Skip to content

The “French Connection” of Austrian Economics: Debunking Usury by applying Bastiat’s concepts

by on August 27, 2012

Left: Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), French political economist
It was Bastiat who created the rationale for Usury as put forward by Austrian Economics today: the lender should be compensated by the borrower for the time during which the former could not make use of his capital. However, as the Transparent Unicorn shows, this argument is inconsistent with Bastiat’s own, original, thoughts on economics.

By The Transparent Unicorn for Real Currencies and The Transparent Unicorn

A sometimes forgotten strand of Libertarianism flourished in 19th-century France, one that represents an important link between 18th-century English free-market economists such as Adam Smith and the classic Austrian school founded by Carl Menger. One of the most illustrious representatives of this French school of laissez-faireeconomics, and certainly the one most closely associated with Libertarian views, was the economist, politician, and polemicist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850).

Bastiat’s writings are worth reading for their clear-headed and prescient debunking of Socialism and Keynesianism avant la lettre. Moreover, Bastiat’s witty and concise style is more enjoyable than, say, Ludwig von Mises’ often stodgy prose.

Bastiat’s famous essay “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas” (What is seen and what is not seen) is rightly regarded as a masterpiece which anticipates many tenets of modern Austrian economics. By focusing on the unseen “third party”, Bastiat shows that State intervention and lawmaking only displace money or otherwise direct the transfer of wealth, but do not create new wealth.

Similarly, in Capital and Interest, Bastiat’s justification for interest evokes the time preference theory later put forward by Menger and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. In “Maudit Argent!” (What is Money?), Bastiat also makes a key distinction between what he defines as useful wealth, referring to things that directly contribute to our well-being (such as food, clothing, and housing), and money, the latter being only a symbolic representation of real wealth, and goes on to show how a lack of awareness of this distinction can lead to terrible economic blunders.

Of course, Bastiat, as a proponent of the Illuminati deception that is Libertarianism, mixes a small amount of subtle but poisonous disinformation with a good deal of truth. It should come as no surprise to learn that Bastiat was a high-ranking Freemason, like his contemporary and political nemesis, the noted socialist theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Indeed, the fact that Proudhon and Bastiat, who debated fiercely in the French National Assembly, probably took part in the same occult rituals only adds to the mounting evidence that the elites control both sides of the socialist/capitalist dialectic.

One of the most cherished lies of the Austrian School is its defense of usury. Indeed, interest is one of the main tools by which bankers have enslaved humanity, and over the last few centuries they have recruited the best economists to justify this practice condemned by all Abrahamic religions. In this article, I propose to debunk Bastiat’s justification of usury, with the additional twist that I will do so using Bastiat’s own methodology for the most part.

Capital and Interest: Bastiat’s justification of usury
Bastiat’s essay Capital and Interest is based on a series of examples through which he makes the case that the lender should be compensated by the borrower for the time during which the former could not make use of his capital. This argument, which is essentially the same one advanced by later Austrian economists, can hardly be disputed: indeed, there would be absolutely no economic reason for James to lend his tool to William for a year if he is not compensated in some way. Furthermore, this is a voluntary transaction, which William may evidently refuse if he does not think it is advantageous for him; thus, as Bastiat remarks, James’s compensation is “naturally limited” by William’s self-interest.

So far, so good. But Bastiat then points out that, whereas most people will agree that such a compensation is perfectly just in the case of the lending of tools or materials, many will object that in the case of money, which does not produce anything by itself, it is immoral. However, since money is merely a symbolic representation that functions as a transitory substitute for real values (as explained in What is Money?), Bastiat argues that it is pure sophistry to treat interest differently in the latter case.

There are, in fact, at least two important distinctions to be made between physical capital (useful wealth such as tools and materials) and financial capital, which is monetary credit advanced to a borrower, but Bastiat ignores them, and therein lies the essence of his subtle but deadly deception about usury.

Let us review these distinctions, one at a time.

