Debunking the balanced budget superstition

11 Apr, 2019 at 14:56 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments


I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked, [it] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year, [and then] in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say “oh, oh what you have done” and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.

Paul Samuelson

Samuelson’s statement makes yours truly come to think of the following passage in Keynes’ General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is com­monly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authori­ty, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

To Keynes — as to Abba Lerner and MMT today — it was evident that the state had the ability to promote full employment and a stable price level – and that it should use its powers to do so. If that meant that it had to take on ​debt and (more or less temporarily) underbalance its budget – so let it be! Public debt is neither good nor bad. It is a means to achieving two over-arching macroeconomic goals – full employment and price stability. What is sacred is not to have a balanced budget or running down public debt per se, regardless of the effects on the macroeconomic goals. If ‘sound finance’, austerity and​ balanced budgets means increased unemployment and destabilizing prices, they have to be abandoned.


  1. The United Nations (UNICEF) with its Adjustment with a Human Face (1987) fought back fiscal austerity of Washington consensus and forcefully argued “to balance budgets by unbalancing the lives of the people” is short-sighted and wrong. The UNDP’s Human Development Report of 1990 boldly declared, “People cannot be reduced to a single dimension as economic creatures” (p. iii), and powerfully argued that the purpose of development is to offer people more options.

  2. Well we’ve had “unbalanced” budgets almost every year since WWII and the sky has not fallen in yet…:-)

  3. We need to talk more about balancing the economy and less about the budget.

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