Virtue ethics and sovereign debt

Analysts tend to write about policy and political institutions in very consequentialist ways. That is, they describe the immediate consequences of some institution or policy, and then use those expected consequences to argue that the institution or policy is good or bad.

Discussions around fiscal deficits and the federal debt almost uniformly utilize such a framework. Proponents of accumulating more debt argue that it is necessary to avoid an austerity-induced recession, and that deficit spending will be economically stimulative in the present economic climate. Opponents of accumulating more debt generally deny that it would be stimulative, and argue that doing so will harm subsequent generations. Notice that both sides are making consequentialist appeals. They are arguing within the same background framework that categorizes policies as good or bad based on the good or bad consequences they generate.

Although this is the universal language of acceptable policy discussion, it is not the way many people actually think about these things. Among conservatives especially, politics and policy are often contemplated within a virtue ethics framework. Under this framework, good and bad are not adjudicated by the consequences of an action, but by whether an action is virtuous.

Virtues are things like honesty, charity, generosity, responsibility, honor, loyalty, and so on. A virtuous person is one who acts according to these virtues and from these virtues. That is, a virtuous person is morally motivated by these virtues themselves. The virtues are not followed because they are generally good rules or produce good consequences in a specific situation. They are followed for their own sake because following them is what it takes to behave ethically.

If you listen to conservative rhetoric about deficits and debts that is not specifically policy-oriented, the appeal to virtue is very apparent. Deficit scolds will talk about the virtue of courage. Avoiding making decisions about what to cut is cowardly, and that is contemptible, vicious (acting from vice) behavior. They talk about responsibility with an emphasis on discipline, and temperance. To spend more money than you have is simply out-of-control and vicious behavior; it reveals an agent that lacks the virtuous discipline to stay within his means. They talk about the virtue of honesty. To spend money you do not have to pump up the economy is to operate on a lie. It is to pretend we have more money than we actually have, and mislead the public about the cost of our behavior by kicking the can (in this case the bill) down the road.

More than almost anything else, being in a state of indebtedness is especially revelatory of vicious tendencies. A virtuous person — or perhaps virtuous family sitting at the dinner table balancing their budget, as the metaphor goes — acts frugally, only spending what they have. A virtuous person sacrifices and practices thrift in order to get through lean periods. A vicious person runs up credit cards in order to keep living they way they are accustomed.

If you talk to everyday conservatives, these themes will pop right out if you pay any attention. But most don’t. We are so used to our prevailing analytical frame that we fail to see the virtue appeals for what they are. Instead, we see them as irrational or nonsensical consequentialist appeals. And they would be, if that’s what they were. But many of these individuals, who are mostly conservatives, conceive of the government as an agent, and they want it to be a virtuous agent. Sovereign debt rhetoric is an especially good example of this virtue approach to evaluating governance, but it seeps into many other policy areas as well.