The new morality

Here's Robert Samuelson on the idea of public benefits:

People who wonder what America's budget problem is ultimately about should look to Europe. In the streets of Dublin, Athens and London, angry citizens are protesting government plans to cut programs and raise taxes. The social contract is being broken. People are furious; they feel betrayed.

Modern democracies have created a new morality. Government benefits, once conferred, cannot be revoked. People expect them and consider them property rights. Just as government cannot randomly confiscate property, it cannot withdraw benefits without violating a moral code. The old-fashioned idea that government policies should serve the "national interest" has given way to inertia and squatters' rights.

To be precise, that wouldn't be a "new morality," that would be a new moral obligation (or duty) under the existing morality (or moralities).  But it really isn't that anyway, as those obligations form part of the social contract–people pay taxes, make laws, establish government programs, etc., and expect (rightly, under the old morality) their needs to be met accordingly.  When abrupt changes to this contract are made, people will expect some kind of justification.  No sane person could call these things a new morality.

By the way, we should also remind ourselves that people violating the principles of the old morality helped bring about economic catastrophe.   

But while we are talking about morality, and fiscal responsibility, let's go back to Robert Samuelson, in 2003:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but "can we afford it?" is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

Just to be clear.  He didn't go on to critique that morality–about the economic upset and sacrifice.  How much has that war cost us now?

One thought on “The new morality”


    For budget questions, isn't Samuelson revealing the heart of the debate over "morality, and fiscal responsibility", at least as it plays out in real life? "My budget choices reflect the critical needs of the nation and the provision for its continued future success. Your budget priorities, to the extent that they conflict with mine, are selfish and destructive to the state." In Samuelson's case, he believes that if our government spends too much money taking care of its own citizens it won't be able to afford wars of choice.
    Beyond that, I'm not sure how much thought Samuelson gives to his criticisms of the "nanny state" in other nations – does it matter to Samuelson <em>why</em> budget cuts are deemed necessary, what budget items are getting priority over social spending, or whether social spending might help make the country stronger in the future by, for example, ensuring that capable students are able to attend college? Not that I can see. His sole focus appears to be to argue, "Europe proves that a generous social safety net is unsustainable, so not only should the U.S. 'not go there', we should slash the one we have," within (as you note) the implied context of our capacity to regard hundreds of billions of dollars as "pocket change" when it comes to the nation's war machine.
    A few years ago, Ireland was being celebrated by conservatives as the "Celtic Tiger", with a surging economy supposedly fueled by very low business taxes. Now we find that the low business taxes, while initially getting some companies to locate in Ireland, has principally resulted in Ireland being used as a tax shelter, and much of its wealth came from a housing bubble driven by irresponsible bankers. And needless to say, the companies that have located tax shelter offices in Ireland, many of which have only a handful of employees to handle billions of dollars in transactions, are threatening to pull out if corporate taxes are raised. It is reasonable to debate whether the people of Ireland should suffer terrible financial hardship because their government and the Euro Zone nations prioritize bailing out the bankers who created the mess. From what I've read, Ireland has <em>already</em> absorbed budget and social welfare cuts associated with a 20% reduction in wages. For Samuelson, though, it appears to be "immoral" for the people to cry out, "When does it end?" Or even "Does it ever end?"
    The Irish protests, at heart, aren't much different from the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement started out of anger toward bank bailouts, but quickly evolved into something else – people angry that "their tax dollars" might be used to provide social support for others, or that "their entitlements" might be cut in order to provide social services to others. Except here the "others" are the poor and "illegal immigrants", while in Ireland the "others" are still the bankers who crashed the nation's economy. Greece's traditions may seem more quaint, old-fashioned, inefficient, and "welfare state"-ish, but at its heart the bailout of Greece was <em>also</em> one of ordinary people vs. the bankers. <a href="">Irish voters may be looking to Iceland</a> whose population decided to put their own needs ahead of the bankers and who, despite a staggering collapse of their banking industry, appear to now be doing considerably <a href="">better than Ireland</a>.

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