It is official; the national debt has now exceeded $21 trillion. The tragic news comes just six months after it hit $20 trillion last September 8.
This problem is obviously not going away. By voting to suspend the debt ceiling, Congress has allowed the government to borrow as much as it needs until March 1, 2019. Based on present projections, at least another trillion dollars will be added to the national debt in the coming year.
The Failure of Classic Methods
The major parties’ classical ways of dealing with government deficits consist in either cutting taxes or decreasing federal spending. The more pro-market advocates claim tax cuts will boost the private sector, and thus generate extra tax revenue. Those opposing spending cuts believe the poor are made to suffer for the rich.
In a polarized America, neither method is working. Politicians do not have the political will to make unpopular decisions.
However, in the face of a $21 trillion bill, any such efforts appear woefully insignificant. There is no quick fix. Merely tweaking the system will not resolve the problem.
A Debt Producing Machine
Something is wrong with the system. The government has become a giant machine that is mass-producing debt. Until the machine is turned off, no progress will be made.
It is not easy to find and turn off the switch. Over the years, government has usurped so many functions that are not its own, and thus assumed so many new liabilities, that it is difficult to disentangle government from the daily life of most Americans.
If there were to be a law that would immediately suspend all social aid to the poor, for example, hundreds of thousands of Americans would be in trouble. If social security were suddenly curtailed, millions of older Americans would be ruined. If Medicare were to be immediately cut, millions more would have no means to pay their bills or get treatment.
The immediate termination of programs and aid will create an atmosphere of turmoil and chaos in the country.
If these social programs are trimmed, there must be something to replace them. Leaving a void and expecting the problem to fix itself is not an option. Much to the libertarian’s chagrin, the market alone cannot fill the void.
The Principle of Subsidiarity
The problem of federal debt is not an economic problem. It is the case of a State that is no longer functioning as one.
The object of the State is not to provide materially for the common good. Its role is not to be the common good, but to promote it. The State does this through the use of what is called the principle of subsidiarity.
By this principle, a social unit should have recourse to a higher unit or authority only for matters it is unable to handle. A family should take care of its affairs but seek help from a higher institution when its needs exceed its abilities, for example, in extending the municipal sewer system, or the building of a county or state road. The higher societies, like the community and ultimately the State are subsidiary to the lesser and exist to serve, not to control them.
Thus, government should respect the lower social units. It should recognize the different rights, traditions, functions, and privileges that allow them to develop their autonomy and self-regulation.
The State as the Protector of the General Order
That is why the government will only stop mass-producing debt when it returns to its proper role. That role is to give unity, direction and a framework for a vast federation of intermediary groups to function and intermingle. The State preserves and protects the peace and the overall order upon which all depend. It does not concentrate power but encourages its broadest distribution.
This traditional understanding of the State holds the key to overcoming the massive debt burden that now weighs upon the nation. When the State does what it should, a manageable budget becomes possible.
Vast Sectors With Functions
The main problem with the modern State is that it has assumed at great costs those functions of the intermediary sectors inside society that fulfill the same tasks at a fraction of the expense.
These sectors are found everywhere. The first one is the family, which is a dynamic source of uncompensated activity that freely provides its members with shelter, nourishment, education, affection, and healthcare. There is also the Church with Her liturgical, moral, and religious acts that communicate untold spiritual benefits to a community. Her moral code secures the nation. She gratuitously bestows culture, charity, learning, and most importantly virtuous living in society as a whole.
There are also numerous local, cultural, or religious associations that generate arts, patriotic and civic spirit, educational and charitable works that enrich the community in ways that cannot be quantified. These functions are part of the intrinsic nature of these groups. They do almost gratuitously those things which the present State has arrogated to itself at such exorbitant cost.
When the State’s sovereign power stays within its natural limits, less coercion and money are needed to maintain it. The minute a higher institution or group works outside its proper role, the expense and bureaucracy increase greatly. Thus, when the federal government, for example, assumes the role of a parent, it manages to do so inefficiently, ineffectively and at great expense. Relatives or even religious or charitable institutions do this much better.
The government also produces debt when it replaces the personal links that unite society. It then assumes the role of an abstract, mechanical and soulless entity.
Strong personal relationships are motivation for accomplishing functions and tasks that are best left to those directly involved. It is impossible to calculate what the love of a mother can do gratuitously and selflessly for children. When government seeks to replace the mother, it is a cold, impersonal and costly substitute.
Government accrues great debt when it establishes impersonal bureaucratic relationships in which every action involves costly policies, regulations, inspections and cross-checks. Such relationships often make the problem worse and create long and frustrating dependencies.
Non-economic relationships of kinship, religion, and other links are far more efficient means of keeping society cohesive than government programs. Things flourish when they function according to their nature.
Government Will Inevitably Fail
That is why government debt is piling up. Each government intervention in areas not proper to its role tends to escalate the costs of resolving social, health and moral problems that are part of society’s normal development.
However, it is not only the government that is at fault. When families and the lower intermediary bodies like municipalities and counties fail to perform their functions, costs rise exponentially. The impact of a broken family, for example, has repercussions and a correspondingly high price tag in education, healthcare and law enforcement. When broken families number millions, the cost to society is colossal.
When families and society decay and government fills the void, there is no budget large enough to care for all those in need. Government will inevitably become overburdened and collapse.
A Moral Problem
In this situation of failing institutions and government overextension, the solution to the debt problem becomes a moral one.
It is not enough to merely devolve government functions back to the decaying lesser social units. If society is to return to order, it will only happen when families, communities and other institutions are regenerated in the practice of virtue.
Only individuals and families can do this. It involves personal decisions that cannot be delegated. However, government can and should do everything possible to facilitate these decisions. Unlike many present policies, it should support and promote sound families, associations and communities. The Church is an essential component of the solution since it is the guardian of morals and charity. But it also needs to put its house in order.
This is a formula for resolving the $21 trillion debt crisis. Until individuals, families, institutions and government are restored to their proper roles, America will continue crashing through the debt ceiling.
1. Retrieved from FRED, at https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GFDEBTN, March 27, 2018.