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Thomas Jefferson Warned Us

The debt and our "broken government."

By 8.5.11

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"At some point, isn't it time to admit the system is broken?" So wrote Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein on Thursday. It was a phrase in widespread use for the past few weeks.

The intro to CBS News' Face the Nation on Sunday asked, "As Americans watch a broken government, can Washington avoid economic catastrophe?"

"Government is broken and it's not going to be repaired by next Tuesday," Bob Edgar, head of Common Cause, said last week.

Something that is broken does not work as intended. It has been damaged by an outside force. The debt ceiling negotiations revealed many things, but never that the United States government is broken. On the contrary, the government worked exactly as designed.

The party in control of the White House and the Senate disagreed with the party in control of the House. The disagreement was resolved through prolonged negotiations that resulted in a compromise that the president and a majority in Congress could and did accept. Disagreements in Washington have been worked out in precisely that way for centuries, just as the Founders anticipated.

The U.S. government is not broken; it is dysfunctional. That is, it functions, but in an unhealthy way, a way that needs to be corrected. And that dysfunction was the direct cause of the debt-ceiling "crisis."

Unlike most state governments, the federal government has no mechanism that prevents prolonged deficit spending. Congress and the president can spend more than the government takes in, forever, or at least until no one will lend to the government anymore.

Thomas Jefferson recognized this flaw immediately.

"No man is more ardently intent to see the public debt soon and sacredly paid off than I am," he wrote to President Washington in 1792. "This exactly marks the difference between Colonel Hamilton's views and mine, that I would wish the debt paid to-morrow; he wishes it never to be paid, but always to be a thing wherewith to corrupt and manage the Legislature."

To Senator, and former House Speaker, Nathaniel Macon, Jefferson wrote in 1821, "There does not exist an engine so demoralizing of the nation as a public debt. It will bring on us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad against whom this army and navy are to protect us."

Jefferson thought a perpetual public debt was so injurious to liberty that he theorized a way of preventing one generation from passing a debt on to the next. In a letter to John Eppes in 1813, he wrote, "What is to hinder (the government) from creating a perpetual debt? The laws of nature, I answer." Each generation would be limited to accumulating only the debt that it could pay off before it died, he theorized.

"Suppose that a majority, on the first day of the year 1794, had borrowed a sum of money equal to the fee-simple value of the State, and to have consumed it in eating, drinking and making merry in their day; or if you please, quarrelling and fighting with their unoffending neighbors."

If that generation tried to pass that debt to the next generation, "Every one will say no," Jefferson wrote, "… the laws of nature impose no obligation on them to pay this debt. And although, like some other natural rights, this has not yet entered into any declaration of rights, it is no less a law, and ought to be acted on by honest governments."

Jefferson's theory notwithstanding, this "law" has yet to be acknowledged by our government, much less written into the Constitution or our statutes. With no restraint on the accumulation of long-term debt, Jefferson's worst fears have been realized. Our politicians have figured out that they can benefit themselves by borrowing excessively and passing the bill to the next generation, which is exactly what they have done. The current debt is more than $14 trillion, or nearly $47,000 per U.S. citizen. Jefferson would be appalled.

That "perpetual debt," as Jefferson called it -- not the recent "crisis" caused by taking the debt ceiling seriously -- is our government's real dysfunction, and what must be fixed if we are to reclaim the liberty that comes, as Jefferson knew, from being freed of the "torment" of perpetual indebtedness.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.