No justification for charging interest on financial capital
Bastiat’s examples always involve physical capital whose creation (or accumulation) require a significant amount of work. Whereas it is logical and just for the lender to be compensated in such cases, it is difficult to justify why a monetary loan, which in the modern banking system is created at the time it is loaned by punching a few keystrokes on a computer, should be compensated. The bank is essentially crediting the borrower based on his reputation and ability to pay back the loan. In fact, we can say that it is the community which is crediting the borrower, and the bank is merely an intermediary providing a service. The “time preference” justification is hardly valid in this case, since the bank is not really loaning its own capital and a fair compensation should merely cover the bankers’ administrative charges and salaries.

It may be argued that Bastiat’s experience under the gold standard was different and that the banks would have been, in fact, risking their own capital in a “hard money” system. However, this would be only partially true under a fractional-reserve banking system, which was already prevalent at the time. In any case, 20th-century Austrian economists, aware of the perceived inequities associated with modern banking, have addressed these issues by proposing a return to a gold standard. Essentially, the idea is to bring back the symbolic representation of money into the physical world: by basing the currency on a commodity such as gold which is scarce and difficult to extract, it is easier to justify charging interest on monetary loans.

But Bastiat himself tells us that money is only a symbol, not to be confused with useful wealth. If this is the case, why are Austrian economists trying to confuse the issue? Moreover, using gold (or a similar scarce commodity) leads to an artificial scarcity of credit: the amount of money loaned is restricted by the amount of gold available. Austrians would make the case that this is preferable to human control of the money supply. To be sure, a monopoly on the issue of a symbolic currency leads to all kinds of abuse, as can be seen with our modern fiat currencies. But it does not follow from that observation that it would be advantageous to tie the money supply and the economic activity of a community to the amount of gold available. The only entities that would benefit from this situation are those that own most of the gold.

What is not seen: the third party in the lender-borrower transaction
In order to justify interest as a just compensation to the borrower, Bastiat insists that the loan is a free voluntary transaction between two mutually consenting parties. But what about the third party, the one Bastiat claims is always forgotten by classical economists in What is seen and what is not seen? Austrian economists will object: there is no third party directly involved in this transaction, so they should not have a say. But is this really the case?

If, as in Bastiat’s examples using physical capital, William borrows a tool from James, and James accepts an additional wood plank as compensation, then indeed one can hardly claim that the community is affected by this transaction. In fact, society may potentially globally benefit from the increased efficiency of labor brought by the loan of a tool, a benefit which Bastiat is right to point out.

But when a) the only thing exchanged is a symbol of wealth, whose only value resides in its being accepted as a means of exchange within a community, and b) this symbolic representation of wealth can only be created by one economic actor (for instance, in a currency monopoly), or at most a few participants (such as private banks), and furthermore c) the time compensation, or interest, must also be paid using this monetary symbol, then yes, the rest of society is indirectly involved in such a transaction, because society at large has now involuntarily become the “third party” from which the monetary units necessary to pay the interest must be extracted.

If he were true to his own principles, Bastiat should therefore remind us that the community, the third party in this transaction, does not necessarily benefit from a transaction involving the lending of financial capital: in fact, the borrower’s incentive to capture some additional monetary units to pay the interest simply leads to a heightened competition for the monetary units circulating in the community. In the end, the lender gains, and the borrower may gain (if he calculated properly and used his loan shrewdly), but these gains are necessarily made at the expense of the rest of the community.

Even if the loan eventually leads to an increase in productivity (for instance, if the borrower uses the money to acquire new machinery), it will still bring, as a side effect, an increased competition for the monetary units in circulation, and an unwanted transfer of wealth from society at large (the third party) to the lender. Would a community consent to such a transaction, if it were allowed to express its opinion? Probably not, if it could see the effects of this transaction.

At the very least, a third party which is aware of the unseen effects of interest paid on a monetary loan would likely want to know what the borrower intends to do with the loan and whether it could also indirectly benefit from that loan (for instance, with a gain in productivity). Indeed, it is probably a growing societal awareness of the unseen effects of usury on symbolic wealth that led to the universal prohibition of usury observed in Abrahamic religions, as well as to some of the principles governing Islamic banking.

