Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Burckhardt on State and Debt

The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, in his Judgments on History and Historians, makes the following observation about the relationship between industry, the State, its debt, and its citizens in the context of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that may seem eerily prescient today:

Europe becomes the mill for all five continents; industrial and political superiority are regarded as going hand in hand. Through the confiscation of church property, the abolition of mortmain, a huge mass of energy and property as well as the people living there become available to industry.

Machines and mass production gradually rise. The great capital needed for them is accumulated and there is a progressively smaller number of people governing their destiny. Competition and mutual throat-cutting set in.

At the same time, however, with J.-J. Rousseau and the French Revolution ideas of equality and human rights as well as the expression “existence worthy of a human being” begin to have an influence. The greatest political freedom is combined with the largest measure of economic dependence; the middle class declines perceptibly.

An absurdly lamentable addition to this is the fact that the state incurs those well-known debts for politics, wars, and other higher causes and “progress,” thus mortgaging future production with the claim that it was in part providing for it. The assumption is that the future will honor this relationship in perpetuity. The state has learned from the merchants and industrialists how to exploit credit; it defies the nation ever to let it go into bankruptcy.

Alongside all swindlers the state now stands there as swindler-in- chief. (from IV.84, subsection “The Great Power and Industry”)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.