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Acton Commentary: Do Less with Less

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Do Less with Less: What the History of Federal Debt and Tax Leverage Teaches,” I reflect on how the federal government has lived beyond its means for decades. This reality is especially important to recognize as we approach Tax Day this year as well as in the context of debates about how to address the public debt crisis.

There are many who think we need to raise taxes in order to close the historic levels of deficit spending. In theory I would consider raising taxes as a viable option, or at least preferable to continued deficit spending, since it would at least make the real cost of government more visible. Roughly 40% of what the government spent last year was beyond what it took in.

But without structural connections between increased taxes and balancing the budget, there’s nothing at all to give us hope that the government wouldn’t simply continue to leverage the greater revenue into greater deficit spending. In this vein I note the conclusions recently updated by Richard Vedder and Stephen Moore, that “over the entire post World War II era through 2009 each dollar of new tax revenue was associated with $1.17 of new spending. Politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in—and a little bit more.”

Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith doesn’t take this reality into account, I don’t think, when he recently argued that the current situation calls for raising taxes, both on the rich and the middle-class. Thus, he writes,

But only a lazy, unimaginative take on this would assume that “low taxes” is a given. So sure, one strategy to reduce debt would be to slash spending, which inevitably happens on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children.

The alternative to such an unattractive option as Smith sees it is to raise taxes, particularly on the rich. Smith thus points to the idea that America needs to adopt a “graduated tax like most other North American countries.”

The fact is, though, that the US already has a progressive tax system, and indeed places a much higher relative burden on the top decile of household incomes than other developed nations.

One of the next big fights will be over raising the debt ceiling, as Smith points out. Perhaps we can link balanced budgets with increases on the debt ceiling (something more feasible than passing a balanced budget amendment). The idea would be that we only increase the debt ceiling on the condition balancing the annual budget, and that we only think about raising taxes to balance that budget if we actually commit to balancing it.

Simply raising taxes won’t do anything but give the federal government more money to leverage into higher levels of deficit spending.

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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