By: Michael Boldin
The national debt is a national curse.
That’s not just our view, it’s how James Madison described it.
“I go on the principle that a Public Debt is a Public curse and in a Rep. Govt. a greater than in any other.”
That’s because, as Madison put it, debts are one of a trio of tools that people with power use to establish tyranny.
“Armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”
Madison was far from alone.
Thomas Jefferson said he considered “public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared.”
In his Farewell Address, George Washington urged us to use debt sparingly – and, get this, actually pay it off as quickly as possible!
“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.”
In other words, running a perpetually growing debt is not just a bad economic choice, it’s also a threat to national security.
Benjamin Franklin warned that running into debt gives “to another Power over your Liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson put it this way:
“It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which, if acted on, would save one half the wars of the world”
For Washington, paying off the debt was “urgent.” That’s how he put it in his Fifth Annual Message to Congress:
“No pecuniary consideration is more urgent than the regular redemption and discharge of the public debt. On none can delay be more injurious or an economy of time more valuable.”
The Antifederalist writer Brutus agreed, and during the ratification debates, forcefully expressed his concern about the ability to borrow:
“I can scarcely contemplate a greater calamity that could befal this country, than to be loaded with a debt exceeding their ability ever to discharge. If this be a just remark, it is unwise and improvident to vest in the general government a power to borrow at discretion, without any limitation or restriction.”
For many in the founding generation, leaving massive debt to future generations was also morally unacceptable, and something that should be rejected. Washington referred to it as “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
Thomas Jefferson emphatically agreed, writing to John Taylor that:
“the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”
There’s a basic, but extremely essential, lesson here.
If you want more liberty, if you want a strong national defense, if you want more peace and prosperity – you have to reduce debt. That means you have to make the government smaller.
With the amount of debt we’re facing these days, that might be the understatement of the century.
And an even bigger understatement is that relying on people in government to limit government spending is a totally failed strategy.
Lysander Spooner may have summed it up best. Writing in No Treason VI, he put it this way:
“The lesson taught by all these facts is this: As long as mankind continue to pay “National Debts,” so-called,—that is, so long as they are such dupes and cowards as to pay for being cheated, plundered, enslaved, and murdered,—so long there will be enough to lend the money for those purposes; and with that money a plenty of tools, called soldiers, can be hired to keep them in subjection.
But when they refuse any longer to pay for being thus cheated, plundered, enslaved, and murdered, they will cease to have cheats, and usurpers, and robbers, and murderers and blood-money loan-mongers for masters.”