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Two Bad Reasons to Oppose Loan Debt Forgiveness and Two Better Ones

August 26th, 2022 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador


Bad Objections

1. “I paid all my debt back and it isn’t fair that other people shouldn’t have to do the same.”

In interests of disclosure, I have already paid off about 95% of my student loan debt and the remainder that is going to be wiped out by the Biden administration is negligible. So I fall into the bucket of “people who paid off their debt and will benefit not at all or very little from this action.” That said, if your chief response to this is to lament the “unfairness” of it, I think you’re thinking about this in terms that aren’t really Christian and that are probably violating the 8th Commandment—and maybe the 10th as well. After all,

Q. 147. What are the duties required in the tenth commandment?
A. The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his.

Q. 148. What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate; envying, and grieving at the good of our neighbor, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.

Building our response to this policy around the sin of envy is, it should go without saying, to not think about the policy in recognizably Christian terms.

2. “Understanding a biblical conception of justice, a debt voluntarily and justly entered into remains a debt that demands to be paid. Justice says that if you voluntarily borrow money on these terms, then you have a moral obligation to pay it back.”

That’s not altogether wrong, but it’s too simplistic. The discussion of debts in Leviticus 25, which discusses the Year of Jubilee, certainly does reflect the importance of repaying what one has borrowed. But it doesn’t absolutize it in the way Mohler has here:

25 “‘If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold. 26 If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, 27 they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. 28 But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.

To be sure, it is true that Christians should be honest in their contracts and financial dealing and that when we say we will do something we ought to. That is very much part of the 8th Commandment. Moreover, the general approach in Leviticus 25 is not marked by an indifference to debt and, moreover, it’s worth noting that the Jubilee Year would be something people could anticipate when lending and borrowing, which is different from what has happened with the loan forgiveness plan of the Biden administration. All these caveats are important. Even so, to say, as Mohler does above, that there is no basis for debt forgiveness when the debt is taken on freely is flatly unbiblical, contradicting the most plain and literal reading of Leviticus 25:28 and, moreover, at odds with several of Jesus’s parables as well. Mohler’s comments provide us with further proof, if more was needed, that many evangelicals’ politics are guided by something other than a plain reading of the Bible.

It’s also worth questioning that idea that everyone with loan debt took it on of their own volition. In one sense, sure. No one was holding a gun to our head demanding we take out the loan debt. But is it accurate to say that we made those decisions with an adequate understanding of what we were signing up for? In most cases, I think not. As one friend put it,

We were propagandized my entire high school simply to go to college, and we were promised if we did we would make more money and have a better life (“College graduates make 1 million dollars more than those who only graduate from high school!”). We received no guidance about which colleges to go to, how much money to take out, what to major in if we wanted return-on-investment, etc. Every guidance counselor told us this; every hallway had a poster proclaiming this; every teacher drilled it into us; from ages 13-18.

And we listened to them. And then we (as a generation) found out we’d have the equivalent of mortgages to pay off before we could get a real house and also that Boomers were not retiring so we couldn’t get jobs.

To put the question simply: In sussing out responsibility for the choice to take on debt, I don’t think “was someone holding a gun to your head when you took out the loan?” is the right question. I think something closer to “when you took out this loan—almost certainly while still a teenager or in your extremely early 20s—did anyone help you understand what you were doing and what the real ramifications of this choice would be?” In most cases, I think the answer is “not really.” Does it follow, therefore, that all the loan must be forgiven? Perhaps not. But at the very least we need to reckon with agency in a serious, thoughtful way and not in the simplistic terms being put forward by many commentators.

Better Objections

1. The real issue here is that we’ve created a perverse network of collusion around credentialing which is propagated by educational administrators and backstopped by the fed. It creates artificial conditions under which college degrees become practically essential to securing employment that will offer a living wage. But the only reason the system works is because federal money protects and preserves a ridiculous system. This sort of policy simply further entrenches such a system because it fails to address the root issues and removes yet another way in which reality could have intervened to force change.

Just last night I was doing an interview in which I argued that the perversity of our current regime is that we essentially have created a number of ways in which we can use money to obscure relationships. Because we have large supermarkets and are so far from the land and because I have money, I don’t see the person who makes my clothing, grows my food, and so on. It creates distance between ourselves and the realities that make our life possible, which in turn makes it harder to address injustices. You can’t address a problem if you don’t know the problem exists.

In a similar way, I worry that simply wiping out the student loan debt without doing anything to change the perverse credentialing system we have will simply further establish an extremely expensive and unjust system that increasingly exists to provide jobs to overpaid deans and administrators whose roles have virtually nothing to do with promoting the life of the mind or forming well-educated people equipped for lives of virtuous citizenship. When a young person sees that their debt is gone, that will be the end of their thinking about the problem, and yet the underlying problem is still there. You could even argue, in a dark and morbid way, that this policy actually strengthens the regime by removing incentive to challenge it.

2. Is this the best, most targeted way to help the target demographic needing help? The estimates on cost vary wildly right now, but as many have noted, there are a large number of people whose debt is being forgiven under this proposal who probably would have done just fine while paying back their debt as normal. So are we spending a large amount of federal money to help a large number of people who don’t need the help? This is a good way of making the point:

(That entire thread is excellent.)

Obviously this will also help many people who do need the help—my wife and I owed far more than we do now when we first started having children. It’s probable that had this been passed under President Obama that we could have perhaps bought a home sooner, for example. So I’m not unaware of the people who really will benefit from this. I’m just not terribly enthused at the notion of so many young aspiring elites with Ivy League degrees and extremely well off parents having five figure loan debt forgiven on the government’s dime when there are so many other pressing problems facing us right now. This is, admittedly, a fairly standard, predictable objection. But it’s one that I think has real merit.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).