E. Hadas via Reuters (27/10/2011)

Debt is a moral matter. While most economic activity is concerned with the “is” of how things are (investment, consumption and so forth), debts are always entwined with an “ought” – to repay. In discussing controversial debts – for example government borrowing in the euro zone and the U.S. – the moral question should be addressed directly: should these debts be paid off in full, or is some forgiveness justified?

Aristotle can help frame the argument. The philosopher condemned all lending at interest because money cannot create wealth by itself; a loan is just a way for the lender to take advantage of the borrower. Some proponents of Islamic finance make a similar argument, but it is not quite right. Capitalism has shown that loans can indeed produce wealth. If the lent funds are invested well, enabling the borrower to improve his lot and the world’s, then interest payments are the lender’s just reward for providing the fruitful funds.

But Aristotle’s moral logic remains relevant; his condemnation is appropriate for loans that do not share wealth justly between borrower and lender. Unfair loans should not be made, and where they have been, full repayment only compounds the original injustice.

Libertarians, believers in the right of individual to make their own decisions, have another contribution to the moral discussion. They point out that loans are freely agreed contracts that should be honored. Both sides should understand the possible consequences of their free choices. Borrowers should repay, even if that requires making sacrifices, and creditors who make bad lending decisions should suffer losses.

In the euro zone, some libertarians (and most Germans) consider the borrowers’ obligations to be paramount. The governments of Greece and the other over-extended nations can and should repay all their agreed debts. The citizens just have to work harder and pay more taxes.

Other libertarians take the opposite moral line. Losses are the just punishment for the foolish creditors. And the Aristotelian logic may justify forgiveness. The lent money has mostly been spent unproductively, so the borrowers now have few gains to share with the lenders. The original loans turned out to be unjustly generous to the debtors, but the terms have become unjustly harsh.

Which side has the stronger moral logic? Forgiveness looks right for Greece, where the debts are particularly high and the government and economy are particularly inept. For the rest, it is a closer call.

Turn to the U.S. government, which is building up its own substantial debt pile. The American moral debate on the practice is as old as George Washington, who warned that such debts “ungenerously throw upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Today, the National Research Council writes of “an unfair and crushing burden on future generations.”

Foreign debts are particularly crushing. Citizens get to spend now on consumption and investment but are obliged to repay foreigners later, with interest. This deferment has produced $4.5 trillion of foreign debt in the U.S., 30 percent of one year’s GDP. That is far less than Greece’s full year of GDP, but enough to worry about.

If the U.S. authorities were committed to full repayment of these foreign debts, they would strive to keep the dollar’s value constant and to avoid inflation. That way, the foreigners would receive not just the contracted dollars but the full agreed economic value. While American authorities may care in theory, they are not concerned enough to refrain from loose monetary policy, which pushes the dollar down.

In this case, pro-repayment libertarians have right on their side. The largest and one of the richest economies in the world – and the issuer of the global reserve currency – is honor-bound to make good on its debts. While the creditors should have noticed that the country was becoming less responsible, their neglect does not excuse American indifference.

For purely domestic U.S. government borrowing, Aristotelian scrutiny is more appropriate. Do the ultimate borrowers, the mostly poor beneficiaries of federal programs, gain enough from these loans to justify the higher taxes that will be needed later to repay the mostly rich lenders? There is no obvious answer to that question, but it is well worth asking.

More generally, philosophical arguments ratify what practical experience teaches. Lenders should be wary about lending to governments. The choice to borrow rather than to raise funds through taxes is usually a sign of political weakness. When the time comes to repay, governments may be unable or unwilling to persuade the people that the sanctity of contracts is a principle worth protecting.

Also, the proceeds of loans to such governments are likely to be spent foolishly. Then full repayment will fail the Aristotelian test of justice. The rioters in Athens may know little about the Ancient Greek philosopher’s doctrine on lending, but they could be protesting in his name.