NATIONAL DEBT. If we bring into account the wealth possessed by her citizens individually, England is the richest country in Europe. The amount of her public debt, on the other hand, so infinitely beyond the debt of any other state, would seem to indicate that, consi dered apart from that individual wealth, England is the poorest of nations. But the national debt is owing by the aggre gate of the people—by the nation—for whose benefit, real or supposed, it was contracted. It suits the general con venience, including that of the public creditor, that the nation, in its aggregate sense, should thus continue to exhibit signs of poverty in contrast with the evi dences of enormous wealth; but if it were otherwise—if the public conve nience, still more if the public safety, de manded such a course, the same authority which sanctioned the contracting of the debt could also oblige each individual in the cottntry to contribute according to his means towards its extinction. It would be difficult to imagine any circumstances that could render such a course expedient, and the position has been here advanced solely with the object of explaining, in a familiar way, the nature of the debt, mid the manner in which the obligation to bear the burthen and contribute towards upholding the national faith presses upon every individual. Every one is interested in forming a correct idea con cerning a matter which exercises an in fluence upon every circumstance that affects his social position and progress. Yet it is by no means uncommon to and persons who suppose the national debt to be a fund, a deposit of treasure, a sign of national riches; anything in short op posed to that which it really is, namely, a drawback upon the national wealth, a mortgage of the national industry for the payment of a perpetual annuity in return for capital advanced to meet the national exigencies, and which has been consumed for national objects. It has been said that as this debt, or by far the largest part of it, is owing among ourselves, it cannot have any prejudicial action upon the national interest, since that which a body owes to its own members cannot he considered a debt. It is true that the
public expenditure, including its debt, has been furnished by its own citizens, and that our future industry is therefore not mortgaged to strangers, but the por tion of its fruits which must be set apart for the public creditors is so much capital which may be productively employed. It will nevertheless easily be made ap parent how the successive absorption of private capital for public purposes must prove injurious to a country, if we con sider what must have been the condition of England, if, instead of thus absorbing a part only, the whole of the disposable wealth of her individual citizens had been so expended. It might still have been said, that as what was taken from all in the form of taxes was returned to a part in the form of dividends, the money did not leave the country ; and that although of course it must affect the condition of individuals, it would not affect the condi tion of the aggregate. But, it must be asked, where, in the case supposed, would have been the capital that must set in dustry in motion and enable the payment of taxes? It is indeed evident that in such case the country must have long ago become bankrupt, and have been unable to hold any rank among independent nations.
The real difference between a private debt and the public debt called the na tional debt consists in the compound cha racter of the creditors, who as members of the nation are legally and morally bound to contribute towards the mainte nance of the public faith, while they have each a personal interest in its preserva tion. There is also this further distinc tion between the debts of the nation and those of individuals, that the state has at all times the right to pay off its creditors at par, while the creditors have no right to demand repayment of the principal money, but must content themselves with receiving half-yearly the amount of their annuity.