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Economic Consequentialism

Tuesday, January 08, 2013 6:45 PM Comments (13)

The Catholic world has heard a lot on the errors of consequentialism over the past few years.  My friend and colleague Mark Shea, in his characteristically subtle way, has often and rightly highlighted the dangers and error associated with this type of thinking, notably as a justification for torture.

For the uninitiated, consequentialsm states that any act can be justified as long as the intended outcome or consequence is good.  For instance, you can torture somebody as long you intend to save lives.  Saving lives is the good intended consequence that justifies the torture.  In short, the ends justify the means. As Catholics we completely reject this moral theory.

To do something wrong, no matter the intended or even realized consequence, is to do something wrong. Period.

I think this principle is often overlooked when it comes to the matter of public spending and public debt.

Let us start with the basics of debt.  Debt, in and of itself, is not immoral.  But to knowingly incur debt, to borrow from others, with no reasonable or foreseeable means of paying back a debt or with knowledge that the debt will eventually have to be paid by others is wrong.  Period.  It is stealing.

As a country, we are either rapidly approaching or have surpassed the point where there is no reasonable or foreseeable means by which we can pay the debt we have incurred and continue to incur at a startling rate. 

I don't think many, if any, would argue the point  that if we continue to publicly borrow and spend at the current rate, we will eventually have to default on some of that debt or find ourselves in a currency devaluation spiral that in reality is just another means of default. 

Even if the debt spending were to suddenly stop, a dubious proposition at best considering current political will, a great portion of the repayment of debt already incurred will fall upon future generations that will see little or none of the benefit.  Presumably, that generation will have its own pressing issues for which the fruit of their labor will be required.

This is wrong.

Yet any time that even a modest proposal is put forth to restrict the rate of growth on a program, never mind an actual cut, it is treated with moral disdain by many politicians (predictable) and some in Catholic leadership (troubling).

The suggesters are variably accused of hating the poor, women, children, workers, the middle class, etc. 

Can a case be made that some portion of these borrowed funds do good work?  I believe that the bulk of this borrowing serves no other purpose than political cronyism and many of us artificially enjoying a lifestyle that we have not earned and cannot afford. However, for the purposes of this post, I will stipulate that some of these programs do actual good. But that good, whether big or small, does not justify continuance of the immoral act of borrowing what we know we cannot pay back, a.k.a stealing.

It should go without saying, although I will say it once here rather than fifty times in the comment box, that a just society and a just government must make every effort to insure that in a return to morally defensible spending, that the burden of the necessary cuts does not fall disproportionately on the poor or defenseless.  But that said, these necessary cuts will hurt everybody, including the poor.  But given the principle of proportionality just mentioned, the suffering of the poor does not morally justify continued deficit spending.

No matter how much we want to help the poor and no matter how much (or little) we think that this deficit spending helps the poor, we do not have the moral right to borrow money we cannot pay back.  Period.  To suggest otherwise is economic consequentialism. As Catholics, we must reject this error it in all its forms, even or perhaps especially the ones that make us feel good about ourselves.

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About Pat Archbold

Pat Archbold
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Patrick Archbold is co-founder of Creative Minority Report, a Catholic website that puts a refreshing spin on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. When not writing, Patrick is director of information technology at a large international logistics company. Patrick, his wife Terri, and their five children reside in Long Island, N.Y.