Thursday, October 6, 2011

You Can’t Cut That, It Would Be Immoral!

These are the things a decent society provides, it is the moral thing to do. That kind of short-circuits any discussion, wouldn’t you say? In the ongoing attempt to control the narrative in the upcoming elections, the Progressive set is starting to frame the debate as one of a moral crusade: The creation, growth and ever-continuing expansion of the American welfare state is but a natural, moral outgrowth of society. Elizabeth Warren references the “social contract” that we must all abide by. The President is always talking about what is “fair.” Robert Reich lists all the ills befalling the poor in this economy, lists out a bevy of taxes to rectify the problem, and says “But it's more than math. It's a matter of morality.” All over the web, print and television are pundits talking about “social justice” and empathy for the common man. Fair, justice and moral are all powerful words and they are being used for a powerful purpose - to stifle debate.

It was bad enough when the pundit class was labeling those who questioned Big Government as blithering idiots who just did not understand the need for big, bold centrally planned action, but now we are going to drag morality into it as well? Who wants to be labeled as immoral after all? After we have dictated that this program, agency, or entitlement is the only “moral” thing to do, what next? How do we have a debate on the merits after that? It is the same as the use of “fair” in the tax debate. “I only want what is fair.” Well, how do you argue with fair? Who will support being unfair? Almost seems un-American to be against what is fair and moral. But the real question should be how do we decide what is fair and moral? Do the rest of us not have any input in this discussion? To simply say that these things that we like and support are untouchable because they are fair and moral, then you have removed any chance for substantive debate. You have placed the other side in the position of either proving that these things are not moral and fair, or that morality and fairness should not be part of the discussion.

When talking about fairness, we should be observing the larger picture. The President says he wants the rich, who have prospered while everyone else has suffered, to pay more in taxes. “I am only asking them to pay what is fair?” is repeated over and over, a return to the Clinton Era tax rates when all was wonderful. The problem is this notion of “fair.” Taxes have gone up and down throughout our history, and while the President presently says that the Clinton Rates are fair (more from me here), what happens when we are still well over $1 Trillion overdrawn next year even with those tax increases? Will a new “fair” be established? The government, by its own admission (see any number of GAO reports) wastes an incredible amount of money. Remember last week’s story about $600 million in payments to dead people? I will assume I do not have many super-rich reading this, so let us ask the average individual about fairness: Would you consider it “fair” to have to pay more of your income to make up the budget deficit so long as the government does things like this on a regular basis? Medicare, the Defense Department, agriculture subsides, we could go on and on with the inane, inept, fraudulent and duplicitous payments the government doles out every year, and the talk is about what is “fair” in terms of extracting more money to support this system. How exactly is that fair? Would it not be fair, if you are one of the rich, to demand that at least some of the system be reformed before any more money is extracted? Fair is a bad enough word, what is worse in that sentence is “asking.” To ask implies an ability to refuse, and when it comes to taxes who has a right to say: “Umm, not today, check back next week?” The President is not asking, for if he was, he would take to heart what would be the very reasonable response we see from many quarters: Cut first, then ask. Real cuts, not just cuts from next year’s budget increases, need to be laid out and then there can, and should, be a revenue discussion. “Asking” someone to pay more into a system that wastes money with reckless abandon, without addressing that waste, is neither fair nor reasonable.

When it comes to morality, we need not attack the idea of some particular program being “moral” or not. Appealing to morality is an attempt to take things off the table, to not have a reasoned discussion. The conversation should be about utility and efficacy. Just because a program is moral does not mean it works. It should seem plainly obvious that if a program, no matter how well intentioned, does not do what it is supposed to and does not effectively serve its constituency then it should at the very least be reformed if not abolished. Anti-poverty and the Social Safety Net are usually encompassed in this call to morality. From a moral standpoint, looking at the system as it is presently constructed, I would agree that a wasteful Defense Department program should be cut before an anti-poverty program. Discussions like that are fine, and politicians should be put on the spot to explain their resistance or reticence on such issues. The old bumper sticker about the Air Force and bake sales is not a proper policy discussion though. When someone says they will protect a program or entitlement, no matter the cost or efficacy, because it is moral, they are pandering, not governing. “Vote for me and I will protect your program!” is the shorthand version. If the outcomes of Medicaid are measurably poorer than having no health insurance at all, why is it we can’t talk about changing the program? Would it not be a “morally” superior position to advocate a different system? If year after year anti-poverty programs, even in the boom years, do nothing to alleviate poverty in this country, wouldn’t it be better to come up with a different or more refined approach? Is the object of the exercise to assist people so they can get themselves out of poverty, or to make poverty more comfortable? The former is a moral intention, the latter is an attempt to create reliable votes.

Morality and fairness are fine intentions, but there has to be a discussion about the definitions. You cannot simply say that the Progressive prescription is the only moral and fair one. That is a playground tactic, not governing. To label the opposition as immoral, or amoral as the case often is with Libertarians, is an attempt to stop meaningful debate. With trillions in debt, continuing unemployment and structural deficiencies in our economy we need to have real discussions (and compromise) about what is needed, what works and what doesn’t, and what do we really need this government to be doing going forward into the future. That would be the only fair and moral thing to do for ourselves and our posterity, if we expect to have one that calls itself Americans.

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