Americans Aren’t Bound To Pay the Government’s Debts

If the “consent of the governed” is a sacred American principle, how does the government borrow money in our names and compel us to repay the debt?

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling—or, as I call it, the debt sky, because apparently the sky is the limit—the government won’t be able to pay all its bills starting October 17. The Congressional Budget Office says that dire condition won’t set in until sometime between October 22 and 31.

As he has each time this issue has come up, President Obama emphasizes that increasing the debt would only permit the government to pay expenses already incurred and would not finance new spending. To which I again reply, rhetorically: Why is Congress allowed to spend money that it knows it won’t possess unless the debt limit is raised? Not only does that violate good sense, it also rigs the debate over the debt limit by threatening default as the price of voting no.

Such a query about the debt sky assumes that Congress operates in a context of legitimacy. So what we really need to do is step back and question that context itself. To do that, there is no better person to turn to than Lysander Spooner (1808–1887), lawyer, abolitionist, entrepreneur, and libertarian subversive. It so happens that in section XVII of his 1870 essay “The Constitution of No Authority” (number 6 in his No Treason series), Spooner took up the question of government debt with his signature fresh look. As you might imagine, he left nothing standing.


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