As another farcical “debt-ceiling raising” saga unfolds, conducted by the two indistinguishable political parties hell-bent on driving America into economic ruin, it would be instructive to look at how some earlier conservative/libertarian thinkers viewed public debt. Unlike the present generation – with the notable exception of Ron Paul – these intellectuals asked fundamental questions about such matters as debt, taxation, central banking, and foreign policy.
One of the leading lights of what was known as the “Old Right” of the 1950’s, which opposed the Cold-War globalism of the likes of William Buckley and domestically sought to overturn the New Deal, was Frank Chodorov (1887-1966). In his books and essays, Chodorov challenged the pillars which social democracy rested and sought to return America to small government, free trade, and “isolationism.”
In one of his provocative essays, Chodorov pervasively argued that those who purchase public debt are complicit in the enhancement of state power. Unlike many present-day economists who only see the baneful economic effects of profligate government borrowing, he makes a moral case against debt financing.*
He points out that public borrowing burdens future generations for the benefit of the present. Despite reasons often given for the necessity of borrowing – war, natural disaster, infrastructure, etc., – Chodorov contends that the practice of shifting the cost to later generations, whatever the reason, is unjust:
This is exactly what you do when you
cooperate with the State’s borrowing
program. You are loading on your children
and your children’s children an obligation to
pay for something they had no voice in, and
for which they may not care at all. Your
‘investment for posterity’ may earn you
nothing but the curses of posterity.
Chodorov understood, as most commentators do not today, that a gold-backed currency restrained State largesse: “When money was redeemable in gold, the inherent profligacy of government was somewhat retrained; for, if the citizen lost faith in his money, or his bond, he could demand gold in exchange, and since the government did not have enough gold on hand to meet the demand, it had to curtail its spending proclivity accordingly.”
It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s despicable and criminal act of taking the U.S. off the gold standard domestically that led to the expansion of the public debt as Chodorov describes: “. . . Mr. Roosevelt removed this shackle and thus opened the flood gates. The only limit to the inclination of every politician to spend money, in order to acquire power, is the refusal of the public to lend its money to the government. . . . the government can then resort to printing of money, to make money out of nothing. . . .”
Not realized at the time, but the ability of the American government to expand its revenue base fit nicely into FDR’s later nefarious foreign policy objectives.
Chodorov’s viewpoint on public debt can also easily be applied to FDR’s decision to eradicate the gold standard through which the U.S. currency could be redeemed for precious metals. FDR’s act, however, was a “violation of contract” with American citizens since the U.S. government defaulted on its obligations.
In Orwellian fashion, the verbiage used with most government operations is often misused to legitimize State functions. “Investment” is one such term that has been corrupted in relations to spending and debt.
In promoting their spending schemes, politicians will often use the term investment, “investment in education,” “investment in infrastructure,” etc. This is deliberate, since it tries to equate government spending with a vital component of the market process.
In a market economy, investment means the lending of savings, which is used to expand and/or start an enterprise. In return, the lender receives a stock or a bond. If the business is successful, the lender’s investment will receive a return – dividends from a stock or interest from a bond. Business investment is, therefore, a necessary aspect of capitalism which results in economic growth and increased living standards.
As Chodorov incisively points out, however, government investment is the antithesis of what takes place in the marketplace:
The State, however, does not put your money into production. The State spends it – that is all the State is capable of doing – and your savings disappear. The interest you get comes out of the tax fund, to which you contribute your share, and your share is increased by the cost of servicing your bond.
Chodorov’s solution to deficit financing was not to buy government bonds. While this would certainly be a step in the right direction, a more radical approach is needed since the problem has now become so immense.
Simply put: there should be a prohibition on government borrowing of any kind. State revenues should only come through tax receipts and fees paid by those in the present. This would completely eliminate the “moral hazard” of debt financing and drastically reduce the size and scope of government over society.
For those who seek to put an end to the current debt-ceiling charade and rectify the immoral practice of burdening future generations by the irresponsibility of the present, the works of Frank Chodorov are essential.
* “Don’t Buy Government Bonds,” The Mises Institute, 13 January 2011. https://cdn.mises.org/Out%20of%20Step_4.pdf