In his newest book, Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, Ron Sider writes that there are three crises facing America today: a deficit crisis, a poverty crisis, and a justice crisis. Seen together, these three add up to a moral deficit. This short (171 pages, including notes and an index) book is his attempt at a solution.
In the brief first chapter, Sider argues that the crisis is a real one. He then argues that in order to solve the crisis, we need an understanding of the economic facts (which he provides in chapter 2) and a set of biblically grounded moral principles (which he provides in chapter 3). Then in chapter 4 he looks at current proposals, such as the budget proposed by Republican congressman Paul Ryan last year (Ryan, a Catholic, was in the news recently when he was criticized by Catholic bishops and Georgetown University faculty for saying that his economic views were informed by Catholic social teaching). In chapter 5 he gives his own proposal. In a short concluding chapter, he makes a final appeal for readers to take the crisis seriously and do something about it.
The greatest strength of this book is that it is a serious attempt to look at a huge public issue from an explicitly Christian standpoint. The current state of U.S. political discourse puts pressure on people to conclude that there are only two political choices: radical individualism on one hand, and communal collectivism on the other. Christians all too often allow this pressure to push them into one camp or the other, rather than questioning the terms of the debate. Sider does this, and concludes, I think rightly, that “[b]iblical faith combines an amazing personalism with clear communalism” (44). He critiques both the followers of Marx and of Ayn Rand.
From his examination of the Bible, Sider comes away with seven foundational principles, which I think are important enough to quote in full:
1. In our understanding of persons we must hold together two truths: persons are made both for personal freedom and responsibility, and for communal interdependence. Radical individualism and sweeping collectivism are both fundamental mistakes.
2. We do have responsibility for our neighbors. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But genuine love for neighbor requires not unending handouts but a tough love that does what is in the genuine long-term interest of the neighbor.
3. God and God’s faithful people have a special concern for the poor. Since God measures societies by what they do to the people on the bottom, we must evaluate proposals to end the deficit crisis by what they do to the poorer members of society.
4. Justice does not demand equal income and wealth, but it does require that everyone has access to the productive resources (land, capital, education) so that, when they act responsibly, they will be able to earn an adequate living and be respected members of society. It also requires that those unable to work (children, the disabled, the elderly) enjoy a generously sufficient living.
5. Economic equality is not a biblical norm. But economic inequality that harms the poorer members of society and prevents them from gaining access to productive resources (e.g., quality education) is wrong. Furthermore, economic inequality that places most of the political power in the hands of a few will almost inevitably lead to great injustice.
6. Government is only one of many crucial institutions in society, and its power must be limited. But in biblical teaching, there is a significant, legitimate role for government in caring for the poor and promoting economic opportunity. It is simply unbiblical to claim that caring for the poor is only a responsibility of individuals and private organizations but not the government.
7. Intergenerational justice is important. One generation should not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another. Scripture clearly teaches that parents should act in ways that help their children to flourish (Deuteronomy 6:7; Psalm 78:4; Joel 1:3). To continually place current expenditures on our children’s and grandchildren’s credit cards is flatly immoral (69–71).
It would be a huge step forward if all Christians followed Sider’s example and talked about the deficit crisis from a particularly Christian perspective. In other words, there is a theological debate that we should be having, rather than simply taking our cues from the wider cultural discourse. We should be asking what people are for, and what our responsibilities are to our neighbors, and what the Bible says about all of this. Too often we just kind of drift into the political tribe that our friends and neighbors are a part of. That’s irresponsible.
I’m sure that not even everyone who agrees with the above principles will agree with Sider’s specific policy proposals, but everyone will benefit from reading a thoughtful discussion of budget issues that is not shrill or accusatory.
Note: I received a copy of this book from Intervarsity Press as part of the Goodreads “First Reads” program. I was not asked to give a positive review.