Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

Bankers as Immoral? The Parallels between Aquinas’s Views on Usury and Marxian Views of Banking and Credit

Lambert Thomas , University of Louisville

Throughout history, the performance, practices and ethics of bankers and banking in general have received mixed reviews in both popular and scholarly writings. Early writings by philosophers, clerics, and scribes played a crucial role in the perceptions of banking and banking occupations. Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts and writings were greatly influenced by the Romans’ and Aristotle’s opinions on usury and the charging of interest, and Aquinas was in a position to have his opinions implemented in policy and practice. One of Aquinas’s main arguments against most forms of usury was that lending to the poor or destitute often put them in a worse situation than they were before receiving a loan. The ability of those with wealth to take advantage of the poor or low income through lending was seen as immoral and unjust by Aquinas. Marx noted how banking and credit were used to expand the production and sales of a capitalistic economy beyond certain limits, although his focus was mostly on credit extended to businesses. At the same time, he wrote about how the credit system could lead to economic crises as well as to the concentration and centralization of capital. Later, neo-Marxian economists would write about “financialization” of most of the world’s economies and increases in household debt as a way of investing economic surplus, expanding markets, yet causing the Great Recession. To avoid a lack of surplus absorption and/or underconsumption, credit and lending were increased and often extended to households whose income levels were often not sufficient to adequately cover their debts. While such lending is motivated by profit, and while households are not coerced into borrowing money, the justice of a system which exploits workers and at the same time encourages them to borrow money in order to maintain a certain standard of living can be viewed as unfair and immoral. The value of goods, according to Aquinas and Marx, should reflect the value of labor embodied in them, and for that reason, labor should be compensated fully for its work. Yet the role of money and the “financialization” of an economy through the pervasiveness of banking and credit minimize and obscure the role of labor in production, and the imperative for profit encourages lending to exploited workers. For these reasons, Aquinas and Marxian economists offer somewhat similar views on both the labor theory of value as well as on the morality of certain banking practices. If credit and the banking system also bring about crisis and the greater concentration and centralization of capital, then the morality of these outcomes also needs to be examined.

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Keywords: underconsumption, usury, labor, financialization

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