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.
“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 disposes 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 rather suspicious. How can one actually consent if there is no possible way to withhold consent? (Charles W. Johnson has something to say about that.)
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.
How, then, is it possible, on any general principle of law or reason, that debts that are binding upon nobody individually, can be binding upon forty millions of people collectively, when, on general and legitimate principles of law and reason, these forty millions of people neither have, nor ever had, any corporate property? never made any corporate or individual contract? and neither have, nor ever had, any corporate existence?
It seems that this is not possible. “Who, then, created these debts, in the name of ‘the United States’?” he asks.
Why, at most, only a few persons, calling themselves “members of Congress,” etc., who pretended to represent “the people of the United States,” but who really represented only a secret band of robbers and murderers, who wanted money to carry on the robberies and murders in which they were then engaged; and who intended to extort from the future people of the United States, by robbery and threats of murder (and real murder, if that should prove necessary), the means to pay these debts.
Here, when Spooner says the members of Congress only “pretended to represent” Americans at large, he is referring to his earlier point that because the ballot is secret, we really don’t know whom these alleged representatives actually represent, that is, whose agents they really are.