Have you ever been to a Debtor’s Prison?
Charles Dickens transported many of his readers (including me) to the appalling inhumanity of the Debtor’s Prison. In these English prisons, debtors were locked up until their debt was paid. If their family was too poor or indifferent to come up with the money to free them, they could remain locked up a long, long time. Charles Dickens wrote from experience as his own father had been thrown into a Debtor’s Prison when he was a boy.
Where did the Debtor’s Prison originate?
In medieval times, it was commonly believed that the state was responsible exclusively for the administration of justice. The Church was responsible for granting mercy — both to sinners and to debtors. Oftentimes, a debtor unable to pay his debt to a creditor would plead his case to an Ecclesiastical Court administered by the Catholic Church. The Ecclesiastical Court would typically absolve the debtor and make some level of reparation to the creditor out of the funds allocated to the assistance of the poor. These lost funds were in turn replenished when the wealthy tithed to the Church. The State recognized this form of clemency from the Church much like it recognized marriage in the Church.
When Henry VIII abolished the Catholic Church in England and founded Anglicanism in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boelyn, he essentially made the Anglican Church into a department of the state. Among many problems that this action caused, one of the more technical was the question of what to do with the debtors. The wealth of the Church had been seized by powerful nobles and the tithe was ended so reparation was out of the question. But the more fundamental problem was philosophical.
Wasn’t the state responsible for the administration of justice exclusively?
So Henry VIII (who clearly had not read Matthew 18:30 – 31 very carefully) came up with the idea of debtor’s prison. The debtor ends up in prison where he cannot earn a living to repay his debt; the creditor loses his money; and the state has to maintain a costly debtor’s prison system. But, by golly, Henry VIII certainly made sure that justice would be served!
Debtor’s prisons came over to the United States, where they ended up housing some prominent signers of the Declaration of Independence after the Revolutionary War. They were abolished by federal law in 1833. The bankruptcy court system was set up as a separate and subservient court system to the Federal Courts. American scholars modeled it primarily on the Ecclesiastical Court system of medieval Europe. The Federal Courts (which are tasked with the administration of justice, after all) funnels bankruptcy cases over to the bankruptcy court system. And the bankruptcy court allows debtors to declare bankruptcy, ruin their credit, and start afresh while the creditors get what they can.
Which brings me to a fundamental principle of governance: when blind justice hurts everyone involved, the government should create (or recognize) a legal pathway to mercy.
It is clear that the demand for young immigrants has been caused by the injustice of abortion. The American economy is blessed to have young workers from other countries — both legal and illegal — come to the US to fill the shoes of the young men and women who would be with us today if not for abortion. Many fled to the US illegally because their own countries had been torn apart by Civil Wars, famines, or drug cartel strife. They simply wanted a way to feed their family. They found that here in the United States.
There are (no one knows for certain) about 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Most of these people are hard-working, honest, and good for the economy.
There are three possible policies that could be taken. They could be forcibly deported. We could continue to not enforce our own laws. They could be given a path to citizenship.
Forcible deportation is a blind justice that would tear apart their families (some of whom have American citizens as children) and sap the youth from our economy. Additionally, the cost of that much tracking down and deporting would be unimaginable. No go.
We could continue to not enforce our own laws. This creates a mockery of the rule of law. It also allows gang members to use the illegal immigrant community’s distrust of the police as a way to entrench themselves in those communities without being reported. No go.
They can be given an earned path to citizenship accompanied by the implementation of market-based immigration policy and border control that would end illegal immigration. We should require that they have patriotic assimilation — learn English, pay any unpaid back taxes, pay a fine (illegal entry is a misdemeanor so a fine is a typical punishment), and have them learn American history and the Declaration of Independence.
This legal form of mercy restores the rule of law. It benefits us and them.
To anyone who maintains that legal forms of mercy are unacceptable, I have one question:
Should we bring back the debtor’s prisons?