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A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy

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For the greater part of recorded history the most successful and powerful states were autocracies; yet now the world is increasingly dominated by democracies. In A Free Nation Deep in Debt, James Macdonald provides a novel answer for how and why this political transformation occurred. The pressures of war finance led ancient states to store up treasure; and treasure accumu For the greater part of recorded history the most successful and powerful states were autocracies; yet now the world is increasingly dominated by democracies. In A Free Nation Deep in Debt, James Macdonald provides a novel answer for how and why this political transformation occurred. The pressures of war finance led ancient states to store up treasure; and treasure accumulation invariably favored autocratic states. But when the art of public borrowing was developed by the city-states of medieval Italy as a democratic alternative to the treasure chest, the balance of power tipped. From that point on, the pressures of war favored states with the greatest public creditworthiness; and the most creditworthy states were invariably those in which the people who provided the money also controlled the government. Democracy had found a secret weapon and the era of the citizen creditor was born. Macdonald unfolds this tale in a sweeping history that starts in biblical times, passes via medieval Italy to the wars and revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and ends with the great bond drives that financed the two world wars.


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For the greater part of recorded history the most successful and powerful states were autocracies; yet now the world is increasingly dominated by democracies. In A Free Nation Deep in Debt, James Macdonald provides a novel answer for how and why this political transformation occurred. The pressures of war finance led ancient states to store up treasure; and treasure accumu For the greater part of recorded history the most successful and powerful states were autocracies; yet now the world is increasingly dominated by democracies. In A Free Nation Deep in Debt, James Macdonald provides a novel answer for how and why this political transformation occurred. The pressures of war finance led ancient states to store up treasure; and treasure accumulation invariably favored autocratic states. But when the art of public borrowing was developed by the city-states of medieval Italy as a democratic alternative to the treasure chest, the balance of power tipped. From that point on, the pressures of war favored states with the greatest public creditworthiness; and the most creditworthy states were invariably those in which the people who provided the money also controlled the government. Democracy had found a secret weapon and the era of the citizen creditor was born. Macdonald unfolds this tale in a sweeping history that starts in biblical times, passes via medieval Italy to the wars and revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and ends with the great bond drives that financed the two world wars.

44 review for A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Historian MacDonald delves deeply into the roots of modern debt-based mechanisms of public finance to tell a tale about the development of democracy. He suggests that high per capita incomes are at best only a partial explanation for the rise of democratic institutions. More important, he argues, was the war-driven need of the leadership of tribes, pre-modern societies, and modern states to mobilize their societies in the face of external threats, particularly threats to collective security. As Historian MacDonald delves deeply into the roots of modern debt-based mechanisms of public finance to tell a tale about the development of democracy. He suggests that high per capita incomes are at best only a partial explanation for the rise of democratic institutions. More important, he argues, was the war-driven need of the leadership of tribes, pre-modern societies, and modern states to mobilize their societies in the face of external threats, particularly threats to collective security. As a matter of historical development, some rulers and societies tied democratic practices to public borrowing with great success. Less successful societies adapted or were swallowed up. The great global conflicts of the 20th century present the pinnacle of this pattern. But World War Two may have ended it as well, MacDonald concludes. With the globalization of state financing through borrowing, citizen creditors no longer command the central role they once did though, as voters, they still wield considerable political power. However, the massive amounts of debt held by other states and people outside many nations' boundaries today wield considerable influence through the bonds they hold if not the ballots they cast. As others have suggested, today's debt regime is part and parcel of the erosion of a state-centric global polity. But what will come next politically is not so clear. MacDonald, writing before 2003, did not foresee the possibility of a new global conflict - perhaps a war on terror - that might marshal global financial resources in some new way. So far that conflict remains chiefly a regionally focused U.S.-led war funded through relatively modest borrowing, at least compared with the financing for, say, World War Two. What is particularly noteworthy is that Chinese, Japanese, European, Saudi, and other investors are essential sources of financing in this new world. Though his account carries us only to the threshold of today, MacDonald reminds us of the political significance of debt in the rise of citizen creditors, democratic elections and government, and the evolution of the state system. Three simple ideas together - debt, democracy, and the state - gave rise to the increasingly complex global polity we today inhabit.

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    Bill Phillips

    Dense…now using as a reference :)

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