In his Essay on Duties, Marcus Tullius Cicero tells a story about Cato the Elder, a wealthy man renowned as a landowner, who lived a century before Cicero. One day Cato was asked, what is the most profitable aspect of property ownership? Cato answered, “Raising livestock with great success.” He was then asked about the second most profitable aspect of ownership. “Raising livestock with some success,” he answered. And what about the third most profitable aspect? “Raising livestock with little success.” And the fourth? “Raising crops.” Then his questioner asked, “What about money-lending?” Cato replied, “What about murder?”

It’s a telling little story, revealing the West’s traditional disdain for money-lending, but also its embarrassed dependence upon the same. Cato, you see, made his fortune through money-lending. His favorite business was investing in ship bottoms. Bottomry, as it’s called, was very risky, so to reduce his risk Cato sought out many partners and invested his profits in land, preferring land offering natural resources like minerals, timber, fish ponds, and pasturage—assets that could not be “ruined by Jupiter,” as crops and ships could be.

This all sounds innocent enough in the twenty-first century, but, as we can see from the story, Cato himself recognized…

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