Squandermania: Churchill on Debt Limits

Squandermania: Churchill on Debt Limits

We have lost count of how many debt lim­its have been raised by the U.S. and oth­er gov­ern­ments since this set of quo­ta­tions was first pub­lished in 2009. And anoth­er quar­rel about is on the table. So the title is now plur­al. Churchill’s ever­green views on nation­al debt apply any time, anywhere.

Q: What did he say about the debt?

What did Sir Win­ston Churchill say about spend­ing lim­its and pil­ing up the nation­al debt? —E.R., New Orleans

A: Many things, mostly consistent

The full Poy car­toon (Tim Benson)

No, Sir Win­ston will not inter­rupt his first mil­lion years to com­ment on the nation­al debt.  And I’m not going to sug­gest what he would think about it. Heav­en for­bid. I just sift­ed through Churchill by Him­self for applic­a­ble quo­ta­tions to answer your ques­tion. Chrono­log­i­cal order. Draw your own conclusions.

In your pocket, out his…

You may, by the arbi­trary and ster­ile act of Government—for, remem­ber, Gov­ern­ments cre­ate noth­ing and have noth­ing to give but what they have first tak­en away—you may put mon­ey in the pock­et of one set of Eng­lish­men, but it will be mon­ey tak­en from the pock­ets of anoth­er set of Eng­lish­men, and the greater part will be spilled on the way. (Birm­ing­ham Town Hall, 11 Novem­ber 1903)

Where you find that State enter­prise is like­ly to be inef­fec­tive, then utilise pri­vate enter­pris­es, and do not grudge them their prof­its. (St. Andrew’s Hall, Glas­gow, 11 Octo­ber 1906)

Every new admin­is­tra­tion, not exclud­ing our­selves, arrives in pow­er with bright and benev­o­lent ideas of using pub­lic mon­ey to do good. The more fre­quent the changes of Gov­ern­ment, the more numer­ous are the bright ideas; and the more fre­quent the elec­tions, the more benev­o­lent they become.  (On Debt, House of Com­mons, 11 April 1927)


There are two ways in which a gigan­tic debt may be spread over new decades and future gen­er­a­tions. There is the right and healthy way; and there is the wrong and mor­bid way. The wrong way is to fail to make the utmost pro­vi­sion for amor­ti­sa­tion which pru­dence allows, to aggra­vate the bur­den of the debts by fresh bor­row­ings, to live from hand to mouth and from year to year, and to exclaim with Louis XV: “After me, the del­uge!”  (House of Com­mons, 11 April 1927)

Lord Rother­mere, chief author of the anti-waste cam­paign, has enlist­ed under the Hap­py War­rior of Squan­der­ma­nia. The detailed meth­ods of spend­ing the mon­ey have not yet been ful­ly thought out…. But if only enough resource and ener­gy are used there will be no dif­fi­cul­ty in get­ting rid of the stuff. This is the pol­i­cy which used to be stig­ma­tised by the late Mr. Thomas Gib­son Bowles as the pol­i­cy of buy­ing a bis­cuit ear­ly in the morn­ing and walk­ing about all day look­ing for a dog to give it to. (Debt Pol­i­cy, House of Com­mons, 15 April 1929)

Easy go, easy come

Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ments drift along the line of least resis­tance, tak­ing short views, pay­ing their way with sops and doles, and smooth­ing their path with pleas­ant-sound­ing plat­i­tudes. Nev­er was there less con­ti­nu­ity or design in their affairs, and yet toward them are com­ing swift­ly changes which will rev­o­lu­tion­ize for good or ill not only the whole eco­nom­ic struc­ture of the world but the social habits and moral out­look of every fam­i­ly. (“Fifty Years Hence,” Strand Mag­a­zine, Decem­ber 1931)

I do not think Amer­i­ca is going to smash. On the con­trary I believe that they will quite soon begin to recov­er. As a coun­try descends the lad­der of val­ues many griev­ances arise, bank­rupt­cies and so forth. But one must nev­er for­get that at the same time all sorts of cor­rec­tives are being applied, and adjust­ments being made…. If the whole world except the Unit­ed States sank under the ocean, that com­mu­ni­ty could get its liv­ing. They carved it out of the prairie and the forests. They are going to have a strong nation­al resur­gence in the near future. There­fore I wish to buy sound low-priced stocks. I can­not afford any oth­ers.  (To stock­bro­ker H.C. Vick­ers, 21 June 1932)

Hope and change

Change is agree­able to the human mind, and gives sat­is­fac­tion, some­times short-lived, to ardent and anx­ious pub­lic opin­ion. (House of Com­mons, 29 July 1941)

Noth­ing would be more dan­ger­ous than for peo­ple to feel cheat­ed because they had been led to expect attrac­tive spend­ing schemes which turn out to be eco­nom­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble. (To For­eign Sec­re­tary, Pay­mas­ter Gen­er­al and Pres­i­dent of the Board of Trade, 17 Decem­ber 1942)

I do not believe in look­ing about for some panacea or cure-all…. It is easy to win applause by talk­ing in an airy way about great new depar­tures in pol­i­cy. Espe­cial­ly if all detailed pro­pos­als are avoid­ed. (Black­pool, 5 Octo­ber 1946)

Liberty vs. serfdom

The idea that a nation can tax itself into pros­per­i­ty is one of the crud­est delu­sions which has ever fud­dled the human mind. (Roy­al Albert Hall, 21 April 1948)

Social­ism is the phi­los­o­phy of fail­ure, the creed of igno­rance, and the gospel of envy. (Perth, 28 May 1948)

The choice is between two ways of life: between indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty and State dom­i­na­tion; between con­cen­tra­tion of own­er­ship in the hands of the State and the exten­sion of own­er­ship over the widest num­ber of indi­vid­u­als; between the dead hand of monop­oly and the stim­u­lus of com­pe­ti­tion; between a pol­i­cy of increas­ing restraint and a pol­i­cy of lib­er­at­ing ener­gy and inge­nu­ity; between a pol­i­cy of lev­el­ling down and a pol­i­cy of oppor­tu­ni­ty for all to rise upwards from a basic stan­dard. (Wolver­hamp­ton, 23 July 1949)


Churchill quo­ta­tions by kind per­mis­sion of Cur­tis Brown Ltd. and reprint­ed from Churchill by Him­self. Car­toon cour­tesy Tim Ben­son, Polit­i­cal Car­toon Gallery, London.

See also: “Poy (Per­cy Fearon): Churchill’s Clas­sic Car­toon­ist,” 2022.

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