This 1992 Murray Rothbard essay on the national debt is well worth reading in its entirety, but in light of the Raise the apocalypse ceiling! chatter of the last few weeks and all the unchallenged assumptions blandly regurgitated I thought it might be useful to point people to a truly radical rethinking of public vs. private debt — Rothbard’s prescription will not likely become the default position of any elected official anytime soon, yet he raises serious, prickly questions about how public debt effects the relationship between man and state that our federal overseers eventually ought to be made to wrestle with:
Most people, unfortunately, apply the same analysis to public debt as they do to private. If sanctity of contracts should rule in the world of private debt, shouldn’t they be equally as sacrosanct in public debt? Shouldn’t public debt be governed by the same principles as private? The answer is no, even though such an answer may shock the sensibilities of most people. The reason is that the two forms of debt-transaction are totally different. If I borrow money from a mortgage bank, I have made a contract to transfer my money to a creditor at a future date; in a deep sense, he is the true owner of the money at that point, and if I don’t pay I am robbing him of his just property. But when government borrows money, it does not pledge its own money; its own resources are not liable. Government commits not its own life, fortune, and sacred honor to repay the debt, but ours.
This is a horse, and a transaction, of a very different color. For unlike the rest of us, government sells no productive good or service and therefore earns nothing. It can only get money by looting our resources through taxes, or through the hidden tax of legalized counterfeiting known as “inflation.”
There are some exceptions, of course, such as when the government sells stamps to collectors or carries our mail with gross inefficiency, but the overwhelming bulk of government revenues is acquired through taxation or its monetary equivalent. Actually, in the days of monarchy, and especially in the medieval period before the rise of the modern state, kings got the bulk of their income from their private estates—such as forests and agricultural lands. Their debt, in other words, was more private than public, and as a result, their debt amounted to next to nothing compared to the public debt that began with a flourish in the late 17th century.
The public debt transaction, then, is very different from private debt. Instead of a low-time preference creditor exchanging money for an IOU from a high-time preference debtor, the government now receives money from creditors, both parties realizing that the money will be paid back not out of the pockets or the hides of the politicians and bureaucrats, but out of the looted wallets and purses of the hapless taxpayers, the subjects of the state. The government gets the money by tax-coercion; and the public creditors, far from being innocents, know full well that their proceeds will come out of that selfsame coercion. In short, public creditors are willing to hand over money to the government now in order to receive a share of tax loot in the future. This is the opposite of a free market, or a genuinely voluntary transaction. Both parties are immorally contracting to participate in the violation of the property rights of citizens in the future.