Moral Fiber

It takes a lot these days to get the jaded and cynical Washington observer Dana Milbank angry. Paul Ryan managed easily to do so during his remarks on his budget plan at a friendly American Enterprise Institute audience yesterday. After outlining the details of the Ryan budget, Milbank observed with rising bile:

Taken together, Ryan would cut spending…by $5.3 trillion, much of which currently goes to the have-nots. He would then give that money to America’s haves: some $4.3 trillion in tax cuts, compared with current policies, according to Citizens for Tax Justice.

Ryan’s justification was straight out of Dickens. He wants to improve the moral fiber of the poor. There is, he told the audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute later Tuesday, an “insidious moral tipping point, and I think the president is accelerating this.” Too many Americans, he said, are receiving more from the government than they pay in taxes.

After recalling his family’s immigration from Ireland generations ago, and his belief in the virtue of people who “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” Ryan warned that a generous safety net “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.”

How very kind: To protect poor Americans from being demeaned, Ryan is cutting their anti-poverty programs and using the proceeds to give the wealthiest Americans a six-figure tax cut.

Yeah, Ryan’s tough love for the poor is pretty impressive. The “complacency” of the unwashed and unemployed has been especially evident of late. Fat and happy, they whistle on April 15 while hard-working job-creators at the top of the wealth ladder have to trudge to their accountants’ offices and sign over an unconscionable percentage of the assets that both God and nature–operating together, as they do of course, through markets–have assigned to them.

I know that some conservatives with the best will in the world have concluded that smaller government, lower and more regressive taxation, and in general a world where private forces exert more power produce a better society for everybody. I don’t agree, but I can respect their position. But when they befoul it with this sanctimonious claptrap about concern for the “moral fiber” of lesser breeds, it makes me crazy. When the housing market and the financial system collapsed and jobs disappeared–in 2008 or 2009, or for that matter in 1929–did millions of people suddenly lose their “moral fiber?” Does the ability via public assistance of one sort of another to feed their children or provide them with medical care when they are sick truly darken their souls and destroy their motivation to better themselves?

You know, much as I dislike the viral adolescent-intoxicating legacy of Ayn Rand–you know, the author of Atlas Shrugged, the book Paul Ryan used to (or for all I know, still does) require his staff to read–at least she had the honesty to disclaim any pity for the poor. Indeed, she called altruism the one great moral abomination, as bad as “looting.” I’d have a lot more respect for Paul Ryan if he loudly and proudly embraced the “virtue of selfishness” himself, and didn’t pretend he wanted to cut food stamps in order to improve the lives of the working poor through some character-building hunger.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.