Deficits and Cultural Politics

David Marion

June 1, 2011

Deficit politics in 2011 is reminiscent of racial politics at the time of Brown v. Board of Education in the mid-1950s. It took several decades, and legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for the expectations embedded in the Brown ruling to be realized in communities across America. In much the same way, a sustainable solution to our long-term deficit problem is unlikely in the absence of a significant cultural transformation.

The current deficit and debt crises are not simply the product of poor management. While critics might properly charge public officials with doing a poor job of rooting out waste and fraud in federal and state programs, our fundamental problem is cultural and not administrative in nature. The post-World War II aspiration to live a non-tragic and personally authentic lifestyle, fed by achievements in modern science that encourage the belief that anything is possible, has had a corrosive effect on the culture of self-reliance and even personal sacrifice that defined America at the Founding and for more than a century thereafter. This culture manifested itself in the social capital and civic virtues (healthy work ethic, religious toleration, civic engagement, frugality, etc.) that differentiated the United States from the rest of the world by the mid-twentieth century.

President Johnson’s assertion that the United States could afford both “guns and butter,” as well as the Supreme Court’s attack on traditional restrictions on expression and privacy rights, resonated with post-World War II generations that equated national greatness with more space, if necessary with government assistance, for the pursuit of preferred lifestyles. Constitutional ideals were reinterpreted to equate the enjoyment of a preferred lifestyle and a life free of unsettling anxieties with the affirmation of each person’s dignity. By extension, a good democratic order was redefined as one that accommodates even excessive or immoderate expectations. This new entitlement culture excited passions and unleashed aspirations that the social culture had long held at bay.

It is not surprising that a society that aspires to a non-tragic existence might easily become comfortable with coalition-driven deficit spending. Budgetary restraint within this cultural context becomes more difficult because restraint is equated with an unwillingness to do what is needed to adequately secure the “way of life” of all segments of the body politic, whether members of public service unions who equate broad collective bargaining rights with fundamental civil rights, or farmers who speak of agricultural subsidies in the language of rights and not privileges, or seniors who see the application of means-testing to government benefits as an attack on their dignity.

Baring a monetary or fiscal crisis that compels serious budgetary restraint, a sustainable long-term solution to the deficit and debt crises will require a fundamental cultural transformation. The pursuit of non-tragic existence needs to be exposed for what it is, that is, an unrealistic and even dangerous aspiration that invites more, not less, government regulation of the everyday affairs of the people as well as virtually limitless spending in the pursuit of ever-expanding expectations.

A responsible budget strategy also will require that we ratchet down, not up, our test of what it takes for the government to earn the confidence of the people. Significantly, leading Founders believed that it would be sufficient for the government to protect fundamental “natural” rights (life, liberty, and property), while giving us a reasonable shot at “comfortable preservation,” to be worthy of our consent and allegiance. It is instructive that they emphasized “negative” rights (e.g., “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) rather than “positive” rights (e.g., the government shall provide housing or agricultural subsidies).

A cultural transformation that moderates the expectations that have come to define post-World War II America may be triggered by a crisis, but ideally it should be the product of conscious and prudent action. The same judicial branch that expanded expressive freedoms and encouraged Americans to believe that the Constitution provides comprehensive protection for all rights and redress for all grievances should use its legal and moral authority to remind Americans why the Framers settled on a constitutional republic of limited ends that are to be secured through carefully circumscribed means.

In similar fashion, the rhetoric of presidents and members of Congress that typically inflates expectations and encourages Americans to view themselves as victims, whether of Wall Street or big business or impersonal government regulators and bureaucrats, needs to be redirected to promote moderate and realistic expectations. The sobriety that the Founders believed was critical to the preservation of a decent and competent rights-oriented republic is endangered by political rhetoric and government action that invite people to demand more than what even the best human societies can guarantee.

Admittedly, there is a cost to a culture of realistic expectations. Critics will argue that such a culture is not ennobling, in part because it is insufficiently compassionate. Other critics will argue that settling for such a culture is unnecessary in an era when modern science makes everything possible. These criticisms, however, fly in the face of two important historical lessons, that is, that the zealous pursuit of non-tragic existence in fact is likely to lead to tragic existence, witness the excesses and barbarism of the Inquisition and of Stalin’s and Mao’s pursuit of idealized world orders, and that a culture of immoderate expectations invites economic and social disintegration.

A strong case can be made that the historical strength and vitality of the American republic was due in large part to the fact that leading Founders like James Madison made their peace with the limits of political life and the fallibility and imperfections of human beings. Madison in particular understood that there was a limit to what government can do to protect rights, redress grievances, and satisfy human expectations. A return to a culture of sober Madisonian expectations will facilitate, even if it does not guarantee, responsible budgeting and position the American people to secure the long-term strength of the United States.

David Marion is Elliott Professor of Government and Director of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.