Should there be a limit to the amount of debt incurred by a young person?

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Young Americans between 18 and 29 years old owes more than $ 1 trillion in student loans and in mortgage and credit card debt that many will pay off for decades.

The law generally allows adults to accumulate large debts as long as they can find a willing lender. However, as philosopher who wrote on the duties people have to themselves, I see a case for legislation that limits the amount and types of debt that people can incur.

While this may sound unappealing to paternalism, my work suggests that it may be a justifiable way to protect people from their own choices and enhance their freedom.

Debt and self-injustice

It is easy to assume that the decisions about how much debt to incur should be left to the individual. Philosopher and economist Adam Smith – known to most as the father of capitalism – expressed this sentiment when he wrote that the government should refrain from interfering in the decisions of the people, unless it is necessary to fulfill its “duty to protect … every member of society from injustice or oppression by all. other members ”.

However, in my 2021 book “Duty to self“I suggest that the ability to accumulate large amounts of debt puts people in a position to do injustice against themselves.

A typical case of injustice is having your own interests and choices ignored or ignored by another person who selfishly takes precedence over others. But people can suffer in the same way because of the decisions they make during their youth that end up overwhelming them later in life.

The high cost of tuition puts many Americans in considerable debt.
Don Emmert / AFP / GettyImages

There is reason to believe that this is the situation a considerable number of Americans will find themselves in when they enter their 50s. A quarter of 18-34 year olds must at least $ 30,000, with 1 in 10 owing more than $ 100,000.

Evidence suggests that this burden is often carried without much consideration for the future.

young people borrow without knowing of the amount and without considering how they will repay it. Many people in debt say the feeling that they owe nothing at all, seeing the borrowed money as theirs to spend rather than a debt to be paid off. Very often, borrowers focus on the immediate benefits of spending while reducing almost entirely any expense associated with reimbursement.

Thus, many people will likely end up suffering through their own actions in the same way that they might suffer through the actions of another unjust person.

This raises the question of whether a government concerned with protecting its people from injustice should be concerned with how young people embarrass themselves when they borrow. I argue he should. And here’s why.

Freedom and borrowing

In seeking to prevent injustice, the law often aims to ensure that people’s lives are free from domination. This involves ensuring that people are able to pursue the values ​​and plans they embrace, rather than those imposed on them.

According to the philosopher Philippe Pettit, a commitment to eliminate all forms of domination is fundamental To republican governments – notably United States – and is the basis of many fundamental laws such as those prohibiting physical coercion, threatening behavior and indentured bondage agreements.

My own work highlights the ways in which freedom of domination can be promoted by laws protecting a person from their youth, including laws against excessive debt.

The lifestyle choices of a person entering their 50s with a lot of debt are often driven by the need to pay it back rather than a commitment to things that are close to their heart, that are valued or loved. Some give up having children or not to continue home ownership, believing that such choices are cut because of the debt burden they already carry. Many are locked in quarries they would no longer choose simply because they provide a stable income necessary to pay back what they owe.

In other words, people may reach middle age and realize that they are being forced to implement plans forced upon them by younger versions of themselves who have benefited from it. era and gave little thought to the burdens they imposed.

The government could better protect freedom, in my opinion, through statutory restrictions on the amount and types of debt that a person incurs with a private lender.

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While a moderately priced degree from a reputable college could open up future opportunities, an expensive education at a for-profit college or an extravagant vacation financed with credit cards may well only serve to restrict a person’s future choices.

A society concerned with preventing injustice will take a nuanced approach to debt. It will enable the types of borrowing that can improve the ability of people to pursue the plans and goals of their choice. But I think it will limit, through legal regulation, the types of borrowing that make individuals a threat to their own freedom.

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