A general thing I hadn’t noticed about debts until lately:

  • Whenever Bob owes Alice, then Alice has reason to look after Bob, to the extent that increases the chance he satisfies the debt.
  • Yet at the same time, Bob has an incentive for Alice to disappear, insofar as it would relieve him.

These might be tiny incentives, and not overwhelm for instance Bob’s many reasons for not wanting Alice to disappear. 

But the bigger the owing, the more relevant the incentives. When big enough, the former comes up as entities being “too big to fail”, and potentially rescued from destruction by those who would like them to repay or provide something expected of them in future. But the opposite must exist also: too big to succeed—where the abundance owed to you is so off-putting to provide that those responsible for it would rather disempower you. 

And if both kinds of incentive are around in whisps whenever there is a debt, surely they often get big enough to matter, even before they become the main game. 

For instance, if everyone around owes you a bit of money, I doubt anyone will murder you over it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it motivated a bit more political disempowerment for you on the margin.

There is a lot of owing that doesn’t arise from formal debt, where these things also apply. If we both agree that I—as your friend—am obliged to help you get to the airport, you may hope that I have energy and fuel and am in a good mood. Whereas I may (regretfully) be relieved when your flight is canceled.

Money is an IOU from society for some stuff later, so having money is another kind of being owed. Perhaps this is part of the common resentment of wealth.

I tentatively take this as reason to avoid debt in all its forms more: it’s not clear that the incentives of alliance in one direction make up for the trouble of the incentives for enmity in the other. And especially so when they are considered together—if you are going to become more aligned with someone, better it be someone who is not simultaneously becoming misaligned with you. Even if such incentives never change your behavior, every person you are obligated to help for an hour on their project is a person for whom you might feel a dash of relief if their project falls apart. And that is not fun to have sitting around in relationships. 

(Inpsired by reading The Debtor’s Revolt by Ben Hoffman lately, which may explicitly say this, but it’s hard to be sure because I didn’t follow it very well. Also perhaps inspired by a recent murder mystery spree, in which my intuitions have absorbed the heuristic that having something owed to you is a solid way to get murdered.)