Much has been written and said lately about the problem of the national
debt, especially after the sovereign debt crisis that has shaken the eurozone in the last few years. So, after thinking
about the topic for quite a while (and discussing it with quite a few people
of different ideological persuasions), it occurred to me that I could put
together a dialogue to provide a somehow different perspective. So, here it
The problem with Government debt
— So, I hear you strongly oppose the current policies of the Obama Administration, and consider the
US national debt
to be perhaps the most important problem we face right now.
— I certainly do.
— What is it that you consider so unacceptable about the debt?
— Well, obviously, the fact that it is unsustainable. It's just not
possible to go on forever spending more than you earn. There's got to be a
limit. It's just immoral to go on borrowing what you know perfectly well
that you won't be able to return. On top of that, it imperils the future of
our own kids.
— OK, OK. Let's see if we can clarify a few things and, above all, make
sure we discuss all these points one by one. You said that the Government
debt is "unsustainable". Why?
— Because it keeps growing and growing. It never stops! It never goes
— Well, you have a point there. However, the debt does not have to be
like that necessarily, right? I mean, our Government (just like individual
citizens) can incur into a debt that is indeed too large and unmanageable
(and, therefore, impossible to repay) or, on the other hand, it could
conceivably incur into a manageable debt that will be invested and, as a
consequence of that investment, will allow us to grow our revenue and,
therefore, pay it back. Isn't that correct? I mean, that did happen in the
— Sure. However, for quite sometime now, we have not truly being
incurring into debt in order to invest in the future, but rather to increase
our own consumption. In other words, we are being greedy. We pull out the
credit card (so to speak), get the money, and immediately spend it. There is
no investment there!
— I see. Your problem, then, is not so much with the fact that there
is a debt, but what we are choosing to do with the money we obtain via credit.
We are not doing anything really productive with it. We are definitely not
investing it into the future. Rather, we are just burning it all here and
now, without any consideration whatsover for what the future might bring. Is
— OK. So, it seems to me that you find it quite irresponsible (indeed,
even immoral) that we are spending all our cash on material consumption to
satisfy ourselves here and now and, on top of that, we are also borrowing
money from the future to spend even more. In other words, all we seem to care
about is the immediate satisfaction of our needs and wishes, without any
concern whatsoever for the future.
— I also noticed you mentioned the future generations.
— Of course. They're directly affected by our own irresponsibility. Our
Government is spending far more than it raises, which means that we owe an
increasing amount of money. But it's not us who will pay. It's our own kids
who will have to pay. They have no say in the matter, but we are leaving them
a nasty inheritance.
— I imagine you also consider that painfully irresponsible and immoral.
— Of course I do! How else would you call that? We are spending the
money that we don't have, then passing the bill to our own kids, who will
have to pay for our own excesses sometime in the future, when we won't be
— I see. So, you don't think there's any excuse to allow Government
debt to exist.
— No. There is no excuse. If we, regular folks, live within our means,
how come the Government doesn't? It's plainly immoral.
— Does that mean that the US Government behaved in a profoundly immoral
way when it resorted to the debt to pay for World War II?
— Well, no. That was different.
— Oh. Therefore, there are exceptions to the rule. I mean, there are
certain cases where public debt may be allowed. In other words, there are
instances where you wouldn't consider Government debt immoral.
— I suppose. But those are very special circumstances.
— For example?
— Well, like the case you just mentioned. In case of war, it may be
necessary to incur into debt in the short term in order to defend our national
— But it's immoral, isn't it? Are you saying that we should do something
immoral in order to defend our national interest?
— Well, no. What I'm saying is that, under such special circumsntances,
it would be OK to borrow money...
— ...and temporarily live beyond our means, right?
— Well, sure. How else could we do it? It'd be a situation of
emergency. The national interest comes first.
— Which leads me to conclude, then, that there are moral considerations
that are more important than the moral precept against incurring debt. Isn't
that the case? They may be exceptional, but they do exist. You just admitted
— Yes but, again, they are very exceptional.
— OK, I won't press the issue any further. I fully understand this is
a can of worms. Once we accept an exception to the moral rule, we'd have to
decide what is it exactly that justifies an exception. I hope you will see
that there is room for discussion there. You may consider that only a military
threat to the survival of the country is an exception large enough to
justify Government debt, but other people may consider other things (a serious
economic depression, a natural catastrophe...) to be substantial enough to
justify the practice of borrowing money.
— But that will take us back to the same point then!
— Listen, it wasn't me who first said that World War II was a peculiar
circumstance that did justify the resort to Government debt. I just pointed
out that the moral principle according to which we shouldn't spend beyond
our means is not to be considered the cornerstone of the whole moral edifice.
In other words, there are other principles and considerations that may take
precedence. The problem, of course, is to decide which principles are those.
I don't know about you, but I can only think of one legitimate way to decide
those matters: through public debate and democracy. In any case, we agree
that, in general, the principle according to which we should strive to live
within our means is to be upheld. Let's not worry about the exceptions right
now. There are other issues I'd like to bring up.
The problem with private debt
— Let's turn now to the problem of private debt.
The problem with the ecological debt
The problem with a whole lifestyle