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Out with Denial, in with Adult Conversation?

Have Americans actually changed their minds about government spending?

A Federal commission recently concluded its work on a proposal to address the nation’s skyrocketing national debt. That debt is the subject of much renewed attention, and is growing at an unsustainable pace which, like reckless credit card use, promises certain and serious economic consequences in the years ahead.

Nevertheless, the appointed commissioners remained hopeful, declaring that “the era of deficit denial is over,” despite the narrow defeat of their proposal when put to a vote. Meanwhile, many politicians and commentators praised the newfound willingness of the nation to have an “adult conversation” about the problem with government spending. Commentator David Brooks has argued that there is more willingness to face the realities of such issues now than in the past decade.

At first glance, this seems plausible: the attention devoted to reducing the deficit and the warnings of impending consequences suggest that Americans have indeed mentally shifted toward action that in the recent past would have been eagerly put aside for another day, or ignored altogether. So, is something different now? Has America sobered up and resolved itself to contemplate and address what it has been blithely ignoring for decades?

There’s good reason to think not: there’s something vaguely unserious and hypocritical about such a sudden willingness to “face the facts.” It’s not simply the relative abruptness, but more importantly the nature of the message. Consider the oft-repeated metaphor of “adult conversation,” which Republicans have used to urge dialog aimed at reducing government spending. It suggests an analogy to parents sitting down with their college-aged son who has naively buried himself in credit card debt. The parents explain the dangerous long-term financial consequences of the behavior, and argue that the prudent decision is to decrease spending and pay off the loans.

On its face, this appears to be a sensible analogy. But there’s a critical omission: government spending isn’t the result of naïve or whimsical financial mistakes. The halls of Congress and the federal buildings in Washington are full of economists, accountants, and other financial experts employed solely to construct and fund enormously complex organizations that implement the requirements of legislation drafted in committees, voted on by hundreds of elected officials, and signed by the President. Despite its reputation for impulsiveness, government spending is highly calculated: it is done for specific reasons justified by specific arguments supported by specific ideas and values.

Which values underpin today’s government spending? A glance at a pie chart of the federal budget reveals that over 40% (well over a trillion dollars a year) is spent on just three programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Many billions more are spent on unemployment benefits, aid to businesses in the form of “stimulus” money, educational subsidies, food stamps, and a myriad of other so-called “entitlement” programs. Thus, the majority of government spending takes the form of personal financial handouts for things like health care, food, school, housing, unemployment, and other living expenses.

What is similar between this spending and the expenses familiar to parents who support financially-dependent children? The government has increasingly been charged with the duty of providing a “safety net” for Americans: like parents, it has pledged to provide the nation with with food, doctor visits, housing, school tuition and savings accounts. But parents raise their children to become independent adults. Do government welfare programs?

A core value at the heart of today’s government spending is the idea that the role of the state is to provide for the citizens’ daily needs. Why? Because, it is argued, it’s the right thing to do. At the heart of government expansion and spending is a moral question: what should the government do, what is its purpose? The predominant answer today is: to provide for those in need – whether the recipient is somebody without a job, or medical care, or retirement savings. In effect, Washington views Americans as children in need of assistance and guidance, and itself as the surrogate parent morally responsible for providing for our needs.

But this is a fundamentally immature philosophy. “Becoming an adult” suggests achieving independence, both in terms of one’s ability to make decisions and to support one’s own life. In maintaining and expanding welfare entitlement programs, our politicians implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) endorse the opposite: that Americans never truly become adults capable of thinking for and supporting themselves, and must always have the support of government—from birth until retirement and beyond.

The missing element in the “adult conversation” is a willingness to confront this, the moral question at the center of the issue: should the government treat Americans as independent adults with the freedom that entails, or should we be treated like children and forced to support one another through taxes and debt imposed upon us by Washington? Republicans and Democrats alike remain in denial that according to their own ideologies, providing for those in need is the morally necessary thing to do, and that for them doing the right thing requires taking an enormous amount of money from some Americans and handing it to others. So long as this remains a guiding principle, ever-increasing spending, taxes, and debt are unavoidable.

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this dilemma: to reject this paternalistic policy and the moral outlook that supports it, recognizing instead that human beings are in fact capable of thinking rationally and living self-sufficiently. They do not require a government to provide for their needs, but rather to protect their freedom to provide for themselves. This means that social relationships should be free and mutually beneficial, and that there is no basis for the collective burden imposed upon us by an imagined duty to act as our neighbors’ providers.

Perhaps Americans are indeed ready to confront denial, and sense that there is moral denial underlying our fiscal denial. If we’re willing to honestly consider the alternative, that’s truly an adult conversation worth having.

Noah Stahl received his BS in Computer Engineering and MS in Information Assurance from Iowa State University. He currently works as an information security engineer in Tampa, Florida.

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