good deal more. Whether it were 12 per cent. or 1200, I believe would make in practice but little difference. What commission is in the business of drawing and re-drawing, warehouse-room is, in that of pawnbroking. Whatever limits then are set to the profits of this trade, are set, I take it, not by the vigilancy of the law, but, as in the case of other trades, by the competition amongst the traders. Of the other regulations contained in the acts relative to this subject, I recollect no reason to doubt the use.


The other instance is that of bottomry and respondentia: for the two transactions, being so nearly related, may be spoken of together. Bottomry is the usury of pawnbroking: respondentia is usury at large, but combined in a manner with insurance, and employed in the assistance of a trade carried on by sea. If any species of usury is to be condemned, I see not on what grounds this particular species can be screened from the condemnation. "Oh but" (says sir William Blackstone, or any body else who takes upon himself the task of finding a reason for the law) "this is a maritime country, and the trade, which it carries on by sea, is the great bulwark of its defence." It is not necessary I should here enquire, whether that branch, which, as Dr. Smith has shewn, is, in every view but the mere one of defence, less beneficial to a nation, than two others out of the four branches which comprehend all trade, has any claim to be preferred to them in this or any other way. I admit, that the liberty which this branch of trade enjoys, is no more than what it is perfectly right it should enjoy. What I want to know is, what there is in the class of men, embarked in this trade, that should render beneficial to them, a liberty, which would be ruinous to every body else. Is it that sea adventures have less hazard on them than land adventures? or that the sea teaches those, who have to deal with it, a degree of forecast and rejection which has been denied to land men?


It were easy enough to give farther and farther extension to this charge of inconsistency, by bringing under it the liberty given to insurance in all its branches, to the purchase and sale of annuities, and of post-obits, in a word to all cases where a man is permitted to take upon himself an unlimited degree of risk, receiving for so doing an unlimited compensation. Indeed I know not where the want of instances would stop me: for in what part of the magazine of events, about which human transactions are conversant, is certainty to be found? But to this head of argument, this argument ad hominem, as it may be called, the use of which is but subsidiary, and which has more of confutation in it than of persuasion or instruction, I willingly put an end.

11 of 15


Blackstone considered.


I hope you are, by this time, at least, pretty much of my opinion, that there is just the same sort of harm, and no other, in making the best terms one can for one's self in a money loan, as there is in any other sort of bargain. If you are not, Blackstone however is, whose opinion I hope you will allow to be worth something. In speaking of the rate of interest,*3 he starts a parallel between a bargain for the loan of money, and a bargain about a horse, and pronounces, without hesitation, that the harm of making too good a bargain, is just as great in the one case, as in the other. As money-lending, and not horse-dealing, was, what you lawyers call, the principal case, he drops the horse-business, as soon as it has answered the purpose of illustration, which it was brought to serve. But as, in my conception, as well the reasoning by which he supports the decision, as that by which any body else could have supported it, is just as applicable to the one sort of bargain as to the other, I will carry on the parallel a little farther, and give the same extent to the reasoning, as to the position which it is made use of to support. This extension will not be without its use; for if the position, when thus extended, should be found just, a practical inference will arise; which is, that the benefits of these restraints ought to be extended from the money-trade to the horse-trade. That my own opinion is not favourable to such restraints in either case, has been sufficiently declared; but if more respectable opinions than mine are still to prevail, they will not be the less respectable for being consistent.


The sort of bargain which the learned commentator has happened to pitch upon for the illustration, is indeed, in the case illustrating, as in the case illustrated, a loan: but as, to my apprehension, loan or sale makes, in point of reasoning, no sort of difference, and as the utility of the conclusion will, in the latter case, be more extensive. I shall adapt the reasoning to the more important business of selling horses, instead of the less important one of lending them.


A circumstance, that would render the extension of these restraints to the horse-trade more smooth and easy, is, that in the one track, as well as in the other, the public has already got the length of calling names. Jockey-ship, a term of reproach not less frequently applied to the arts of those who sell horses than to the arts of those who ride them, sounds, I take it, to the ear of many a worthy gentleman, nearly as bad as usury: and it is well known to all those who put their trust in proverbs, and not less to those who put their trust in party, that when we have got a dog to hang, who is troublesome and keeps us at bay, whoever can contrive to fasten a bad name to his tail, has gained more than half the battle. I now proceed with my application. The words in italics are my own: all the rest are Sir William Blackstone's: and I restore, at bottom, the words I was obliged to discard, in order to make room for mine.


"To demand an exorbitant price is equally contrary to conscience, for the loan of a horse, or for the loan of a sum of money: but a reasonable equivalent for the temporary inconvenience, which the owner may feel by the want of it, and for the hazard of his losing it entirely, is not more immoral in one case than in the other....


"As to selling horses, a capital distinction must be made, between a moderate and an exorbitant profit: to the former of which we give the name of horse-dealing,*4 to the latter the truly odious appellation of jockey-ship:*5 the former is necessary in every civil state, if it were but to exclude the latter. For, as the whole of this matter is well summed up by Grotius, if the compensation allowed by law does not exceed the proportion of the inconvenience which it is to the seller of the horse to part with it,*6 or the want which the buyer has of it,*7 its allowance is neither repugnant to the revealed law, nor to the natural law: but if it exceeds these bounds, it is then an oppressive jockey-ship:*8 and though the municipal laws may give it impunity, they never can make it just.


"We see, that the exorbitance or moderation of the price given for a horse*9 depends upon two circumstances: upon the inconvenience of parting with the horse one has,*10 and the hazard of not being able to meet with such another.*11 The inconvenience to individual sellers of horses,*12 can never be estimated by laws; the general price for horses*13 must depend therefore upon the usual or general inconvenience. This results entirely from the quantity of horses*14 in the kingdom: for the more horses*15 there are running about*16 in any nation, the greater superfluity there will be beyond what is necessary to carry on the business of the mail coaches*17 and the common concerns of life. In every nation or public community there is a certain quantity of horses*18 then necessary, which a person well skilled in political arithmetic might perhaps calculate as exactly as a private horse-dealer*19 can the demand for running horses in his own stables:*20 all above this necessary quantity may be spared, or lent, or sold, without much inconvenience to the respective lenders or sellers: and the greater the national superfluity is, the more numerous will be the sellers,*21 and the lower ought the national price of horseflesh*22 to be: but where there are not enough, or barely enough spare horses*23 to answer the ordinary uses of the public, horse-flesh*24 will be proportionably high: for sellers*25 will be but few, as few can submit to the inconvenience of selling."*26—So far the learned commentator.


I hope by this time you are worked up to a proper pitch of indignation, at the neglect and inconsistency betrayed by the law, in not suppressing this species of jockey-ship, which it would be so easy to do, only by fixing the price of horses. Nobody is less disposed than I am to be uncharitable: but when one thinks of the 1500l. taken for Eclipse, and 2000l. for Rockingham, and so on, who can avoid being shocked, to think how little regard those who took such enormous prices must have had for "the law of revelation and the law of nature?" Whoever it is that is to move for the municipal law, not long ago talked of, for reducing the rate of interest, whenever that motion is made, then would be the rime for one of the Yorkshire members to get up, and move, by way of addition, for a clause for fixing and reducing the price of horses. I need not expatiate on the usefulness of that valuable species of cattle, which might have been as cheap as asses before now, if our lawgivers had been as mindful of their duty in the suppression of jockey-ship, as they have been in the suppression of usury.


It may be said, against fixing the price of horse-flesh, that different horses may be of different values. I answer—and I think I shall shew you as much, when I come to touch upon the subject of champerty—not more different than the values which the use of the same sum of money may be of to different persons, on different occasions.

Notes for this chapter

B. ii, ch. 30.
hazard run.
felt by the loan.
interest for the money lent.
it for the present.
losing it entirely.
rate of general interest.
cash in his own shop.
the rate of the national interest.
circulating cash.

