When it comes to providing solutions to particular political dilemmas, there is always room for disagreement among honest and sincere Christians, and everyone else involved for that matter. Thus, the short answer to my question is no, there is not one, distinctively Christian response to the current debate about the debt ceiling. There are, however, fundamental principles at the root of the question, and the way in which one defines those principles will highlight the options available in distinctive ways. On this point, I would argue that there are certain core principles that Christians are to consider when formulating a response to the current issue.
Drawing upon modern Catholic social thought and the work of Thomas Aquinas’ political thinking, the goal of law and political authority is to serve, enhance, and protect the common good of society (see, for example, Summa Theologiae I-II Q. 90). It is perhaps ironic – or tragic – that the common good is the one element that seems to be missing from the current national debate. This seems to be due to the fact that the ideology that holds the most momentum right now in our political system – and hence that controls the terms of our debate – is the far-right ideology represented most vocally by the tea-party movement (but engaged by others as well). This ideology, rather than upholding the common good as the end and goal of government and law, sees government as the very source of the problem. Therefore, those who propound this ideology are seizing upon this moment of debate over government spending, taxation and revenue creation, and the debt ceiling as an opportunity to starve government at its source by cutting off its supply of money. Some of the more extreme elements seem entirely willing to let the whole system come to a crashing halt rather than think about long-term solutions that seek to protect the common good of all involved.
[To be fair, this libertarian agenda should differentiated from other forms of political thought on either the right or the left that would take a more practical approach to the problem. For example, it has seemingly left behind any of the positive elements of conservative thought that focus on personal and corporate responsibility, the social value of tradition, or removing overly burdensome regulation that stifles economic growth (as opposed to intelligent regulation that protects consumers and citizens). Likewise, liberal thought has its own problems in creating a language to speak about and pursue the common good that is not solely grounded in rights language.]
What would bringing the language of the common good back into the discussion accomplish? For one thing, it would re-establish the principle that government has a necessary role to play in seeking the common good (not the only role, but still a necessary one). It would also allow us to recognize that in times of economic hardship sometimes government spending is the last resort to help spur the economy. This principle, established by John Maynard Keynes and until very recently accepted by those on the right and the left, would remind us that the time to cut programs and spending is not during an economic downturn, but rather once the economy has rebounded enough to pick up the slack currently left by the high unemployment rate.
Ultimately, the far-right ideology that controls the terms of this debate is going to fail for one simple reason: it won’t work. Imagine walking into an interview for a job as a manager or CEO of a firm and telling them that you think your primary role is to do as little as possible and let your employees each pursue their own narrow self-interest to the exclusion of everyone else in the firm – the interview committee would think you’ve gone mad. But this is precisely what politicians on the far right are asking of voters right now. The best of American democracy has always fostered political experimentation and pragmatic results over ideology, but in our current situation the experiment being run by the far right is playing Russian roulette with our common good, and will have disastrous consequences for our economy.
The mantra “job-killing taxes” that has been repeated ad nauseum only hits at one part of the truth. Some taxes can inhibit economic growth and job creation, but others can stimulate economic growth and enhance the common good. It is impossible to believe that closing corporate tax loopholes and asking more of the top wage-earners is going to be worse than the kind of political and economic instability that would ensue following a government default on its debt. Ultimately, those hit the hardest by this experiment will be those who are already most vulnerable (see Tobias Winright’s post from July 18th). In a climate such as this, Christians – and all people of good will – have a responsibility to continue to uphold the principle of the common good as the foundation of our political life together in society, even if it appears that very few are capable of hearing the message right now.