Bastiat’s dishonest justification for usury ignores two valuable concepts that he introduced himself, namely that money is only a symbolic representation of wealth, and that we should always keep in mind the “third party” and the unseen effects of an economic transaction. By taking into account these concepts, we have shown that, contrary to Bastiat’s claims, interest on a monetary loan has much broader implications for the community than interest on purely physical capital such as tools or materials, and that there is hardly any valid justification for compensating the lender of a symbolic currency created effortlessly.

Let us heed the words of Frederick Soddy, the Nobel prize-winning chemist who emphasized this distinction between “real” and “virtual” wealth:

“Debts are subject to the laws of mathematics rather than physics. Unlike [real] wealth, which is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, debts do not rot with old age and are not consumed in the process of living. On the contrary, they grow at so much per cent per annum, by the well-known mathematical laws of simple and compound interest … It is this underlying confusion between wealth and debt which has made such a tragedy of the scientific era.”

The Transparent Unicorn is a long-time commentator on issues related to Money Power and the New World Order conspiracy. 


Faux Economics

  1. enquiry news permalink

    Great job, thanks

  2. Amazing that Bastiat was a huge proponent of interest-bearing lending. Fuck that guy.

  3. Excellent points throughout.

    “At the very least, a third party which is aware of the unseen effects of interest paid on a monetary loan would likely want to know what the borrower intends to do with the loan and whether it could also indirectly benefit from that loan (for instance, with a gain in productivity). Indeed, it is probably a growing societal awareness of the unseen effects of usury on symbolic wealth that led to the universal prohibition of usury observed in Abrahamic religions, as well as to some of the principles governing Islamic banking.”

    In Islamic banking the transaction really is between two parties.

    For instance, a bank may issue a loan to a business on the basis of a share of profits earned via that loan. Similarly, they would accept any losses. Thus, the community at large, is not effected in the devastating manner it is now, through interest and its resulting monetary and price inflation. This system is extremely advantageous as it encourages researched, responsible low-risk endeavors. Interestingly, a barter monetary system in conjunction with this is encouraged (according to Hadith)…

  4. Larry permalink

    Anthony, you make an excellent point that I hadn’t thought about regarding the “third party” in lending transactions. On the surface, the transaction appears to be between two parties (lender and borrower) but when interest is added, it must be captured from the community, thus the justification for third party concern.

    If all of the money within a community is created as interest bearing loans, like we have today, then I think the prevailing rate of interest can help us guess at the minimum number of defaults that will take place. For example, if the interest rate were 10%, then a minimum of 10% of the loans must default since there won’t be enough money to repay both principal and interest – assuming that the community imports and exports the same amount of money. The community, as the interested third party, certainly has good reason to be concerned with such loans.

    • Hi Larry, Well, it’s Transparent Unicorn’s point, but I sure agree it’s an excellent one that I never thought of. It’s implications are quite relevant for the cause.

  5. Hi Anthony,

    I feel you’re confusing interest and usury.
    Usury is (or should be) extreme orunfair terms of interest.

    Jesus (and the Old Testament as well, on which his teachings were based) approved interest.
    In one of the parables, someone is chided for buying their master’s wealth without investing it and increasing it.

    The “increase” is often discussed in the Bible.
    When someone borrows money, they are using the saved wealth equivalent of someone’s work.
    Thus they are rightfully charged interest for that deferred consumption.
    The community is not involved in the loan of money by a bank.
    The person involved (the third party, I mean) is the whose ever savings backs that money.

    You are confusing the problems related to fraudulent fractional reserve banking and fiat money, with the justified charging of interest.

    Men do not need to borrow. They can save for themselves and then go into business or work for someone else, until they do.

    Gold backing is not necessary, in my opinion, if the power to print is eliminated entirely by competing currencies.
    However, I might be wrong.
    Still, I am not wrong about the difference between interest (justified) and usury (fraudulent interest).

    • “Usury is (or should be) extreme or unfair terms of interest.”

