Should Our Children Pay Our Bills?

And for your inheritance…..16 trillion in debt!

“It is a wise rule and should be fundamental in a government disposed to cherish its credit, and at the same time to restrain the use of it within the limits of its faculties…But what limits, it will be asked, does this prescribe to their powers?  What is to hinder them from creating a perpetual debt?  The laws of nature, I answer.  The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead…We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.”

“In seeking, then, for an ultimate term for the redemption of our debts, let us rally to this principle, and provide for their payment within the term of nineteen years at the farthest. Our government has not, as yet, begun to act on the rule of loans and taxation going hand in hand.  Had any loan taken place in my time, I should have strongly urged a redeeming tax. For the loan which has been made since the last session of Congress, we should now set the example of appropriating some particular tax, sufficient to pay the interest annually, and the principal within a fixed term, less than nineteen years. ”

~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Wayles Eppes, 24 June 1813 (emphasis added by me)


I think our elected officials have missed the memo.  Every news page these days reads about the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling.  Looming financial issues that plague our nation are being attended to by petty partisans bickering over how best to “score points” instead of how to help our nation’s finances find secure footing.  Or in all honesty, we’re now going to have to decide whether we are going to clean up our own mess or leave our children and our children’s children in an unending spiral of government debt.  Lots of people don’t want taxes to go up, lots of people don’t want to cut certain kinds of programs.  So basically, no one wants to look at the issue seriously.  Let me ask you this, dear Readers, do you have the right to indebt your children?  You are responsible for these debts.  You are the power behind the throne.  You elected these leaders who contracted these debts for our nation as a whole.  Should we have let them?  That’s a big obvious no.  But the deed is done.  There is no erasing the past, the debt is there.  We can either step up and commit to the things that need to be done or we condemn our next generations to pay for the things we bought for our own use.

I shouldn’t need to tell you how the founding fathers would address that one, but I’m angry, so I will.  I can literally offhand think of at least a hundred references to the founder’s disdain and deep distrust of too much debt.  There is good reason for their fear.  When one generation is weighed down by the debts of the previous generation, we historians already know what inevitably happens: society decays, democracy dies, and from its ashes comes dictatorships and monarchies and every situation where the rule of the few decides the fate of the many.  Jefferson, poor Thomas Jefferson, the father of the idea of limited government actually advocates taxation in the referenced letter.  Because it’s far better to raise a tax to pay for the debt you contracted than to leave the debt for later generations.  It’s even better to have a balanced budget to do away with this situation in the future, but we have a responsibility to pay the bills we have already made.  Something Jefferson was keenly aware of both in governance and in his personal life.

In other documents of his, Jefferson connects this to an interesting idea, that if we are actually taxed to pay the debts we owe in the present, than we will be more vigilant about keeping our representatives in line in how they manage the budget and our expenses.  How many people would want to be involved in the expensive wars in places like Afghanistan, right now, 11 years later, if the bill was coming out of their paycheck?  How much more carefully would we think about spending cuts and entitlement program reforms and a balanced budget if every dollar of debt we contracted would mean more cents out of our own wallets.  No one wants to feel the burden of having to pay up.  Well guess what?  It’s 16 trillion dollars, a debt like that is going to take every single combination of budget reform and spending cuts and yes, taxation to pay down and pay off.  Don’t just blame Congress for this mess.  Take some responsibility.  Blame yourselves.  And then we need to do what every founding father would have done, we need to act.  Because I’m hoping I’m not the only one unwilling to tell those kids smiling and playing outside that they will have to pay OUR debts for the rest of their lives.

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

The Letters of Thomas Jefferson

Electronic Text Courtesy of The University of Virginia

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