Is the national debt immoral? This is the question on the minds of many Christians lately. Christianity Today recently asked three thought leaders – David Gushee, Gary Moore, and Dr. Amy Black – about their views on the national debt, and before posing the question the editors opined:
When a country borrows this much in excess, it risks spiritual bankruptcy.
So the time is ripe for a moral analysis of the national debt. I had the opportunity to give such an analysis yesterday, as part of a panel hosted by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and moderated Rev. Dr. David Grey, senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Here are three key questions I’ve encountered in thinking and discussing this important issue, and that I asked yesterday as part of my analysis.
1. Is it just to borrow money?
Historically, people of most religious traditions thought that charging interest on a money loan was intrinsically immoral. This likely came from the Aristotelian notion that money is sterile; it doesn’t have intrinsic value. It’s merely a medium of exchange, so charging for a money loan would be unjust for the reason that one is charging for something of no value.
But, as I’ve noted in my discussion of the Christian approach to usury and the charging of interest, our notion of money has changed over the last few centuries. A loan in a normal market situation does have value. Interest is charged to offset the risks associated with the loan and the cost of forgone uses of the money being borrowed.
In other words, the lender is dealing with time preference and opportunity cost, while the borrower is getting money that he doesn’t have right away. If justice has to do with giving everyone what is due them and treating equal things equally, then, in general, it is just to borrow money.
2. Is it just to borrow money that someone not party to the transaction must pay?
Let’s look at this question by asking a more basic question: Do we have moral obligations to people who don’t yet exist? Philosophers have debated this question, but it seems clear that for most Americans, the answer is clearly yes.
Future generations have not been party to the transactions that are contributing to our national debt. Money is being borrowed for some current or near-future benefit, but the cost is being borne by someone else farther down the line.
Enjoying the benefits of borrowing while others bear the costs is unjust for the same reason that stealing is unjust. That’s why it’s appropriate for Christians to ask the question: “Whom would Jesus indebt?”
3. Is it just to confiscate legally earned wealth and give it to another?
The national debt is an externality, meaning that while it might benefit us in the present, it will incur a cost on others in the future. It’s not internalized in the parties to the transaction.
Does that mean that it’s always unjust to borrow money that future generations must repay? I don’t think so. If the US were at war with a powerful and genocidal enemy, who we knew would exterminate us if it won the war, then it would surely be justifiable to borrow money to finance the war even if later generations had to repay it. This is not an exception to the general rule but just an elaboration of it. That’s because in this situation, the future generation would receive the benefit of getting to be born.
Of course, American politicians are forced to make budget decisions under such extreme circumstances. And in general, even if the future generation receives some benefit to current borrowing (even as it incurs a cost), we would be in the position of deciding what benefits they should want. At the very least, that’s paternalistic.
Josh Good, program manager of Values & Capitalism, was also part of yesterday’s panel. He weighed in on this question by commenting on the human cost of our debt situation. He said, “We’ve got to look at the human cost of such entanglements.” He was referring to entitlement programs that cause so much debt and how, in the long run, they tend to cause dependency, as Dr. Glenn Sunshine points out in this previous post on what it means to truly help the poor.
One of the costs Sunshine discusses in his post is the effect entitlement programs have on churches. He writes,
Further, government-run welfare is also a disincentive for churches and citizens to get involved in taking care of the poor. The new mentality is “we pay taxes for other people to do that for us.” This is not the biblical view of helping your neighbor.
The programs that contribute to our national debt are changing the way the church approaches poverty, and not necessarily for the better. This is all the more reason for Christians to continue examining our national debt from a biblical perspective.
Check out photos from yesterday’s event and leave your thoughts on the morality of our national debt below the pictures.
What do you think about the morality of our national debt? Leave your comments here.