      Definition of USURY from Merriam Webster:
      1 archaic : interest
      2: the lending of money with an interest charge for its use; especially : the lending of money at exorbitant interest rates
      3: an unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest; specifically : interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money

      “Jesus (and the Old Testament as well, on which his teachings were based) approved interest.”

      From the King James Version:
      [Exodus 22:25] If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.
      [Leviticus 25:36] Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee.
      [Leviticus 25:37] Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase.

      “The community is not involved in the loan of money by a bank.”

      Yes, it can be considered a third party to such a transaction (following Bastiat’s methodology).

      “You are confusing the problems related to fraudulent fractional reserve banking and fiat money, with the justified charging of interest.”

      No, these are separate problems. Even under a full-reserve banking system and using “hard money”, interest on monetary loans remains a problem. You should probably read some articles on this website discussing this topic to clear up some of your own confusion.

      • Abu Aardvark permalink

        ‘The Transparent Unicorn’, eh? Is that you, memehunter?

    • Abu Aardvark permalink

      Good points, lilarajiva.

  6. Dark Dirk permalink

    May be Bastiat’s conclusions was based on fact that anybody can ding gold from the ground. So he justifies interest with physical examples. Does he has centralized currency that is created out of public dept in his mind ?

  7. Abu Aardvark permalink

    “Transparent Unicorn”, eh? Gee, is that you, memehunter? Anyway, here’s a question for Anthony Migchels AND the Transparent Black Knight, um, Unicorn :

    Why Is the UN Installing Mutual Credit/Pure Fiat Systems Around the World?

    • Hi Abu, Nice to hear from you again!

      And thanks for the link, we certainly keep them elves busy!

      I certainly agree that the UN plugging LETS is quite telling. The reasons they do is simple: 1) LETS never managed to become a mature system for two reasons: a) they use a man hour as a unit of account, which disables price transparency. Nobody knows what a LETS is actually worth. This is particularly troublesome for businesses. b) they are run by high minded, low skill ‘idealists’. As a result they hardly ever generate much trade. c) LETS is not convertible to other units, severely limiting its liquidity. 2) The UN is coopting lesser systems to sow confusion. They are skillfull manipulators, after all. They are not supporting high powered convertible or professionally managed systems.

      Interesting how the Daily Bell simply ignores and flat out denies the multi billion libertarian industry, including the banking industry that finances Wile himself, don’t you think? Or what to think of all these money power stooges worldwide turning more and more to gold, like China, Iran, Russia? Or the euro, designed to allow eventual gold backing? Ring a bell?

      Be well tovarich! Stop by anytime!

      • Abu Aardvark permalink

        Hi Anthony!

        Hey, since you declare Margrit Kennedy as a person you “admire” and continue to promote her works … do you think it’s possible that she was “co-opted” in some way while she worked for the Money Power institutions OECD and UNESCO?

        • No,not really. I believe she’s just a little naive about what we’re dealing with.

          • Abu Aardvark permalink

            Indeed, working for Money Power outfits like OECD and UNESCO and peddling Greenbackerism in the process may sound ‘naive’ to you. No surprise here …

            • I don’t understand?
              I’m most certainly no friend of what you correctly identify as Money Power fronts like the UN.

              • Abu Aardvark permalink

                That may be so. Yet Money Power fronts like the UN are most certainly friends of fiat-money issued by governments.

                But since you reject the idea of government altogether – in particular governments power to create money out of thin air – everything is hunky-dory, right?

  8. The real issue about usury is not about past experience. It is about the consequences that come with usury in the future. The ancients knew from some source that eventually usury would become documented into debt instruments that would become marketed as products ala wall street and modern commercial banking. It is the marketing in debt instruments that makes Usury so devastating to the community as we have seen in the 2008 crash. The elimination of markets in debt instruments is crucial to rebuilding into a full employment zero inflation economy. Not seen since Germany of the 1930s. Think about it? Just an observation thanks RDW.

