I posted this quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet on my FaceBook wall – Polonius said:
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
In this quote, Polonius is saying that loaning money to other people is dangerous because sometimes people don’t pay it back – or do so grudgingly – and you lose a friend due to the failed transaction. In addition, it is distasteful to borrow money because it is impolite and usually indicates you are living outside of your means. This last statement about “dulling the edge of husbandry” is a nod to the too common practice during Shakespeare’s time of land owners selling off or mortgaging their estates parcel by parcel in order to live in London, which like today, was very expensive. They neglected (dulled the edge) the care of their lands and animals (husbandry) in order to create a facade, a patina of wealth, and to live an unsustainable life.
This quote also reveals itself as an aspect of human nature – the products of a loan are enjoyable, the burden of repayment is slightly less so. I know of no one who buys a new car who is happy to see their first payment come due. Even as the person enjoys the new car, often the borrower comes regard the lender as an enemy and feels a sense of resentment with each payment. The enjoyment of the car is forgotten as the debt becomes a burden. If the borrower does not pay on time, the lender creates consequences that further erode that relationship.
This situation is particularly amplified in times of financial stress, even more so if the lender and borrower have a close personal association.
If one accepts that Polonius’ quote can be broadly applied to human nature, one can also draw a parallel to the role of the welfare state.
From a certain perspective, welfare can be defined as a loan from the individual taxpayer to the welfare recipient with an anticipation that the loan be repaid through the recipient generating sufficient future individual economic activity to end the need for such “loans” from the taxpayer. Society does not expect the total amount of the debt to be repaid, the repayment is limited to the mitigation of the need to “borrow”.
Since we are all citizens, we do have that close personal relationship with each other, a relationship close enough to engender harsh feelings from both sides when the perception is created that one or the other is not pulling their weight. Long term “borrowing” creates a sense of entitlement in the recipient and sense of animus in the taxpayer.
The real lesson from Polonius is that “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is both a recognition that human nature is a constant and an admonition that these situations yield constant results. Living as a ward of the welfare state is just as unsustainable as living beyond one’s means on borrowed money. It poisons the relationship between citizens by creating antipathy and entitlement simultaneously and it is just as much a neglect of the “husbandry” of America as it was of the estates in Shakespeare’s era.