Recently, the Charleston Gazette published an editorial that I have not been able to quit thinking about. The editorial was entitled Morality, Irony and the Fate of America. It pointed out that the current Republican agenda is to take healthcare away from 20 million Americans, 170,000 of them West Virginians, and direct that money to the rich in tax cuts. It noted further that the proposed Trump tax cuts would cut one-fourth of the SNAP benefits for low-income families, undermining nutrition for 100,000 West Virginians. All with the same result of benefitting the rich. And “various other programs that keep the wolves from the door, that give people breathing space to improve their own circumstances, are at risk in the ongoing conflict.” According to the Gazette, this is not just wrong as a matter of policy. It is immoral.
Using morality as the basis for political argument has a rich history in America and elsewhere. But this is dangerous territory because each of us has a personal view of morality fashioned by family, religion, education and personal experience. When it comes to morality we are not all using the same language. As but one example, opponents of abortion use one version of morality to fuel their opposition. Freedom of choice proponents use a different version to argue for the opposite outcome. Still it seems worthwhile to discuss whether there is a moral politics and, if so, what it is. So, with no expertise in political philosophy or thinking about morality, I now venture there.
The first question is the legitimate role of government. This, of course, is a hot topic these days. Beginning from the conservative view of its proper role, government should only do the things that to be effective must be done collectively. In this category would be things like national defense, large infrastructure projects, and the tax collection system that funds both. Since government has a legal monopoly on force, then also among the things government should do is make laws for common safety and security, enforce the laws through policing and corrections, and resolve disputes through the court system.
Are social welfare programs that create a floor beneath the less fortunate among these things? Here we are talking about highly popular programs like Social Security, Medicare, SNAP benefits, unemployment compensation and disability benefits. If social welfare programs are to be undertaken at all, then it is easy to conclude that these programs are also among the things government should do.
Only government can mount social welfare programs on the scale that would be effective. Most social welfare programs operate on insurance principles that spread the risk of catastrophic outcomes and their cost throughout the whole population instead of forcing the individual victim to bear the full weight. This has to be organized collectively. There may be some among us who would say that churches and private charities could do this work but this is a pipe dream. Private charity is important but it would be quickly overwhelmed without collective government action.
Well then, does government have an obligation to devise and implement social welfare programs – to support the needy and less fortunate among its citizens? Libertarians and other followers of the “objectivist” philosophy of Ayn Rand would say no. They believe that the individual prospers by being selfish, asking for no help from others and giving none.
This objectivist view is inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian philosophy of action and with the teachings of every organized religion. Religious leaders whose business it is to consider moral issues consistently say that helping others in need is a moral imperative. A recent letter to the editor of the Gazette from the Executive Director of the West Virginia Council of Churches urged our Congressional representatives to maintain their support for SNAP benefits on religious grounds.
Then there is the fact that every modern government recognizes this imperative, those in Western Europe more than others. Social welfare programs became more common as the phenomenon of empathy spread in society. But mere empathy withers in the face of the high cost of acting on it. As New York Times columnist David Brooks has argued, those we recognize as having a strong moral compass have sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. Whatever the source of this moral sense, when it comes to social welfare most people have it. It would be difficult to find a political leader in any country, except perhaps our own, willing to deny that government has a moral obligation to build some sort of support system for those in need.
Without anything to back this up other than a visceral feel, I believe that our sense of moral imperative, and therefore the legitimacy of government social welfare programs, is highest when dealing with basic needs. Wide swaths of society can rally around programs that eliminate or reduce hunger, but far fewer around programs that, say, provide recreational opportunities. In the high legitimacy category I would also put minimizing pain and disease, homelessness, the infirmities of old age, and responding to natural disasters. But certainly there can be a lot of debate around what we are morally compelled to do.
Unlike the debate about abortion, there is no countervailing moral argument behind the current Republican opposition to Medicaid and SNAP benefits. Medicaid expansion, and even the basic idea of Medicaid itself, has been threatened in the fever to repeal Obamacare. How, or if, we manage health insurance for those able to afford it is a different question entirely from whether we provide it for those who can’t. The fact that Congressional Republicans have wrapped the two issues together in the repeal effort demonstrates that the argument to undermine Medicaid cannot stand on its own.
When Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and their surrogates offer any reason behind their hostility to Medicaid and SNAP benefits it is a fiscal, not a moral reason. They say we must cut back on these benefits because they are growing at a rate that is unsustainable over the long run. I don’t pretend to know whether this is true but it seems unlikely we couldn’t find some adjustments to make them sustainable. What is perfectly obvious is that the people who receive these benefits are in need now — today. The moral imperative for government to act should not yield in favor of some cool assessment of future bookkeeping. Doing what should be done may not be easy, but that is often the nature of moral choices.