AS THE U.S. Congress and the president repeatedly battle over the debt ceiling and contemplate cuts to Social Security and Medicare, austerity has begun to sound like common sense: "Families tighten their belts during hard times, and so must government."
However, "common sense" in our media age is carefully manufactured, and its underlying analogy doesn't always hold up to scrutiny. "Living within our means," for most families, includes debt financing for housing, cars, and college. Families having a hard time paying their bills may indeed tighten their belts—but they seek more income first, and cut care for children and the sick last. In contrast, federal budget austerity arguments always focus on spending, ignoring the revenue crisis born of decades of tax cuts.
Christians have a more profound reason to question "austerity measures": They conflict with our faith in God's abundance. In parable after parable—the prodigal son, the unforgiving debtor, Lazarus and the rich man—Jesus challenges us to emulate God's generosity. It is the theme of that most eucharistic miracle, the loaves and fishes. How to live in the light of God's abundance is never an easy question, but we must be open to its logic in every area of human existence, including our personal lives, our economy, and our government.
There is, needless to say, a deep contrast between Christian notions of abundance, rooted in God's boundless creative gift, and the modern field of economics, which bases itself on the principle that commodities are scarce. Yet there are also resonances between abundance and modern macroeconomics (the study of whole economies) as it developed in the New Deal period and the first three decades after World War II—especially in the great postwar era of shared prosperity, which saw an explosive expansion of the middle class.
During that period, everyone gave to the national common good, and everyone received—not just through strongly redistributive taxation, but through shared, unprecedented economic growth. And it wasn't simply the "invisible hand" of the marketplace that guided growth: The market was fostered by government's investment in infrastructure and education.
The postwar era proved that economic abundance is indeed something found in mutual sacrifice and sharing. (And when the opposite tack, austerity budgets, has been tried in recent years, it has been a dramatic economic failure in nations such as the U.K., which is facing a possible triple-dip recession.)
Of course, social democracies do fall far short of the reign of God. Justice-minded Christians can criticize nationalism's divisiveness, the exclusion of minorities from shared prosperity, the neo-colonial exploitation that supported capitalist economies, the ties between the economy and the national security state, and the unsustainable demands that models of economic growth place upon the environment.
Although these criticisms are legitimate, we need to defend the epochal political and economic achievement of our great-grandparents. Instead of the grim options that seemed likely in the 1930s—the instabilities and injustices of communism, fascism, or laissez-faire capitalism—social democracy provided powerful structures for communal responsibility, ameliorating inequality, and caring for the vulnerable. We need not baptize the state in order to value what it can do, and to appreciate that its achievements cannot be taken for granted.
"Caritas in Veritate," Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical letter on charity and justice, taught that we are required "to be solicitous for" the institutions that structure the common good. He spoke of the "institutional" or "political path" of charity. In the midst of high-stakes budget battles, we need to speak loudly in defense of the democratic structures that have brought shared prosperity. They reflect a ray of the abundance to which God calls us all.
Vincent Miller teaches theology at the University of Dayton and is the author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.
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