Parenting and Governing

What kind of adults do we want our children to become? Responsible parents ask themselves this question, and their answers provide principles that guide their parenting. 

The federal government, however, is making it very difficult to be a good parent, because it systematically undermines so many of the lessons one wants to teach. 

I want my children to become respectable, independent adults—able, like the blacksmith in Longfellow’s poem, to look “the whole world in the face,/For he owes not any man.” There is a nobility and a dignity in standing on one’s own two feet, in expecting to be held accountable for what one does with one’s liberty, and in not imposing on others to handle one’s own affairs. 

Now, children are all for liberty, but they sure don’t want accountability. They want the freedom to decide whether to do homework or watch American Idol, but they don’t want privileges taken away if their grades suffer because they opted for the latter. They want the freedom to spend all their money on candy and sodas at the movies, but then they want mom and dad to pay the registration fee for the school trip they were supposed to use that money for. 

If you’re a parent you understand this all too well. How many times have you spoken with your children about the importance of planning ahead? About remembering longer-term goals and arranging priorities accordingly? About how becoming an adult means saving for a rainy day, keeping your promises, and not expecting others to do things for you when you should take responsibility for yourself? 

These things go into making a responsible adult. Liberty, yes, but accountability too; and using good judgment about how to allocate resources so that long-term goals are served, not just the pleasures of the moment. One has to develop the discipline to abide by one’s principles all on one’s own, even when nobody is looking. 

Yet all of these sound moral habits are violated today by the federal government, and with increasing flagrancy. Take just one spectacular example: the mounting national debt. 

The federal government’s national debt is currently over $12 trillion—some $40,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. That’s not including unfunded obligations to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, whose present value is approximately $41 trillion, or another $137,000 per American. For a family of four, this means over $700,000 in total current federal government debt. Our national debt will soon approach, and then exceed, 100% of our Gross National Product

Putting economics aside, consider the moral message this conveys. Nearly every conceivable problem people might face in life constitutes an obligation on someone else’s part to resolve. President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget funds hundreds of government programs designed to reduce or eliminate the negative consequences of people’s own bad decisions—giving them, in essence, liberty without responsibility. Do not fret about standing on your own two feet, it tells Americans: spend recklessly today, for tomorrow we will bail you out. 

Who is the “we” who will bail you out? Well, don’t fret about that either: future Americans may be servants to the debt, but that is years from now, and for now we’ll pretend that by then someone will have figured out how to deal with the problem. 

But why should our children take responsibility for themselves when the adults will not? Why should our children undergo the arduous process of becoming accountable adults when those currently in charge take every opportunity to shirk their own responsibilities, closing their eyes to the economic tsunami that their decisions will unleash on future generations? 

Once upon a time, people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith railed against public debt, believing it an immoral imposition on our children. It is indeed an egregious form of “taxation without representation,” since those who will have to pay it—future citizens—have no opportunity to say no. That alone should awaken us from our moral slumbers: It is wrong to do this to our own children. 

But it is also a terrible moral lesson to teach them. The virtuous adult is free and independent, yet also responsible and accountable. Our public institutions should not only encourage that virtue but also manifest it. Is it too much to ask that our representatives behave as we would have our children behave?

5 thoughts on “Parenting and Governing

  1. And yet, somehow, as the public debt has continued to pile up since Washington and Jefferson’s proclamations of doom, each generation has become richer than the last. Funny how that works.

  2. To Bill Burns:

    Thank you for your comment.

    Washington, Jefferson, and Smith made primarily moral arguments against public debt, not economic arguments. As I suggested, they thought it unjust to force others to pay one’s own debt. The injustice in this case was especially unbecoming because it was imposed on children and future generations who could not oppose it.

    Addressing the economic issue, however, the current public debt is at unprecedented levels. Some estimate the total net present debt at over $100 trillion. Not even during war time has the per capita debt approached that in America’s history. This suggests that the present situation is different from the general trajectory of ever increasing wealth in America.

    Finally, your comment seems to imply a reductio ad absurdum. If your comment is meant as an argument, it would have to contain a suppressed premise like: “Increasing debt causes increasing wealth.” (Omitting that assumption, or weakening it to imply mere correlation instead of causation, renders your argument invalid.) On that argument, however, we should accelerate our debt accumulation indefinitely, even infinitely. But that is absurd. To paraphrase Smith, a policy that would bankrupt an individual or a household would just as surely bankrupt a nation, even if not as quickly because the nation can disguise its bankruptcy-inducing policy by printing money and thus delaying the reckoning. But alas a reckoning does, eventually, come.

  3. Assuming that the general pattern of economic growth continues, the people of the future are going to be richer than us. It seems perfectly reasonable to borrow from them, particularly if what we are spending the money on will benefit them as well as, or perhaps more than, us. (Of course, spending might not do that, but that’s a spending and not a borrowing issue.)

    Increasing debt can indeed cause increasing wealth, as any corporation that borrows to finance new infrastructure knows. If we’re going to take your argument to a reductio ad absurdum as you took mine, should we eliminate borrowing entirely? After all, if I borrow with the full intention of paying it back, but then drop dead, the debt will be paid by someone else.

    As for the idea that the per capita debt is unprecedented, so is the per capita wealth, so I really don’t see your point here.

  4. Your opening assumption, “that the general pattern of economic growth continues,” is precisely the point at issue; hence it cannot be assumed. (Yes, of course if wealth always increases then we don’t have to worry about debt–or much of anything else!)

    Debt can allow increasing wealth, but it does not cause it. Innovation, new uses of resources, and so on create wealth. So you are right that the assumption of debt is part of the wealth-creation process, but it is not an end in itself.

    Moreover, the assumption of debt is reasonable only when it is localized, meaning its risk is tied closely to the person(s) deciding to assume it. By that principle, public debt is reasonable only it too is localized: a municipality, local school district, etc., in which case it can be monitored by the supposed beneficiaries and any potential losses are borne by them alone. Thus public debt should be both localized and decentralized. If not, then the incentives become perverse, because the negative feedback for too-great risk are not felt by those taking the risk. At that point if there is not a general cultural animus against the idea of extensive public debt, then what can happen is what we see: it skyrockets, with no end in sight.

    Consider again the numbers given above. That is not “borrowing” from future generations. It is enslaving them.

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