Gorging on Government

During my first year in the White House, President Nixon told me that he'd decided to veto a popular education bill. The reason? The legislation was two billion dollars over budget and would prevent us from balancing the federal budget. The next night the president vetoed the bill on national television. There followed a huge fight, which we won—all for two billion dollars. That was 26 years ago—and it marked the last time the federal budget was balanced. This year's deficit alone has soared to a staggering $211 billion—a monstrous overdraft. Which is why a fierce debate is raging in Washington right now as both the House and Senate are considering new budget plans to balance the budget by 2002. Special-interest groups and the Clinton Administration are fighting hard against the huge cuts required. But behind this debate lies a deeper question than simply how much more we can afford to spend. It is this: Are we as a people capable of the kind of restraint necessary for our economic and political survival? You see, any people who want to govern themselves must possess one paramount characteristic: self-control. Self-government works only if people are willing to govern themselves, that is, to do their duty to God, their neighbors, and themselves—and follow that duty voluntarily, without government compulsion. Well, how do we go about exercising fiscal self-control? The first thing we need to do is learn to postpone gratification, a distinctive characteristic Americans inherited from the Protestant work ethic. But for 26 years we've forgotten this truth. We've engaged in what columnist George Will calls "the unseemly spectacle of uncivic gluttony." Instead of exercising discipline and making hard choices, we've gorged ourselves on entitlements of every description. The result is a national debt of nearly five trillion dollars with no end in sight. How long can we keep this up? According to a recent study, in just 35 years the federal budget will represent 40 percent of our economy. And just four items—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt—will consume the entire budget. To fund these programs, we will have to raise taxes on our children so high that we'll destroy our economy. Or we'll print money and create hyperinflation. That's what the Germans did in the 1920s—with disastrous results for their political order. The polls are telling us that everybody wants to cut taxes—but that few of us are willing to sacrifice our own pet entitlements. But if we aren't willing to put aside our selfish interests to spare our children the burden of debt—the Christian characteristic of delayed gratification—what sacrifices are we willing to make? If we aren't willing to at least reduce the rate of increase for popular programs like Medicare, then how much do we really value our freedom? Nothing less than the survival of this noble experiment in self-government is at stake in the debate over the balanced budget. That's why you and I need to call our representatives and tell them that we are willing to give up, or at least reduce, our own favorite programs. We need to tell our leaders that for all our sakes, the time to balance the budget is now.


Chuck Colson


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