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Your Opinion: Is Debt Slavery?

This article was written by in Best Of, Debt Reduction, Featured. 42 comments.


I’ve written several times on Consumerism Commentary, and other people have written and said many times as well, that debt is slavery. In fact, there is a popular book on the topic aptly titled, Debt is Slavery. It’s a convenient metaphor; if slavery is working without the benefit of enjoying the fruits of your labor, being in debt is similar.

Deep in debt, any extra money you have after paying for living expenses is designated to pay off debt. Like slavery, you cannot save money for your future. There is no such thing as retirement for someone who is debt or someone who is enslaved; you must work until the day you die, or until you pay off your debt, for the benefit of a master.

The metaphor doesn’t sit well with me. Debt is a financial reality that is difficult, but slavery is much more than that. Calling debt slavery minimizes the gravity of what it really means to be enslaved. Slavery relegates an individual to property, bought and sold like a piece of furniture or cattle. While it may feel that way for someone working for a living, meeting their expenses paycheck-to-paycheck or even falling deeper in debt, it’s not even close. Even in debt, you are free to make your own choices. You have the freedom to live your life as an individual, even if building your future is out of the question at the moment.

While in debt, you can work harder, possibly earn more money, and even develop your skills through education. Eventually, you can qualify for better jobs, earn more money, get out of debt, and build your future, no matter how out of reach that may feel. This is far removed from the conditions of slavery.

Slavery and debt are both serious issues and there are similarities. However, the common aspects are superficial at best. Debt will trap you. When your money doesn’t stay with you in order to pay interest to credit card companies and lenders, it’s understandable to feel like you’ll never get ahead. The possibility exists, and people in debt have options for improving their lives regardless of the difficulty. The same options aren’t available to slaves without the threat of death.

What do you think? Is it fair to claim that debt is slavery?

Photo: kudumomo

Updated January 24, 2011 and originally published October 22, 2010. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Beth

I agree with you, especially since most people enter into debt willingly and slaves don’t have a choice. Having debt is an obligation, but it doesn’t make you someone else’s property and strip you of all human rights.

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avatar Rob Garcia

Hardly. These are two concepts that are hard to compare, but there is merit in the metaphor that working to pay off excessive debt is a trap that can become similar to slavery. In general, debt is not necessarily bad. People have leveraged debt to produce value in our society. The problem comes when we over leverage ourselves and get into excessive debt. For instance, many people today have lots of credit card debt because they buy stuff they cannot afford!

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avatar Investor Junkie ♦199 (Cent)

I would be more specific debt that buys consumer goods (ie big screen TV) adds no value directly to society. This is what most people have and the loans I fund on Lending Club to help decrease their monthly payment. Leverage when investing and done carefully can make you wealthy. This is primary because our economy and currency is debt based.

Over leverage can happen with investments OR consumer debt.

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avatar David M

Agree with Everyone – Bad Analogy!

For most people – Debt is self inflicted and a choice.

Slavery – not a choice people made for themselves.

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avatar Joe Plemon

I hate debt, have no debt, and will avoid debt if at all possible. Which makes the point that debt does not equal slavery. A slave, as others have commented, does not have the option of not being a slave.

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avatar Jim

Maybe a better analogy would be that debt is like an addiction.
The ‘rush’ of easy money holds more power over some than the pain of repayment.

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avatar Stevedh

Slavery is way worse and I agree with most of the comments. However, (recogizing the political incorrectness and pleading for tolerance) Beth’s ” but it doesn’t make you someone else’s property and strip you of all human rights” remark, surely proves she has never borrowed money from Vinny.

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avatar Paul Williams

I agree it’s not exactly the same as slavery (especially from the politically correct standpoint), BUT debt certainly can make you into something similar to a slave. You are legally bound to repay that debt, which means to some extent you are working for the bank or “Vinny” or Visa… Yes, you voluntarily chose that bondage, but it’s still an obligation you must fulfill. Of course, the penalty for not fulfilling it is nothing like slavery, but there are penalties.

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avatar Dirac

How about a comparison to indentured servitude? It is actually a closer analogy. Also, just for the record, sometimes people go into debt without a choice. Stuff happens. If it has not happened to you, be grateful but do not look down all those with debt. Quite a broad statement to make and rather unfair.

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avatar David C

I tend to think of it more as indentured servitude.

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avatar Max

I think debt is probably more like serfdom than it is like slavery, but even that is an imperfect analogy.

I’ve been in debt before though, and I don’t think I could equate my situation to all of the slaves that exist in the world at this moment, because the suffering is incomparable.

Plus, you can always just stop paying off your debt without the fear of death, slaves don’t have that luxury.

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avatar Peter

How about this metaphor: debt is like a treatable disease. If the source of the illness is left untreated, it will cause some serious damage. You need to get the right medicine (a budget) and address the cause of the illness (overspending?). If it isn’t addressed, it can overwhelm you.

