There are two sides to our federal debt crisis—an economic one and a civic one—and both demand attention. As lawmakers in Washington focus their attention on the budget, they would be wise to remember the policy objectives behind their necessary reforms. They must ask: Are we a nation of citizens or subjects?

America is at a tipping point. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, if left unchecked, will devastate our economy and cause irreparable damage to our way of life, all in just a few short years. Alison Fraser, Heritage’s Director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, has noted that “the public debt is closing in on 70 percent of the economy and within the decade will exceed the tipping point of 90 percent.

America is exceptional because it was founded on the basic truth that we are a nation of citizens, free and independent from a faraway king, dedicated to the belief that individuals are capable of self-government. It is an economic necessity to drastically cut the federal budget and rein in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending, but there is also a greater civic necessity to reform these programs and free individuals from their dependence on government and the entitlement mentality that has enslaved huge swaths of our nation. We are now witnessing the effects of an overreaching government, which, in its attempt to provide, has ended up making people dependent on its generosity. Citizens have become subjects and relegated as mere clients of this or that state or federal program.

The elections of 2010 and 2012 are perhaps the most significant in our generation. Those of us in the debt-paying generation have a huge stake in what happens in this Congress and the next because it will have profound and significant effects on our economic future. Greater than that, however, is the governing philosophy that will be established. Policies are not enacted in a vacuum; they have real consequences on the character of the American people. Americans have come to their own time for choosing, not unlike the one Reagan described in 1964. As Reagan said, “we must decide “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Will the policy reforms make us freer and more able to cultivate a citizenry that is imbued with individual responsibility and virtue? Or will we continue along the downward path of debt and dependency? In all their economic reforms, lawmakers must remember that our republic depends upon the character of its citizens. And citizens we must be, for America is not a kingdom of subjects.

Paige Agostin is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation.