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What Kind of Person Denies Essential Services to Millions To Save a Few Dollars? July 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy, politics.
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The California budget agreement has finally arrived and it is as bad as predicted—massive cuts to schools, higher education, social services, and local governments. The result will be millions of children without health care, an education system in accelerated collapse, disabled people kicked to the curb, and municipalities in bankruptcy. In short, every vulnerable person gets shafted.

All of this pain was made necessary because Governor Schwarzenegger and a small minority of Republican legislators have refused to modestly increase taxes to cover essential state services.  (Here is an account of proposed tax increases that would have avoided some of the cuts had they been enacted.)

The California economy will be hamstrung for years because of these shortsighted decisions. But economies can bounce back. The greater calamity may be moral decay and the collapse of the social trust on which society depends.

Progressives must develop a strategy to fix the state, but the first step is to get clear on what we are up against—and it is not a pretty sight. Moral catastrophes never are.

As has been well-documented, some of our budget woes stem from structural problems in the way government is managed. Proposition 13, the 2/3’s rule on budget matters, the power of lobbyists in Sacramento, a dysfunctional prison system, and government by ballot box have all contributed to the debacle.

But it is important to remember that these structural impediments to good government and the unconscionable cuts in the current budget represent decisions made by people—the politicians who promoted these policies and the voters who gave them their support. California’s budget debacle is not a force of nature or an accident. Some Californians, in and out of government, decided the health and welfare of millions of people could simply be ignored in order to avoid modest tax increases. That is a decision for which they must be held fully responsible. 

I have known many Republicans and conservatives over the years. And they don’t seem to be personally less compassionate or responsible than the rest of the population. In their personal lives, they seem to have the same moral emotions and moral focus the rest of us have.

But when it comes to public policy, all that compassion and responsibility dries up like a San Diego stream bed in August.

Hence the question the title poses. What kind of person denies essential services to millions to save a few dollars?

Of course the answer to that question is that they are in the grip of an ideology that makes them moral cripples.

It is worth unpacking this ideology.

Conservatives think that people are fully responsible for their lot in life. If you are successful it is because you deserve it and if you are not successful it is because you don’t. Thus, the vastly unequal distribution of goods in our society already reflects the morally optimal distribution. Any marginal increase in goods should go to the wealthy and marginal decreases in wealth are burdens that must be borne by the poor, the middle class, or the disabled. This is the only logic that could justify this budget.

These are strange beliefs to hold, especially with regard to children who presumably don’t deserve their lot in life. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that luck plays a large role in determining how well people do, and that it is impossible to make sound inferences about perfect strangers when explaining why someone is successful or unsuccessful. But if they are so unreasonable, why do these conservative ideas persist?

I suppose you could derive these “moral beliefs” from the basic principles of free-market fundamentalism. According to conservatives, an unregulated, minimally taxed  market tends toward equilibrium and will thus settle on a distribution of products and prices that is beneficial to everyone. By adding the above premises about what people deserve, conservatives enjoy a double dollop of self-esteem–the “screw the poor” policy is both “just” to individuals and best for society overall.

In addition, conservatives cling to the idea that raising taxes even a bit will plunge the economy back into recession. There is ample empirical evidence refuting this idea, and the theory of free-market fundamentalism has now been thoroughly discredited. Yet the ideas persist, immune to counter-example, within a sizable portion of the public.

But the important point here is that none of these judgments about economics or what people deserve explains why people would weigh such questionable premises more heavily than moral compunctions about the suffering of millions of disadvantaged people. In other words, even if recession economics requires low taxes, and poor and middle class people are less ambitious than the wealthy, it doesn’t follow that we should simply ignore the destructive social consequences of these budget cuts. What sort of value system allows you to discount human suffering in favor of some “theory” about economics or human nature?

In fact, most politicians and their supporters are not economists and are unlikely to hold firm beliefs about market equilibria or recession economics.

Thus, I suspect that underlying these beliefs about what people deserve is the (unconscious) belief that the unsuccessful are not only undeserving but evil—a kind of fifth column threatening the fabric of society with their indolence and incompetence. Social welfare only encourages their indolence, and public education is the Trojan horse that will give them access to positions in society. Thus, draconian budget cuts are good things—they cleanse the social body of vermin that threaten its health.

To believe such a thing is to be in the grip of a delusion so pervasive that it can be sustained only by unconscious motivations—deep resentments, pathological narcissism, an authoritarian need to control others through scapegoating, etc .

It is not nice to contemplate fellow Californians with such motives, but I am at a loss to find an alternative explanation for what the Governor and legislature have done.

Conservatism came to power in part based on promises to lower taxes while providing essential services through free market innovation. But its ability to capture the imagination of voters also depended on the perception that conservatism was a morally superior ideology. The values rhetoric for which conservatism is well-known provided moral cover for the questionable economic theories they advanced.

With this budget, the emptiness of that values rhetoric has once again been exposed just as their economic theories are in tatters. What is left is not merely naked self-interest but a self-interest bolstered by deep resentment, bigotry, and pathological indifference.

It is not obvious how that moral cancer can be put into remission though our future depends on it.

But they really are nice people. Really!

 Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com