Portrait of Adam Smith

Adam Smith debunks that idea that when it comes to public debt “we owe it to ourselves” (1776)

Found in: An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Cannan ed.), vol. 2

In a discussion of funding a war by increasing public debt, Adam Smith (1723-1790) rejects the commonly held idea that heavy debt is not a problem for a society because “we owe it to ourselves”, or as he put it, “it is the right hand which pays the left”:


In the payment of the interest of the publick debt, it has been said, it is the right hand which pays the left. [52] The money does not go out of the country. It is only a part of the revenue of one set of the inhabitants which is transferred to another; and the nation is not a farthing the poorer. This apology is founded altogether in the sophistry of the mercantile system, and after the long examination which I have already bestowed upon that system, it may perhaps be unnecessary to say any thing further about it. It supposes, besides, that the whole publick debt is owing to the inhabitants of the country, which happens not to be true; the Dutch, as well as several other foreign nations, having a very considerable share in our publick funds. But though the whole debt were owing to the inhabitants of the country, it would not upon that account be less pernicious.