from The Water's Edge

George Washington on Debt and Taxes

September 19, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Budget, Debt, and Deficits

The text of George Washington’s Farewell Address. (Courtesy the National Archives)
The text of George Washington's Farewell Address. (Courtesy the National Archives)

Earlier today I noted the 215th anniversary of George Washington’s Farewell Address. It is best remembered for what it said about America’s role in the world. But its remarks on domestic politics would also sound familiar to modern ears, and it is worth reading for that reason alone.

Given the U.S. government’s current fiscal woes, one passage in particular seems especially relevant today regardless of your partisan persuasion:

As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment, inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue, which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

Some food for thought.

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Budget, Debt, and Deficits