Come On People: Debt Is NOT Slavery

2012 October 22
by Kyle Bumpus
from → Commentary, Credit And Debt

The internet is full of hyperbole. “Debt is slavery” is a refrain I hear often on the interwebs. Hell, there’s even a book about how debt is slavery. I’m sure it’s a decent book and all, but give me a freaking break with the title. Google the term “debt is slavery” and you’ll get over 85,000 results (and counting). There are plenty of sites preaching the gospel that yes, debt is slavery and plenty of other sites questioning the validity of this assertion.

So please, let me clear this issue up once and for all…

Debt Is NOT Slavery

Let’s forget for a moment that likening going into debt to buy a nice plasma TV or shiny new BMW to real actual slavery is incredibly offensive to slaves and their descendants. Let’s also forget for a moment that credit cards and rampant materialism can act as a net drain on society: nobody is arguing being in debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all. But debt as slavery? Even for the internet, that’s hyperbolic.

  1. People enter into debt of their own free will – I suppose it’s possible there were some real slaves out there who volunteered for the job, but I doubt it.
  2. You can choose to get out of debt without risking bodily harm – Yeah, getting out of debt is hard. But you don’t face physical harm from attempting to do so. Unless it causes some sort of stress-related illness. Or something.
  3. You can choose to walk away from most debts – Sure, you may lose your home if you don’t pay the mortgage, but nobody can physically detain you for choosing to do so. You aren’t going to go to jail. You won’t even been socially ostracized all that much. Slaves can’t throw off the yolk of oppression quite so easily.

Why Does Any Of This Matter?

Why do I care if some people blabber on about debt being slavery? Because words have power and emotive words such as “debt” and “slavery” doubly so. Equating a morally ambiguous concept, debt, with something morally repugnant, slavery, naturally causes people to associate negative emotions with debt. While debt can certainly be a negative thing, there are many positive uses for it as well.

Engendering fear or hate of debt leads to an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship with money and if there’s anything we need fewer of in this country, it’s people with an unhealthy relationship with money. Take this example: say you have two people, one who is repeatedly told debt is slavery and evil while growing and the other taught that debt can be both a positive or a negative depending on how its used. Which individual do you think is going to have a healthier relationship with money?

Don’t like debt? Great! Don’t borrow any money! But going around equating debt with something as evil as slavery doesn’t do the rest of society any favors. So please, keep your mouth shut.

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9 Responses
  1. 2012 October 22

    You make interesting points. I think though, that what the saying means is that debt is LIKE slavery in that you feel like you are bound to your debt and you aren’t really free

  2. 2012 October 22

    Yeah, I get that but reject it. Debt doesn’t make one un-free in the way actual slavery does. You can still do anything you want if you’re in debt, you just might feel like you can’t.

  3. 2012 October 22

    I always interpreted the saying as a scare tactic for folks who are ‘okay’ with being in debt. That it is meant to scare people in debt into realizing that that they are, in a way, slaves to the credit card companies. As long as they are in debt, the credit card companies own them.

  4. 2012 October 22

    The American playwright August Wilson has a great exchange about that in “Gem of the Ocean” (set in 1900s Philadelphia) that’s still ringing in my mind years after I saw the production. Two black characters – one younger, one older and a former slave – are sitting on the porch talking about their jobs at a factory. The younger one complains about how the factory owners make them pay for their uniforms, their equipment, their food and lodging – meaning they start work in debt and never have a chance to pay it off, because the daily costs cancel out their wages. The older one nods along sympathetically, until the younger one sighs and says, “It’s worse than slavery.” Suddenly the older character whips his head around and says fiercely, “Ain’t nothing worse than slavery.”

    Your post reminded me of that. It’s such an easy and lazy comparison to make, but it’s totally wrong.

  5. 2012 October 22

    Thanks Kerry! I wish I’d known about that before I wrote this article. Would have made a great ending.

  6. 2012 October 23

    I think it’s quite correct to say that debt is slavery – only it’s a self-imposed slavery. That’s the crucial difference here.

  7. 2012 October 24
    Psychscar permalink

    >The internet is full of hyperbole.

    No, POLITICS is full of hyperbole. :D

    Seriously, you’ve sailed along a flight path dear to my heart – semantics, and the use of language to manipulate people. By framing debt as evil, it is easy to lead people to whatever boogeyman you have waiting behind the curtain. Whether that is credit card companies, or the opposing political party, the first step to mustering pitchforks and torches is to cast the issue as a struggle between good and evil.

  8. 2012 October 28
    bob permalink

    You have a wrong definition of slavery as something that makes you miserable. What if a slave likes being a slave (as you like being in debt), as was common in Roman times? A slave can be well treated and taken care of and have no desire to provide for himself.

    The point of saying that debt is slavery, is that you have a master (bank, etc.). You can be friendly with that master. But he has power over you. Don’t pay your bills and that is not a relationship of equality. Debt collectors are not your friend. A bank can take back your items used as collateral. That is significant power. Having no choice not to pay debts is to have a master, regardless of whether you like being in debt or not. The point in saying it is slavery is that you will be pressured to pay and you will not be in a position a power (much like a slave). Having items repoed, bring harassed by collectors, and being foreclosed one are not things people chose. Since I have no debt, I would not tolerate that, it would be illegal for someone to do that to me. But a slave has no choice.

    Worse yet is that to bankrupt and not pay the bills, you need to meet income/asset requirements (and lose the stuff). And federally guaranteed student loans and IRS debt are never bankruptable. Death or leaving the country might be the easiest way to get out of that.

    Hope that gives you something to consider.

  9. 2012 October 28

    I am not using “something that makes you miserable” as a definition for slavery. And sorry, but it was not “common” to enjoy being a slave in Roman times. Yes, a bank can take items pledged as collateral, but you can also refuse to pay your debt or make it difficult for them. The power goes both ways which is completely different than a slave/master relationship. A bank doesn’t WANT to repossess any of your assets. That is a last resort for them because they lose money on the deal. And people in debt DO always have a choice, which again differentiates indebtedness from slavery. I assure you, LOT’S of people choose to be foreclosed on. It’s so common, there’s even a word for it: strategic default. I’m sorry, but the comparison just doesn’t work at any level.

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