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The Dangers of a Debtor Class

October 30, 2011

Debtors are much in the news of late.  The Tea Parties protested the national debt, now above $15,000,000,000,000, and the burden it places on every family and child.  (The sum of the unfunded liabilities owed by the United States exceeds the more than $15 trillion of the national debt by a factor of six, perhaps more.  Within this figure is comprised every promise our federal government has made – for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits and the like.  it does not include the imponderables, such as the implied cost of honoring the war guarantees we’ve given to our NATO allies, South Korea and Taiwan, et cetera.)  Next came public employee unions in several states protesting wage and benefit cuts, layoffs and threats to pension systems long held to be sacrosanct.  Now we have the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, whose ranks are filled with the unemployed, the foreclosed and college students and graduates chained down by thousands of dollars in money owed for degrees whose market value is below what is necessary to service the cost of having obtained them.

The existence of a debtor class is a threat to social stability.  Debt imprisons those who are burdened by it, even if their society no longer imprisons debtors.  (America does imprison one class of debtors – those unwilling or unable to pay ‘child support.’ Even in cases of economic hardship caused by illness, injury or unemployment, judges order men to languish behind bars until someone pays their debt for them.  Former Texas Death Row inmate Anthony Graves, freed after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment,  cannot escape from a debt that accumulated while he was wrongfully imprisoned.)  Debtors with no hope of escape – those with ‘debts no honest man can pay‘ – regardless or reason, become desperate. Desperation can lead to social unrest beyond what we’ve seen at the largely peaceful protests across this country since 2008.

History abounds with examples of class warfare erupting between a rich minority (and their servants) and a large, poor debtor class, as was the case in republican Rome.  Imperial powers often outsource the means of livelihood of their working (and fighting) classes.  As Rome outsourced grain production to North Africa and Egypt, there was no market left for the small farmers, who filled the ranks of the legions, when the wars ended and they returned home.  Masses of unemployed Romans took refuge in the cities, living off of the dole that was part of the infamous ‘bread and circuses.’  Imperial power led to a welfare state and the destruction of not only the small, independent family farms that were the backbone of the Republic, bou of the bonds of unity upon which a free constitution rested.  As Lord Macaulay wrote of the times:

“Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than a foe,
And the Tribunes beard the high,
And the Fathers grind the low.”

Lays of Ancient Rome, XXIII

Israel also experienced problems of indebtedness, despite Mosaic law (Lev 25:9-11) designed to prevent the emergence of a permanent debtor class.  One still formed, at least at times, as is evidenced by the following passage:

1 David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam; and when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. 2 And every one who was in distress, and every one who was in debt, and every one who was discontented, gathered to him; and he became captain over them. (I Samuel 22:1-2, RSV)

Civil war followed, and only ended with regime change after protracted conflict, both within and without Israel’s borders.

America cannot tolerate a large underclass of debtors and still remain free.  The existence of many things that have come into being over the years since World War II, such as the ‘military-industrial complex,’ a permanent welfare state, a homeland security apparatus that effectively disregards the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and  a regulatory state that threatens to make potential criminals of us all, pose grave threats to our freedom.  The debtor class now coming into being also threatens us.  (I do not speak of the individuals that comprise its’ unhappy ranks, but only of the phenomenon of the class itself.)  If we do not find a way to effectively deal with the issues that led to the shrinkage of the middle class, the evisceration of opportunity for the young, and the double standard that has the ‘Masters of the Universe’ receiving bailouts while the rest of us are told to pay up, we may be unable to avoid prolonged social unrest of a kind that will tear society apart.

If history is our guide, our time is short.  May we do better than those who have found martial law, civil war or defeat and dissolution waiting for them on the other side of a class war.

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