The Budget Deficit Must Be a Conservative Cause

December 4, 2019 Updated: December 4, 2019


The United States has faced many problems during the past few years, and many continue to plague the nation and the world.

The media tends to focus on sensational stories and not long-term issues. Through all the battles about the southern border wall, immigration, foreign policy, tariffs and trade, climate change, and impeachment hearings, the ballooning national debt has been all but lost.

It’s just been a few years since the Tea Party movement rose from obscurity into a formidable political force that disrupted the U.S. political landscape with concerns about the size of government and the mounting national debt. Today, that movement is all but dead, and so are concerns with its agenda. But what could be more of a conservative issue than the problem of saddling future generations with debt?

Growing Debt

It feels like we have always had budget deficits to fight about. I grew up in the 1980s, and the battles over deficits seem never to have ended. As hard as it is to believe, though, we actually entered the 21st century with an annual surplus. In fiscal year 2001, for instance, the federal government had a surplus of $128 billion.

Let that sink in for a moment—less than 20 years ago, our federal government was taking in more revenue than it spent. This year, on the other hand, it will spend $1 trillion more than it realizes in revenue.

What happened? First, we had two rounds of tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that weren’t offset by either the projected high economic growth or spending cuts. Second, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reset the United States’ political priorities. Trillions of dollars were spent fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that then spread to other nations as “the war on terror,” while more money was spent domestically to defend the homeland. And it was all done without raising taxes to pay for the spending or cutting other programs as an offset.

Then came the Great Recession of 2008, with its plummeting tax revenue and the Obama-era spending spree that followed. Once the economy began to grow, there was no reset to our priorities and the government just kept spending and kept growing. In the past few years, we have cut taxes again and let spending rise as well.

The result is that we are now $23 trillion in debt and adding another trillion dollars a year. Indeed, the past four years have seen budget deficits rise each year, the first such prolonged rise since the early 1980s, and those deficits are bigger than any in history, except for the four years following the Great Recession. Almost no one is talking about it.

And this atrocious record is coming at a time of record-low unemployment and strong performances in the U.S. economy. During times like these, our tax revenues should be rising, our need for domestic spending should be reduced, and we should be paying down the debt we owe to other countries.

A Moral Issue

What got us here? We can all share the blame, and should. Republicans have become ideological when it comes to tax cuts, never seeing one they didn’t like. On the other hand, Democrats have never seen a domestic problem that couldn’t be solved with more spending.

Foreign wars and a race to be more patriotic than the next guy has risen defense spending to nearly $1 trillion a year. Entitlement spending is exploding, with almost no one having the courage to discuss it.

The spectacle of daily political and social outrages has come to dominate the news and distract our attention. And of course the United States faces other serious issues that demand our attention and concern as well.

How can we return to a focus on the debt and deficits? We must stop treating debts, deficits, taxes, and spending as merely economic or political issues. They have profound economic impacts, it’s true, and come with political consequences for those making decisions in Washington. However, they should, at the core, be considered moral issues.

What is moral about profligate spending? What is moral about saving our own political hide by saddling future generations with debt? What is moral about serving our own immediate economic interests and passing the bill to our children? Deficit spending is profoundly immoral as it takes from future generations to serve our own. It’s unethical as it robs Peter to pay Paul (without Peter even being around to know about it and be able to account for the theft).

The next time a proposal comes up on taxes, the economists and political consultants need to stay home. Those who have sold us a bill of goods telling us that every tax cut pays for itself and those who have never seen a program they don’t want to fund need to step aside. Our political leaders, rather, need to start thinking morally and making bold moral decisions.

If we want to spend the money, we must raise the revenue. If we want to cut taxes, we must also cut spending. Like we do in our own home economies, we must work for and spend our own money and not take from the bank accounts of our children and grandchildren.

The great Edmund Burke once described society as a contract between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. To the degree that we saddle future generations with debt to serve ourselves, we have broken that eternal contract—and there is nothing conservative about that.

Gary L. Gregg is the host of the podcast Vital Remnants and is author of a number of books on America’s founding principles.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.