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avatar The Latter-day Saver ♦706 (Dime)

I think the analogy of debt to slavery is a fair one, albiet not perfect though. That said, I think that some debt can be useful; how many of us can afford the asking price of a house in cash? Rising up over debt and becoming its Master is the real key!

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avatar eric ♦1,549 (Half-Dollar)

Yes I think it’s a much overexaggerated metaphor, not meant to be taken literally. There are some parallel feelings but I don’t think anyone should take the comparison seriously.

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avatar Mike - Saving Money Today

As others have said, I think indentured servitude is more accurate…but less sexy for book sales.

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avatar jim

“Calling debt slavery minimizes the gravity of what it really means to be enslaved.”

I agree with that 100%.

I don’t think debt is slavery. Its not a very good analogy and its hyperbole. People choose to go into debt.

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avatar Debt Kid

As someone who has been in some serious debt….there is no comparison. My debt, like many others, was a result of bad choices I made. Now, not everyone gets into debt by choice (medical bills come to mind), but still, you don’t go to jail for a debt.

Debt sucks, but it’s no comparison to real slavery.

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avatar FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com

It’s a metaphor that hits home for people and makes them sit up to take notice of their debt.

To me, that’s more important than nitpicking about whether it’s the correct term to call it.

Serfdom, Indentured Servitude,…. whatever you want to rename it, it is too complicated for people to understand the intricacies between each term. Slavery is simple and easy to grasp.

It’s a blunt, rude, harsh, incorrect analogy, but we’re all forgetting the most important part: The Analogy Works.

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avatar The Latter-day Saver ♦706 (Dime)

I couldn’t agree more.

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avatar Wise Finish

Proverbs 22:7
The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,371 (Platinum)

I pointed out to someone on Twitter — “slave” is actually a poor translation of the bible verse. I wasn’t going to get into that here… but “servant” would be more accurate based on the Hebrew.

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avatar Heather

Generally, comparisons to slavery and comparisons to Hitler and/or Nazi-ism are not accurate…

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avatar David Bibby

I’ll second FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com.

For someone who needs the motivation and inspiration to get out of debt, they need a STRONG message that will get them angry enough to do something about it. SLAVE is a word that really get’s to people. It provokes enough of a emotional response to strengthen someones resolve.

So whether technically correct or not, I’ll continue to tell people in debt that they are a SLAVE to the money companies, who have “mis-led” them to where they are today. Yes they had a choice, but that choice was influenced by those same companies who seek to gain from their hard labor.

There is no other word, in my opinion, that is strong enough to motivate a lasting change.

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avatar Steven and Debra

If one accepts the classical view of slavery, in which a person is the property of another person, then any condition falling short of this classical definition would logically not be slavery.

The danger of such a viewpoint, as it applies to debt, is that one may only see the bait and not recognize the lobster trap debt can represent. One can enter the lobster trap and nibble on the bait and keep happily swimming around inside the trap thinking they are free when, in actuality, they are not. Only when the bait has been nibbled away to nothingness can those so entrapped begin to see the predicament they’ve chosen for themselves. It must be noted, however, that in order to entice the lobster into the trap it first had to be deceived by the bait.

If one goes about their daily affairs with the classical definition of slavery, as their only point of reference, they are potentially placing themselves in very close proximity to the lobster trap entrance with a very thin line separating the condition of freedom from the condition of slavery, or something much worse.

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avatar TakeitEZ ♦549 (Dime)

My vote goes for indentured servitude

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avatar jillianb ♦275 (Nickel)

I feel as though the phrase, while politically incorrect, can and has been a great motivation for many people.

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avatar Kyle

Well that depends on who you’re indebted to. If it’s to a bank, you can just declare bankruptcy. If it’s to the mob, they will break your legs. That’s much closer to slavery, in my opinion.

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avatar Tim

self determination: slavery you have none, debt you do (either getting into it or out of it)

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avatar bullet

OK if we are not slaves to dept but never able to stay easily ahead financially when we have minimum wage jobs or we have to hold 2 or 3 part time jobs to make ends meet and taxed beyond our means then what do you call it? Mind control? Part time work has no health benefits so if something occurs to your health or you’re in a car accident you can be in dept overnight!
In my opinion a slave may not have the option of being a slave, but the people in this country don’t have an option either when it comes to being in dept sometimes or being taxed to death.

“America is run like a giant dairy farm. “We the People” (graze) go to work, and when we get home “THE GOVERNMENT” milks us for our money!

I approve this message!

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avatar Steven and Debra

The milk cow comparison is a good one.

We suppose being a milk cow is somewhat better than being a beef cow. It kind of depends on one’s perspective.

We dream of a pasture full of cows each having wings with which to escape the oppressive farmer and envision a world where the farmer who treats his winged visitors the most graciously, gets the most milk. A book titled The Sovereign Individual describes such a world. It is still a very good read and timely even though it was published over 10 years ago.

