A Treatise on Political Economy, Or, the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth

By Jean-Baptiste Say; Clement C. Biddle et al. | Go to book overview

SECTION I.
Of Loan at Interest.

T HE interest of capital lent, improperly called the interest of money, was formerly denominated usury, that is to say, rent for its use and enjoyment; which, indeed, was the correct term; for interest is nothing more than the price, or rent, paid for the enjoyment of an object of value. But the word has acquired an odious meaning, and now presents to the mind the idea of illegal, exorbitant interest only, a milder but less expressive term having been substituted by common usage.

Before the functions and utility of capital were known, it is probable, that the demand of rent for it by lenders was considered an abuse and oppression,--an expedient to favour the rich and prejudice the poor; nay, further, that frugality, the sole means of amassing capital, was regarded as parsimony, and deemed a public mischief by the populace, in whose eyes, the sums not spent by great proprietors were looked upon as lost to themselves. They could not comprehend, that money, laid by to be turned to account in some beneficial employment, must be equally spent; for, if it were buried, it could never be turned to account at all; that it is in fact, spent in a manner a thousand times more profitable to the poor;p0299.* and that a labouring man is never sure of earning a subsistence, except where there is a capital in reserve for him to work upon. This prejudice against rich individuals, who do not spend their whole income, still exists pretty generally; formerly it was universal; lenders themselves were not altogether free from it, but were so much ashamed of the part they were acting, as to employ the most disreputable agents in the collection of profits perfectly just, and highly advantageous to society.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the ecclesiastical, and at several periods, the civil code likewise, should have interdicted loans at interest; and that, during the whole of the middle ages, throughout the larger states of Europe, this traffic should have been reputed infamous, and abandoned to the Jews.--The little manufacturing or commercial industry of those days was kept alive by the scanty capital of the dealers and mechanics themselves; and agricultural industry, which was pursued with somewhat better success, was supported by the advances of the lords and great proprietors, who employed their serfs or retainers on their own account. Loans were contracted for, not with a view of profitably employing the money, but merely to satisfy some

____________________
p0299.*
Vide infrà, Book III. on the subject of reproductive consumption.

-299-

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