Gateway to the Classics: Conversations on Government by Jane Marcet
Conversations on Government by  Jane Marcet

How the King Gets into Debt Like a School Boy

W ILLY was impatient the next day to hear more about the king, and his getting into debt: and went early into his Mother's room, and, after kissing her, began by this question,—"If the king gets money enough by the taxes to pay for all he wants, how can he run into debt?"

"I thought, Willy," replied his Mother, "when I allowed you sixpence a week, it would be enough to pay for all you wanted, or at least for as much as you ought to want; and yet you see that you got into debt?"

"Oh, Mamma, I am but a little boy: grown up men know better, especially kings."

"I assure you that grown up men, and especially kings, very often run into debt; and that is the reason I am so anxious to cure you of this fault whilst you are a child, for it is a very serious thing when grown up men, and especially kings, run into debt."

"Well, I can't imagine how the king can do so, having so much money!"

"However great the sum of money he is allowed," replied his Mother, "if he spend more, he must get into debt. It is not wealth or riches that prevents your getting into debt, but economy. Economy makes you careful not to spend more than you have, whether you are a king or a school boy. His Mother then told him there was another cause which sometimes obliged the king to make debts, and that was going to war. She explained to him that a great many more soldiers, and sailors, and ships were then wanted, than when the country was at peace.

Willy wondered why any should be wanted in time of peace; and his Mother said, that it was necessary to have some troops ready to fight in case a war should break out suddenly. That, if we had no sailors and vessels ready to defend the country, an enemy's troops might land, and do us a great deal of injury; and that, if there were no soldiers to fight them when they landed, they might conquer the whole country.

"Oh, Mamma!" cried Willy, indignantly, "I am sure every body would go and fight rather than let the country be conquered, even the boys at our school: those who are big enough, I mean," added he, colouring up, as he saw his Mother smile at his show of bravery.

"I dare say they would, my dear," replied his Mother; "for all good people love their country, and would risk their lives, rather than let it be conquered. But those who are not soldiers, however brave they may be, cannot understand fighting so well as those who are soldiers. It is, therefore, better to have regular soldiers to fight in battle, and to have some ready in time of peace in case of a war breaking out. But you can easily understand that, during a war, the king must have a vast number more soldiers and sailors than in time of peace, and will want a great deal more money to pay them."

"Oh yes," said Willy, "I remember when Jack the plough-boy was made a soldier, I wondered that he should like better to go and fight than to work in the fields; and he said the king gave the new soldiers so much money and such fine clothes, that he went for the sake of that, though he liked ploughing better than fighting."

"And well he might; for when he ploughs the fields and sows the corn, he produces food to make people live, and when he is a soldier, he may perhaps be killed himself, or kill other men. Now I think it is much better to make people live than to make them die. Don't you, Willy?"

"To be sure, Mamma; but I like being a make believe  soldier, with the school boys, for then we march about and amuse ourselves, and, if we fight, it is only in fun, without doing any harm."

"Very true; but some boys are so fond of being soldiers in play, that when they grow up they like to be soldiers in earnest."

Willy then inquired, whether it was wicked for soldiers to fight in earnest?

His mother said, that it was right to fight to defend your country with all your might from a foreign invasion; but that wars were often made from very foolish causes. One king would sometimes take offence at something another king said or did, and so go to war on a point of honour, without considering how much blood the people would shed, or how much money they would spend, to maintain this point of honour.

"Just as the boys at school do," said Willy, "they think a battle will set all right, but then they do not shed any blood."

If kings, when they quarrelled, fought their own battles, as school boys do, it would be another thing, for they would then shed no body's blood but their own. But that cannot be, and if a war is a just one, it is better that the king should stay at home and attend to the government of his people, and leave the troops to be commanded by the generals of his army. As for the soldiers themselves, it is always their duty to obey, for they cannot judge whether a war is just or unjust. But of whatever nature it be, a war always costs a great deal of money, much more than the king's allowance will pay; so he is obliged to borrow, and people are very willing to lend him money, because he pays them interest for it."

"Oh," cried Willy, laughing; "that is just as Robert paid Harry, two shillings a year, for lending him two sovereigns to set up a stall; but the king must have borrowed a great deal of money, and it must have taken a great many shillings to pay the interest."

"Yes, and a great many guineas too, more than the king could pay unless the people increased his allowance. So when the king goes to war, he asks his parliament to let him have some more money, to be able to pay the interest of his debt."

"Well," said Willy, "if I was king, I would not ask the parliament to give me money enough to pay the interest of what I had borrowed; I would ask for enough to pay the whole debt at once."

"You do not consider," said his mother, "that this money can be raised only by making more taxes; and if the taxes were so very much increased as would be necessary to pay the whole debt, the people could not afford to pay them, and would be ruined."

Willy then inquired how the king got money to pay his debts at last; and his mother told him that it was a very difficult thing for the king to pay his debts. "A great while ago," said she; "before either you or I were born, there was a very long war, which obliged the king, who then reigned, to borrow large sums of money; and when the war was over, the king wishing very much to pay his debts, consulted his ministers to know how it could be done, and they agreed that the best way would be, to lay by a good deal of money every year, so that in time a sufficient sum would be collected for him to pay his debts."

"Just as I do," said Willy; "only I put by some every week but the king must have put by a great deal more than I do: what a large box he must have to keep it in!"

His Mother told him it was so large that it was necessary to keep it in a house instead of a box, and that the money put by to pay the king's debts was called the sinking fund.

"Oh then, Mamma," exclaimed Willy, "I shall call the money I put by in my box my sinking fund;  and how long was it before the king paid all his debts? more than two months, I dare say!"

"Though it is so long ago, they are not paid yet," said his Mother; "for unfortunately, before there was money enough collected in the sinking fund, another war broke out; and then the king, instead of borrowing all the money he wanted, took some out of the sinking fund; and when once he had begun, he went on taking money out of the sinking fund, till at last there was very little left in it."

"What a pity!" said Willy. "I am sure I shall not do so with my sinking fund, for I am resolved to pay my debts."

"I hope when next you return from school, my dear, to hear that you have kept this resolution," said his Mother. "We have now talked enough, so go and play."

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