Acton Commentary

Back to Budget Basics


Since the U.S. House of Representatives passed a temporary spending bill to prevent a government shutdown last week, disputes over how to move forward have dominated the political media. Religious voices are never far from the national consciousness, and two Christian efforts are of particular note. First, Jim Wallis and Sojourners launched the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, which applied this incisive question to the budget debates. And later in the week, the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action issued “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the Debt Crisis.” Both campaigns urge lawmakers to take steps to address the budget crisis, but not to do so, as the Sojourners campaign puts it, “on the backs of poor and vulnerable people.” While these Christian efforts are to be lauded for focusing attention on the realities of the growing public debt and on the plight of the poor, they are to be criticized for embodying the faulty assumption that God’s concern for the suffering and the vulnerable must be equated with direct action by the federal government.

That the United States is in the midst of a public debt crisis is indisputable. The numbers are simply staggering. One standard measure examines the total outstanding governmental debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP). By this standard, the gross public debt in 2010 had climbed to 62.2 percent, its highest level in nearly 60 years. When the current level of debt is placed in the context of skyrocketing entitlement costs over the coming decades, the picture is gloomy indeed. These religious groups’ focus on government’s role in ameliorating poverty, however, leaves largely unaddressed the real core of the problem, and the necessary steps to address it.

Part of this is because there is disagreement in principle amongst the various supporters of these measures. Shane Claiborne, who is associated with both campaigns, has said that the real key to cutting the federal deficit is to radically draw down spending on defense, contending that while military spending is “the elephant in the room and the gushing, bleeding wound of America’s deficit, it has remained the sacred cow.” Likewise Jim Wallis has pitted defense spending against spending on “school lunches, child health, and early education programs,” pointing to the former as being, in part, where “the real money is.” Wallis and Claiborne are right, of course, in that defense spending is the single biggest slice of discretionary spending in the U.S. budget ($663.7 billion in 2010).

But cutting defense spending is no panacea for our budgetary woes. Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush and signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” has rightly pointed to disputes about all discretionary spending cuts as obscuring the real issue of entitlement reform: “Debates on discretionary spending are important. Our government should not waste money on ineffective programs. But discretionary spending is a sideshow, even a distraction, from the main governing task: getting entitlement spending under control so it does not crowd out all other government spending.”

What is Government for?

One of the reasons that supporters of the same budget campaigns can hold such divergent views is that these public statements are largely devoid of serious and principled analysis of the basic role of government. When faced with a spending crisis as pressing as America currently confronts, the priority must be to articulate the fundamental responsibilities of government and examine all spending in light of that standard. The “What Would Jesus Cut?” and “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” campaigns want to make particular social programs immune from these calculations. But the government’s fiscal straits are so dire that no program or area of spending can be privileged thus. All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.

This means that the fundamental role of government in the provision of various services must likewise be explored. This requires a return to basics, the first principles of good governance, that does justice to the varieties of governmental entities (local, regional, state, federal) and institutions of civil society (including families, churches, charities, and businesses). We must ask ourselves: What is government for? What is the federal government for? Is the government primarily and essentially a means of upholding civil order by the application of retributive justice? Are civil magistrates “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Ro 13:4 NIV)? Or are they primarily to be agents of the redistribution of wealth, to take from the rich and give to the poor?

The United States does have a standard by which to judge the various responsibilities of the federal government: the Constitution. This is the first place that we must look in attempting to do the often difficult moral and economic calculus of governing. But just as the borders of any healthy social order must pass well beyond the limits of governmental influence, the responsibilities for addressing various social problems must be rightly distributed between levels of government, on the one side, and various other private social institutions, on the other.

The Church, the State, and Poverty

As the responsibility to care for the poor and the vulnerable relates the church in particular, the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper outlined an estimable model for imitation. Nearly 120 years ago, at the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, Kuyper concluded an address on “The Problem of Poverty,” with this remarkable contention: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.” With this he rightly placed the primary responsibility for caring for the poor with Christians and churches, working both individually and institutionally, organically as well as systemically. Only secondarily, and in light of that primary responsibility, does he admit that government might have some temporary and secondary role in providing material assistance to the needy. In a footnote to his contention, Kuyper admits, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help.” He goes on to say, however, that it must do so “quickly and sufficiently,” such that state aid remains transitional and temporary.

The basic problem with recent Christian campaigns on the federal budget crisis is that they do not recognize sufficiently that the primary responsibilities of the federal government do not consist in permanently and perpetually providing direct aid to the poor. These campaigns do not adequately hold the two halves of Kuyper’s contention in proper relation. If we do not properly respect the division of responsibility for social problems amongst a host of social institutions, we are left with no principled line to limit the responsibilities of the government. And that lack of principled limit is precisely what has led us to our current budgetary crisis. It’s time to get back to the basics of government budgets.