  9. “The doctrine that old debts must be swept away to make room for necessary new debts, after all, is but the essential principle behind the biblical year of jubilee, or the logic of the law of geometrical progression applied to a steady growth of debt. A great many people, whose pietism derives from Calvin, the theologian of the 16th century shopkeepers and money lenders (rather than from Jesus, Aristotle or Moses, all three of whom denounced money lending), will say, “But the debtors hired the money, didn’t they ?” And with the posing of that question the whole discussion is thrown right back where the canonists left it over four hundred years ago, when the gold rushes to the new countries and capitalism got their start.

    “In those pre-capitalistic days the issue as to usury was argued somewhat in these terms : Ought a debtor to pay interest because he needed or wanted money for consumption, or because he miscalculated profits on a business venture and because, in either case, due to his necessity or miscalculation, he promised to pay such interest ? To the question so stated, pre-Calvin Christianity, Judaism and Mohammedanism gave the same negative answer that Aristotle gave. For fifteen hundred years Christianity said that money-lending was sin, a fact which seems to be little known or appreciated by many present day Christians who make the payment of debts a high ethical imperative. Christianity has changed in this respect, but the words of Aristotle, the Bible or the theologians of the Christian Church for fifteen hundred years remain unchanged on this issue.

    “Briefly, the old or traditional doctrine of the world’s pre-capitalist exponents of ethics as to interest, stripped of the moulds of thought of Aristotle and medieval scholasticism of the Christian Church, amounts to saying something like this : An income from property or a usufruct of property is permissible–in other words, both land rental and business profits are permissible, but an income for the use of money by another should not be demandable at law unless the use made by the other person of the money has enabled him to pay the return promised.

    “This principle, the true doctrine of usury, denies legal enforcement to money-lending contracts where the borrowing has been for outright consumption or bad business ventures. Actually, of course, the lender to bad business ventures rarely gets more than the canonist doctrine on usury would allow him as a mere partner, except where, as in the case of the farmer, the lender can for a time collect his interest out of the living standard of the debtor who has made a bad business venture. The evil of fixed obligations consists not so much in what they take as in the mischief they cause for a time by reason of the effort to take what the economic possibilities and welfare imperatives will not allow. The vice of loan or interest contracts is inflexibility. During the period of modification of the canonist doctrine against usury, under the pressure of the emergent banker and merchant interests of medieval Europe, the theologians of the Church worked out subtle contracts and interpretations of Church law to get around the Church ban on money-lending and yet produce the equivalent of loan contracts. The Calvinist countries, of course, after the Reformation, admitted money-lending to full respectability and legality.”

    “This taste for litigation and complicated legal arrangements, of course, constitutes our cult of the law and the Constitution and, also, the psychological basis of our lawlessness as a people. This cult of the law is exactly the same cult of the law that Shylock had. It is the cult of law either as a means of making living by its practice, or as a means of getting the better of the other fellow in an economic way. This cult of the law must be smashed in order that a new cult of national interest and social discipline, the only true scheme of law, may develop.

    “Money-lending, with the idea of a bond being given to furnish a degree of security which the economic results would not afford, is a large element in the American or any liberal cult of the law. Anglo-Saxon liberalism was born in greed and conceived in usury. Since the rise of money-lending to respectability in the 16th century and later, the money-lenders have relied heavily on the law as their instrument of coercion and exploitation.”
    Lawrence Dennis, The Coming of American Fascism (1936)

    • 3. It must be noted that men with bad instincts are more in number than the good, and therefore the best results in governing them are attained by violence and terrorisation, and not by academic discussions. Every man aims at power, everyone would like to become a dictator if only he could, and rare indeed are the men who would not be willing to sacrifice the welfare of all for the sake of securing their own welfare.

      5. In the beginnings of the structure of society, they were subjected to brutal and blind force; afterwards – to Law, which is the same force, only disguised. I draw the conclusion that by the law of nature, right lies in force.

      7. In our day the power which has replaced that of the rulers who were liberal is the power of Gold. Time was when Faith ruled.

    • By the way: the tribe claim Calvin as one of their own.

