From the early Middle Ages until the present day, Jews have been associated with banking and financing—often because they played an outsized role in this economic sector. The best-known explanation blames the Christian prohibition on usury, but more recent research has pointed to the advantages and necessities of being a diasporic people, the requirements of Jewish religious life, Jewish involvement in trade during the transition to cash-based economies, and Gentile governments’ prohibitions on Jews engaging in other areas of economic activity. Whatever the causes, the result was the intertwining of anti-Semitism with the belief—rooted in both classical sources and certain readings of the Hebrew Bible itself—that finance and moneylending are intrinsically corrupt.
Drawing on such sources as Theodor Dreiser’s 1912 novel The Financier and Aristotle’s observation that usury is justly “the most hated” of occupations, James E. Hartley examines this attitude toward economics and exposes its intellectual poverty:
Underneath [contemporary] discussion about wealth distribution is an often-unstated belief that high levels of wealth were not earned in an appropriate manner. One avenue of this discontent is the latent belief that merchant activity is immoral, violating the principle that goods should always sell for their “just price.” The belief that a good has an inherently just price has vanished, but the implications of that belief still linger a bit.
Dreiser paints a bleak picture of finance. Yet, on closer inspection, it is hard to see what is so particularly immoral about bankers. For one thing, other professions can lead to riches, too: why does a rich banker’s wealth seem more inappropriately acquired than a rich computer programmer’s, for example?
Furthermore, everyone benefits from banking and finance. Some people want to save and others want to borrow, and the financier comes along to help the savers and borrowers find each other. There are enormous cost advantages to their work. Suppose you want to buy a house and need to borrow a few hundred thousand dollars. To whom would you go? Your friends or your family? If you asked complete strangers, would they lend to you? At the very moment you realize you would never be able to buy a house, a friendly financier comes along and lends you funds borrowed from people you have never seen. The same thing happens for a business that wants to expand its operations or someone who wants to go to college or buy a car. Financiers seem so useful. So why such hatred for the ones that are successful?