Politics & Policy

No Ceiling on Morality

Responsibility, dignity, limits, and the debt.

Both Speaker John Boehner, who is, of course, a Republican, and liberal Sojourners president and George Soros collaborator Jim Wallis have called the debt issue a moral one. The Acton Institute exists to address and help work through the moral issues that come up in a classically liberal society. National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez talks to its president, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, about the moral dimensions to the frenzy over August 2 and beyond.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How should a prudent, discerning legislator look at the debt-ceiling debate?

REV. ROBERT A. SIRICO: There are three important things any legislator must base his decisions on: First, our responsibility to future generations requires that we keep our fiscal house in order. Second, the dignity of individual citizens must be protected by allowing wealth-creating institutions to flourish and respecting the importance of voluntary charitable associations. Third, he should remember the limits of the federal government as set forth in the Constitution.

Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. This needs to be remedied, or we’ll face the sort of fiscal meltdown that has caused so much havoc lately in the European Union. Are America’s problems like those of Greece, Portugal, and Ireland? Not exactly. But we can cause severe economic problems with misguided policies that will suffocate growth, further depress job creation, and push millions farther away from any hope of rising out of poverty. Another more subtle consideration is to reflect on the impact such policies have on the culture — on individual initiative and the work ethic. It is not a bad thing for a society to have a cultural and moral bias in favor of productive work and to sanction the easy acceptance of charity and welfare payment when these are not necessary and when one can provide for oneself. That old-fashioned notion about the American Dream is what’s at stake today.

A prudent and discerning legislator will look down the road into the future and will vote in a way that allows America’s opportunity society to continue to flourish. Both a short-term and a long-term fix are needed in order to deal with the problem of our national debt.

LOPEZ: Is there something immoral about all this debt in the first place?

SIRICO: Of course, debt per se is not immoral. But to the extent that all growing debt decreases the economic opportunity of the next generation, yes, it’s immoral to keep piling it on. We’ve made this very clear at the Acton Institute with our “Principles for Budget Reform.”

There is no example that clearly highlights the lack of leadership today more powerful than the debt crisis in America. Too many leaders are unwilling to put the common good before the special interests and their own political careers. That is what is happening today in Washington and has been happening for a long time.

LOPEZ: Is there a moral read on the imminent downgrading of our credit rating?

SIRICO: To the extent that a downgrade reflects a real likelihood that the U.S. will fail to meet its financial obligations, the demands of commutative justice require that we take such a signal very seriously.

LOPEZ: So many spending cuts can be spun, some perhaps legitimately so, as mean (and liberal policymakers and activists — many with the best of intentions — are all too happy to spin them). How should we be thinking of such things? Does it require a change in thinking?

SIRICO: The question should be right-or-wrong, prudent-or-imprudent, not mean-or-nice. Religious leaders bring their principles into the political debate, but the application of those principles is a prudential question, not an emotional one. It’s also an opportunity for us to reflect upon what governments really need to do, and what is more appropriately done by non-state entities — and I’m not talking about the ones (such as many religiously associated charities and relief agencies) that receive the bulk of their funding from various federal-government contracts.

Yes, a change of thinking is required. If cuts are to be made, then Americans cannot operate under the mentality that “it is acceptable to cut government programs as long as it isn’t government programs that I benefit from.” The core problem is that few are eager to take the pain now. If we don’t, the pain will be much more unbearable down the road. Consider how we got into this situation in the first place.

In the end, reining in spending will protect programs that aid those truly in need, and provide the space for non-state and non-government-funded agencies to undertake much-needed work — that is, to secure the entire infrastructure that makes prosperity possible. That not only creates the grounds for economic flourishing, but preserves human dignity.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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