(originally published on my blogspot blog in 2010)
Over the years that I have researched the question of the national debt and its impact upon an economy I have always been astonished at how boldly politicians, journalists and others ignore the lessons of historical experience.
For example, during the great depression of the 1930s one of the principal barriers to the relaunching of the British and North American economies was the obsession in balancing the budget despite the hardship that this act imposed and despite the negative consequences for the economy and the unemployed.In my writings I have drawn upon historical statistics to show that debt to GDP ratios were much higher than the levels reached in recent years and yet despite this the economies recovered and prosperity was restored and the debt ratio eventually dropped.
This was brought about through rapid economic growth and a sharp decline in the rates of unemployment. The notion that economic growth, wealth creation and prosperity are not incompatible with high debt to GDP ratios is crystal clear from the British case. The economic historian James Macdonald in his excellent work A free nation deep in debt makes exactly this point on pages 354-355.
He displays a chart which runs debt as a percentage of the GDP for Great Britain from 1690 to 1910. The ratio begins at 0% in 1690 runs higher and higher in a lurching manner until it peaks at about 300 % of the GDP in the late 1820s and then consistently declines with several brief upticks until it closes at around 20 % in 1910.As Macdonald states the debt was never lower than 100 % of the GDP for the century between 1760 and 1860 and averaged above 150 % from 1780 to 1845. “simplistic notions that national power and national debt are mutually incompatible are disproved by this single historical fact.” (p.355)
For it was during this period that Britain became the leading industrial power in the West.Similarly in the twentieth century the British debt to GDP ratio rose to above 200 % and despite this Britain remained an important industrial power with a very high standard of living.