Since stories about Congress’ “fiscal cliff” negotiations have dominated the news media this week, I want to interject some musings on this issue in between my posts on The Hobbit.
We all know that the national debt is staggering (upwards of 16 trillion) and unsustainable. I’m not going to cite the statistics here: you’ve probably heard them already. Instead I want to frame the issue in a way that I believe gets at the heart of the matter; and propose that only when we as a nation think about it in these terms will we begin to make the changes necessary to solve the problem. For the problem is not one of knowledge, but of willpower. We know what must be done to solve our debt crisis, but are we willing to do it: not just our politicians, but the collective will of our people.
This perspective is not entirely original. It just takes what many are already saying and intensifies it by placing it in more historically significant categories. You will hear our leaders, on both side of the aisle, describe the national debt as a moral problem because of the burden it places on our children in the future. I want to extend this thinking by categorizing the debt as a justice problem.
An intuitively certain way of understanding justice is in terms of human rights. Our country has believed from its inception that rights are natural (i.e. inalienable), meaning that they are ours by nature of being human and are not contingent on the situation we are in. Governments may violate our rights, but they do not determine them. Justice is fulfilled when societies uphold these rights for all. On the other hand, injustice occurs when these rights are violated.
I think it is self-evident to most Americans that our children have the same fundamental rights as we do and that just as we expect the government to secure our rights as adults, we ought to expect the same for our children. But is not our debt problem (including private debt which stands at over 11 trillion) a threat to our children’s rights? If we just consider the right to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” (admittedly ambiguous concepts), the answer is clear. More debt means less wealth. As future generations produce wealth, more of it than ever before in our history will be siphoned away to pay off debt instead of being spent on goods and services that prolong life. It is a simple fact that wealthier countries have higher average life spans, for obvious reasons.
Next consider the right to liberty. It is also self-evident that debt leads to bondage. While long gone on the days of debtors prisons an involuntary servitude to pay off debt, the principle that those who owe are controlled, to some degree, by those who are owed is inescapable. Debt is a burden that puts us in bondage to our debtors, and thus compromises liberty. Tragically, though we are not bearing the full burden of our debts, but borrow money to increase our liberty. Instead of making hard choices to live within our means, thus restricting our freedom, we illegitimately enlarge our freedom by borrowing money to fund our lifestyle choices, leaving the burden to our children and thus sacrificing their liberty.
Finally, the pursuit of happiness. I recognize that happiness can mean different things to different people, so I want to be general here. Let’s just consider three main types of happiness: material, relational, and for lack of a better word, the happiness that comes from dignity. While material happiness can be elusive, the love of money often being a source of much grief, there is a certain level of material well-being that is necessary for a happy existence (good health, abundance of food and water, safe shelter, security, etc.). Obviously, saddling our children with debt in the future will compromise their material well-being. Less obvious, but perhaps more important is relational happiness, the happiness that comes from meaningful, harmonious relationships. The debt threatens our children’s future relational happiness in at least two ways. First, the financial stress caused by debt can weaken marriages, and thus families. We can be setting our children up to fail in marriage by weakening their financial position as a country. Second, the debt will (and perhaps already does) cause generational tension, damaging relationships between children and their parents/grandparents, as they grow into adulthood and inherit a wrecked economy. Then there is the happiness that dignity affords. Essential to dignity is being able to keep and benefit from the fruit of one’s labor, the wealth one creates. Being in debt, especially debt you yourself did not create and that you did not even benefit from, means that your labor is wasted and futile in a sense, because it does not produce lasting benefit for you and those you love. I would add to this the idea that living with dignity includes reaping the consequences – rewards and punishments – of one’s choices; dignity and meaningful choice go hand in hand. Burdening our children with debt that we chose to accrue, without them having a say in the matter, not only limits their choices, but renders them less meaningful: the choices about how they spend their money will have been made for them and they will be experiencing the consequences of others’ choices.
There is so much to this issue that I could keep writing about. I probably will expand on these thoughts in the future. Our financial crises very well could be the defining justice issue of our time, just like abolition and civil rights were in the past. Please share your thoughts and forward to your friends!