During the fiscal fiascos of the past couple years, both parties have seemed to enjoy seeing how close they can get us to the precipice without falling into the abyss. Then, upon reaching a deadline, rather than solve the problem they kick the can a little further down the road and impose yet another arbitrary deadline instead. Each time, when there are no days left on the calendar to cross off and the final seconds are ticking away, it seems we are still asking the wrong questions.
The question of whether or not the government is spending too much money, and if so where we should cut, seems to be putting the cart in front of the horse. Our Lord tells us that where our treasure is, there also will we find our hearts. When it comes to creating a budget, we should first ask where our hearts are, and then appropriate funds accordingly. How can we know how much money we should be spending without first knowing what our priorities are?
Do we as a nation (or a state, or city, or household) want to feed the homeless, clothe the naked, or welcome the strangers? Do we want to land a man on Mars and return him safely to this Earth? Should our government cure cancer, build more bridges, or run art museums? Is improving education a priority, or does maintaining a fleet of nuclear submarines take precedence? How important is administering federal courts, or stopping human trafficking? Is it more important than Medicare or running a job training program? Do we want to do all of these things, or none of them?
The problem with looking at the bottom line of the federal budget and working backwards from there is that it makes the government, and not human persons, the focus of our concern. After creating the world and breathing life into Adam, God declared that it was not good for us to be alone. This divinely ordered communion shows, as Gaudium et Spes tells us, that “by his innermost nature man is a social being.”
It is easy to say that my taxes are too high when looking at a huge, distant, federal government filled with faceless bureaucrats in far-away Washington, D.C. It is more difficult to say that I should not contribute a little bit to the destitute widow down the street, or to the single coworker with an unplanned pregnancy, or to the child who walks past me each morning on his way to a failing school.
Of course we don’t have an unlimited pocketbook, and we can’t continue to operate as we have in the past. Some things will have to change, and others should be cut. However, “we are all,” as Pope John Paul the Great has said, “really responsible for all.” That responsibility should be the starting point, and not an afterthought, for any budget negotiation.