Gigantic Run-up of Federal Debt for What?

At the end of fiscal year 2008, the federal debt held by the public was about $5.8 trillion. By the end of fiscal year 2012, it had grown to about $11.3 trillion. Thus, in just four years, it had nearly doubled: the government ran up almost as much debt in four years as it had accumulated during the entire previous history of the nation. The additional debt amounts to more than $18,000 for every man, woman, and child in the United States, or more than $73,000 for a family of four. If the typical family had just run up this amount of personal debt, the head of household certainly would be losing sleep wondering how so much additional debt can possibly be handled.

In view of this astonishingly large additional burden the government has loaded onto the public, who must shoulder the responsibility for servicing and repaying it, one might well ask: what has the public received in return? This question, of course, cannot be answered in an aggregative manner because the public consists of diverse, differently situated persons, who differ in their receipt of government services and their valuation of those services.

It seems safe to say that some people—those on whom large government payments or other benefits were showered—may consider their share of the additional debt burden to be a good deal. For most people, however, this judgment seems highly unlikely. Ask yourself, If left to your own decisions, would you have voluntarily chosen to go into so much debt in order to obtain the identical additional services the government has supplied to you during the past four years?

To make matters worse, many of us consider the government’s “services” financed by its recent debt-financed binge to have, on balance, no benefit at all. We consider much of what the government purchases to have either no worth or negative worth—that is, we actually abhor much of the government’s activity and wish it would go away. For all of us in this group, the additional debt burden, whose pro rata share we cannot avoid, constitutes not only a burden, but a gross insult and abuse. It is bad enough that the government wastes money. It is far worse that it burdens us in order to annoy, trouble, and infuriate us. For many of us, therefore, this huge run-up of government debt has only added insult and injury in monstrous amounts to the insult and injury under which we were already groaning.

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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