IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

Retrospectives: From Usury to Interest


  • Joseph Persky


Since the Middle Ages, each epoch has participated in the debate over the conditions in which lending should be prohibited as usury. While disagreements over the definition of usury remain, the debate came to its modern climax on the eve of the industrial revolution, in a well-known interchange between Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith in the late 1780s. Smith, for all his faith in a system of natural liberty, proved unwilling to let the interest rate float. Bentham argued anything else must reduce total welfare. From a superficial perspective, the entire affair amounts to nothing more than a modest dispute between a failing master (Smith died in 1790) and an over-eager disciple. (Bentham acknowledged in the Defence that all he knew of political economy originated in Smith's works.) Yet the argument struck a fundamental chord. Gilbert K. Chesterton identified Bentham's essay on usury as the very beginning of the "modern world." I tend to agree.

Suggested Citation

  • Joseph Persky, 2007. "Retrospectives: From Usury to Interest," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(1), pages 227-236, Winter.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:21:y:2007:i:1:p:227-236 Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.21.1.227

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Michael A. Stegman & Robert Faris, 2003. "Payday Lending: A Business Model that Encourages Chronic Borrowing," Economic Development Quarterly, , vol. 17(1), pages 8-32, February.
    2. John Bonner, 1995. "Economic Efficiency And Social Justice," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 543.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Alvin E. Roth, 2007. "Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(3), pages 37-58, Summer.
    2. Jared Rubin, 2009. "Social Insurance, Commitment, and the Origin of Law: Interest Bans in Early Christianity," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 52(4), pages 761-786, November.
    3. Constant Mews & Adrian Walsh, 2011. "Usury and its Critics: From the Middle Ages to Modernity," Chapters,in: The Foundations of Islamic Banking, chapter 11 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    4. Michel Bellet, 2011. "Saint-Simonism and Utilitarianism : the history of a paradox. Bentham’s Defence of Usury under Saint-Amand Bazard’s Interpretation," Working Papers 1135, Groupe d'Analyse et de Théorie Economique Lyon St-Étienne (GATE Lyon St-Étienne), Université de Lyon.
    5. Rubin, Jared, 2010. "Bills of exchange, interest bans, and impersonal exchange in Islam and Christianity," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 213-227, April.
    6. Michel Bellet, 2011. "Saint-Simonism and Utilitarianism: the history of a paradox. Bentham's Defence of Usury under Saint-Amand Bazard's Interpretation," Working Papers halshs-00654847, HAL.

    More about this item


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:21:y:2007:i:1:p:227-236. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Jane Voros) or (Michael P. Albert). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.