Geof Stone on Republican Threats and the Debt Ceiling

By Any Means Possible: Republican Threats and the Debt Ceiling
Geoffrey R. Stone
The Huffington Post
July 27, 2011

A threat is an expression of intention to inflict harm on others unless the target of the threat agrees to do what the person making the threat demands. A threat uses coercion rather than persuasion to effect change. As a general rule, democratic governments do not negotiate with those who threaten their people with harm. The reason is simple: Democracies should not make public policy in response to threats, and those who threaten should not be rewarded for threatening harm to the nation.

This is the dilemma facing President Obama in the current debt ceiling crisis. The debt ceiling has never before been used as a leverage point for partisan political demands. As Mr. Obama observed in his address to the nation on July 25, presidents from Eisenhower to Bush II have regularly raised the debt ceiling without controversy and without facing anything like the current Republican intransigence.

But what makes that intransigence an immoral "threat" rather than an ordinary political disagreement? The answer is that the current controversy really has nothing to do with the debt ceiling. Rather, Republicans who do not have the votes to enact their preferred policies into law are threatening to throw the nation into economic chaos by refusing to increase the debt ceiling unless the President accedes to their demands. By threatening to wreak havoc with the national interest, they are attempting to coerce rather than persuade the nation into doing what they want.

Geoffrey R. Stone


Who'da thunk it? Stone a hard-core Federalist.

To begin with, Stone’s "key point" is erroneous.  If spending and taxes were more balanced, a substantial need to increase the debt ceiling would not exist.  More importantly, his argument that threatening not to increase the debt limit is tantamount to blackmail is meritless.  Duress or coercion exists where someone is pressured to act against their interests, not as Stone would suggest where someone is acting entirely within one's rights much to another’s displeasure. 

Perhaps an example will make this clear.  Suppose a child says to her parents, "I owe money all over town and I need to borrow money to pay it off.  If you don’t allow me to unconditionally borrow $50,000 for the next two years, I won’t borrow any money at all to pay my bills.”  How many parents would agree to that kind of demand?  Likely very few, yet if we are to understand Stone’s reasoning, such parents’ conduct is “very much like blackmail.”

The extreme nature of Stone's reasoning can be best understood by the fact that the Constitution itself was founded on the sort of "blackmail" he now apparently detests.  In order to help secure ratification of the Constitution, holdouts in the Philadelphia Convention had to be appeased with the attachment of a Bill of Rights.  Apparently though, requiring these protections of our cherished liberties wasn't an honorable act, but rather of all things dastardly "blackmail" dishonoring the Constitution.  Utterly absurd as that may be, that is what Stone's argument requires us to conclude.