Debt and Moral Duty
Debt collectors and bankers, and their minions, like to talk about the “moral” duty to pay your debts. Is there one? And if so, does it extend to paying bankers and debt collectors? You’ll have to decide for yourself, of course, but I don’t think it’s the clear issue the debt collectors want you to think it is. Regarding paying a debt owned by a debt collector, I think there is no moral duty at all.
Debts and Morality
First let’s consider the broader question: is there a moral duty to pay your debts? Creditors like to say so, of course, but are they really impartial? Of course not. Their invoking a moral duty is highly self-serving.
Commercial Loans and Interest Rates
First let’s look at what a loan is, as it has come to be meant in modern times with credit cards. Credit cards in essence involve a loan – at an extremely high rate of interest: the issuing bank “lends” you the money to pay a merchant for some service. Interest payments on loans are supposed to cover two things: risk of nonpayment and the loss of the present use of the money. In other words, interest payments are designed to cover the fact that you’re giving the money back later (called “discounting” for time) and the risk that you won’t pay it back at all.
The way you discount for time is easy. You look at the inflation rate, taking a guess as to whether it will continue or not. The present inflation rate is somewhere between one and four percent, and the banks are, in any event, borrowing the money from the Federal Reserve for much less than one percent. That means that almost the entire interest rate either provides the banks an obscene rate of profit or pays for a risk of loss of approximately 30%. It also means that loans are business propositions which contemplate a very significant risk of loss (much higher than the actual loss would justify) – a risk that is paid for by the borrower on every loan that is repaid.
Any loss on a loan is more than adequately repaid by this premium on other loans to people with the same credit standing. I don’t see a moral duty to repay there, do you?
Non-Commercial Loans are Different
Notice that I am not addressing loans made for personal friendship, for example, where the risk is not compensated and offset by the interest rate. I see these as completely different and believe there is a moral duty to pay back someone who actually takes a risk on your integrity. But that is certainly not credit cards or other arrangements where you pay an interest rate higher than the rate of inflation.
Does the Law Imply a Moral Duty to Repay?
Is there a “moral” duty to repay a loan implied in the law? Really, not very much.
There are things that are considered legally “bad,” and these things are called “torts.” Assault, theft, and a variety of other things are torts, and the main thing they have in common (besides many of them actually being criminal offenses as well as “civil” torts) is that if you prove them, you are entitled to “punitive” damages or some sort of statutory “penalty.” That is, if someone commits a tort against you, the law lets you actually try to punish them (which is the point of punitive damages or statutory penalties).
For plain breach of contract cases (like not paying a bill), there are no punitive damages or penalties – only the money actually lost. In formulating this policy over the centuries, the courts have actually pointed to the beneficial effects of allowing breaches of contract. Not punishing breach of contract encourages people to act in more efficient ways, although to be fair avoiding payment may not be completely within this concept. There are some indications that the law recognizes a moral obligation to pay, although it has very little actual legal force.
Usury – Is THAT Immoral?
In ancient days throughout the Christian world, and even now in some Islamic law, charging interest on any loan was considered immoral. Most states – even now – have laws against “usury,” which is charging more than a certain amount of interest. It might interest you to know that the prevailing interest rates charged by credit card companies would violate those laws in most states. Ever wonder why credit cards always have their financial centers in just a few states? It is the way that they evade the usury laws. Because while states can control the interest rates local concerns charge, the courts have held that credit cards are “interstate commerce” and cannot be controled by the individual states. Only the laws of the state in which the credit card issuer is located can set that rate. Thus the interest rates charged by most credit cards, most of the time, could be considered immoral or illegal from some points of view.
That doesn’t seem to bother the banks or debt collectors one bit.
How about Business Bankruptcies?
What about when large businesses go “bankrupt?” For them it mostly means that they get to trash their commitments to workers and their pensions. Ever hear anybody howl about “moral” duties? No. The talking heads all line up to discuss how tough business is, or whatever, but there is never any real moral pressure brought to bear on these companies. Of course that would be pointless: it’s just business, right?
And of course in this day of bailouts, the banks don’t even have to go through the farce of bankruptcy. They get their money basically free from the federal reserve and use it to speculate or lend it to individuals at rates as high as 30% or more – and when that isn’t good enough to fund their bonuses, they get huge amounts of money in other ways from the government. You know who pays for that, right?
Is There a Moral Duty to Pay Debt Collectors?
As I have pointed out elsewhere, you might consider that you have a moral obligation to pay a business that extends you credit, although I do not believe that is a powerful obligation. What about to debt collectors? In their case, I do not believe there is any duty at all. Where does the duty towards a merchant that extends you credit arise? surely it is from the faith in you that the action of lending you money implies. The merchant extends credit to you as part of an overall relationship which in some cases is quite personal, but in every case is based on a mutual expectation that you will pay the money back. None of that is going on when debt collectors own the debt.
By the time the debt collector owns the debt, the original creditor has lost all the money it is going to lose – and you can believe that the debt collector bargained hard against it to pay as little as possible for it. If you pay the debt collector you do not improve the merchant’s situation at all – you simply give the debt collector a windfall profit. And the debt collector purchased the debt knowing you were struggling financially – their intention was never to help you at all or do you any good at all. Instead, a debt collector exists to squeeze, punish and ultimately sue you in an attempt to force you to pay. I see no moral duty to pay at all, although I emphasize that there is still a legal duty if they can prove it in court. My point is that nothing should hold you back from giving it your best not to pay.
I won’t say that morality is for suckers (although the bankers would), but what I do say is pay attention to your own needs and interests – and look carefully at anybody who criticizes you for taking care of yourself. The moral talk by debt collectors and their servants is simply a gimmick to get you to pay.