Ethics and the Budget Debate

Picture this scene.  In the midst of the budget battle, religious leaders from the National Council of Churches met with President Clinton in the Oval Office for 45 Minutes. They “laid hands” on him and prayed that God would “make the President strong for the task” of fighting budget cutbacks.

Now, imagine if that same group had come from the Christian Coalition and a conservative President had been tangling with a Democratic Congress. We would never have heard the end of it: a theocrat in the White House. As it happens, the praying at the White House was only the beginning of the liberal clergy's deep involvement in the budget debate.

Religious leaders, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, intervened with press conferences and studies to pressure Congress to back off welfare reform. No family caps on welfare payments, they said, and the Senate went along. Twenty years of scholarship proving the connection between illegitimacy, social breakdown and welfare was thrown out the window.

Pope John Paul II had just visited and admonished us with a message we need to hear: Don't forget those who are left out of society, including the poor, immigrants, the aged, the disabled. These sentiments were echoed by the clergy, but with a twist: Government policy should be responsible for this “compassion.”

Republicans may have waged a valiant fight on behalf of reducing the size of government, but the moral high ground was stolen from them at the height of the battle.

At issue most fundamentally is what Thomas Sowell has called a “conflict of visions.” Will we pursue an unconstrained and unattainable vision of society planned and controlled from the center-as so much of the clergy and the media demand? Or will we recognize the limits of the state and place decision making with those most affected, granting the poor the liberty and property needed to restore a vibrant community and economic life?

During the debate, the advocates of private charity as an alternative to the welfare state got a brief hearing But the dominant voice was that of religious leaders who favor what Bertrand de Jouvenal has called the “ethics of redistributionism”-the belief that government programs are adequate substitutes for personal involvement.

At the heart of this mainline Protestant-Catholic ambush was the moral assumption that public acts of redistribution are the appropriate vehicle of compassion. Ergo, those who favor tax cuts and spending cuts are on shaky moral ground and might even be engaged in sin, certainly venial if not mortal.

The message was preposterous, of course, but where was the response? It didn't come. The congressional debate had shifted to matters of cost accounting and assumptions about economic forecasting. The Left's moral position remained almost unchallenged.

What should the response have been? That, contrary to current practice, the property of the American people belongs to them first, and not to the government, on the principle of merit and the justice of ownership. The present welfare regime exalts redistribution-taking from Peter to give to Paul-as an end in itself.

In truth, this is not a moral end, but more likely an expression of envy and the institutionalization of theft. High taxes and spending deprive the American people of the opportunity to provide authentic charity and to contribute productively to a prosperous society. When marginal tax rates take as much as half of marginal income-as happens for many affluent families today-people have little leeway to make charitable contributions.

Are conservatives afraid of making the moral case for the free society? If they are, they cannot expect ultimate victory in the budget battle. They cannot cede the debate about ethics to the enemies of free enterprise, private property and individual liberty.

If conservatives are not prepared to say the free society, in which the powers of the central government are severely restricted and charity is practiced primarily by the private sector, is also the moral society, they can expect more disappointing results. This budget battle shows that the question of right and wrong is what will determine whose vision of the social order will prevail.