In recent weeks, when discussing the budget framework proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the President referred to it as "thinly veiled Social Darwinism". The statement was pejorative, of course, meant to convey the idea that Republicans would prefer that we all live in a sort of Hunger Games world where every man is pitted against every other man, tooth and claw, to secure the means of survival. With that formulation, one can see how little President Obama thinks of the American people, how little he trusts us. For it is only for the last 50 years that the United States has lived with an expansive social safety net. Before the 1960's, which is when the intellectual class suddenly discovered that the cause of poverty was structural, not personal, the consensus among social scientists and the public at large was that poor people were no different than the rest of society in that there existed among them the full spectrum of moral capacity--some were good and some were bad. Thus, the indiscriminate provision of aid to those who were wanting contained a substantial moral hazard, namely that the aid itself would reduce much of the incentive required to push people to work hard enough to take care of themselves, certainly among those who were less concerned about trying their best, and even among those who did care. So for virtually all of American history, there existed no such thing as a lavish social safety net, and what did exist was hedged with qualifications to guard against the encouragement of vice.
And what happened during those dark days? Families looked after each other. Pioneers raised barns together. Wealthy women in the large cities organized charity organizations to look after the deserving poor and to offer them spiritual guidance, encouragement, training, and jobs so they could begin to look after themselves. Does the President think we are so different today? Have we become, in the last 50 years, so uncaring, so greedy, so completely focused on ourselves that we care not a whit for our friends, family, and neighbors? No, we haven't. But if you follow the implications of the President's words through to their logical conclusion, that is where you end up. It is a shame that this slander goes unchallenged.
And it's not as if the Ryan budget is proposing to take us back to the level of services that were offered a century ago. Rather, it only proposes that we, in time, spend only as much as we make, rather than living beyond our means to the tune of 1 or 2 trillion a year. According to the President, such economizing as is practiced daily by millions of families and businesses, and which must be done if we are not to end up as Greece writ gargantuan, is somehow cruel and unusual punishment.
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