Commentary

Is It Immoral to Cut the Budget?

“What Would Jesus Cut?” So read the headline of a full-page ad published in Politico last month by Sojourners, the progressive evangelical Christian group. Urging readers to sign a petition asking Congress “to oppose any budget proposal that increases military spending while cutting domestic and international programs that benefit the poor, especially children,” it was the opening salvo of a campaign to recast the budget battle as a morality play.

Not to be outdone, Catholics for Choice took to Politico on Tuesday to run “An Open Letter from Catholic State Legislators to Our Colleagues in the US Congress.” The letter condemned “policies that unfairly target the least among us,” echoing a blogger at the National Catholic Reporter who averred last month that the federal budget is, after all, “a moral document.”

Even House Speaker John Boehner seemed to agree with that, albeit with a twist, when he told a National Religious Broadcasters convention recently that “it is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt.” He added that “no society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.”

Today the federal government exercises vast powers never granted to it, restricting liberties never surrendered.”

Well, if morality is the plain on which the federal budget battle is to be fought, let’s get on with it. At the least, as the Sojourners say, the budget is a statement about the nation’s priorities — much like a family’s budget reflects what its members think important, or not.

But the similarity ends there because a nation, unlike a family, is not bound by tendrils of intimacy and affection. America, especially, is not one big family.

“We the People” constituted ourselves for the several reasons set forth in our Constitution’s Preamble, but chief among those — the reason we fought for our independence — was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Yet nowhere today is that liberty more in jeopardy than in a federal budget that reduces us all, in so many ways, to government dependents.

Our tax system sucks the substance and spirit of entrepreneurs and workers alike, filters that substance through Washington, then sends it back through countless federal programs that instruct us in minute detail about how to use the government’s beneficence. Manufacturing, housing, education, health care, transportation, energy, recreation — is there anything today over which the federal government does not have control? A federal judge held recently that Congress can regulate the “mental act” of deciding not to buy health insurance.

The budget battle is thus replete with moral implications far more basic than Sojourners and Catholics for Choice seem to imagine. They ask, implicitly, how “we” should spend “our” money, as though we were one big family quarreling over our collective assets. We’re not. We’re a constitutional republic, populated by discrete individuals, each with our own interests. Their question socializes us and our wherewithal. The Framers’ Constitution freed us to make our own individual choices.

The irony is that Jesus, properly understood, saw this clearly — both when he asked us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, and when he spoke of the Good Samaritan. The ads’ signers imagine that the Good Samaritan parable instructs us to attend to the afflicted through the coercive government programs of the modern welfare state. It does not. The Good Samaritan is virtuous not because he helps the fallen through the force of law but because he does so voluntarily, which he can do only if he has the right to freely choose the good, or not.

Americans are a generous people. They will help the less fortunate if left free to do so. What they resent is being forced to do good — and in ways that are not only inefficient but impose massive debts upon their children. That’s not the way free people help the young and less fortunate.

And it’s not as if we were bereft of a plan for determining our priorities as a nation. Our Constitution does that quite nicely. It authorizes a focused but limited public sector, enabling a vast private sector of liberty. But early 20th-century Progressives — politicians and intellectuals alike — deliberately shifted that balance. Today the federal government exercises vast powers never granted to it, restricting liberties never surrendered. It’s all reflected in the federal budget, the redistributive elements of which speak to nothing so much as theft — and that’s immoral.

Roger Pilon is vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute and director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies.