Sequestering the Moral Questions

On the eve of sequestration—the indiscriminate federal budget cuts—various interests are aiming to capture the moral high ground of the debate over government spending. Which raises the question: What exactly is the moral argument for slashing deficits and balancing budgets?

I’m very familiar with moral and religious appeals against budget cuts, particularly those affecting the poor. This week, for example, nearly 100 religious leaders issued a public appeal for Congress and the president to leave anti-poverty programs off the chopping block, declaring—“God calls for protection of poor and vulnerable people.”

Less clear is the moral case in favor of the meat ax. Yes, deficit hawks will deploy the language of moral responsibility, especially with regard to future generations that are allegedly endangered by government spending today. But these appeals are seldom grounded in moral and biblical principles such as solidarity, human dignity, and our collective obligations to “the least of these.” It’s mainly liberals (of a spiritual sort) who trade in such precepts.

On the right, perhaps the most identifiable moral claim is the generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. There’s room for debate about how unreasonable that burden will be, and whether fiscal austerity right now, in the midst of a still-undernourished economy, is a smart way to deal with the problem.

But there are larger questions about the generational argument. For example: Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Do our children also need good schools to get them started on their paths? Are we going to hand them a public infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that isn’t crumbling all around them? And what about environmental protection—one of our most profound obligations to generations yet unborn?

All of that requires public investment now, and has to be balanced with the goal of easing the debt burden.

I’ll keep watch for moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books, and speak with some thoughtful fiscal conservatives on that score. I’ll report on those sightings and conversations before the next partisan crisis—which is due in late March, when the government runs out of money.


  1. First, there can be no moral defense of the Sequester nor of a Senate that has failed to produce a budget for four years nor of a form of governance by crisis management that we use now to avoid normal order. That results from the wish of politicians of both parties to avoid responsibility for what they believe or what they owe. It would be a false choice to offer: accept this madness or agree to spend the wad.

    In “A Model of Christian Charity” (the “city on a hill” sermon), John Winthrop analyzes for the puritans on board the Arabella what their obligations will be toward each other if God allows them to reach the shore safely and establish the purified Church and the new Zion, so to speak. His demand of the haves if high (since they must love each other), but it does not go as high as the demand to give of one’s sustenance but only of the superfluity. Where to draw the line between the two, especially when we legally remove the voluntary nature of giving and conscript it with taxes, thus altering the case a bit? (Note it is always dangerous to try to mix theology and politics. Common sense and good manners might be all we need.)

    Your fiscal conservative, might argue something like:

    Surely even a left liberal will agree that at some point borrowing is immoral. Even if you are doing “good” with the money (a matter of dogma, but it ain’t necessarily so) you are abrogating a decision that maybe isn’t yours. That is, if you are beggaring future people to aid present people, for example, there surely must be some point where the conscience would recoil. Are we anywhere near this point? I do not know. But I do know that the ranks of some that think so includes some quite decent and thoughtful folks. Similarly, if the policies you follow inhibit growth or will lead to high inflation, they you have simple gored someone’s ox other than that of your selected group.

    Were there evidence of concomitant willingness to look honestly at individual programs and remove some of the crap that is in the Federal Budget (if we have one) on the part of our non fiscal conservative friends, we might build some trust. At this point, I just hear a lot of denial that we even HAVE a spending problem!

    • William Bole says

      Thanks for providing my occasional Winthrop fix. He might not have gone as far as the early Church Fathers–who argued that the second coat in your closet belongs to the poor–but the point about superfluity is pretty close to that and still more radical than anything you’ll hear from anyone today. Admittedly, the details would have to be worked out. And thanks for getting me started in the search for fiscally conservative moral arguments.

  2. Seems Jim Ventola said it almost all. The only point I would reiterate is that there is no economic need whatsoever for austerity. The government is no more broke than after the depredations of Reagan/Bush I. Then the business cycle went on the upward phase (notice this happens more often and more broadly under those alleged economy-wreckers, the Democrats?) and we had surpluses as far as they could see.

    The responsible economic thing in the middle of a depression, which the last four years have been, is government spending at much higher levels. This has worked repeatedly. There is a track record. There is NO track record of austerity doing anything but beggaring the rich people’s neighbors (us).

    • William Bole says

      I’ll add that when people like Ben Bernanke say that our long-term debt is manageable, and that the problem at this moment is too little government spending on basic things, you know that this is a pretty safe argument. And the debt would be even less of a problem if it were accrued because of spending on roads and teachers rather than upper-bracket tax cuts and a needless war.

Leave a Comment