While it is likely the two parties in Congress will reach a deal before the August 2 deadline, I can’t help reflecting on how wonderful it would be if they didn’t. While Congressman Ron Paul has correctly pointed out the government has already defaulted at least three different times in its history, and continues to default every time it prints new money, it is not quite the same as an “on-the-books” failure to make a timely payment. That is exactly what America needs.
Politicians, mainstream economists, and the media tell us a U.S. government debt default would be catastrophic. Treasury bonds would be downgraded, interest rates would soar, and the massive government spending that has supposedly fueled the present (jobless) recovery would be severely curtailed, plunging the U.S. and possibly the world back into a deep recession.
Perhaps that is true. Nevertheless, a debt default by the federal government would still be a blessing, for several reasons.
First, one must remember that all government spending represents a redistribution of wealth (what we regular folks call “stealing”). The government forcibly confiscates money from those who have earned it and spends it for the benefit of someone else. The most insidious way the government does this is by borrowing. When it borrows, it is confiscating money from people in the future – some of whom are not yet even born – to hand out to special interest supporters today. To the extent it would prevent or decrease this, a default would result in a more just society.
However, even if one doesn’t care about justice or property rights, a default would help correct the malinvestment that has caused this crisis in the first place. As I’ve said before, the entire U.S. economy is really one, huge bubble of misallocated resources, caused by a century of government intervention. The government’s backing of mortgages, together with monetary inflation by the Federal Reserve, were the primary causes of the housing bubble. This same dynamic exists in almost every sector of the economy.
The government also backs student loans for college. Just like it did to the housing industry, this government guarantee has inflated prices in higher education far beyond what could be supported by real demand. That in turn has led to the creation of millions of jobs in the education sector that only exist because the government subsidizes them. When the government funds are no longer there, the price of education will plummet, just as housing prices did, and all of those people will be out of work.
Healthcare is another sector with all of the same intervention-related problems. Government subsidies create artificial demand, inflating the price and misallocating resources to the healthcare sector. The healthcare industry is not forced to innovate in terms of delivering its services in more efficient ways because customers are forced to buy its products,
If you doubt this, just withhold the Medicare portion of your payroll taxes and see what happens.
This also creates jobs in the healthcare sector which are not supported by natural market forces. When the government can no longer subsidize them, those jobs will go away, just as they did in housing and education.
Banking, research, agriculture, energy, automobile manufacturing – there is not one sector where government is not overriding the voluntary transactions market participants would otherwise engage in. Wherever the government is spending taxpayer money, it is overriding a previous choice by taxpayers not to purchase that product. As F.A. Hayek observed in The Road to Serfdom, the government has never and can never make better choices than millions of market participants acting in their own self-interest. They simply lack the information necessary to do so.
Therefore, wherever the government is spending money to try to boost some aggregate statistic, it is making a problem bigger. If government spending is creating jobs, they are not real jobs. A real job is a voluntary contract between a buyer of services (an employer) and a seller of services (an employee). If that job is created because of government spending, a third party is introduced into the transaction who is not acting voluntarily.
Government-created jobs force taxpayers to purchase services from employees because it is not profitable for the employers in that sector to purchase them. Forcing taxpayers to purchase them doesn’t make those jobs any more profitable. It just depletes the capital available to create profitable jobs elsewhere.
The prospect of tens of millions more people unemployed may seem frightening, but that day is coming regardless of what politicians do. Economic laws are like the laws of nature. They will assert themselves in the end. Any job that requires the government to borrow more money to subsidize it is also a job that depends upon the lenders continuing to lend. As we have seen in recent Treasury bond auctions, those days are coming to an end. Raising the statutory debt ceiling only allows more phony jobs to be created, setting up more employees for the painful correction.
The most important reason a debt default will be beneficial is a philosophic one. It will force a complete paradigm shift in the way Americans think about the role of government. For a century, there has been no area of life that some special interest has not appealed to government to manage or subsidize. From the way we conduct commerce to the way we make personal decisions on food or healthcare to the way we coexist with our neighbors in other countries, nothing has been off-limits.
Complacency about our liberty has been one reason. The other has been the perception of infinite financial resources. The great wealth the United States generated in freer days provided a tax base and borrowing collateral that has always been perceived as unlimited. A debt default would shatter that foolish perception.
The default would be a bucket of cold water in the faces of a drowsy and compliant populace. It would wake people up to the reality Thomas Paine was aware of over 200 years ago, when he wrote that government “is at best, a necessary evil.” People would realize the government doesn’t “have our back,” other than to stick a gun in it to loot our liberty and wealth. We would no longer hear that horrid refrain from media pundits after some new government incursion or heist: “Well, the government had to do something.”
Instead, we would hear the resigned chorus, “Well, the government couldn’t do anything.” And perhaps, in some glorious, enlightened future, we’ll hear “The government shouldn’t do anything.”