End of Notes

12 of 15


Grounds of the Prejudices against Usury.


It is one thing, to find reasons why it is fit a law should have been made: it is another to find the reasons why it was made: in other words, it is one thing to justify a law: it is another thing to account for its existence. In the present instance, the former task, if the observations I have been troubling you with are just, is an impossible one. The other, though not necessary for conviction, may contribute something perhaps in the way of satisfaction. To trace an error to its fountain head, says Lord Coke, is to refute it; and many men there are who, till they have received this satisfaction, be the error what it may, cannot prevail upon themselves to part with it. "If our ancestors have been all along under a mistake, how came they to have fallen into it?" is a question that naturally presents itself upon all such occasions. The case is, that in matters of law more especially, such is the dominion of authority over our minds, and such the prejudice it creates in favour of whatever institution it has taken under its wing, that, after all manner of reasons that can be thought of, in favour of the institution, have been shewn to be insufficient, we still cannot forbear looking to some unassignable and latent reason for its efficient cause. But if, instead of any such reason, we can find a cause for it in some notion, of the erroneousness of which we are already satisfied, then at last we are content to give it up without further struggle; and then, and not till then, our satisfaction is compleat.


In the conceptions of the more considerable part of those through whom our religion has been handed down to us, virtue, or rather godliness, which was an improved substitute for virtue, consisted in self-denial: not in self-denial for the sake of society, but of self-denial for its own sake. One pretty general rule served for most occasions: not to do what you had a mind to do; or, in other words, not to do what would be for your advantage. By this of course was meant temporal advantage: to which spiritual advantage was understood to be in constant and diametrical opposition. For, the proof of a resolution, on the part of a being of perfect power and benevolence, to make his few favourites happy in a state in which they were to be, was his determined pleasure, that they should keep themselves as much strangers to happiness as possible, in the state in which they were. Now to get money is what most men have a mind to do: because he who has money gets, as far as it goes, most other things that he has a mind for. Of course nobody was to get money: indeed why should he, when he was not so much as to keep what he had got already? To lend money at interest, is to get money, or at least to try to get it: of course it was a bad thing to lend money upon such terms. The better the terms, the worse it was to lend upon them: but it was bad to lend upon any terms, by which any thing could be got. What made it much the worse was, that it was acting like a Jew: for though all Christians at first were Jews, and continued to do as Jews did, after they had become Christians, yet, in process of time, it came to be discovered, that the distance between the mother and the daughter church could not be too wide.


By degrees, as old conceits gave place to new, nature so far prevailed, that the objections to getting money in general, were pretty well over-ruled: but still this Jewish way of getting it, was too odious to be endured. Christians were too intent upon plaguing Jews, to listen to the suggestion of doing as Jews did, even though money were to be got by it. Indeed the easier method, and a method pretty much in vogue, was, to let the Jews get the money any how they could, and then squeeze it out of them as it was wanted.


In process of time, as questions of all sorts came under discussion, and this, not the least interesting, among the rest, the anti-Jewish side of it found no unopportune support in a passage of Aristotle: that celebrated heathen, who, in all matters wherein heathenism did not destroy his competence, had established a despotic empire over the Christian world. As fate would have it, that great philosopher, with all his industry, and all his penetration, notwithstanding the great number of pieces of money that had passed through his hands (more perhaps than ever passed through the hands of philosopher before or since), and notwithstanding the uncommon pains he had bestowed on the subject of generation, had never been able to discover, in any one piece of money, any organs for generating any other such piece. Emboldened by so strong a body of negative proof, he ventured at last to usher into the world the result of his observations, in the form of an universal proposition, that all money is in its nature barren. You, my friend, to whose cast of mind sound reason is much more congenial than ancient philosophy, you have, I dare to say, gone before me in remarking, that the practical inference from this shrewd observation, if it afforded any, should have been, that it would be to no purpose for a man to try to get five per cent. out of money—not, that if he could contrive to get so much, there would be any harm in it. But the sages of those days did not view the matter in that light.


