By Crispin Sartwell
If, as the saying goes, the
power to tax is the power to destroy, the power to borrow is the power to be
destroyed. If taxation is
homicide, deficit spending is suicide.
According to the Constitution, both the power
of the federal government to tax and the power of the federal government to
borrow are essentially unlimited. Many of the American statesmen who opposed
the ratification of the document thought that these powers could be used to
create a despotism of the kind that patriots had resisted in the Revolution,
which was, as much as anything, a tax revolt.
They had a point, and both the extent to which
Americans are taxed and the extent to which they are regulated under the
auspices of their own dollars has crept steadily upward for the whole history
of the republic.
Nevertheless at any given moment there are
practical limits to increased taxation, fixed by the punishment voters inflict
on politicians who raise their taxes. Many an American politician - Walter
Mondale and George H.W. Bush spring to mind - have learned this fact at the
price of their careers.
But there are, as yet, no practical limits to
increased borrowing, and about the only anti-debt movement with any bite in
recent American history was the candidacy of Ross Perot.
The Bush administration has taken deficit
spending to almost comical lengths. Like Wile E. Coyote, it happily creates
incredibly elaborate mechanisms that will result only in its own destruction.
The administration flatly intends to borrow $200
billion - to start with - to address hurricane Katrina, while showing no
tendency to raise any actual money for Iraq or for ever-increasing (and
stunningly inept) "homeland security" programs.
It's hard not to be amazed by the new American
conservatism: big-government conservatism, enthusiastic about every possible
application of state power to every possible problem, indeed manufacturing
problems so as to be able to throw untold billions of dollars at them. It's a
good thing for the Republican party that Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan are
Throw in some fresh, fairly unavoidable war
somewhere, or some new dimension of terrorism, or the next natural disaster,
and DC will look like New Orleans, drowning in debt. The dollar will tank. The service on the debt will become
unpayable. The economy will nosedive.
One almost wishes for this result, because the
only way to teach politicians anything is to have them lose landslide
In fact, until deficit becomes disaster,
politicians will believe that they can borrow infinitely. And evidently, until
deficit becomes disaster, American voters don't care about it at all.
This dynamic, which amounts to a perverse
incentive to continuously reduce the government's income while continuously
inflating its debt, is a fundamental weakness in our form of government. The
Constitution, which simply allows the federal government "to borrow Money
on the credit of the United States," should be amended.
Many have proposed a balanced budget amendment of the
sort found in several state constitutions. I
personally would favor the approach that J. Bracken Lee - a former governor of
Utah - suggested in the 1950s: a resolution that would dissolve the federal
government if the national debt ever reached $6 trillion. The debt is currently
about $8 trillion dollars, and is about to balloon.
Then again, I'm an
anarchist and I'd like to see the federal government dissolved no matter what
the amount of the debt. So perhaps people more reasonable than I am could
devise some sort of responsible constitutional limits on the power to borrow.
This would be directly in
keeping with the spirit of the framers, because the inability of the national
government to pay its Revolutionary War debt was the impetus for the
constitutional convention of 1787.
Strangely enough, the founders of the United States were ashamed of this
debt and wanted to repay it.
There might be an amendment
to limit deficit spending as a percentage of overall spending in any given
year, for example. And though contemporary American politicians of both parties
might not really be enthusiastic about such an amendment, they might not be
able to oppose it with a straight face.
One thing about Wile E. Coyote: no matter how
many times he tumbles off into the abyss, he never draws any lessons from his
experience: he retains his sunny, pathetically diabolical optimism. It would be
nice to think that these pathetically diabolical neo-conservatives are smarter
than cartoon characters.
Meanwhile, they're loading the anvil on one side
of the seesaw and getting ready to jump on the other side.