Jay W. Richards

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.

What the Bible Does, and Doesn’t, Say

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.

Jay W. Richards

Jay W. Richards is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.