Volume 25, Issue 2, Fall 2011
Mark A. Davidson
No Conscience to Shock
The Ethical Dimensions of Non-Discretionary Personal Debt Assumption
Over the last thirty years, personal debt loads have increased dramatically. Lower income earners borrow money to purchase basic goods and services, so their debt is frequently non-discretionary. The impact of non-discretionary personal debt on debtors can be as, if not more, harmful than government regulations that have been declared unconstitutional. In this regard, the impact of personal debt is tantamount to the impact of a civil rights violation. What separates the impact of unconstitutional state action from that of personal debt is the assumption that only the latter are the result of consensual transactions. Consent, however, is not a dyadic phenomenon, it exists in gradations. The quality of consent is weakened when the agent is making choices in response to pressures, and the empirical
question of the extent to which a consent transaction is unforced is distinct from the normative question of whether a transaction is legitimate, or fair. It is necessary to devise a new taxonomy of language to clearly distinguish the empirical and normative questions. This elucidates the fact that lower income people are under more pressure to borrow money than are upper income individuals to pay progressive rates of income tax. To argue that the latter are ‘coerced,’ is to admit that the low income individual’s decision to borrow is similarly forced. This admission suggests that a significant portion of citizens of market-based economies (notably Canada and the U.S.) are being forced to endure harms tantamount to civil rights violations. The admission also suggests that free markets harbour forces that undermine individual autonomy, and the absence of corrective state regulation exacerbates the problem.