Living within our means: the government

February 1, 2010

The great political questions before us are in reality moral decisions.  Freedom will expand or retreat depending on individual self-reliance and public-mindedness.  The problem of debt – a subset of the struggle for freedom – can only be solved when a majority of the American people chooses to live within its means.

Public debt can be easily explained:  we, as citizens, have insisted on services and benefits for which we are unwilling to pay.  Our elected officials then borrow the difference.  A vicious cycle begins:  once started, the benefits become addictive, while the debt becomes unsustainable.  The state government of California is the most appalling example of this type of moral infantilism.

The federal government, however, with the support of public opinion, has been working hard to catch up to the California dreamland.  As the Economist observes, this process isn’t an invention of the left, or the Democratic Party, or the current administration:

Mr. Bush met no significant opposition from his fellow Republicans to his spending binge.  It was clear that, when it came to their own benefits, suburban Americans wanted government on their side.

Following the expenditure of astronomical sums by the last two administrations on the occasion of the financial crisis, two things transpired.  First, the federal debt became visibly unsustainable:  a mountain of despair that, if allowed to stand, will crush our children’s lives.  Second, and in consequence, popular opinion has moved – for the moment – away from its past addiction to benefits, toward a deep unease about their costs, both in money and in loss of freedom to an unrestrained Leviathan.

Just how unrestrained can be seen in the new budget proposal sent by the president to Congress:  feeding Leviathan will cost the American people $3.8 trillion next year, which is mind-boggling enough, but $1.6 trillion of that must be borrowed.  Some 42 percent of the government of the United States has broken loose from taxation, and perches far above our reach on that magic mountain of red ink.

So the federal debt has become a pressing political problem.  Its solution can also be easily explained:  we must make choices.  Taxes can and will be raised – by $1.9 trillion, according to this source – but raising taxes will soon reach a point of diminishing returns.  Americans aren’t entirely foolish.  They will quit working if the alternative is to work for the taxman.

We can’t tax our way out of the problem.  Instead, we must do without.  We must forsake some of the benefits and services we crave.  This, of course, is more easily said than done – which is precisely why the debt problem is a moral rather than a policy dilemma.  Success will depend on character, not cleverness.

Budget choices flow from ideology and party spirit.  I wish to preserve the safety net, you the nation’s security.  I favor my partisan friends, as you do yours.  This is natural and inescapable.  The moral failure has come with the frequent deadlocks:  in those cases, we have refused to choose.  Everyone got everything.  If funds were lacking, the government borrowed the difference.

That day is over.  The resolution of legislative deadlock must be, as our Founders intended, that neither side gets funded.  We must learn to do without.

The assertion of civic morality means that if our representatives earmark or otherwise feather their own districts with federal funds, we who elect them must discern the underlying selfishness, the moral depravity of conducting politics on the pleasure principle – and punish them at the polls.

The way the choice is made matters, too.  Like binge drinkers handing the keys of the car to a designated driver, Congress wants to hand off tough budget-cutting choices to a panel of wise guardians, which will make “nonpartisan” recommendations.  This too is moral infantilism.  We elect our representatives to make just that kind of difficult decision.

If they don’t feel up to the job, then shame on them – and shame on us for electing them.

Because if the federal debt is at bottom a moral problem, the choices it presents are political.  As the current budget moves through Congress, our representatives in both houses will have to decide whether or not to bring down that mountain of unfreedom towering over our children.  Those of us in the electorate will watch and decide whether to re-elect politicians who sided with the monster, Leviathan, against the future.

In the end – as with all moral questions – the choice will come down to each of us, individually, when we assume the mantle of sovereignty next November and cast our vote.