A consideration that did not happen to present itself to that great philosopher, but which had it happened to present itself, might not have been altogether unworthy of his notice, is, that though a daric would not beget another daric, any more than it would a ram, or an ewe, yet for a daric which a man borrowed, he might get a ram and a couple of ewes, and that the ewes, were the ram left with them a certain time, would probably not be barren. That then, at the end of the year, he would find himself master of his three sheep, together with two, if not three, lambs; and that, if he sold his sheep again to pay back his daric, and gave one of his lambs for the use of it in the mean time, he would be two lambs, or at least one lamb, richer than if he had made no such bargain.


These theological and philosophical conceits, the offspring of the day, were not ill seconded by principles of a more permanent complexion.


The business of a money-lender, though only among Christians, and in Christian times, a proscribed profession, has no where, nor at any time, been a popular one. Those who have the resolution to sacrifice the present to future, are natural objects of envy to those who have sacrificed the future to the present. The children who have eat their cake are the natural enemies of the children who have theirs. While the money is hoped for, and for a short time after it has been received, he who lends it is a friend and benefactor: by the time the money is spent, and the evil hour of reckoning is come, the benefactor is found to have changed his nature, and to have put on the tyrant and the oppressor. It is an oppression for a man to reclaim his own money: it is none to keep it from him. Among the inconsiderate, that is among the great mass of mankind, selfish affections conspire with the social in treasuring up all favour for the man of dissipation, and in refusing justice to the man of thrift who has supplied him. In some shape or other that favour attends the chosen object of it, through every stage of his career. But, in no stage of his career, can the man of thrift come in for any share of it. It is the general interest of those with whom a man lives, that his expence should be at least as great as his circumstances will bear, because there are few expences which a man can launch into, but what the benefit of it is shared, in some proportion or other, by those with whom he lives. In that circle originates a standing law, forbidding every man, on pain of infamy, to confine his expences within what is adjudged to be the measure of his means, saving always the power of exceeding that limit, as much as he thinks proper: and the means assigned him by that law may be ever so much beyond his real means, but are sure never to fall short of them. So close is the combination thus formed between the idea of merit and the idea of expenditure, that a disposition to spend finds favour in the eyes even of those who know that a man's circumstances do not entitle him to the means: and an upstart, whose chief recommendation is this disposition, shall find himself to have purchased a permanent fund of respect, to the prejudice of the very persons at whose expence he has been gratifying his appetites and his pride. The lustre, which the display of borrowed wealth has diffused over his character, awes men, during the season of his prosperity, into a submission to his insolence: and when the hand of adversity has overtaken him at last, the recollection of the height, from which he has fallen, throw the veil of compassion over his injustice.


The condition of the man of thrift is the reverse. His lasting opulence procures him a share, at least, of the same envy, that attends the prodigal's transient display: but the use he makes of it procures him no part of the favour which attends the prodigal. In the satisfactions he derives from that use, the pleasure of possession, and the idea of enjoying, at some distant period, which may never arrive, nobody comes in for any share. In the midst of his opulence he is regarded as a kind of insolvent, who refuses to honour the bills, which their rapacity would draw upon him, and who is by so much the more criminal than other insolvents, as not having the plea of inability for an excuse.


Could there be any doubt of the disfavour which attends the cause of the money-lender, in his competition with the borrower, and of the disposition of the public judgment to sacrifice the interest of the former to that of the latter, the stage would afford a compendious, but a pretty conclusive proof of it. It is the business of the dramatist to study, and to conform to, the humours and passions of those, on the pleasing of whom he depends for his success: it is the course which reflection must suggest to every man, and which a man would naturally fall into, though he were not to think about it. He may, and very frequently does, make magnificent pretences, of giving the law to them: but wo be to him that attempts to give them any other law than what they are disposed already to receive. If he would attempt to lead them one inch, it must be with great caution, and not without suffering himself to be led by them at least a dozen. Now, I question, whether, among all the instances in which a borrower and a lender of money have been brought together upon the stage, from the days of Thespis to the present, there ever was one, in which the former was not recommended to favour in some shape or other, either to admiration, or to love, or to pity, or to all three; and the other, the man of thrift, consigned to infamy.


