Hilaire Belloc on Usury (The Fatality of Materialism)

Belloc outlines the recurring, inherently fatal problem of Usury, and its related ill: Heroic Materialism. He points in the direction of the the Church which is forever standing to direct us in the way of the Spirit.

Some interesting points:

"  The nineteenth century in particular, and still more the beginning of the twentieth century, is crowded with examples of these breakdowns–myriads of them. Money is invested in a particular enterprise. The enterprise does not fulfill expectations. Though the money no longer earns legitimate interest, debentures are raised, the guaranteed interest on which is strictly Usury. For some time this interest is paid, but over and over again you find that at last even the debenture interest cannot be paid. The whole concern lapses, and the usurious tribute can no longer be exacted. You may see the process at work today in many departments of the textile industry. The mill gets into difficulties; a loan is raised from the bank; interest is promised on the loan, though there is no surplus wealth over and above the cost of production. The interest is met from outside sources; but the process cannot go on forever, and there comes a time when the bank has to write the loan off as a bad debt. As the bank is making money out of other successful and profitable investments it continues to flourish, it continues to make money, its total income increases, and that part which it has lost through the breakdown of Usury is hidden in the general productive scheme; the usurious character of certain receipts is not distinguished from the legitimate character of the majority. But whenever a society shows signs of economic decay, the real nature of Usury, thus submerged and hidden in prosperous times, necessarily appears above the surface.


Mr. Orage many years ago, writing in his paper, The New Age, gave in this connection one of the numerous vivid illustrations of the affair, with that genius of his for exposition which ought to have made him famous. He took the example of an oasis of date-palms in the desert, the water-supply of which is got at by very primitive means. There comes a financier who lends money for development. The capital is productively used; artesian wells are sunk; the water-supply is largely increased; a better organization of the date-cultivation is begun; the produce of the oasis rapidly grows from year to year; the profits legitimately demanded by the financier are a part of the total extra annual wealth, the presence of which has been due to his enterprise. All are well-to-do; everything flourishes.

Then, whether through fatigue, or through war or pestilence, or variations in the external market, or some calamity of climate, things begin to go wrong. The annual wealth produced by the oasis declines. But the interest on the money lent must still be paid. As the cultivators get more and more embarrassed they borrow in order to pay that interest, and there comes a time of “overlap,” during which, paradoxically enough, the banker appears to be more and more prosperous, though the community which supplies him is getting less and less so. But it is mere arithmetic that the process must come to an end. There will arrive a moment after which the cultivator can no longer find the money to pay the interest, which has long since ceased to be morally due. Mere coercion under an all-powerful police system has got the last penny out of him. The “overlap” between real prosperity and apparent–merely financial or paper–prosperity ceases; and the temporary wealth enjoyed by the lender comes to an end, as had previously come to an end the real prosperity of the borrower.

In other words, great banking prosperity in any particular period may be, and commonly is, the proof of all-round prosperity in that period; but it is not necessarily nor always so. The one is not an inevitable adjunct of the other.


To these general conclusions there is another objection which anyone reasonably well acquainted with history will at once make:

“You tell us” [says the objector] “that in other times when the Faith was universally held–times which you perhaps think healthier, but which were certainly much less wealthy and had to deal with, not only a simpler, but a much smaller population–Usury was forbidden. That is quite true. But when you go on to argue that there is therefore an essential difference between that time and our time, or rather the recent past which you call ‘the reign of Usury,’ a different ethic prevailing now from what prevailed then, you are wrong. You are confusing that which is forbidden with that which is not done. It is true that the moral code of Christendom in Catholic times forbade Usury and punished it; even as late as the Provinciales of Pascal men felt moral indignation against Usury, and right on to the end of the eighteenth century the punishment for Usury continued to play a part in the courts of justice and appeared in the codes of law wherever the Church had power. But in point of fact Usury has always existed, because it always must. It is impossible to draw the line between the productive and the unproductive loan. The money which I lend a sick man may so put him to rights as to make him productive again, and may therefore be regarded as indirectly a productive loan, though unproductive in original intention. The money borrowed by a spendthrift for his pleasures may, on his death, immediately after, before he has had time to waste it, pass to a thrifty heir who invests it productively. Such considerations have always worked strongly upon men’s minds. That is why you find Usury plentifully existing in times and societies where it was morally condemned.

