In his retirement at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson referred to the bitter debate over the Missouri Compromise as "a firebell in the night". The escalating conflict over slavery in America, Jefferson feared, might eventually bring the republic down in the fires of civil war. As it turned out, he was quite right.
The bitterly partisan debate we have seen over the past few weeks in Washington over the debt ceiling has been our firebell in the night. Just as the slavery question was the greatest challenge facing the American republic in the early 19th Century, so the national fiscal crisis is the greatest challenge facing it in the early 21st Century. If we do not rise to the challenge, the consequences could be so disastrous as to defy any attempt at description.
The deal hammered out between President Obama and congressional leaders is nothing more than a short-term measure. The fiscal collapse that might have happened had the nation been allowed to default on its debt has only been postponed. What needs to happen now is for both parties to find a way to compromise in order to achieve long-term financial stability. Fundamentally, this means that our government must begin to pay for what the people expect it to do, and if it cannot, then the people need to readjust what they believe the government should do.
In the long run, we cannot continue to have a big government financed by low taxes and borrowed money. We have to downshift into a smaller, more efficient government, secured by a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Taxes on some people will obviously have to go up. We will undoubtedly have to scale back our massive entitlement programs, not to mention our massive military presence around the world. Vast numbers of government programs dear to special interests, such as agricultural subsidies, will have to be dismantled.
The devil will be in the details, of course. Every special interest will fight tooth and nail to protect their own interests. But the need to balance the budget and put our fiscal house in order is so obvious as to be a basic concession to common sense. There is simply no other way.
Fasten your seat belts. The rancor we have seen in Washington over the past few weeks during the debt ceiling debate has been merely a preview of coming attractions. The real debate is still to come. But the lights in the theater are dimming, and the show is about to start.