Hence it is that, in reviewing and adjusting the interests of these apparently rival parties, the advantage made by the borrower is so apt to slip out of sight, and that made by the lender to appear in so exaggerated a point of view. Hence it is, that though prejudice is so far softened as to acquiesce in the lender's making some advantage, lest the borrower should lose altogether the benefit of his assistance, yet still the borrower is to have all the favour, and the lender's advantage is for ever to be clipped, and pared down, as low as it will bear. First it was to be confined to ten per cent., then to eight, then to six, then to five, and now lately there was a report of its being to be brought down to four; with constant liberty to sink as much lower as it would. The burthen of these restraints, of course, has been intended exclusively for the lender: in reality, as I think you have seen, it presses much more heavily upon the borrower: I mean him who either becomes or in vain wishes to become so. But the presents directed by prejudice, Dr. Smith will tell us, are not always delivered according to their address. It was thus that the mill-stone designed for the necks of those vermin, as they have been called, the dealers in corn, was found to fall upon the heads of the consumers. It is thus—but further examples would lead me further from the purpose.

13 of 15


Compound Interest.


A word or two I must trouble you with, concerning compound interest; for compound interest is discountenanced by the law. I suppose, as a sort of usury. That, without an express stipulation, the law never gives it, I well remember: whether, in case. of an express stipulation, the law allows it to be taken, I am not absolutely certain. I should suppose it might: remembering covenants in mortgages that interest should become principal. At any rate, I think the law cannot well punish it under the name of usury.


If the discountenance shewn to this arrangement be grounded on the horror of the sin of usury, the impropriety of such discountenance follows of course, from the arguments which shew the un-"sinfulness of that sin."


Other argument against it, I believe, was never attempted, unless it were the giving to such an arrangement the epithet of a hard one: in doing which, something more like a reason is given, than one gets in ordinary from the common law.


If that consistency were to be found in the common law, which has never yet been found in man's conduct, and which perhaps is hardly in man's nature, compound interest never could have been denied.


The views which suggested this denial, were, I dare to say, very good: the effects of it are, I am certain, very pernicious.


If the borrower pays the interest at the day, if he performs his engagement, that very engagement to which the law pretends to oblige him to conform, the lender, who receives that interest, makes compound interest of course, by lending it out again, unless he chooses rather to expend it: he expects to receive it at the day, or what meant the engagement? If he fails of receiving it, he is by so much a loser. The borrower, by paying it at the day, is no loser: if he does not pay it at the day, he is by so much a gainer: a pain of disappointment takes place in the case of the one, while no such pain takes place in the case of the other. The cause of him whose contention is to catch a gain, is thus preferred to that of him whose contention is to avoid a loss: contrary to the reasonable and useful maxim of that branch of the common law which has acquired the name of equity. The gain, which the law in its tenderness thus bestows on the defaulter, is an encouragement, a reward, which it holds out for breach of faith, for iniquity, for indolence, for negligence.


The loss, which it thus throws upon the forbearing lender, is a punishment which it inflicts on him for his forbearance: the power which it gives him of avoiding that loss, by prosecuting the borrower upon the instant of failure, is thus converted into a reward which it holds out to him for his hard-heartedness and rigour. Man is not quite so good as it were to be wished he were; but he would be bad indeed, were he bad on all the occasions where the law, as far as depends on her, has made it his interest so to be.


It may be impossible, say you, it often is impossible, for the borrower to pay the interest at the day: and you say truly. What is the inference? That the creditor should not have it in his power to ruin the debtor for not paying at the day, and that he should receive a compensation for the loss occasioned by such failure.—He has it in his power to ruin him, and he has it not in his power to obtain such compensation. The judge, were it possible for a arrested debtor to find his way into a judge's chamber instead of a spunging-house, might award a proper respite, suited to the circumstances of the parties. It is not possible: but a respite is purchased, proper or not proper, perhaps at ten times, perhaps at a hundred times the expence of compound interest, by putting in bail, and fighting the creditor through all the windings of mischievous and unnecessary delay. Of the satisfaction due either for the original failure, or for the subsequent vexation by which it has been aggravated, no part is ever received by the injured creditor: but the instruments of the law receive, perhaps at his expence, perhaps at the debtor's, perhaps ten times, perhaps a hundred times the amount of that satisfaction. Such is the result of this tenderness of the law.


