NEW YORK — As the United States takes up the decision to lift its self-imposed debt ceiling, we would do well to remember why America’s public debt is as large as it is, and how it matters. With the rise of the tea party, Republicans may rail against raising the debt ceiling, but they are likely to back down in the end, because, among other things, debt-funded wars — say, in Afghanistan and Iraq — are easier to defend than pay-as-you-go wars that voters must finance up front with taxes.
Indeed, the looming U.S. debate underscores a more general point: since time immemorial, war has been a double-edged sword. Human societies have slaughtered and oppressed one another on the scale of Mother Nature’s worst scourges. But wars have also brought beneficial change, because mobilizing people for fighting also mobilizes them for politics.
History is replete with examples of war expanding the voice of those who provided the resources to fight. Ancient Athens became a “democracy” — literally, government by the people — when Kleisthenes organized ordinary fisher folk and farmers into a mass rabble capable of defeating Sparta-backed oligarchs. Their political freedom was secured by Athens’ reliance on labor-intensive naval warfare against the Persians and other enemies.
In Rome, the army’s sit-down strike in the 5th century B.C. opened politics to the lower classes. Common warriors were, explicitly and famously, the decision makers among Norsemen and in Swiss Alpine cantons in the early Middle Ages.
Medieval European cavalries later put political power into the hands of the wealthy, who could afford to support horses and their groomsmen, but the return of mass armies in the 15th and 16th centuries often turned the tables. Local militias achieved prominence and power in the Netherlands, beginning in 1568 during the long struggle against the Spanish Habsburgs, though they were again sidelined when the threat passed in the late 17th century.
Even then, European monarchs were forced to convene estates when they needed money to fight, forcing a dialogue about the purposes and costs of war. And “revolutionary” war against Britain in the 18th century helped secure democratic principles in the U.S. Constitution and encouraged a wider franchise. Napoleon’s armies, unleashed by the French Revolution’s mass political awakening, set off paroxysms of counter-mobilization that fueled the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848.
Modern democracy, with its mix of universal suffrage and property rights, looks remarkably like a compromise born of centuries of military competition among constitutionally evolving states, according to which the general public supplies the manpower to fight and moneyed interests supply the capital to train and equip the troops. As a result, democracies are likelier than nondemocracies to win wars, because they mobilize their societies more fully, and because citizens, who bear the costs, have the electoral power to stop politicians from fighting wars that are reckless and unnecessary.
America’s extended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, are different. Together, they have already cost more than America’s long war in Vietnam, but they have not increased public vigilance or political accountability at home. Indeed, the younger generation of Americans has greeted military action abroad with a yawn.
What accounts for the stark contrast between the mass protests against the Vietnam War and the muted public reaction to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
To some degree, fear of terrorism might shield U.S. leaders from the need for accountability. But eight in 10 Americans think that terrorist attacks are unlikely, and many voters believe that involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq will increase rather than limit America’s vulnerability to terrorism.
More likely, Americans take these wars lying down because the costs are not experienced by the average citizen. For one thing, technology-intensive warfare substitutes machines for soldiers, reducing the number of American casualties. Volunteer soldiers — including many noncitizens — and mercenary units for manpower reduce even further the reasons for voters to care.
Moreover, the U.S. is paying for these wars with debt. The government funded World War II partly with war bonds, but it also instituted the first general income tax in American history, increasing tax revenue from $8.7 billion in 1941 to $45 billion in 1945. This would have been impossible for an unpopular war. To finance today’s wars, by contrast, the U.S. government has not only avoided raising taxes, but has actually cut them on an enormous scale, with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 now extended at least through 2012.
By 2009, the U.S. budget deficit had climbed to more than 10 percent of GDP, thanks to increased expenditures and plummeting tax revenues during the recession. Overall public debt, to which each year’s deficit adds another hefty dollop, is projected to exceed 100 percent of GDP in 2011, up from around 40 percent in the late 1970s.
Countercyclical spending and tax policy are widely acceptable to experts and taxpayers alike, but deficit spending on wars is known to be a paltry way to stimulate the economy. It does, however, buy political time for U.S. administrations to continue prosecuting ill-considered and expensive wars with little domestic scrutiny. With the U.S. government’s access to global debt markets reducing the need to raise taxes, foreign governments now own nearly one-third of the U.S. government’s $14 trillion debt.
We will not know for some time whether the U.S. public debt is sustainable. We do know, however, that until now governments have had to subject themselves to increased political oversight when they needed manpower or money to fight wars. Lacking democracy’s most effective brakes on unpopular wars, the U.S. has become relatively free to get itself mired in unwelcome foreign adventures.
John Ferejohn, emeritus professor of political science at Stanford University, currently teaches at New York University Law School. Frances Rosenbluth is professor of political science at Yale University. © 2011 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences