Posted by: Dirk | July 14, 2014

(Book review) In praise of debt

I have thought long and hard about whether to review a book here which is available in German (Lob der Schulden) and French (Éloge de la dette) only. Here it is. Nathalie Sarthou-Lajus published her book in 2012 in French and 2013 in German. All references are taken from the German version. Sarthou-Lajus thinks that debt is not bad, but can be a good thing. There are some things which you cannot pay for, and this does not have to be something negative (p. 13). Being in debt can unsettle an individual, but that does not have to lead to bankruptcy. She thinks that debt is part of every human relationship, and moving into the creditor position by giving something up can lead to a life of freedom. After the equation of debt with evil, this is a very refreshing perspective.

On page 31, Sarthou-Lajus writes that individual freedom is not enough to ensure the well-being of everyone. The government, the nation has the debt of granting assistance to those in need. Historically, these rights of individuals against their nation was added after the French Revolution. After the Great Financial Crisis, we would have to rethink the relationship between state and individual along these lines. She picks up this line of thought again on page 47, arguing that although the subjects of democracy can learn to become autonomous, they will never become truly independent and autarkic. A subject would not be self-alienated just because it depends on others. This, I think, is a defense of the social.

Sarthou-Lajus ends her very thoughtful book with a praise of debt, which can connect individuals over generations and build a social fabric. However, she also says that we need to be free from some debts, to give up on relationships, in order to give some new impulses to our lives and flourish according to our own wishes. I am tempted to say that what holds for individuals also holds for nations, but fallacies of composition would surely arise, making things more complicated for whole societies.

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