In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington warned members of Congress to avoid the accumulation of public debt. We should instead, he said, “cherish public credit.”
For Washington, this was as much a moral mandate as an economic one. A large debt would make it more difficult for the country to call upon the reserves necessary in times of emergency. More worrying than that, however, was what Washington saw as the immorality of “throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
Why was that immoral? Because it constituted a form of taxation without representation — and a particularly egregious form at that, because our posterity are not yet even alive to voice their opinion.
Every man, woman and child in the United States today faces an individual personal share of $61,151 of America’s current national debt. If you add in unfunded liabilities, that share, as of this writing, ranges between $212,121 and $627.727. A child born in America today is thus immediately saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in other people’s debt.
This constitutes a massive wealth transfer from those too young to vote (or not yet alive to vote) to beneficiaries today — that is, to us. This is a clear example of what we might call extraction: the appropriation of benefit for one party at the involuntary expense of another party. Not only have those future generations not voluntarily consented, they have not even been asked.
However, we can certainly see who benefits from this spending: the current beneficiaries, the politicians who enhance their election chances by promising us benefits, and of course the hundreds of thousands of government officials and employees who administer the bureaus, agencies and offices.
But those who will be required to pay these ever-increasing levels of spending and promising are the future generations — who, unfortunately for them, are unseen and so unheeded.
In his 1776 “Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith warned of the “juggling trick” that governments would be tempted to use to provide benefits to people now at the expense of other people later. By issuing debt that would be paid in the future, politicians can offer voters today benefits that seem costless because today’s voters are not asked to pay for them, at least not now.
Perhaps we indulge a sense of political alchemy whereby we come to think that if the government provides something, it is costless. Consider recent proposals for “free” college, “free” healthcare, and so on. These goods and services, however, are not and cannot be free: they require time, money, labor and skill to produce.
If we do not charge the user or consumer for them, that does not mean they are costless; it just means that we are imposing the costs on others.
It can be tempting to want to benefit at others’ expense, especially when we do not know those others, when do not have to look them in the eye, or when they do not yet exist. But all goods and services, and all wealth, must come from somewhere, and it must be produced by human beings and through human action.
Consider the moral principle involved. If a principal reason to address climate change now is because it is immoral and wrong to impose costs and diminished prospects on future generations, then the same moral principle applies to our debt: It is wrong to impose harms or costs on unwilling others, including future others. If we wish to have something, we should pay for or provide it ourselves.
If we take on debt, we should ourselves be responsible for paying it off. Voluntarily taking on debt is, after all, making a promise that we will pay the money back, and when others lend us their money, they trust and rely on us to keep our word. There are few moral rules more important than keeping one’s word when one gives it.
The United States has in its history created more wealth in real terms than any other country in the history of the world. Yet it has now also created more real debt than any other country in the history of the world. At some point, there will be a reckoning. And every day we wait to address our debt, the problem only gets worse.
It is we who have created this problem, however, and so, as Washington said, it is a “burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Otherwise, we will leave our children encumbered by the crush of our own irresponsibility. Our children deserve better than that.