“Debt is the slavery of the free.” (Publilius Syrus, Roman author, 1st Century A.D. and former slave). Ralph Waldo Emerson stated: “A man in debt is so far a slave.” I have been musing on the foregoing quotes and I agree that debt can be a form of slavery.
Here is my reasoning:
I will define slavery as the obligation to labor for the benefit of another. Like slavery, debt is also (1) an obligation; (2) to labor; (3) for the benefit of another.
(1) “an obligation” – The debtor undertakes a legally enforceable obligation to repay the loan with interest. The debtor-creditor relationship involves some coercion, inasmuch as the government will enforce the creditor’s right to collect the debt.
(2) “to labor” – Because most of us obtain money by working, an obligation to pay money (debt) is an obligation to work. When a person incurs debt, she is essentially selling a portion of her future labor.
(3) “for the benefit of another” – Interest benefits the creditor, and not the debtor. Interest is defined as “a charge for the use of credit or borrowed money.” (interest. (n.d.). Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/interest.)
To the extent that the debtor incurs an obligation to pay interest, she has committed to labor for the benefit of the creditor. The degree of exploitation of the labor of the debtor depends upon the amount of interest the debtor must pay the creditor. Of course, creditors obtain additional revenue from debtors through means other than interest, such as through the imposition of various fees and penalties (e.g. fees for late payments).
Interest rates, the availability of credit, and the length of the term of many loans have increased in recent decades. These developments have substantially increased the amount of interest Americans pay. Interest rates and the availability of credit increased considerably after the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Marquette Nat. Bank v. First of Omaha Corp., 439 U.S. 299 (1978), which effectively invalidated the usury laws of the states. After Marquette, the credit card industry took off. Because lenders could compensate for a greater risk of default by charging higher interest rates, they extended credit much more freely.
The terms of many loans have also been increasing. For example, “[m]ost auto loans are over 6 years in length. This is double the loan term of a typical auto loan 25 years ago.” (http://www.creditloan.com/infographics/a-lifetime-of-debt-the-financial-journey-of-the-average-american/.) In the mortgage industry, fifty year loan terms are increasingly common.
One source stated, “[o]ver a lifetime, the average American will pay over $600,000 in interest.” (Id.) If we ignore various complicating factors such as taxes, a person making $60,000 per year would dedicate ten years of his working life to pay $600,000 in interest to creditors. Although that $600,000 figure initially appeared high to me, it seemed more reasonable after considering that “[a]fter 30 years of making payments, a homeowner with a $240,000 mortgage loan will have paid over $580,000 on his/her house.” (Id.) It is clear that the average American dedicates the equivalent of many years of labor to paying interest on her debt. I wonder if it is still appropriate to characterize America as the “land of the free” where such a substantial portion of our lives is devoted to working for the benefit of our creditors.
Of course it is true that debt is often desirable. Many debtors are unquestionably better off because they used debt to finance the purchase of a home, obtain an education, or start a business. However, when we incur debt, we give up a portion of our freedom, as we obligate ourselves to work to benefit someone else. Whether debt should be incurred in a specific circumstance depends upon whether the benefit of receiving money now outweighs the costs that will result from the debt, including the loss of some freedom.