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avatar Petunia100 ♦110 (Cent)

I think debt can feel like slavery. :)

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avatar tigernicole86 ♦55 (Newbie)

I agree that debt can feel like a master, constantly hounding you to pay, give more! However, it may be more comparable to serfdom. Even though the only debt I really have are student loans(once considered to be good debt but when is debt really ever good?), it still feels impossible that I might get it all paid off in the 10 years from graduation that they have set, even with all the extra payments that i keep making. The interest rates keep piling up, compounding all your debt and making it so you may never pay it. Just like serfdom. One of the few good things is that if I never pay off my school loans, my children won’t have to add those to the debts that they may incur.

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avatar faithfueledbennetts ♦264 (Nickel)

There are huge differences in being in debt and being enslaved. I can say this because I am in debt and yet I choose by my free will to live happily and make steps to change my circumstances. Giving money the power to say that it enslaves you is a dangerous trap. Money does not determine your quality of life, you do in the way you view it.

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avatar emizar ♦329 (Nickel)

In my opinion, the comparison of debt to slavery comes from a couple places.

Authors and commentators like to use the word slavery for the shock value – either to get attention or because they want to get through to people who have a casual attitude about piling up more debt.

Having been introduced by the media, the word sticks because debt can be a big restriction on people who may otherwise have all the freedom in the world. A person with a good job and a home in a nice neighborhood who suddenly finds themselves underwater in that home may feel this is an overwhelming restriction on their lives. It’s still not reasonable to say that they are enslaved to their debt or their home, but without a sense of perspective I imagine that the word slavery could well feel appropriate to them.

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avatar wylerassociate ♦905 (Dime)

I understand how people feel that debt is like slavery in that you can never get out of debt and it will be with you forever but they’re not the same and it’s so important that people pay off their debts as quickly as possible.

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avatar 4hendricks ♦248 (Cent)

I don’t agree that slavery is debt – Slaves have and had no choice but to work for their masters. People get into debt usually by the choices they make – and then have to slave at work to pay for them.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

There are differences between debt and slavery. The most noticable is one is a choice, the other is not.

I would equate servatute with debt. Both are a choice with some return.

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avatar prt1984 ♦117 (Cent)

Okay I do not agree with you first off not everyone that is in debt is because they chose it so that is something you are wrong about we all do not choose to be in debt ok and it is unfair of you to say we all have the choice to be in debt .Some of us live end up in debt because there was no choice due to a family member becoming ill and the insurance company’s wont help pay for the medical needs so to save a family member we end up in debt because the insurance we pay so much money to does dont end up coming through when we need it for a serious medical condition and than on top of that we get laid off and than no one is hiring so all we can do is keep looking for another job until some one will hire us but where I live right now no one is hiring and so all I can do is make crafts and sell them to help pay my bills and to take care of my sick family.
your are juding us all and putting us all into the same category and that is not fair some end up in debt because that is their choice because they are money crazy but people like me are in debt because we could not help it alot of us live from pay check to pay check and thats because jobds do not pay like they should others who get paid good and end up in debt than that was their choice.you can not put us all into the same category !
alot of people with sick ones end up loosing their homes, their cars, and everything they own all because they dont have the money and they are trying to help a family member like a child , husband,wife, mother or father who is very sick.
we may be free to make our own choices but we all are not in debt because we want to be but because hospitals,doctors,medicane they all put us there all because of our family being sick and they want outrageous money that people like me just do not have.
slavery can not be compared to people who are in debt because they are crazy with their money no ,slavery is like my situation where it happened out of our control.
so please do judge people who you dont even know.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

We have been in this scenario and I feel your pain. i just kept thinking, This too shall pass. And it did. The only thing I can say is we put our trust in God in a real big way. It was worth every dime we paid off (75000) to save our son’s life. The money was unimportant compared to the goal, but the debt was strangling at times. A book would tell the story. A big book. God bless.

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avatar Chrysostom

Debt is slavery, but so is wage-slavery. The first is probably worse, because it necessitates continuing the second, so one is doubly-enslaved. I use my plastic as “charge cards”, that is, like an American Express: a cash-flow management tool, paid in full every month. Good benefits when used that way, and good float. I don’t like carrying or holding cash where I live due to the irrecoverable nature of it if it is stolen, and between MC, Visa, and Discover, I can pay most anywhere except for Costco. I don’t use plastic as a usurious loan, which is what keeping rotating debt is.

The unabashed Papist, happily without debt.

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avatar sayethwhat

Debt extends beyond the scope of the monetary realm. One can become in debt to anyone over virtually anything. I believe the metaphor holds true.

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avatar ADM

I think most of you miss a very important point. Debt when forced upon you without your knowledge or consent is slavery. Every child now born in the USA is born into debt. Once you get an SSN you owe someone money. There is no possible way any child born today can get out of paying social security and they most likely will never collect so they are clearly slaves to their ancestors. Fiscal child abuse pure and simple.

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