Living within our means: we, the people

February 2, 2010

For the federal government, with its $1.6 trillion next-year debt, to assume the moral authority of champion of private debtors is beyond bizarre.  The reverse is also true.  If the American people truly wish to reduce the federal debt, we must begin by putting our own houses in order.  Much of the public debt today comes from “bailing out” the leaky financial vessels of private persons and companies.

Avoiding personal debt is pretty simple.  We don’t buy what we can’t afford.   That doesn’t mean rejecting debt – but it does mean never borrowing what we know we can’t repay.  Nor need we avoid all risk in money matters – but risks should be taken with eyes wide open and a willingness to accept loss, if the dice roll that way.  To demand a bail-out from a personal decision is to trade our birthright for a mess of potage.

This isn’t cruel or heartless.  It’s adulthood:  it’s moral agency.  Exceptions can be made for those who truly deserve them.  For the rest of us, healthy in body and mind, there’s the world of choices and consequences.  This is the drama of human life – the fact that we sometimes win and sometimes lose – sometimes fairly, sometimes not – that all we have complete control over, in the end, is character:  the face with which we greet triumph and disaster.

Americans are often accused of consumerism, of the love of things.  That is said to be a root cause of our debt problem.  Now in my travels across the world I have yet to discover a nonconsumerist nation; and I note in passing that many of the same people who blame us for materialism also mock our long hours of work and puritanical ways.  Yet there’s a kernel of truth in the accusation.

In what we call a recession, we remain an exceedingly wealthy people – and wealth tempts character to surrender value for pleasure.  Here the moral dimension of the problem of debt rises above other considerations, and the question becomes one of internal states rather than cash in the bank account.  The same transaction can be honest or corrupt, depending on my relation to it.

If I purchase an object – say, a car – I stand on one moral plane; if the object is purchasing me, I stand on quite another.  Because no one else can read my heart, I alone know where I stand.  I alone know the point at which, in Emerson’s words, “things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

Morality is simply a means to manage the lust for pleasure and the love of things, on behalf of our larger aims in life.  This is also a requirement of political freedom.  If we can’t govern our private desires, we will be unable to govern our public affairs.  If we owe our souls to the banks, and the banks owe theirs to the government, the democratic polarities get reversed – public officials will become our masters when they should be our servants.

I’m finishing Walter Isaacson’s life of Benjamin Franklin, and it’s been a revelation how frequently Franklin uttered the words “frugality,” “industry,” and “prudence” over the span of his long life.  Franklin preached but also lived these qualities.  In a light-hearted way, he exemplified them.  When young, he craved financial independence, and would beg off drinking bouts at the tavern to save his money.  Later in life, he worked longer hours than his competitors, to steal a march on them.

Yet he was the most public-minded American who ever lived, and he was never driven by greed or consumerism.  At the age of 42, having achieved a middling prosperity, Franklin retired to concentrate on his science experiments.

For him, maintaining his personal independence was another aspect of his belief in democracy and freedom from oppressive rulers.  By living within his means, he escaped dependency on the means of others.

The same principles apply to us today.  The central question isn’t about debt or consumerism, but about self-reliance.  Debt can be incurred and paid back.  Goods and pleasures can be purchased with no harm.  But a fundamental dependency for money of one citizen on another – or of the electorate on the government – is like a progressive, debilitating illness to a republic.

It’s a personal choice, a moral choice:  and under the present circumstances, it will come to each of us.  We can live within our means, or we can watch our freedoms and institutions lose their purpose, atrophy, and die.