Acton Institute Powerblog

Debt and the Demands of Progress

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The curious alignment of Good Friday and Earth Day last week sparked much reflection about the relationship between the natural world and religious faith, but the previous forty days also manifested a noteworthy confluence of worldly and otherworldly concerns. The season of Lent occasioned a host of religious voices to speak out not simply about spiritual hunger, but about material needs too, as political debates in the nation’s capital and around the country focused on what to do about federal spending.

As I explore in an “On the Square” feature at the First Things site today, such discussions “often generate more heat than light.” In “Budget Cuts of Biblical Proportions,” I note the recent formation of a “Circle of Protection” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.” I also highlight “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis,” which I consider a “valiant attempt to elevate the debate.” If the point of the Call was to raise the discourse to more adult levels, then I think it must be judged a success (insofar as it has had any broader impact). Last week’s roundtable discussion at AEI attests to this, I think.

In the final analysis, however, I judge the Call to suffer the same fate as these other similar campaigns: “Instead of focusing on ways to empower other institutions and levels of government and galvanize them to relieve the burden of the federal government, these efforts simply feed into the fundamentally false dilemma of federal action or no action at all.”

One of the basic problems is that we no longer agree as a society what government is for, what the telos or purpose of the institution of the state is. I argue that we need to reconsider the basic purposes of government, which will then provide us with a framework for prioritizing certain kinds of spending. I also argue that the strategy to pursue where the true costs of government have been hidden by deficit spending and when there is a system that has been “trying to do too much for too many for too long” is to work to privatize and localize, rather than to nationalize and centralize.

This kind of strategy really does offer an alternative to the “lazy” and “unimaginative” options of simply raising taxes (on the rich, the middle class, or both) or cutting spending. Michael Gerson recently said that across-the-board and “indiscriminate cuts are an abdication of governing.” On this view, then, cutting spending and retaining relative spending priorities is not a viable option.

An illusion behind all of these Christian campaigns on the budget crisis is the idea that we can skip over these questions and still have something worthwhile to contribute to the national discussion. This error lies in the belief, as the Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey put it,

that there is such a thing as hybrid or satyrlike statements of moral fact within the scope of prophecy and precise preaching, and within the competence of Christian deliberation as such, or the deliberations of Christians as such. Statements of moral fact would melt together moral judgments and fact verdicts, principle and application, into something else that is somehow neither and both.

The mistaken impression is that so long as particular programs or policies aren’t explicitly identified in these calls then we are still operating within the legitimate realm of principle rather than making prudential judgments about specifics.

Gerson also says, “Serving the public interest requires a determination of what works and what doesn’t. This is one of the primary duties of those in government.” This underscores one of the sticking points that arose from our discussion of the Call last week. There is a great deal loaded into the term “effective” in the document. One person’s “effective” program is another’s wasteful and superfluous expenditure. Every interest group contends that its programs are the ones that are essential and indispensable. Everyone has their own favorite projects. So again, I ask, what makes a program effective? The Call doesn’t help us here.

So the dynamic of our situation is this: we no longer agree about what the good society looks like, or what government’s role at various levels is relative to that goal, and so we can no longer agree on ways to progress towards that goal. Forming “circles of protection” and calling for intergenerational justice will simply continue to nibble at the edges of and paper over these more fundamental problems until such time as we can begin to answer some of these questions. In the case of the budget this means getting back to basics. But more fundamentally it means agreeing about where we ought to be going.

Thus, writes C. S. Lewis, “Progress means getting nearer the place you want to be.” The question really comes down to where we want to be and what it will look like when we get there; and on that we don’t all agree.

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.