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Whose Debt Is It Anyway?

3:24 PM, Jan 17, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Joseph Bottum writes in USA Today on GOP efforts to play chicken with the debt ceiling: 

Our national debts "are legal obligations," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to Congress recently. "Responsibility for meeting the nation's obligations must be shared by both parties." Let's not pretend he isn't playing politics, too. Geithner urged Congress in his letter to raise the debt ceiling immediately, and what he's probably hoping is that the debate doesn't last long enough for Republicans to pry budget concessions out of the Democrats.

Nonetheless, it's curious that Geithner sounds like a conservative in all this, while DeMint sounds like a radical. Such arguments are nothing new in America. Back in 1789, for instance, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had a fascinating exchange of letters on the subject.

It was Jefferson, at his most wild-eyed and radical, who argued that we cannot bind future generations, or future political leaders, to pay back debts. And it was Madison, at his most serious and conservative, who replied that old commitments "form a debt against the living, who take the benefit of them. This debt can not be otherwise discharged than by a proportionate obedience to the will of the authors of the improvements."

Is it too much to ask conservatives today to side with Madison in these debates? Is it too much to ask them, now that they again hold power in the House, to be a little more grown-up?

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