Debt, Freedom, and Inequality


In contemporary society, private debt has substituted for other ways of financing the consumption of basic social goods like housing, education, and medical care. This is at least partially due to increased inequality, which has allowed costs to rise faster than median incomes, as well as due to stagnating public provisions. Debt-financed access to basic goods is problematic because it creates new kinds of unfreedom and undermines the value of the freedoms that the indebted do manage to keep or acquire. Debt-financing qualifies freedom in this way by placing certain kinds of conditions on our acquisition and consumption of the goods that we buy. These conditions compromise the very freedom that we seek and value when acquiring and consuming these goods. It does so, first, by transferring the burden of providing basic goods from the public to private individuals, thereby further constraining those who already face the most constraints in accessing basic goods. And, second, the conditional character of debt-financed consumption undermines the value that we attach to having basic social goods. At the very least, this gives us strong reasons to want to regulate the conditions that creditors can place on debtors, at least with respect to basic social goods. Further, at best, the most desirable alternative to debt-financed consumption is the unconditional public provision of basic goods like housing, education, and medical care.