Once again, last autumn we were inundated with dire warnings about what would befall the American people and the world economy if Congress did not raise the debt ceiling — or, as I call it, the debt sky, because apparently the sky’s the limit.
As he has each time this issue has come up, Barack Obama emphasized that increasing the debt would permit the government only 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? It’s as though you kept charging purchases on a credit card, assuming that every time you maxed it out, the bank would automatically raise the limit.
Not only does that violate good sense, it also rigs the debate over the debt limit by threatening so-called default as the price of voting no. (In fact, the government each month takes in an order of magnitude more revenue than it needs to avoid defaulting on its debt. It would not be able to cover all its appropriations, but that is different from a default.)
My query about the debt sky, of course, 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.
“On general principles of law and reason,” Spooner wrote, “debts contracted in the name of ‘the United States,’ or of ‘the people of the United States,’ are of no validity.”
How could that be?
It is utterly absurd to pretend that debts to the amount of twenty-five hundred millions of dollars are binding upon thirty-five or forty millions of people, when there is not a particle of legitimate evidence — such as would be required to prove a private debt — that can be produced against any one of them, that either he, or his properly authorized attorney, ever contracted to pay one cent.
Certainly, neither the whole people of the United States, nor any number of them, ever separately or individually contracted to pay a cent of these debts.
He has a point. I can’t recall ever registering such consent — or being asked to, for that matter. Can you? Aren’t we taught that the “consent of the governed” is a sacred American principle?
Earlier in the essay, Spooner handily disposed of the claim that voting or paying taxes implies consent. Since we are subjected to the government’s impositions whether or not we vote — opting out is forbidden — any given individual may have cast a vote purely in self-defense, for the perceived lesser of two evils. And paying taxes certainly cannot signify consent, because the penalty for nonpayment is theft of one’s property, imprisonment, or (should one resist) death.
In fact, there is no way not to consent, which makes the whole question suspect. As a matter of logic, how can one actually consent if there is no possible way to withhold consent? As Charles W. Johnson writes in “Can Anybody Ever Consent to the State?”: “If there is no effective possibility of refusal, then there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, and if there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, then there is no possibility of consenting. If existing states make a standing threat to force people to submit to their terms, even if they do not agree to those terms, then governments cut off any effective possibility of refusal, and thus nobody can do anything that would count as consenting to be ruled by an existing state — even if she wants to do so, and even if she sincerely says that she agrees to the terms.”
So by what authority do the people who claim to constitute the U.S. government borrow money in our names and compel us to repay the debt? By no authority at all, as far as I can see, unless “might makes right” counts as authority.