Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Stewardship and Justice

Michelle Kirtley


December 31, 2010
?by Michelle Kirtley

A recent reduction in our family income caused us to reevaluate our family budget.  In reality, we should have been exercising better stewardship all along, but circumstances have forced us to be more appropriately thoughtful about our spending choices.

The same principle applies to our national fiscal crisis.  We are facing a deficit of almost unimaginable proportions.  Put simply, like my family, our government should have been exercising better stewardship all along, and the urgency of our debt presents a unique opportunity to be more thoughtful about how our government allocates its resources.  

This impulse animates the Tea Party, who views our fiscal crisis as evidence that government has become too involved in too many spheres of life, exceeding its constitutional authority.   While this may account for some of our overspending, it would be a mistake to allow a knee-jerk anti-government sentiment to take hold in our country.  As the Center for Public Justice has articulated in its Guidelines for Government and Citizenship, while government is certainly not the answer for all our ills, our government has an important role to play in securing justice for its citizens.

The debt will loom over every policy debate that takes place in the 112th Congress.  Behind the scenes, it will affect which pieces of legislation make it to the floor of the House and Senate.  Such a laser-like focus on our national debt is urgently needed and long overdue.  Yet the national discussion about spending priorities must not overshadow the many other essential functions of government in ensuring justice and guarding human dignity.  Certainly, we must get our financial house in order.  But we do so, not because a balanced budget is an end in and of itself, but because it is through responsible stewardship that our government can best fulfill its role in securing the common good.  

Times of fiscal austerity should prompt us not merely to reorder our priorities, but to reevaluate the very role of government and its many commitments. If approached wisely, our fiscal crisis could produce radical creativity in tackling problems that have in the past been addressed with the band-aid of additional federal spending.  Conversely, the crisis could also be used as an excuse for rampant individualism and isolationism.

Indeed, after the November elections a group of Tea Party activists sent Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner a letter warning of any attempt to stray from their small government mandate: “We recognize the importance of values but believe strongly that those values should be taught by families and our houses of worship and not legislated from Washington, D.C. We urge you to stay focused on the issues that got you and your colleagues elected and to resist the urge to run down any social issue rabbit holes…”  

The letter does not specify which issues are “social issue rabbit holes,” but betrays a worrisome misunderstanding about the appropriate role of government in areas of social justice.  Many readers will understand the “values” and “social issues” lingo to be code for abortion and gay marriage.  But these and many other social issues, including education, human trafficking, and obesity, have implications for the common good that cannot be left only to families and houses of worship, as important as these institutions are.  Nor is it easy to separate so-called social issues from fiscal issues.  Marriage may be a social issue, but stable marriages lead to economic mobility, which leads to less dependence on government benefits and greater tax revenue for the Treasury.   

Our fiscal crisis should force us to rethink the role of the federal government in every area it touches, but we cannot use the crisis to abdicate our responsibility to pursue justice.  As is the case with my own family, our call to stewardship of our financial resources does not mitigate our responsibility to love our neighbor.

—Michelle Kirtley is the Associate Editor of Capital Commentary and a former science and health policy advisor on Capitol Hill.

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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.”