It is in consequence of such tenderness that on so many occasions a man, though ever so able, would find himself a loser by paying his just debts: those very debts of which. the law has recognized the justice. The man who obeys the dictates of common honesty, the man who does what the law pretends to bid him, is wanting to himself. Hence your regular and securely profitable writs of error in the house of lords: hence your random and vindictive costs of one hundred pounds, and two hundred pounds, now and then given in that house. It is natural, and it is something, to find, in a company of lords, a zeal for justice: it is not natural, to find, in such a company, a disposition to bend down to the toil of calculation.

14 of 15


Maintenance and Champerty.


Having in the preceding letters had occasion to lay down, and, as I flatter myself, to make good, the general principle, that no man of ripe years, and of sound mind, ought, out of loving kindness to him, to be hindered from making such bargain, in the way of obtaining money, as, acting with his eyes open, he deems conducive to his interest, I will take your leave for pushing it a little farther, and extending the application of it to another class of regulations still less defensible. I mean the antique laws against what are called Maintenance and Champerty.


To the head of Maintenance, I think you refer, besides other offences which are not to the present purpose, that of purchasing, upon any terms, any claim, which it requires a suit at law, or in equity, to enforce.


Champerty, which is but a particular modification of this sin of Maintenance, is, I think, the furnishing a man who has such a claim, with regard to a real estate, such money as he may have occasion for, to carry on such claim, upon the terms of receiving a part of the estate in case of success.


What the penalties are for these offences I do not recollect, nor do I think it worth while hunting for them, though I have Blackstone at my elbow. They are, at any rate, sufficiently severe to answer the purpose, the rather as the bargain is made void.


To illustrate the mischievousness of the laws by which they have been created, give me leave to tell you a story, which is but too true an one, and which happened to fall within my own observation.


A gentleman of my acquaintance had succeeded, during his minority, to an estate of about 3,000l. a year; I won't say where. His guardian, concealing from him the value of the estate, which circumstances rendered it easy for him to do, got a conveyance of it from him, during his nonage, for a trifle. Immediately upon the ward's coming of age, the guardian, keeping him still in darkness, found means to get the conveyance confirmed. Some years afterwards, the ward discovered the value of the inheritance he had been throwing away. Private representations proving, as it may be imagined, ineffectual, he applied to a court of equity. The suit was in some forwardness: the opinion of the ablest counsel highly encouraging: but money there remained none. We all know but too well, that, in spite of the unimpeachable integrity of the bench, that branch of justice, which is particularly dignified with the name of equity, is only for those who can afford to throw away one fortune for the chance of recovering another. Two persons, however, were found, who, between them, were content to defray the expence of the ticket for this lottery, on condition of receiving half the prize. The prospect now became encouraging: when unfortunately one of the adventurers, in exploring the recesses of the bottomless pit, happened to dig up one of the old statutes against Champerty. This blew up the whole project: however the defendant, understanding that, some how or other, his antagonist had found support, had thought fit in the mean time to propose terms, which the plaintiff, after his support had thus dropped from under him, was very glad to close with. He received, I think it was, 3000l.: and for that he gave up the estate, which was worth about as much yearly, together with the arrears, which were worth about as much as the estate.


