In the face of large-scale economic shocks, enforcing debt contracts places an unbearable burden on debtors, who cut back their spending and send the entire economy into deep recession. One of the main arguments we make in our new book is that debt forgiveness makes a lot of sense when the economy experiences a large-scale negative shock that is beyond the control of any one individual.
History seems to understand this lesson well. The 48th provision of the Code of Hammurabi, written more than 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, states that: “If any one owe a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not growth for lack of water, in that year he need not give his creditor any grain, he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.” The main threat to economic activity in ancient Mesopotamia was a drought, and one of the first legal codes understood that debt should be forgiven if such a negative shock occurred.
In 1819 when agricultural prices in the United States plummeted leaving farmers overly indebted and unable to pay their mortgages, politicians ran to their defense. Many state governments immediately imposed moratoria on debt payments and foreclosures. Senator Ninian Edwards of Illinois pushed through national legislation to forgive farmers’ debt, arguing that the country should have sympathy for the farmers who, like the rest of the country, got caught up in the short-lived “artificial and fictitious prosperity.”