States and polities—or rather the ruling classes that control them—face two great tests in the course of history. Failure to meet them typically leads to disaster and even the dissolution of the State. The first and most familiar is war, armed conflict with other States (or more accurately, other ruling groups). By analogy wars can be compared to examinations or timed tests; the test of war is relatively short, intense, and often sudden in onset, with the probable result obvious from the start and often dramatic.
The second kind of existential test can be likened rather to that of researching and writing a dissertation—longer, more drawn out, with less immediate drama but presenting in many ways a more thorough and searching examination. The consequences of failure, however, can often be just as severe, even if they take longer to arrive. This second test is that of managing taxation and public finance. As writers through the ages have recognized, failure at this can ruin a polity as surely as defeat in war.
What, though, is the nature of the test, and in what sense do ruling groups fail it? Historically, ruling groups draw incomes (“rents” in the economists’ language) from the groups they control. They do this through various means, including taxes, fines, fees, tariffs, tolls, the selling of privileges and exemptions, and even outright expropriation. In return they typically provide services, most notably defense against irregular predators, a means of settling disputes, and a range of what are commonly described as “public goods,” which can cover anything from public works and infrastructure to education. Ultimately all these services have to be funded out of the revenues the rulers can gain. It is true that a shortfall can be met by borrowing, but the money lent is secured against future income and so doing this is simply a way of spending income now in anticipation of its arrival in the future.
The failure of rulers to handle this can take two forms. The simplest is when the level of taxation and other exactions is simply too high and discourages productive labor to such a degree that wealth is destroyed rather than created. If taken too far, this can actually destroy the basis for the rulers’ position. Just as a parasite that kills its host is a biological failure, so ruling classes that destroy their own productive base are clearly political failures. The more insidious failure, however, arrives when ruling groups spend more money than they take in and fund it through debt. This can go on for a long time, even indefinitely, provided the underlying economy is productive and dynamic enough and the spending is not too high. The evidence of history is that it cannot go on forever. Sooner or later a crunch will come, and the way the ruling group responds determines whether it passes or fails the test.
In 1783 the Treaty to Paris brought an end to a worldwide conflict. For Americans this was the American Revolution, when the colonies gained their independence from the British Empire. From a world perspective, however, this was only the latest round in a struggle for global leadership between Britain and France that could be traced back to the 1690s. Just as in previous episodes, the war had been financed mainly through the issuing of debt, which was added to the accumulated obligations of earlier conflicts. By 1783 the public finances of both France and Britain were in a desperate state. In many ways the British finances were in worse shape than those of the French: In 1784 total British debt amounted to 156 percent of GDP, comparable to French levels but with an economy not as large as that of France and so less able to support such a burden. However, the next six years saw the British elite address this problem. Their French counterparts did not and failed the test.
In Britain the new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, brought the public finances under control through what was known as “economical reform.” This was a combination of extensive tax increases and major cuts in government spending, most significantly through the abolition of a large number of useless government jobs or sinecures. This had significant political implications because access to these posts was a major form of patronage and central to the political system of the time. Even so, the cuts were made.
In France the new minister of finance, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, did not address the state of the French public finances in the same way, at least not initially. Instead he floated a series of loans to bridge the gap between income and expenditure. Despite its greater wealth, the French crown had to pay twice the interest rate of the British State, because its creditors (the so-called “financiers”) had less confidence in its capacity to repay the debt and its willingness and ability to do what was necessary. Eventually Calonne proposed a series of reforms including tax increases (in particular taxes on the aristocracy and clergy), major cuts in government spending, and a move to internal free trade in France. To overcome opposition, in 1787 he persuaded the king to summon an Assembly of Notables. However, the elites opposed both the tax increases and spending cuts, and he was dismissed. The publicizing of the desperate state of the finances and the accelerating loss of confidence in France’s rulers by their creditors meant the difficulties of the crown became even more acute until, in 1789, the king in desperation called a meeting of the Estates General for the first time in over 150 years to try to break the deadlock. What followed is, as they say, history.
Contemporary Americans should look back at these events with increasing nervousness. As in Britain and France in 1783, the public finances are in a parlous state. The gap between revenue and expenditure has never been wider and is even worse than the headline figures suggest when the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security are taken into account. For a long time now the American political class has been funding expenditure through borrowing, depending ultimately on the confidence of their creditors and the underlying productivity of the American people. If this confidence should waver (and there are many signs of this) the cost of this borrowing is bound to rise. If the spending and liabilities exceed the capacity of even the most heroic future productive labor by American citizens (as they clearly do) then something has to give.
Ultimately it is clear that either spending must be cut or taxes and imposts increased or some combination of the two. Just as in France, however, this depends on the willingness of both elites and ordinary people to do what is necessary. That in turn depends on a broad agreement as to the proper role and size of government. In the absence of such an agreement, just as in France in 1787, tough decisions will be ducked and matters will go from bad to worse. Arguments about taxes and the deficit are thus proxies for a deeper debate.