Why It's Time to Face the Hard Truths Embraced by George Washington

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Ashley Wayne Cruseturner is an Instructor in history at McLennan Community College, Waco, TX. He blogs at: The Bosque Boys.

In his celebrated Farewell Address, George Washington bequeathed to us a series of shrewd observations. Reflecting the vast experience of an extremely practical national leader, as well as the prevailing philosophy of the American Revolution, his valedictory instructions include a common sense economic roadmap for long-term national strength and security.

“Cherish public credit,” Washington counseled. Employ it sparingly. Spend public money frugally. Avoid costly and unnecessary wars. Judicious spending on defense is wiser than inviting aggression through weakness, and sometimes exigencies necessitate appropriating public money, but do not mortgage the future. Always pay your own way.

Each political age bears a solemn responsibility to pay down debt during times of peace and prosperity. Do not burden future generations with your profligacy. To pay down debt, government must tax. While taxes are always inconvenient and unpleasant, in a physical world in which consequences inevitably follow actions, taxes are obligatory.

Equally important, Washington asserted, good government is responsible government. Government must be worthy of our taxes. Our elected officials are ultimately responsible for holding down spending, but, in truth, public officials are hostages to public opinion. Expenditures will reflect the popular will. We the people must demand responsible government.

While much of Washington’s advice flies in the face of modern political practice, perhaps our lifeline in this tumultuous sea of uncertainty is a return to classic common sense.

Where are we now? We currently possess a national debt that is 57 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP). According to the latest projections, we are headed for a national debt that will grow in excess of 77 percent of our GDP over the next decade (and those predictions may well be optimistic).

How did we get here? In short, well-meaning twentieth century "tax and spend" liberalism, arguably necessary and successful for a time, ultimately yielded the stagflation, systemic insolvencies, and malaise of the 1970s. As a well-intentioned alternative to over-taxation, market conservatives offered what tragically amounted to "borrow and spend," which produced another season of high times but ultimately led us to our current desperate moment of reckoning.

Is there a solution in the wisdom of the past?

First and foremost, we must heed Washington’s admonition concerning taxes. As illustrated above, we are amassing a national debt that poses an existential threat to American independence. True commitment to American liberty requires that we raise revenue and cut expenses—and do BOTH of those things in a meaningful way.

An important tenet of the twentieth century small-government-conservative economic worldview held that low taxes would starve government into more frugal behavior. With less money available to spend, the theory asserted, Congress would necessarily cut back proportionately on expenditures. Our generation witnessed the failure of that experiment. Even as tax rates plummeted, government and government spending continued to swell at an alarming pace.

Given our present emergency and current trajectory, we must fall back on a more direct approach. Reason dictates that we collect revenue commensurate with our spending plus enough extra money to retire our colossal collective debt on a feasible schedule. As a consequence of our decades-long descent into extravagance, remedial taxation will be painful.

In regard to changing long-term patterns of national behavior, perhaps the only answer lies in taxing ourselves so that we ALL feel the pain of taxation. By “all” I mean every single American—no matter his or her socioeconomic rank. For those who pay no taxes, every government program is a good one. On the other hand, if we all pay taxes, we are all invested in good stewardship and a more responsible government.

We must summon the discipline to rebuke politicians who pledge lower taxes for 95 percent of us while promising more government services for all. We must transcend the tantalizing sophistry that the masses will benefit from a tax structure that only "inconveniences" the fortunate few. It is time to face reality. Those numbers do not add up.

It is time to commit ourselves to frugality and moderation. We should embrace the manifest truth that sustainability, living within our means, is our primary national priority. The transition back to fiscal health will not be pleasant—but it is time to transform our indulgent way of life.

While George Washington certainly suffered partisan thorns in his flesh, he was the first and last president of the United States elected without the benefit of a political party. I am not advocating the demise of the two-party system in America, but maybe we can all walk to the middle together—at least temporarily. To survive, conservatives must necessarily give up the dream of a benevolent global "Empire for Liberty." Likewise, liberals will have to concede that a welfare state is impractical.

Of course, this compromise is easier suggested than implemented. The concessions will be painful, even more so for Americans unaccustomed to accepting limits. With a more modest federal government, our domestic safety net will have holes and good people will slip through the cracks.

When the United States stands down as policeman to the world, a large cohort of friendly and peaceful nations will need to militarize in order to protect their own interests. The world will be a much less stable place without American military might guaranteeing the free flow of oil and commerce all over the globe. We can only guess what chain of events this new world order will initiate.

On the other hand, what are the alternatives?

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More Comments:

William Rhett Baker - 9/22/2009

Check it out. Keep up the good work.

Larry Farmer - 9/16/2009

I do think the answer is balance. The present polarization of the political landscape makes it extremely difficult to have rational discussion let alone reach a reasonable compromise. It's time to set aside the inflammatory rhetoric and listen to each other.

I do agree with Mr. Cox that laying the blame at the feet of liberals is unfair; there plenty of blame to go around. Otherwise, a fairly balanced article.

J R Willis - 9/14/2009

The idea is to find a balance. That is the goal, and government can't do that. Only your liberty can, your personal wallet, your sentiment.

Thomas R. Cox - 9/14/2009

Our budget deficits stem from the actions of conservatives as much as liberals. We have the world's largest military budget by far. It makes up a huge portion of our national expenditures, contributing more to our budget deficits than anything the left champions. The right wing adores the miltary and paints as unpatriotic any who oppose miltary adventures. Then there is the matter of our irresponsible consumerism. "The economy will get better when consumer confidence returns." What economic nonsense! A nation that consumes, rather than produces, and fails to save is living on borrowed time. That Congress reflects the consumer mentality pushed by Madison Avenue is NOT the fault of the left (or the right). As Pogo said years ago, "I have met the enemy and he is us."