Monday, November 15, 2010

Speaking English: Perilous Debt

"Americans for Prosperity Citizen Watchdog Leader." Whew! That noun stack is a mouthful. I think it means Grand Poobah of the anti-tax crowd. It's how one Adrian D. Heath is described on the AFP Texas website, where his November 8, 2010, testimony before the Texas House County Affairs Committee is published.

Heath complains of elected officials "encumbering our real property with perilous debt." Heath says "perilous debt" kind of like you might imagine him saying "dastardly villain," taking it for granted that debt is perilous just like villains are dastardly.

Heath believes that debt is contrary to the whole purpose of government. After the jump, what Heath believes that purpose is.

Heath underpins his aversion to public debt with this principle, stated as fact:

"The first responsibility of local government and therefore by extension -- elected officials is defend life liberty and property."
Ignoring the odd punctuation, this claim is generally sound, if perhaps too exclusive. It paraphrases John Locke, the great 17th Century English philosopher and Enlightenment thinker who inspired America's own Founders. But our Founders put it more expansively, assigning a more proactive role to government. For them, the responsibility of government is...
"to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity"

This, of course, is from the preamble to the United States Constitution, the founding document for our government. Defense of property is still implied, but it's not explicitly mentioned as in Locke's quotes, and nowhere is there a prohibition against encumbering our real property with debt. In fact, Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power "To borrow money on the credit of the United States." Public debt is not considered to be perilous. It's considered to be useful and prudent when used to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.

Public debt can be used to promote the general welfare at the local level, too -- for things like streets and fire stations and recreation centers. On the other hand, the unwillingness to tax ourselves to support that debt might be perilous, but that's something that the Americans for Prosperity Citizen Watchdog Leader does not seem to be much concerned about. His argument is only as good as the premise he takes for granted. And that premise takes too much for granted. Debt is not necessarily perilous.

No comments: