When I hear the way citizens talk about government these days, I am reminded of young married couples who lack proper marriage preparation. People frequently speak of all the things that government does–and will do–for them. We even vote according to an assessment of which candidate will do the most for us. As for the realities of governmental finance–especially the cold, hard one that the government has nothing to give us that it does not also take from us–most people just do not want to know.
We speak confidently that the government should subsidize our houses, pay the bills for our children’s education, provide for our retirement, bear the burden of our medical expenses, bail out our businesses, and perform a thousand other tasks that were once left to us as individuals and as members of our community associations. Indeed, politicians encourage this attitude in us. While politicians used to make grandiose promises about guaranteeing us freedom from want and fear, now they tantalize us like credit-card companies: “Vote for me and I’ll keep interest rates low and the stock market soaring.” This is especially true with the prospect of budget surpluses on the horizon.
But citizens are in for a rude awakening somewhere down the line. It is common for the government to speak of its spending as “investment,” but real investment is self-financing because it feeds the productive engine of the market economy. Governmental spending does not work like that. No amount of fancy language or budgetary tricks can change the reality that all governmental spending is a form of wealth redistribution that gives to taxpayers only what it also takes from them.
The lack of frank talk about the national budget over the years has seriously strained the citizens’ relationship to the state. In fact, it can properly be described as a love-hate relationship: People love the benefits but hate the price they pay for them. But somehow many people fail to make the connection between the two. They attempt to vote for tax cuts and higher spending at the very same time. There is no way out of this predicament but to raise strong moral concerns about the uses of the national budget and the corrupting influence that governmental spending can have on us personally.
In marriage counseling, ministers explain to couples that they need to remember several simple rules. They tell them to forget the idea that they can have it all. No one can keep up with the Joneses; the attempt will lead to bankruptcy. Financial sacrifice is necessary in order to achieve financial security. Living on credit is not a solid foundation for future financial growth. Above all, always be honest about your financial position and never deceive your spouse about your spending.
So it is with the nation at large. We need honesty in our financial dealing. We must face the fact that government cannot do it all. Even if it could, Christians should not permit it to. Indeed, if there is one political principle that Christendom has embraced (at least in theory) for two thousand years, it is this: Government must not subsume the role of the church, the Christian community, the family, or God. Government has a role in society, but it ought to be a limited one.