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Are We Living in Untruth?

Obama Boehner

Peter Souza

Samuel Gregg - published on 10/17/13

Congress finally came to an agreement to reopen the government - but what they agreed on shows they don't understand, or don't care about, America's serious debt problem.

Last night, a bill to fully fund the government through January and raise the debt limit enough to extend government borrowing to February was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, ending the two and a half week government shutdown and battle between Congressional Democrats and Republicans.

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute and author of Tea Party Catholic, responds to the deal below, saying he thinks Americans don’t truly understand the dire situation the country is in regarding its ever-expanding debt:


Once again, I’m afraid, the United States Congress and the Administration has opted to live in un-truth by denying the dire fiscal realities facing America. Since August 2012, the total public debt of the United States has increased from $16,015 trillion to $16,747 trillion. And in the meantime, the size of the federal government also continues to grow. How much more debt do our political masters think Americans want? How much bigger do some of them think the federal government should be? Is there any upper limit in their mind?

But it isn’t just a question of the failure of legislators and government officials. There are, it seems, a good number of American citizens who simply don’t care about fiscal responsibility, not to mention plenty of businesses that prefer corporate welfare rather than actually competing in the marketplace.

And that, as I argue in my new book Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing, tells us something about the moral health of a given society. As Benedict XVI stated in a 2010 interview, a deeper moral disorder may underlie the running up of high levels of private and public debt in many developed nations. While avoiding entering into the technicalities of whether or not high levels of public debt and government deficit spending helps or hinders long-term economic growth, Benedict suggested that the willingness of so many people and governments to incur what many regard as extraordinary levels of indebtedness may mean that “we are living at the expense of future generations.” On the face of it, that would appear to constitute a rather flagrant violation of intergenerational solidarity.

But Benedict then sharpened his argument. This apparent choice on the part of governments, communities, and individuals to increasingly live off debt means that people are “living in untruth.” “We live,” Benedict stated, “on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.”

In fact, we can go further and argue that casual attitudes toward debt may well reflect a mindset of practical atheism: living and acting as if God does not exist, as if the only life is this life, as if the future does not matter. Only people who have no hope—no hope in God, no hope in redemption, no hope for the future—will think and act this way.

The economist John Maynard Keynes once famously wrote, “In the long run, we are all dead.” To be fair to Keynes, he was making a specific point about monetary theory. Yet his words are evocative of an outlook that should trouble Catholics. For if we choose to allow our governments’ fiscal policies to be dominated by short-term perspectives, we should not be surprised to see governments taking on ever-escalating levels of public debt and running year after year of trillion-dollar deficits. Likewise, if individuals and families want to engage in levels of consumption that are beyond their means, then recourse to loans for consumption is one way to realize that goal. But what do such choices say about a society’s priorities and conception of human flourishing?

Unfortunately, I’d suggest, the answer is self-evident.

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