In the intriguing short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula Le Guin provides a brutal criticism of a fictional society. Borrowing from Dostoyevsky’s basic premise in “The Brothers Karamazov,” Le Guin describes the community of Omelas, a seemingly utopian town, filled with cheer and absent of worry. But behind its flawless façade, the community knowingly and guiltlessly inflicts horrible misery on an innocent child, to ensure its own general happiness and comfort.
Some readers may find no problem with the happenings of Omelas. From a utilitarian point of view, ensuring the certain happiness of many is well worth the suffering of one. Yet such an ethic is inherently immoral. Judeo-Christian morality embraces universal human dignity as one of its main tenets. This is a conviction Americans have come to accept and passionately protect. It assumes an ethic that is entirely contrary to the “scapegoat” philosophy by which the people of Omelas abide. Denying the dignity of an innocent human being is never justified. Sure, perfect happiness for all of society is desirable, but not at certain costs.
Yet while most Americans would affirm this traditional moral ethic in principle, our culture does not always adhere to it in practice. Increasingly our society is a selfish one, possessed by a mindset of instant gratification. Personal comfort and pleasure have taken the places of responsibility and morals. Unfortunately, the embodiment of this trend can be seen in various ways. But by far the most politically relevant example is U.S. federal debt.
Currently, our national debt is over $16 trillion. In the next month, there will be another fight in Congress over raising the debt ceiling so that the federal government can borrow even more money. Generally, a modest amount of debt is not an issue; in fact, it can be a sign of growth. But our nation is now getting to the point where its ability to pay back interest on the debt, and at some point, the debt itself, is coming into question. When that happens, there will be no one left foolish enough to lend us more money, and those who we already owe may demand a repayment that we cannot possibly pay. The situation is getting out of hand.
In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama proclaimed:
The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies. … Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that “the buck stops here.” Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.
Americans do deserve better, from both their leaders and themselves. With the coming deadline, causing the government to default should not be an option. But that threat should provide motivation to make substantial progress in the right direction. For one, policies should be passed to create an environment that facilitates economic growth. Growth in GDP would not only be beneficial to individuals, but would also be more effective at raising revenue than higher tax rates. And despite how unpopular it might be, entitlement programs must be reformed. About two-thirds of federal spending is non-discretionary, which means that it is usually off the table during budgetary discussions. But it should not be. It must not be. Let the deadline in February be an opportunity to be responsible—to sacrifice and to take a step in the right, moral and realistic direction.
Believe it or not, we are living in Omelas. As a nation, we have been deliberately choosing to sacrifice the well-being of future generations in order to enjoy our own. Instead of honestly facing up to the reality that our way of life is irresponsible and unsustainable, we have habitually learned to turn a blind eye to the unavoidable consequences of our behavior. Such selfish inaction is unacceptable.
President Obama is right. What is needed is leadership. Not self-interested, short-sighted, people-pleasing, re-election-seeking leadership. But honest, moral, sacrificial, courageous leadership that is willing to do what is right even when it is unpopular. Unlike the dissenters of Omelas, we cannot just walk away. It is our responsibility as Americans, and it is our moral imperative to bite the bullet and reform the current state of affairs.
It will take sacrifice and a willingness to give up what many of us think we deserve, but then again, what do the coming generations of Americans deserve? They deserve a clean slate, or at the very least, a manageable slate. It is about time we accept our nation’s debt burden for what it really is: ours.