The golden rule, as it pertains to government spending, stipulates that a government must only borrow to invest, not to finance existing spending. In other words, the government should borrow money only to fund investments that will benefit future generations, and current spending must be covered and funded by existing taxes.

Breaking Down the Golden Rule

The golden rule term originates from ancient writings, including the New Testament, the Talmud, and the Koran. Each has a story that teaches the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In fiscal policy, the golden rule seeks to protect future generations from debt by limiting borrowed money to investments, and not to burden future generations for the benefit of current generations.

Global Applications of the Golden Rule

The golden rule in fiscal policy has been implemented in many countries. Although its application varies from country to country, its basic premise of spending less than what the government takes in is always at its foundation. In most countries that have adopted the rule, a change in their constitution was required to ensure its proper application. Countries that have applied some form of the golden rule have experienced a reduction in deficits as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), after many years of deep deficit spending.

Switzerland instituted a debt brake that restricts government spending to the projected average revenue for the current business cycle. Switzerland has managed to keep its spending growth to less than 2% per year since 2004. Meanwhile, it has been able to increase economic output at a faster rate than its spending.

Germany applied a similar debt brake, which managed to reduce spending growth to below 0.2% between 2003 and 2007, creating a budget surplus. Canada, New Zealand, and Sweden tried the same experiment at various times, which turned deficits into surpluses. The European Union has embarked on its own variation of the golden rule, requiring all countries whose debts are higher than 55% of GDP to reduce their structural deficit to 0.5% of GDP or less.

No Golden Rule for the United States

The United States has yet to codify any golden rule that would require a spending cap, although there have been numerous attempts by lawmakers to do so. The U.S. Constitution does not require a balanced budget, nor does it impose any limits on spending. The budget surpluses under President Clinton in the 1990s were a result of temporary policies that included tax increases and some spending reductions. In 1985, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudmann-Hollings bill, which specified annual deficit targets that, if missed, would trigger an automatic sequestration process. The Supreme Court ruled the law was unconstitutional, so it was abandoned.