There have always been two reasons for adding to the national debt. One is to fight wars. The second is to counteract recessions. But while the national debt in 1982 was 35% of GDP, after a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth and the end of the Cold War the debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled.
It is hard to escape the idea that this happened only because Democrats and Republicans alike never said no to any significant interest group. Despite a genuine economic emergency, the stimulus bill is more about dispensing goodies to Democratic interest groups than stimulating the economy. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) -- no deficit hawk when his party is in the majority -- called it "porky."
It was not ever thus. Before the Great Depression, balancing the budget and paying down the debt were considered second only to the defense of the country as an obligation of the federal government. Before 1930, the government ran surpluses in two years out of three. In 1865, the vast debt run up in the Civil War amounted to about 30% of GDP; by 1916 it was less than a tenth of that.
There even was a time when the U.S. made it a deliberate policy to pay off the national debt entirely -- and succeeded in doing so. It remains to this day the only time in history a major country has been debt free. Ironically, the president who achieved this was the founder of the modern Democratic Party, Andrew Jackson.
Jackson was a Jeffersonian through and through. The smaller the federal government, the more he liked it. And, like Jefferson, he hated banks, speculation and the "money interest." Unlike Jefferson, however, he was born poor and made his own fortune. An early personal encounter with debt had taught him to fear it. When the notes of someone who had bought land from him proved worthless, he became liable for the debts he had secured with those notes, and it took him years to pay them off.
When he ran for president the first time, in 1824, Jackson called the debt a "national curse." He vowed to "pay the national debt, to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country."
Comment: We need more Jeffersonian small government thought!