Should the government borrow against the future? Should it guarantee higher taxes for your children and grandchildren in return for lower taxes for you?
If government’s moral legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed, as Thomas Jefferson argued in the Declaration of Independence, can the federal government morally compel those who haven’t consented to its financial profligacy — because they are not yet born — to pay higher taxes?
These questions are at the base of the debate — such as it is — in Congress these days over the so-called Republican tax reform plan. But you will not hear these questions even asked, much less answered, on Capitol Hill because the Republican leadership of the House and Senate is afraid that the answers might drive them from power. The same can be said for Democratic leaders when their party controls Congress.
In fact, with the exception of a few courageous senators, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, and representatives, such as Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, most in Congress in both parties think the only limit on the government’s taxing power is what it can politically get away with at any given moment.
And it gets away with a great deal because vast majorities in both major political parties recognize no moral limits to the government’s sordid pattern of tax, borrow and spend.
The numbers are chilling.
The federal government collects about $2.5 trillion in revenue and spends about $4 trillion, annually. The difference between what it collects and what it spends is made up in borrowing. But it doesn’t borrow money as you or I do or any business does — with a planned schedule to pay back the principal it owes plus interest. Rather, it goes deeper into debt to pay its debts.
Though the federal government has been in debt since day one, when it borrowed millions to pay the debts that the states had amassed in fighting the American Revolution (who knows whether the states would have formed a central government without its promise of assuming their war debts?), but from time to time, it has paid back the principal that it borrowed.
Since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson 100 years ago, however, with two then-novel revenue-generating tools — the personal income tax to produce…