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?