      • “There were peculiar reasons which might have justified the supposition, that England would be the spot in which the important struggle would commence. The establishment of the reformed faith had habituated the English to a greater freedom of inquiry than their neighbours, a freedom of inquiry unknown in preceding times, when authority was the sole test of opinion; and a long and luxuriant peace had raised up among the Commons of England a new class of men;– new, by possessing a weight and influence in society which they had never before held. There were other causes, which, though not so evident, were scarcely less influential, but which must be developed as we proceed. It was fated that England should be the theatre of the first of a series of Revolutions which is not yet finished.

        “Authorised by the doctrines of the age, by his consequent education, and by the natural gravity and elevation of his own mind, to ascend the throne as the anointed of his Creator, it was the doom of Charles the First to witness the divine authority of his crown trampled upon, the might of his magnificent hierarchy overwhelmed, the civil institutions of his realm swept away, all that he deemed sacred profaned, all that he held received denied, all that he considered established subverted ; and in their stead new doctrines and new practices introduced, much of which was monstrous, and all extraordinary.”

        “After many researches to discover the first appearance of the anti-monarchical spirit in modern Europe, I must trace English Republicanism; not to any elevated design to emulate the splendid though the unhappy democracies of Greece, nor the might and vastness of the Roman Commonwealth, but to a more obscure and ignoble source. In my opinion, we are to seek for the origin of our republican principles in that petty “discipline” of Geneva, which was substituted by Calvin for its abolished Episcopacy. This discipline, truly, was the code of that apostolical community which was suited to the infant feebleness of primitive Christianity; but this purity of Presbyters was more adapted to the polity of a parish vestry than for the government of a great empire. This, indeed, was but a religious institution, and hardly a political state, and rather threatened gorgeous hierarchies than potent monarchies.”

        “There are some sitting here that well know, that if I would have forfeited or betrayed the liberties and rights of the people, I need not have come hither.”

        “They mistook the nature of Government, for People are free under a Government, not by being sharers in it, but by the due administration of the Laws. It was for this, that now I am come here. If I could have given way to an arbitrary Sway, for to have all Laws changed according to the power of the Sword, I need not have come here, and therefore, I tell you that I am the Martyr of the People !”

        “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world !”

  10. Anthony: This was a great article taking on the increasingly popular (among Libertarians) theories of Bastiat, et al. I think the problem is that many who are drawn to Bastiat and Mises do so under misguided and uninformed economic “knowledge”, and are merely reacting to the abusive and monopolistic models of Keynes, Marx, etc. Truly the Hegelian Dialectic hard at work!

    I am curious about some things, though. While your ideas have been transformative and revolutionary to me, I still find that I do not have an adequate theoretical structure from which to benefit from your wonderful articles. Is there a book that is able to build the foundation of knowledge about the monetary system you advocate? Something “holistic” and foundational? I am the kind of person who needs a thorough treatise, complete with illustrative examples, to internalize a particular philosophy. I would much appreciate a recommendation from you!

    Immense thanks,


    • hi Lisa, so great to hear that this blog has meant something positive for you!

      Do you mean about Mutual Credit? I’m not really sure. I was trained by a top expert on the issue, Hank Monrobey. I didn’t really read much about it. It’s hard to beat practice.

      A book that I liked very much was Bernard Lietaer’s ‘the future of money’.

      Also there is the work of Thomas Greco, I think he’s the best known proponent of Mutual Credit out there. To my shame I must admit I have not read any of his books, I’m just aware of his reputation.

      Mind you: there is nothing really comprehensive out there: I had to personally invent a way to create convertibility for Mutual Credit in a free market environment, you can read about in the interest-free economics page. Only Hank Monrobey has a system to achieve convertibility, but unfortunately not fully satisfactory, to my mind anyway. Many proponents of MC don’t even see it is a problem when it is not convertible.

      Also: don’t make it more complicated than it is. It is really completely simple, but I understand you need to dig a little further before you get to see it.

      Hope this helps!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Analyzing Austrian economics memes: Who benefits from the anarcho-capitalist utopia? « The Daily Knell
  2. The Daily Bell gets schooled by its own commentators on Bitcoin and fiat currencies « The Daily Knell
  3. The “French Connection” of Austrian Economics: Debunking Usury by applying Bastiat’s concepts « NESARA AUSTRALIA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: