Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Justice, Deficits, and Taxes
David P. Gushee
by David P. Gushee
Whether or not our government leaders can ever actually accomplish what I am about to propose, I offer two simple principles that might constitute the outline of a coherent Christian perspective on the fiscal problems we now face as a nation.
First, the American people must learn to pay on time and in full for the services we wish to purchase from our government.
I am moving briskly away from an expansive, compassion-based vision of what government can perhaps accomplish for God’s reign toward a more modest Lockean and contractarian vision. This move has many sources: a sharper sense of the contrast in responsibilities between the state and other sectors, greater realism about the limits of what government can accomplish in “fixing the world,” awareness that in the real world every expansion of government spending creates a permanent, expensive constituency of government servants and clients, and a growing sense that Christians have too often offered biblically driven but constitutionally and theoretically illiterate policy prescriptions.
So let’s try a thought-experiment. Consider thinking of federal budgeting as the process by which a diverse citizenry chooses to tax itself for a very particular set of services to be provided by the national government. The central issue for political debate in each session of Congress, then, would concern how much of which types of services we wish to purchase. Given unlimited possibilities for services, together with limited resources, this debate will always be fierce.
What should not be a matter of debate is the principle that whatever services we choose to purchase should be paid for on time and in full. There can be emergency circumstances that might dictate borrowing. But emergency conditions have become the rule rather than the exception.
The principle of paying today for the services we buy today is a matter of basic moral responsibility, especially to the next generation, but also to this one. A government budget choked with debt (6% of federal spending is simply loan payments) forces wasteful spending on interest both now and in the future, and blocks us from buying more valuable services, including social services.
Second, given government spending of nearly $5 trillion annually, and the $1.3 trillion gap between federal budget spending and revenues, the American people must in principle first cut spending, then raise taxes, then hold both steady.
Cutting spending is a rather bland way of saying something that should be said much more sharply: we must accept that most Americans are unwilling to pay for the full range of federal government services that we have been buying. Therefore we must buy fewer and less costly services. Logically, this requires starting at the budget items that cost the most. Coming to grips with a smaller government means facing hard choices and losing benefits we have enjoyed.
We must choose whether we want to spend $700 billion (20% of the budget) to continue to buy the largest and most expensive military in the world, with a commensurately expansive global role in projecting American power. We must wean ourselves off of this role. We must choose whether we want to continue to buy federally provided retirement (20%) and health benefits (21%) for an aging and sickening population. I believe we must now rethink and shrink that federal role, especially by means-testing benefits, but in other ways too. We must review our spending on the 14% of the budget that provides a safety net for the poor, with the bias toward finding more efficient ways to meet the same needs. We must choose whether we want to continue to buy the vast range of products and services that we buy with the remaining 20% of the federal budget and constantly look for ways to trim spending. Every budget manager in every federal department must be required to decrease operational expenses by 5% every two years to establish a mindset of frugality and move the budget toward balance.
Having cut first, we must then be willing to pay the taxes for the services that together we conclude are indispensable. These taxes should be progressive but not confiscatory and cannot be loaded onto the backs of any one portion of the population.
Whether we accomplish such reforms depends on our will as a people, and our ability to overcome narrow interests and political gamesmanship to do what is right for America. Christians ought to know something about how to rise above self-interest for the sake of others.
—David P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and the Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”