Repudiating the National Debt

In the spring of 1981, conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives cried. They cried because, in the first flush of the Reagan Revolution that was supposed to bring drastic cuts in taxes and government spending, as well as a balanced budget, they were being asked by the White House and their own leadership to vote for an increase in the statutory limit on the federal public debt, which was then scraping the legal ceiling of one trillion dollars. They cried because all of their lives they had voted against an increase in public debt, and now they were being asked, by their own party and their own movement, to violate their lifelong principles. The White House and its leadership assured them that this breach in principle would be their last: that it was necessary for one last increase in the debt limit to give President Reagan a chance to bring about a balanced budget and to begin to reduce the debt. Many of these Republicans tearfully announced that they were taking this fateful step because they deeply trusted their President, who would not let them down.

Famous last words. In a sense, the Reagan handlers were right: there were no more tears, no more complaints, because the principles themselves were quickly forgotten, swept into the dustbin of history. Deficits and the public debt have piled up mountainously since then, and few people care, least of all conservative Republicans. Every few years, the legal limit is raised automatically. By the end of the Reagan reign the federal debt was $2.6 trillion; now it is $3.5 trillion and rising rapidly [ed. Note: $6.9 trillion, Jan. 13, 2004]. And this is the rosy side of the picture, because if you add in "off-budget" loan guarantees and contingencies, the grand total federal debt is $20 trillion.

Before the Reagan era, conservatives were clear about how they felt about deficits and the public debt: a balanced budget was good, and deficits and the public debt were bad, piled up by free-spending Keynesians and socialists, who absurdly proclaimed that there was nothing wrong or onerous about the public debt. In the famous words of the left-Keynesian apostle of "functional finance," Professor Abba Lerner, there is nothing wrong with the public debt because "we owe it to ourselves." In those days, at least, conservatives were astute enough to realize that it made an enormous amount of difference whether – slicing through the obfuscatory collective nouns – one is a member of the "we" (the burdened taxpayer) or of the "ourselves" (those living off the proceeds of taxation).

Since Reagan, however, intellectual-political life has gone topsy-turvy. Conservatives and allegedly "free-market" economists have turned handsprings trying to find new reasons why "deficits don’t matter," why we should all relax and enjoy the process. Perhaps the most absurd argument of Reaganomists was that we should not worry about growing public debt because it is being matched on the federal balance sheet by an expansion of public "assets." Here was a new twist on free-market macroeconomics: things are going well because the value of government assets is rising! In that case, why not have the government nationalize all assets outright? Reaganomists, indeed, came up with every conceivable argument for the public debt except the phrase of Abba Lerner, and I am convinced that they did not recycle that phrase because it would be difficult to sustain with a straight face at a time when foreign ownership of the national debt is skyrocketing. Even apart from foreign ownership, it is far more difficult to sustain the Lerner thesis than before; in the late 1930’s, when Lerner enunciated his thesis, total federal interest payments on the public debt were one billion dollars; now they have zoomed to $200 billion, the third largest item in the federal budget, after the military and Social Security: the "we" are looking ever shabbier compared to the "ourselves."

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Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was the author of Man, Economy, and State, Conceived in Liberty, What Has Government Done to Our Money, For a New Liberty, The Case Against the Fed, and many other books and articles. He was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and academic vice president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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