I used to think social programs were a good idea.
Not perfect. Not without problems. But, on balance, good. In the sense of right and wrong. Of ethically and socially desirable.
That was before I understood the moral threat they posed.
I know, I know. It seems like food stamps and Medicare and Social Security and other programs actually help people – especially children and the elderly – who are poor. Helps them, I don’t know… eat. Or learn. Or go to the doctor. It seems like the humane thing for a glitteringly wealthy society to do. Complaining about help for the poor on behalf of the rich seems like it ought to be just too shameful for decent people.
But that was before I considered the moral threat.
I used to think that people opposed social programs out of a philosophical objection, or anecdotal experience with the “undeserving” poor, or a Darwinian economic view, or simple hard-heartedness – reasons that were, at root, about getting and keeping money.
But it turns out that it’s the moral threat that really gets people worked up. Government programs for the poor threaten our ability to be properly compassionate.
I came across this notion in an op-ed piece written by Ryan Messmore of the Heritage Foundation. It ran here in the S-R on Christmas Day. You know the Heritage Foundation – the gang that always takes pains to point out that some poor people own televisions and microwaves, whenever new statistics about the nation’s poverty come out.
In his Yuletide piece, Messmore identified the problem with trying to help those people: “An entitlement mentality – a sense of being owed something for nothing – settles in when people interpret wants as needs and then view those needs as rights. And once something is understood as a ‘right,’ people tend to hold government responsible for providing it.
“This ‘government-owes-us’ mentality threatens not only the spirit of Christmas but the very fabric of a just and prosperous society.”
It is important to understand this moral threat. Otherwise, you might jump to a mistaken conclusion. You might think people with a lot of money are leaping through rhetorical hoops to make themselves seem unselfish. You could, conceivably, conclude that some people are gilding their resentment of helping the less fortunate with a parsimonious parsing of the way that help is delivered. You might decide that these morally fibrous folks believe poverty is simply the way the free market and the Lord punish immorality.
But poverty is not the problem, Messmore argues. Or not the important one, anyway. Not the one that demands our attention in this, the season of giving. No – it’s government help that is so very threatening to our morality. Helping people through church or charity is fine, of course. If that’s your thing. But government assistance is downright corrosive.
“Gifts create a kind of momentum of good will that bind both giver and receiver in a more personal relationship,” he wrote. “Entitlements foster a different social relationship, mainly because governments typically deliver the benefits through impersonal, top-down programs.
“Entitlement programs are funded by taxes, which government mandates under threat of penalty. The requirement often fosters a sense of resentment among taxpayers rather than a desire to help others.
“And on the other side, an entitlement mentality tends to undercut the feeling and offering of gratitude. In fact, sometimes that sense of entitlement tempts recipients to ‘play’ the system, leading to waste, fraud and long-term dependence on the dole.”
He is undoubtedly correct. If you continually give people something for nothing – a break that other people do not get – they come to feel they deserve this something. Soon, they expect this something all the time.
Modern society is filled with examples of this. Here are two:
• Certain people have come to believe they are entitled to pay far less in taxes on their income, proportionally, than others. For example, if you earn income working for a company, you will pay a certain tax rate on that income. If the owner or CEO of that company earns income via the stock market, he pays a far, far lower tax rate on that income. This tax rate has gone down continually, for decades and decades and decades. It is now at its lowest point in history. And yet the entitlement mentality among those whose taxes have been cut and cut and cut again has tended to undercut their feeling of gratitude. Their entitlement mentality is such that they continually argue that their continually lowered taxes are continually being raised. That the appropriate tax rate for this type of income is actually zero.
• A lot of us think we’re entitled to a tax break because we borrowed money to buy a house. Incredible! We count up our interest expenses and once a year deprive the treasury of this tax money, which we would otherwise owe under threat of penalty. The bigger your house, the bigger your tax break. In other words, the less you need the “relief” the more relief you get.
The moral fabric – it frays and frays. I guess that’s just what happens when people interpret wants as needs, and then view those needs as rights.