All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1987

The Moral Case for a Balanced Budget

Joseph S. Fulda is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hofstra University and resides in Manhattan.

There is much talk these days about balanced budgets, but the talk is about figures when it should be about values, about the economic consequences of imbalance when it should be about its moral propriety. The compelling moral case for a balanced budget—against both deficits and surpluses—deserves wider attention.

The earliest American champion of fiscal integrity, Thomas Jefferson, reasoned that “every generation coming equally, by the laws of the Creator of the World, to the free possession of the earth He made for their subsistence, unencumbered by their predecessors, who, like them, were but tenants for Life,” “the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”

With such a principled and honorable heritage, the several trillion dollar debt we will leave posterity is a betrayal of our origins. We Americans once boldly declared our Republic founded “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity,” yet today leave each other and our children for generations to come to work off our debts and labor for our continuing prodigality. We Americans who once chafed at the thought that in a land far away others taxed us without our consent, today readily tax those of a time still to come who are not here to withhold their consent and are unable to say nay. What could be plainer than that every bond issue, every deficit, and every “multiplication of the public debt,” as it used to be called, amounts to taxation without representation, the very principle against which this nation revolted?

It is not prudence or temperance alone, always good qualities in government, that • impels us to forswear deficit financing. It is a matter of right.

The case against surpluses dates to antiquity as witness the Biblical injunction against the accretion of royal wealth (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). This not only helped preserve the king’s character, it served to check depredations of his subjects. More important, though, and along with the similar injunction against an excessive cavalry, it served to limit his military adventures. The original war chest, accumulated over a long reign by an annual excess of revenues over expenditures, made possible foreign adventures which would have been quite unthinkable if financing them were to have required sudden, confiscatory taxation. As Mr. Jefferson remarked, “The present system of war renders it necessary to make exertion far beyond the annual resources of the State, and to consume in one year the efforts of many.”

Today, the adventures of state are as often social and domestic as military and foreign, but the principle remains. Governments exist, as John Locke declared, to preserve our property, not to take it from us and store it for some future, unknown mischief. That being so, government is limited to raising revenues for its constitutional purposes.

The argument against surpluses does not apply to the discharge of the public debt, nor does that against deficits apply to the diminution of public reserves. The moral imperative with which we are therefore faced today is for surpluses to gradually eliminate the national debt. But such surpluses must be generated in a manner consistent with our tradition of liberty—i.e., by still further tax rate and regulatory reductions, real fiscal restraint including the wholesale elimination of wasteful government programs, privatization of government enterprises, and the sale of unneeded government properties, not by increased government exactions and confiscatory taxation. That is the course that Mr. Jefferson pursued while in public office, and it is the road we must try to regain.