In his recent book, Fixing the Moral Deficit, Ron Sider argues that deficit spending by the federal government is one of the most important moral challenges that Americans have ever faced. I disagree with some of Sider’s proposed solutions, but he’s right. Every year, the federal government spends well over a trillion dollars more than it takes in. As a result, it has racked up seventeen trillion dollars in debt, most of it in the last decade. In seven years at current rates, the U.S. will need almost a fifth of the GDP from the rest of the world just to finance our national debt.
Just two of our federal entitlements, Medicare and Social Security, have “unfunded future liabilities” of $46.2 trillion. Total liabilities are $86.8 trillion or more. Entitlements and other mandatory spending will burden more and more of the federal budget in the coming years. At today’s burn rate, before long no realistic amount of tax revenue will be able to service the debt and fund the government’s basic functions.
We need not worry about the federal government defaulting, since, unlike U.S. states or private citizens, it can print the money it needs to pay the bills. It can and will do so if we don’t make a course correction fast. Massive monetary expansion will ultimately devalue every dollar in circulation and trigger the sort of hyperinflation that flattens entire societies in short order. That’s bad enough, but when government borrows and spends for our supposed benefit, somebody else will have to foot some or all of the bill. If our faith applies to every aspect of life, then it must have something to say about this moral outrage.
There is no biblical Proverb that says, “A wise nation keeps its federal budget below twelve percent of GDP and never runs more than a 1% deficit, while a country that keeps voting for more and more entitlements is repugnant.” Nevertheless, the Bible does cast light on the perils of unlimited government, of which government growth and deficit spending are symptoms. To think clearly about government debt, we first need to think biblically about the limits of government.
Three Biblical Warnings
The first biblical lesson on government comes from Genesis, in the story of Joseph, who has the ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. This gift allowed Egypt to plan ahead and store grain during seven bountiful years so that it could survive the seven years of famine to follow.
God gave Joseph the gift of interpretation, but it was Joseph who suggested to Pharaoh that he collect “a fifth of the produce of the land” during the seven fat years (Gen. 41:34). Over time, Joseph’s authority—given by Pharaoh—grew larger and larger over the Egyptians and the Jews, until the Jews spent all their money and all their grain and the Egyptians gave over all their livestock and finally offered themselves as slaves to Pharaoh.
When the story picks up again in the book of Exodus, we learn that a new Pharaoh has risen to power and enslaved the Israelites. Then the story fast-forwards four hundred years from the time of Joseph, when Israel has become a nation in bondage. We like Joseph, so we tend to miss the subtle lesson: consolidating power in a political authority can lead to tragic unintended consequences—even when initiated by a man like Joseph “in whom is the Spirit of God.”
Give Us a King!
In the book of Judges, another few hundred years have passed since the Jews’ slavery in Egypt. The twelve tribes are now settled in the Promised Land, and have been led, off and on, by judges. “In those days there was no king in Israel,” Judges concludes, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In light of that conclusion, you might expect to turn to the next book and see a celebration of kings to rule over Israel. But it’s just the opposite! What Genesis leaves as an unstated lesson, 1 Samuel shouts from the mountaintops.
Near the end of his life, the elders of Israel asked the prophet Samuel to go appoint a king. The LORD told him to accept their request, but to warn them of the results.
The king . . . will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots. . . . He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day. (1Samuel 8:11-18)
God saw Israel’s demand as a rejection of his kingship. The US is not ancient Israel, of course, but this should still be a warning to us: a centralized political authority with overweening power is often a worldly substitute for God’s rule.
Revelation, the last book of the Bible, contains a series of apocalyptic visions that have perplexed readers for two thousand years. In chapter thirteen, John describes a beast, which is given enormous power and authority by a dragon, that is, Satan. The beast’s authority extends over every tribe and people and language and nation. It wages war on believers, and is worshipped by “all the inhabitants of the earth,” except those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Most biblical scholars think the “beast” refers to Rome, perhaps under Nero, who viciously persecuted the Church. However you interpret Revelation and the End Times, it’s undeniable that the Bible ends with a horrific portrayal of a state dominating vast multitudes of people. In the twentieth century, more than a hundred million people were murdered by their own governments. And that was just in communist countries. History and scripture agree: because of sin, governments with too much power become propagators of evil and destruction.
This speaks directly to government debt, since deficit spending is a symptom of government doing more than it can or should. The federal government now borrows and spends with such reckless abandon that it is careening toward a global economic catastrophe. If Christians can’t muster the courage to speak out against what Rep. Paul Ryan has called “the most predictable debt crisis in history,” we won’t deserve to be taken seriously after the collapse.