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Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be: An Economic Analysis of Interest Restrictions and Usury Laws


  • Edward L. Glaeser
  • Jose A. Scheinkman


Interest rate restrictions are among the most pervasive forms of economic regulations. This paper explains that these restrictions can be explained as a means of primitive social insurance. Interest rate limits are Pareto improving because agents borrow when they have temporary negative income shocks -- interest rate restrictions transfer wealth to agents who have received those negative shocks and whose marginal utility of income is high. We assume that these shocks are not otherwise insurable because of problems related to asymmetric information or the difficulties inherent in writing complex contracts. The model predicts that interest rate restriction will be tighter when income inequality is high (and impermanent) and when growth rates are low. Data from U.S. states' regulations supports a connection between inequality and usury laws. The history of usury laws suggests that this social insurance mechanism is one reason why usury laws persist, but it also suggests that usury laws have had different functions across time (eg. rent-seeking, limiting agency problems within the church, limiting overcommitment of debts, and attacking commerce generally).

Suggested Citation

  • Edward L. Glaeser & Jose A. Scheinkman, 1994. "Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be: An Economic Analysis of Interest Restrictions and Usury Laws," NBER Working Papers 4954, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:4954
    Note: EFG

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Posner, Eric A, 1995. "Contract Law in the Welfare State: A Defense of the Unconscionablility Doctrine, Usury Laws, and Related Limitations on the Freedom to Contract," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(2), pages 283-319, June.
    2. Ekelund, Robert B, Jr & Hebert, Robert F & Tollison, Robert D, 1989. "An Economic Model of the Medieval Church: Usury as a Form of Rent Seeking," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 5(2), pages 307-331, Fall.
    3. Posner, Richard A, 1980. "A Theory of Primitive Society, with Special Reference to Law," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 23(1), pages 1-53, April.
    4. Baumol, William J., 1996. "Entrepreneurship: Productive, unproductive, and destructive," Journal of Business Venturing, Elsevier, vol. 11(1), pages 3-22, January.
    5. Stiglitz, Joseph E & Weiss, Andrew, 1981. "Credit Rationing in Markets with Imperfect Information," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(3), pages 393-410, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Stulz, Rene M. & Williamson, Rohan, 2003. "Culture, openness, and finance," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(3), pages 313-349, December.
    2. Khan, Feisal, 2010. "How 'Islamic' is Islamic Banking?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 76(3), pages 805-820, December.
    3. Michalopoulos, Stelios & Naghavi, Alireza & Prarolo, Giovanni, 2016. "Islam, inequality and pre-industrial comparative development," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 120(C), pages 86-98.
    4. McKernan, Signe-Mary & Ratcliffe, Caroline & Kuehn, Daniel, 2013. "Prohibitions, price caps, and disclosures: A look at state policies and alternative financial product use," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 95(C), pages 207-223.
    5. repec:eee:exehis:v:65:y:2017:i:c:p:68-93 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Koyama, Mark, 2010. "Evading the 'Taint of Usury': The usury prohibition as a barrier to entry," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 47(4), pages 420-442, October.
    7. Zinman, Jonathan, 2010. "Restricting consumer credit access: Household survey evidence on effects around the Oregon rate cap," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 34(3), pages 546-556, March.
    8. Renneboog, Luc & Ter Horst, Jenke & Zhang, Chendi, 2008. "Socially responsible investments: Institutional aspects, performance, and investor behavior," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 32(9), pages 1723-1742, September.
    9. Daniel L. Chen, 2010. "Club Goods and Group Identity: Evidence from Islamic Resurgence during the Indonesian Financial Crisis," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 118(2), pages 300-354, April.
    10. Reed, Clyde G. & Bekar, Cliff T., 2003. "Religious prohibitions against usury," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 40(4), pages 347-368, October.
    11. Bodenhorn, Howard, 2007. "Usury ceilings and bank lending behavior: Evidence from nineteenth century New York," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 44(2), pages 179-202, April.
    12. Zegarra, Luis Felipe, 2017. "Usury laws and private credit in Lima, Peru. Evidence from notarized records," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 65(C), pages 68-93.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • G28 - Financial Economics - - Financial Institutions and Services - - - Government Policy and Regulation
    • O40 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - General


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