“Further, even were it possible to draw an exact line between the productive and the unproductive loan, there are all sorts of ways of evading the prohibition to take interest upon an unproductive one: to evade the duty of discovering whether the loan be productive or no. For instance, the Catholic governments, quite as much as the Protestant, issued what the French called ‘Rentes’–promises made by government to pay annual incomes. Henry IV of France, after his conversion, was especially active in this form of borrowing. Philip II of Spain, the very champion of Catholicism, sank up to his neck in embarrassment due to borrowing at high interest–borrowing, by a pretty irony, from the very people who were destroying his revenue. A government going to war–that is, about to spend money in an activity commonly unproductive–begged financiers to buy of it annual claims upon the revenue; and there is no difference at all between that and the modern habit of issuing a government loan. Then there was the obvious method of signing a bond for money and receiving less than the sum mentioned in the bond. Thomas Cromwell, of pious memory, was a zealot in this practice, at a time when the full Catholic morals about Usury were still taken for granted. Much earlier, in the true Middle Ages, princes were perpetually borrowing for their wars–principally from the newly arisen Italian banking system; and earlier still, when Usury was the exceptional, but chartered and legal privilege of the Jews and a source of immense revenue to the Christian princes under whom they lived, the practice was openly admitted. Usury therefore has always gone on in human society. It always will go on; discussions upon it are academic and futile.”

To this I answer that plain reasoning upon practical matters is never futile. If I say that an over-consumption of alcohol is bad for the human frame, especially in age, it is no answer to give me examples of topers who have to ninety. The evil effect of over-drinking is there, demonstrable and, to any honest mind, unquestioned. It is a mere question of experiment and experience and the use of reason applied to the same. Where true conclusions are apparently contradicted by experience they are so contradicted by other forces which do not make the truth any the less true.

So with this truth about Usury. As long as its impoverishing effects are masked or counter-balanced by stronger forces at work, they are neglected. But they are in existence all the same, and always active. To know that a truth is there, even when it is hidden, is of great practical use; such knowledge is a thing to be kept in reserve for action when the critical hour comes in which it must be applied.

Next it should be pointed out that there is all the difference in the world between a system in which an immoral principle is admitted and one in which, though the immorality is practiced, the principle is denied. There is, and presumably always will be, plenty of adultery, murder, swindling, and the rest, present in society; but the society in which the rights of property are admitted, in which marriage is sacred and to which the taking of human life is abhorrent, is very different from one where the sexes are promiscuous, or where Communism prevails, or where killing for private revenge or whim is an accepted pastime. To murder a bore, to run off with your neighbor’s wife, even to pick a man’s pocket, are still in our society abnormalities: abnormalities which we old-fashioned people ascribe to the Fall of Man, but which the most exuberant Pelagian will at least not deny to take place. There is all the difference in the world between a society in which such lapses continue, or are even tolerated, and one in which they are called good.

Man stands on two legs; but he can lean on one or on the other. Thus society in the department of law must insist both upon justice and upon order; and undoubtedly in any civilized society justice tends to be sacrificed to order. But there is all the difference in the world between the atmosphere and character of a society in which injustice is held more abominable than disorder and one in which disorder is held more abominable than injustice. Two parts of one chemical element to four parts of another will give you a certain product. Change the proportions, and quite a different product appears. A society in which Usury, though practiced, is held immoral is quite a different thing from a society where Usury is held to be moral. A society in which the lender assumes it to be his moral duty to examine the object of a loan before he considers its profit to himself is different from a society in which he is not expected to do so. A world in which interest upon the unprofitable loan is detested and the Usurer is a villain is quite another society from one in which men have ceased to ask whether a loan be profitable or unprofitable; and this again is a different society from one such as ours, where interest on any loan is demanded as a sort of sacred moral right with which the productivity or lack of productivity of the loan has nothing to do.  "


The system must go on till we break, and even the word “break” is inaccurate. If history is any guide, the true word should rather be “decay.” Pleasing thought.

I did well to call this book Essays of a Catholic and not Catholic Essays. For if it became a matter of Catholic discipline that men should not today touch that unclean thing, the interest-bearing unproductive loan, discipline would stand self-condemned. The ecclesiastical order could not be obeyed. If by such an analysis as I am here engaged in I were to involve any of my fellow Catholics in the peculiar conclusions reached, I should be doing a very bad turn, not only to the common sense of my fellows, but to their sense of humor as well. Nevertheless, as the scent manufacturer has it, “Un jour viendra,”—–”A day will come.”

Funny you bring up this topic because I was explaining Distributism and coincidentally usury yesterday to my friend who has never heard Catholic position on usury, he was really interested in it after I got done explaining it.  :grin:
Interesting article. I'm a little surprised to see it published over at Counter-Currents. Anyway, in light of the recent document put out by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, I think it is sad that the Church has, for now at least, made her peace with the whole usurious, neo-liberal order. Of course, she argues that this order needs to be infused with the virtues, but it's difficult to see how that would actually happen.
Angelus Press has a book of Belloc's called "The Servile State" which talks about this topic.  I already got a taste of Catholic economics in his book "The Crisis of Civilization."
Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher is another great book that deals with this topic, although indirectly, it is very Distributist in it's message.

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