Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Founding

Washington on the Debt

Peers and I went to Mount Vernon for a retreat of sorts to revisit our Founding Father and draw some wisdom from his example again. As always, a trip to the Virginia estate is rewarding; it is truly a remarkable piece of land along the Potomac. While there I took the chance to skim through his Farewell Address once more, and came across an interesting note on the debt that I think provides much-needed clarity on the responsibilities of the government and its finances (emphasis added is my own):

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 expence by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expence, but by vigorous exertions in time of Peace to discharge the Debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your Representatives; but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty it is essential that you should practically bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseperable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties) ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the Conduct of the Government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining Revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

General Washington recognized the necessity of using public funds for providing for the common defense in the general welfare of the nation, and he insisted that people realize that taxes are a necessary sacrifice and a solemn duty for these needed expenses. He also recognizes clearly the immorality and injustice of one generation racketing up the national debt only to enslave a future generation to it-- the great crime which the Baby Boomers have now threatened their posterity with. Many are of the belief that the Millennial Generation will be the first in American history to be worse-off than their predecessors. As Vice President Biden's Debt Commission prepares to meet, they should keep that fact and Washington's warnings in mind. It is necessary to capturing that vision of America that he and countless others since have reached for. From Washington's final message to Congress:

A reinforcement of the existing provisions for discharging our public Debt, was mentioned in my Address at the opening of the last Session. Some preliminary steps were taken towards it, the maturing of which will, no doubt, engage your zealous attention during the present. I will only add, that it will afford me, heart felt satisfaction, to concur in such further measures, as will ascertain to our Country the prospect of a speedy extinguishment of the Debt. Posterity may have cause to regret, if, from any motive, intervals of tranquillity are left unimproved for accelerating this valuable end.

The situation in which I now stand, for the last time, in the midst of the Representatives of the People of the United States, naturally recalls the period when the Administration of the present form of Government commenced; and I cannot omit the occasion, to congratulate you and my Country, on the success of the experiment; nor to repeat my fervent supplications to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and Sovereign Arbiter of Nations, that his Providential care may still be extended to the United States; that the virtue and happiness of the People, may be preserved; and that the Government, which they have instituted, for the protection of their liberties, maybe perpetual.

If there was ever a time to channel President Washington, it is now as we look at our debt, mark the anniversary of the Civil War and examine its causes, debate our Constitution, and discuss America's vision and the purpose of government. 
Categories > The Founding

Discussions - 2 Comments

Hum... well I am all for remmembering the Whiskey Rebellion and Alexander Hamilton as well. Nowadays it is much easier to levy a tax, and a lot of the arguments of the westerners are still made. That is the flat fee vs. the tax per gallon gives a competitive advantage to those who can produce in large quantitites. Hamilton probably got away with a tax that today would be seen as arbitrary and capricious, and would further fan the flames against the evils of the "administrative state."

On the other hand I am not sure of just how onerous all this talk about the deficit is. While Washinton+Hamilton's whiskey tax makes the key year 1791, I think the key year might be 1971, the year we left Bretton Woods and allowed the dollar to float. Washington's wisdom is still somewhat valid structurally for the states, but it simply isn't true that for the federal government the payment of debts requires revenue which requires taxes. The only limit to the debt is the congressional debt cap.

Lets just say I am not so sure about the great crimes of the Baby Boomers. While this is true: "Many are of the belief that the Millennial Generation will be the first in American history to be worse-off than their predecessors." You also have to note that Krugman was among the first to write about "The age of diminished expectations". Perma-bear demographers and economists have been forcasting this for quite a while, but we also know that in the long long run Malthus and peak oil is right, and that in the long long long run the sun goes supernova. It is actually very difficult to say what fighting the deficit will do, but there are some among them Krugman and Soros who suggest that it is the deficit fight that will help insure the age of diminished expectations. This is what some folks mean by saying we could end up like Japan or the UK. I am one of those Westerners who think the solution to the deficit must invariably find some way to burden the less sophisticated.

More apropos words that were not heeded at the time, from "Brutus", Jan. 10, 1788:

I can scarcely contemplate a greater calamity that could befall 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.

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