Posts tagged with: default

noun_project_19538As the US federal government sidled up to the debt ceiling earlier this week without quite running into it, one of the key arguments in favor of raising the debt ceiling was that it is immoral to breach a contract. The federal government has creditors, both from whom it has borrowed money and to whom it has promised transfer payments, and it has an obligation to fulfill those promises.

As Joe Carter argued here, “Member of Congress who are refusing to raise the debt ceiling (or raise taxes) until their ancillary demands are met are acting immorally, since they are refusing to pay the debts they themselves authorized.”

But as Connie Cass writes, the idea that the United States has never defaulted isn’t quite true. As she writes,

America has briefly stiffed some of its creditors on at least two occasions.

Once, the young nation had a dramatic excuse: The Treasury was empty, the White House and Capitol were charred ruins, even the troops fighting the War of 1812 weren’t getting paid.

A second time, in 1979, was a back-office glitch that ended up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The Treasury Department blamed the mishap on a crush of paperwork partly caused by lawmakers who — this will sound familiar — bickered too long before raising the nation’s debt limit.

So if it is immoral to default, then America has done so at least twice.
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From Marketwatch today, “Morgan Stanley warns on sovereign defaults”:

“Outright sovereign default in large advanced economies remains an extremely unlikely outcome,” they said. But bondholders could suffer losses from forms of “financial oppression,” such as repaying debt with devalued currency, the analysts warned.

From last week’s Acton Commentary by Sam Gregg, “Deficits, Debt, and Self-Deception”:

Then there is the increased possibility that governments will resort to other, less-conventional means of deficit-reduction. As Adam Smith observed long ago in The Wealth of Nations, “when national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.” Smith went on to explain that “the liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.”

By “pretended payment,” Smith meant governments would seek to escape their debts by inflating the currency. In this way, governments could legally deny creditors what they are due in real terms, while simultaneously avoiding formal bankruptcy.

Of course, whenever a government resorts to inflation to diminish its debts, it has, for all intents and purposes, effectively acknowledged its insolvency. But such actions, as Smith noted, also constitute gross injustices against numerous innocents. Those who have been frugal and industrious suddenly find the value of their savings and capital arbitrarily reduced because of others’ financial irresponsibility. This also reduces the incentives for people to save and invest. For why should anyone bother to do so if they cannot be reasonably sure that the worth of their savings will not be suddenly diluted by government fiat?