When a young woman asked Benjamin Franklin what the Constitutional Convention had achieved, he replied: “A republic, Madame – if you can keep it.” Franklin recognized the American experiment in self-government could fail. But it was Thomas Jefferson who recognized what failure might look like.
The founders conceived of the American republic as an experiment in self-government. Imagine a triangle formed by three interlocking points. Only freedom can sustain religion. Only a religious people can be virtuous. And, as Franklin noted, “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” James Madison best addressed the issue of virtue: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation… no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness – without virtue in the people – is a chimerical idea.”
The founders had many virtues in mind, including justice. Drawn from the Bible as well as ancient Greek culture, justice meant fairness. Fairness is not however what feels fair to me. It’s what’s fair for us, or the common good. In I Chronicles 21 we read how King David came to see fairness in this light – promoting justice for the common good.
In I Chronicles story, David makes a tragic decision. He decides to number his army, indicating a lack of trust in God. David asks forgiveness. He is given three options for punishment – three years of famine in the land, three months of being pursued by the enemy, or three days’ pestilence in the land. David chooses Door #3 – pestilence.
On Day One, 70,000 men die. David repents and asks that the Lord’s judgment be against him and his household. It’s not fair for the nation to be punished. David demonstrates his repentance by determining to build an altar to the Lord. Ornan offers him all the materials for free. As king, David is entitled to them. He declines the offer. Fairness is not what I feel entitled to. Justice is determining what is fair for the nation.
Is this how Americans understand justice? For example, the average American will draw out of Medicare and Medicaid roughly 200 percent of what they paid in. Is that fair? And what are we to make of a wide range of polls indicating Americans oppose any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 percent to 25 percent? Is that justice?
Or consider the fiscal cliff. The national debt is an alarming $15.96 trillion – more than 100 percent of GDP. This number however does not begin to tell the whole story. The federal government’s true liabilities, including Social Security, Medicare, and federal employees’ future retirement benefits, already exceed $86.8 trillion, or 550 percent of GDP.1 It’s similar to earning $100,000 a year and having a mortgage of $550,000 – with no money in the bank. With associated costs, the monthly payment is close to $3,000, or $36,000 annually. With a $100,000 income, that sounds affordable. But there’s more.
GDP is hardly growing while “federal health care spending looks like the slope of a jet taking off from LaGuardia,” writes David Brooks. When the accrued expenses of entitlement programs are counted, over $8 trillion in tax collections annually is required. Only $6.7 trillion is available. The government has to borrow the rest – $1.3 trillion this year. Double that amount next year. Quadruple it the next. Like a jet taking off, debt is soaring, soon to eclipse GDP. It’s similar to a homeowner earning $100,000, having no rise in income, opening a home equity line every year, borrowing more, and, in a few years making annual interest-only mortgage payments totaling $100,000.
Does this sound like a nation capable of self-government? If not, what are the solutions?
According to the Government Accountability Office, if we act on entitlements today, we will still have to cut federal spending by 32 percent and raise taxes by 46 percent over the next 75 years to meet current obligations. If we postpone action for another decade, then we have to cut all non-interest federal spending by 37 percent and raise all taxes by 54 percent. How can this happen when some Americans oppose cutting federal spending and the rest oppose raising taxes? Are we thinking of the common good?
There are of course two other options. Raising productivity is one. The other is the Fed can increase the supply of money – “quantitative easing” – and reduce its debt by reducing the value of the dollar. However, America is guided more by two other competing visions. On the one hand, we have what Charles Murray calls “collusive capitalism.” By dint of hard work, education, privilege, networks, luck or skill, the wealthy feel entitled to keep what they earn. Distrustful of Washington’s profligate spending, they oppose increased taxes. But they don’t seem to vociferously oppose the nation’s growing income disparity. Is that just? Is it fair?
On the other hand, there’s progressivism, the assumption that social and political scientists – the cultural elites – are best at finding ways to improve the well-being of citizens who can’t quite govern their own lives. Its central tenet is most wealth is earned unfairly, so justice demands redistribution through higher taxes. The outcome is over 50 percent of Americans receiving some sort of government assistance. They feel entitled to government payouts, resisting cuts in entitlement programs. Is that just? Is it fair?
Both visions create an entitlement culture. “Entitlements are an attack on the common good,” notes Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield. “They say that ‘I get mine no matter what the state of the country is when I get it.’”2 Forsaking the common good, most Americans aged 50 to 64 having nothing or next to nothing in retirement accounts, relying solely on Social Security and expecting the next generation to pick up their tab. More than one in four American workers are now using retirement savings accounts to pay current expenses – leaving future generations to pick up their tab.
Inside the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial we read these words: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Franklin felt the experiment could fail. Jefferson recognized what failure looks like. When virtues become vices, the just God awakens. It’s not the kind of awakening most Americans are prepared to witness.
1 Chris Cox and Bill Archer, “Cox and Archer: Why $16 Trillion Only Hints at the True U.S. Debt,” The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2012, A17.
2 Sohrab Ahmari, “The Crisis of American Self-Government,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2012, A13.