Are we sufficiently mature to govern ourselves and to leave behind a freer, wealthier and more powerful America than the one we inherited?

Before this week, one might well have thought not.

Persistent budget deficits have been the norm recently; fiscal restraint, the exception. Why? Because we collectively want more stuff from the government than we are willing to pay for.

So we borrow the difference, deliberately ignoring or ignorantly forgetting that every bond the Treasury sells impoverishes the future to enrich the present.

It might be tempting to blame the politicians for dangling before us innocent voters the prospect of a free lunch, but that would be wrong.

In our democracy, politicians do what they think will most please the voters. They promise us structurally unbalanced budgets because they believe we’re foolish and greedy enough to believe that there is truly such a thing as a free lunch. Most of the time, they’ve been right.

Ironically, the less of our government’s expenses we pay for in taxes, the more we resent paying them, and the more we hate our politicians, though in truth they are doing only what we tell them to do.

As such resentment grows, we risk falling into a vicious circle of political dysfunction, as our selfish loathing of the government grows in tandem with an equally selfish demand that the government spend more of the money that we refuse to pay in order to buy stuff we demand but cannot afford.

As our debts mount, they gradually erode our freedom, undermine the edifice of our prosperity, and leave us weakened and vulnerable to the foreign holders of our enormous debt.

Last year, the Democrats found yet a new way to pander to our collective selfishness: Despite having total control of the government, they refused to pass any budget at all. Of the 12 appropriation bills needed to fund the government in an orderly way, the Democrats passed exactly none. Zero.

Had the Democrats used their legislative majorities to fulfill the most basic responsibility of Congress, there would have been no drama this spring about continuing resolutions and threatened government shutdowns.

Instead, they seem to have assumed that if there were no budget, then we voters wouldn’t notice the oceans of red ink flooding the chasm between our revenue and our expansive expenses.

If they hoped to persuade us to accept higher taxes to pay for all the new stuff they thought we wanted, they miscalculated.

Instead of rewarding the Democrats for finding a clever new way for making an expensive lunch seem free, the voters recoiled. Democrats suffered a thrashing at the polls.

But was the new Republican majority selling the same free-lunch package, wrapped in shiny new paper? Are we, the voters, asking to keep sliding deeper in debt, or are we prepared start paying our way and to begin paying off the tab for all those expensive “free” lunches we ate while the eating was good?

There’s been some talk in recent months about fiscal virtue, but overall one would be forgiven for thinking that we and our politicians collectively sound like the high-living young sinner who once prayed, “O Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”

This week, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, proved that he thinks that we voters stand ready, now, to repent of our free-lunching ways.

The draft Republican budget for 2012 and fiscal blueprint for the following years contain some bitter medicine. Tax reforms would require us to forgo loopholes and deductions. Entitlement reforms would mean that those of us younger than 55 would have to forgo the unsustainably expensive Medicare benefits promised to current retirees.

But the Republican blueprint would eliminate the budget deficit within 30 years, and it holds out the promise of revitalizing our ailing economy.

Early indications suggest that the Democrats will object to Ryan’s proposed cuts, but won’t propose to raise taxes enough to pay for all the stuff they think we need to buy.

So now we voters face a choice: to prove ourselves worthy of democracy by governing our own appetites now, or to keep eating “free” lunches until our creditors force us to pay the bill.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American Constitutional Law and chairman of the Department of Government at Colby College in Waterville.


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