Bankrupt Politicos

Written on September 26, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Europe, Globalization & International Trade, Political Economy

By José Ignacio Torreblanca, Associate Professor of IE School of Arts & Humanities

There was a time when the power of states was greater than that of the markets. The old absolute monarchs could get into as much debt as they wanted to finance their dynastic wars, enlightened schemes or personal whims. When the situation grew unsustainable, bankruptcy was declared and you started over again. In some cases, as in France, the debt “haircuts” were carried out using methods as expeditious as executing the bankers. Comparing those rulers of old with ours today, humiliated by the ratings agencies, tightly supervised by all sorts of international institutions and scrutinised in their decisions by constitutional courts, the latter look wimpish. Even Angela Merkel seems just as impotent as the rest.

Until the 19th century, a state bankruptcy was not seen as something to be ashamed of. Some revenue ministers even held that a bankruptcy now and then was an effective way to put things in order and beginning over again. In practice, state bankruptcies were something that only rich countries could afford and, in a way, reflected the power of the state and of its monarch. It is not by chance that between 1300 and 1799, Spain declared bankruptcy no less than six times, and France, coinciding with the expansion of its power in Europe, eight. But in the 19th century France stabilised its public finances (its last bankruptcy came in 1812) while Spain continued the tradition with no less than eight more bankruptcies between 1809 and 1882. In the 20th century, before World War Two, Germany, Austria and Poland all went bankrupt on two occasions each.

The impression is that since the pre-history of the modern state, a great part of political activity has consisted of nothing more than in finding ways to deprive the rulers of their power to spend the taxpayers’ money, or alternatively, to keep them on a tight leash and oblige them to account for it. In the classic formula (no taxation without representation), the bourgeoisie and the monarchy agreed that the former would pay taxes and, in exchange, the latter would share its sovereignty. Hence the 13 American colonies refused to pay taxes to the British crown, in whose parliament they did not sit. Hence even today, many rentier states, which obtain income not from the citizens but from oil or natural gas (think of Saudi Arabia) can afford the luxury of not taxing their people and, in exchange, not allowing them any say in public finances. Read more…

As published in www.ecfr.eu on September 23, 2011.


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