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Conservatism and the Common Good

Commentary Magazine

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March 28, 2012 | comments

by Peter Wehner

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, two liberal Catholics, Bryan Massingale and John Gehring, wrote a column asserting that Representative Paul Ryan’s budget “fails the moral test of his own faith tradition and disregards our nation’s responsibility to care for the most vulnerable.” The budget “acts like a schoolyard bully. It kicks those who are already down.” The writers then offer us “a refresher course in basic Catholic teaching. The Catholic justice tradition … holds a positive role for government, advocates a ‘preferential option for the poor’ and recognizes that those with greater means should contribute a fair share in taxes to serve the common good.” A Catholic vision for a just economy is “rooted in the conviction that we are all in this together, and not just isolated individuals locked in a Darwinian struggle for survival.”

These writers have opted for moralizing over serious arguments, banalities over facts. There’s not a word in their column, for example, about (a) the explosion in domestic spending we’ve seen during the last three years or (b) how Medicare is the main driver of our debt, why our debt trajectory is different and unprecedented, and why the failure to fundamentally restructure Medicare would lead to a fiscal catastrophe and eventually to dismantling the program. There is no acknowledgement that Ryan’s budget increases spending on programs like S-CHIP and Medicaid, that it keeps domestic cuts from harming anti-poverty programs, and that it respects the principle of subsidiarity. But the column by Massingale and Gehring is worth highlighting not simply for its substantive ignorance but for its moral confusion, which is at the core of modern liberalism.

In this case, the confusion is that “preferential treatment for the poor” is synonymous with a massive, centralized state. Au contraire. A positive role for government means a limited role for government. I recall a similar debate in the 1990s, when conservatives championed welfare reform over the fierce criticisms of the left. (In effect, the new law ended the legal entitlement to federally funded welfare benefits, imposing a five-year time limit on the receipt of such benefits and requiring a large percentage of current recipients to seek and obtain work.) Liberal religious figures like Jim Wallis said that reforms championed by conservatives would lead to an explosion of poverty and hunger. Millions of innocent children would suffer. What was being proposed was cruel, brutal, Darwinian.

In fact, the 1996 welfare-reform bill was the most dramatic and successful social innovation in decades, reversing 60 years of federal policy that had long since grown not just useless but positively counterproductive. State welfare rolls plummeted—and poverty, instead of rising, decreased. A decade after the 1996 welfare-reform bill was passed into law, overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger all decreased, while employment figures for single mothers rose. Rather than giving up on the poor, the new policy assumed that the able-bodied were capable of working, expected them to work, and was rooted in a confident belief that, materially and otherwise, they would be better off for it. In each of these particulars, welfare reform advocates were proved correct.

The thundering moral condemnations of the left were wrong then and they are wrong now. What progressives don’t seem to understand is that if we don’t reform entitlement programs, it will leave virtually no room for anything else, including domestic discretionary spending. The crowding out effects of keeping the current Medicare program in place will be massive, then catastrophic, and eventually unsustainable. Unless we alter the current course of fiscal events, we will end up like European nations, in which cuts in government programs are drastic, painful, immediate, and disproportionately targeted on the vulnerable and powerless.

In our current moment, understanding fiscal reality, including the ability to read charts and graphs and do basic math, has become something of an ethical imperative. What Representative Ryan appreciates, unlike some of his critics, is that putting forth a responsible governing document is more challenging (and more satisfying) than moral preening.

Paul Ryan’s budget provides a path to opportunity and greater prosperity; if it were to become law, it would avert considerable heartache and human suffering. That is an impressive moral achievement, one that puts human dignity at the heart of public policy. Genuine solidarity with the poor was once a hallmark of liberalism. I hope it becomes so again one day.


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