Acton Commentary

‘A’ for Austerity: The New Scarlet Letter


The fiscal realities of the global economic downturn are forcing many European nations to make hard choices about what governments can and cannot do. These choices are on one level merely pragmatic: given particular levels of tax income, there are limits to what the government can actually fund. But on a deeper level these pragmatic decisions reflect a more thoroughgoing view of the role of government in human social life. It is this deeper conversation that holds the hope for a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive reform of government, and it remains to be seen whether and how America might learn from some of the difficult decisions being made in Europe.

In Great Britain, for instance, Prime Minister David Cameron has instituted a Comprehensive Spending Review that involves substantive budget cuts. These austerity measures are, in the words of George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, intended to “confront the bills from a decade of debt.” While in some cases these “cuts” amount to paring the growth of budgets rather than net reduction in spending, the announcement of budgets that some estimate would result in the loss of half a million government jobs by 2014-15 is a remarkable act of political courage, especially in a climate of relatively high unemployment. Even more noteworthy is that Cameron is making the case for austerity measures for the broader EU coalition.

The political and economic climate in America is such that those attempting to make similar arguments run the risk of being vilified as anti-government ideologues. Columnist Paul Krugman, for example, has been leading the rhetorical charge against austerity measures in the United States, arguing that such austerity calls are faddish, mythical, and merely trendy. What this kind of analysis ignores, however, is the inherently unpopular nature of austerity measures.

Whether or not one agrees with the particular cuts and concrete choices made by the Cameron government, it’s easy to see that the popular thing to do in such economically and politically contentious times is to simply tell people what they want to hear: the government can go on spending and running up deficits indefinitely, and everything will be fine in the end. It is remarkably difficult to stand up and tell voters and citizens what they don’t really want to hear: that times are tough and that difficult decisions have to be made, that governmental largesse has its limits.

The only way that such arguments can be made and sustained in the long-terms is if they arise not simply out of pragmatism but out of a deeper principled commitment to keeping the reach of government within the limits of its own nature. What this means is that the global austerity discussion has two things to teach us as we reflect on yesterday’s mid-term elections in the United States.

First, it teaches us that it takes courage to stand up and tell the unpopular truth and then to follow through and act on that reality. This is something that those who have been newly-elected to the House and Senate need to keep in the forefront of their minds as they begin their legislative careers. True statesmen (rather than calculating politicians) are willing to do what is unpopular or difficult if they are really convinced that it is in the best interests of the nation.

And second, we see that such political courage only arises out of a broader and principled vision of a society that is characterized by both freedom and virtue. This is a vision that recognizes that government has a critically important role in human flourishing, but a role that is limited and must leave room for vigorous endeavors in other spheres of human life. If yesterday’s Tea Party “tsunami,” as it has been called, is to have any lasting effect, it will be because of a commitment to the limits of government rooted in a rich and variegated civil society.

If such politicians are to become statesmen, then they must run the risk of being branded with the scarlet letter ‘A’ by critics like Krugman, and bring the audacity of austerity to out-of-control government spending. They must make the hard choices in the short-term and stick to them in the long-term. That’s what the virtue of political courage looks like today and we ought consider it no vice.