Whether, in the barbarous age which gave birth to these barbarous precautions, whether, even under the zenith of feudal anarchy, such fettering regulations could have had reason on their side, is a question of curiosity rather than use. My notion is, that there never was a time, that there never could have been, or can be a time, when the pushing of suitors away from court with one hand, while they are beckoned into. it with another, would not be a policy equally faithless, inconsistent, and absurd. But, what every body must acknowledge, is, that, to the times which called forth these laws, and in which alone they could have started up, the present are as opposite as light to darkness. A mischief, in those times, it seems, but too common, though a mischief not to be cured by such laws, was, that a man would buy a weak claim, in hopes that power. might convert it into a strong one, and that the sword of a baron, stalking into court with a rabble of retainers at his heels, might strike terror into the eyes of a judge upon the bench. At present, what cares an English judge for the swords of an hundred barons?—Neither fearing nor hoping, hating nor loving, the judge of our days is ready with equal phlegm to administer, upon all occasions, that system, whatever it be, of justice, or injustice, which the law has put into his hands. A disposition so consonant to duty could not have then been hoped for: one more consonant is hardly to be wished. Wealth has indeed the monopoly of justice against poverty: and such monopoly it is the direct tendency and necessary effect of regulations like these to strengthen and confirm. But with this monopoly no judge that lives now is at all chargeable. The law created this monopoly: the law, whenever it pleases, may dissolve it.


I will not however so far wander from my subject as to enquire what measure might have been necessary to afford a full relief to the case of that unfortunate gentleman, any more than to the cases of so many other gentlemen who might be found, as unfortunate as he. I will not insist upon so strange and so inconceivable an arrangement, as that of the judge's seeing both parties face to face in the first instance, observing what the facts are in dispute, and declaring, that as the facts should turn out this way or that way, such or such would be his decree. At present, I confine myself to the removal of such part of the mischief, as may arise from the general conceit of keeping men out of difficulties, by cutting them off from such means of relief as each man's situation may afford. A spunge in this, as in so many other cases, is the only needful, and only availing remedy: one stroke of it for the musty laws against maintenance and champerty: another for the more recent ones against usury. Consider, for example, what would have respectively been the effect of two such strokes, in the case of the unfortunate gentleman I have been speaking of. By the first, if what is called equity has any claim to confidence, he would have got, even after paying off his champerty-usurers, 1500l. a year in land, and about as much in money: instead of getting, and that only by an accident, 3000l. once told. By the other, there is no saving to what a degree he might have been benefited. May I be allowed to stretch so far in favour of the law as to suppose, that so small a sum as 500l. would have carried him through his suit, in the course of about three years? I am sensible, that may be thought but a short sum, and this but a short term, for a suit in equity: but, for the purpose of illustration, it may serve as well as a longer. Suppose he had sought this necessary sum in the way of borrowing; and had been so fortunate, or, as the laws against the sin of usury would stile it, so unfortunate, as to get it at 200 per cent. He would then have purchased his 6000l. a year at the price of half as much once paid, viz. 3000l.; instead of selling it at that price. Whether, if no such laws against usury had been in being, he could have got the money, even at that rate, I will not pretend to say: perhaps he might not have got it under ten times that rate, perhaps he might have got it at the tenth part of that rate. Thus far, I think, we may say, that he might, and probably would, have been the better for the repeal of those laws: but thus far we must say, that it is impossible he should have been the worse. The terms, upon which he met with adventurers willing to relieve him, though they come not within that scanty field, which the law, in the narrowness of its views, calls usury, do, in the present case, at twenty years purchase of the 3000l. a year he was content to have sacrificed for such assistance, amount, in effect, to 4000 per cent. Whether it was likely that any man, who was disposed to venture his money, at all, upon such a chance, would have thought of insisting upon such a rate of interest, I will leave you to imagine: but thus much may be said with confidence, because the fact demonstrates it, that, at a rate not exceeding this, the sum would actually have been supplied. Whatever becomes then of the laws against maintenance and champerty, the example in question, when applied to the laws against usury, ought, I think, to be sufficient to convince us, that so long as the expence of seeking relief at law stands on its present footing, the purpose of seeking that relief will, of itself, independently of every other, afford a sufficient ground for allowing any man, or every man, to borrow money on any terms on which he can obtain it.

in White Russia,
March 1787.

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