War and big government go hand-in-hand. James Madison warned us.
“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
Madison specifically notes that wars require armies, and “from these proceed debts and taxes.” Together, the three make a trifecta of tyranny, “armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”
Wars cost a lot of money and they provide the perfect excuse to raise taxes. Few people will object when they are stirred up by patriotism. The problem is the wars never seem to end. And even if they did, the government would likely leave the taxes in place.
Even though they can get away with it during wars, politicians generally resist the urge to raise taxes. That’s because they usually don’t have to. They can just borrow the money.
This creates the illusion for many that war is essentially free. But everything the government does comes at a cost. Borrowing just pushes the price tag down the road. Borrowed money has to be paid back. The government will either tax you (or your children) in the future, or more likely, it will “print” money to pay for it and you’ll pay through the inflation tax.
Madison called borrowing and debt a curse.
“I go on the principle that a Public Debt is a Public curse and in a Rep. Govt. a greater than in any other.”
The reality is if you’re going to have endless wars, it will come with the curse of endless debt.
Thomas Jefferson held similar views. In a letter to William Plumer, he wrote, “I, however, place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared.”
One of the reasons Jefferson considered debt a danger is because the ability to borrow makes war possible.
In a 1798 letter to John Taylor, Jefferson suggested a single amendment to the Constitution would lead to “the reduction of the administration of our government.”
“I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing.”
Jefferson conceded that such an amendment would make it difficult to “pay all proper expenses within the year” when there was a war. But he thought it would be worth suffering that difficulty because it would make was less likely.
“I know that to pay all proper expenses within the year would, in case of war, be hard on us. But not so hard as ten wars instead of one. For wars could be reduced in that proportion.”
When Jefferson was president, he put his principles into practice.
Jefferson faced a huge national debt when he took office in 1800. But unlike his modern counterparts, he didn’t grow it further. In fact, he significantly whittled down the debt. Jefferson and his fellow Democrat-Republicans in Congress knocked about $26 million ($420,8 million in 2018 dollars) off the debt through his two terms in office — this despite taking on an additional $13 million of added debt for the Louisiana Purchase.
Despite facing several contingencies, Jefferson limited federal spending, keeping total outlays flat at between $8 and $10 million throughout his presidency.
The Democrat-Republicans held costs down by cutting the federal bureaucracy. And they even managed to do this with a federal workforce totaling just 130 employees.
There wasn’t a whole lot of fat to slice, so Jefferson went to part of the budget where the money was being spent – the military. He argued that funding a standing army in peacetime was a colossal waste of money. In his first message to Congress, Jefferson wrote:
“Sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not perhaps happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure.”
Congress responded to Jefferson’s message, reducing the army to 3,000 soldiers and 172 officers. It also cut the navy to six frigates and reduced the number of foreign embassies to only three — in Britain, France, and Spain.
All of these spending cuts freed up about $7 million in revenue annually. Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin used the surplus to pay down the debt.
Politicians today will rarely suggest cutting military spending. They don’t want to be accused of “making the world more dangerous.” But if we believe Jefferson, limiting spending makes war less likely. That makes the world a safer place.
And if we believe Madison, it means more liberty.
If you want to limit debt and taxes, you have to minimize war and the armies they require. Conversely, limiting debt will make war less likely. And making war less likely means more liberty, for as Madison noted, no nation can “preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
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