It is fascinating how so many from both political parties treat our massive public debt as an organically occurring predicament. Their rhetoric suggests that we could pare our 14 trillion dollar hole if we cut a little here and there from the federal budget, all while maintaining services that are “more efficient and responsive.” In the minds of Congress and the president, the debt is treated like just another issue to be addressed, an inconvenience that just cropped up with no discernible cause. Apparently, we are told, it is something that can be fixed with a little budgetary tweaking without a painful correction being endured along the way.
This is no surprise, as anyone who actually pushed the forceful action needed to get it under control would be doomed in their re-election bid (if they were not recalled from elective office before that date.) But our current debt and deficits, though serious cancers to our vitality and undeniably a major problem, are not the main problem. Instead, these staggeringly hard to fathom numbers are a symptom of the entire mind set present in America. We can point our fingers at sacred cows all day long: Medicare, Medicaid, Iraq, foreign aid, ag subsidies. The list would be extensive.
All these things, like the debt itself, are merely symptoms of a much vaster problem. The core problem is that we have lost sight of why government is there in the first place, which is to provide a mechanism whereby coercion can only be met with a greater coercion. Our Founders understood the imperfections present in human nature, and instituted some form of decentralized power to provide disincentives for actions by one individual that harmed another. Swift punishment for actions like murder and theft were, under their line of reasoning, a proper role of the State. One could say the philosophy of our Founders was minarchism, though entire books could be devoted to assigning esoteric ideological labels.
Owing to America’s evolution away from the Revolution, her citizens’ have allowed the role of curtailing violence to become just one of many accepted governmental functions. It became justifiable in the minds of many for the government to ban substances they disapproved of, first resulting in the disastrous Prohibition Era and presently manifesting itself in the form of a costly federal Drug War. Soothing angst over inflationary policies and massaging the guilt of the wealthy led to citizens being okay with constitutionally unauthorized government handouts. Being responsible for plugging post-World War Two power vacuums became acceptable as a goal, leading to a vast apparatus of military bases and expansion of Pentagon budgets.
As noble as these attempts might have seemed in the abstract, the vast taxation and government spending they required and our subsequent unwillingness to pay for them up front have contributed to huge deficits and debt. The number of societal ills Washington has expanded their mandate to solving runs the gambit from social conservative’s checklist to social liberal’s engineering ideas. This trend is now self sustaining. Such a centralization of power leads everyone from the perilously poor to prudently productive to feel as if they are falling behind if their cut from D.C is not getting received. These perverse incentives have led to massive budgetary short falls; the massive new taxes required to fund these sort of things is too politically toxic to even touch.
So assigning blame for our current fiscal state is too complex for short evening news sound bites and partisan shouting matches. The debt is a byproduct of our citizen’s shifting views on the federal government; what we once thought of as a referee is now considered to be something capable of changing the game’s entire outcome. French free market economist Frederic Bastiat was all over this several centuries back when he observed: “Here I encounter the most popular fallacy of our times. It is not considered sufficient that the law should be just; it must be philanthropic. Nor is it sufficient that the law should guarantee to every citizen the free and inoffensive use of his faculties for physical, intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, it is demanded that the law should directly extend welfare, education, and morality throughout the nation.”