There’s been at least some discussion over the last month about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his caucus’ new line on emergency disaster aid. Whereas federal policymakers have always acted to bring relief to hard-hit communities, Republicans now believe victims can receive aid, but only if the relief funds are offset by budget cuts elsewhere.

There are some in the GOP, even at the national level, who’ve criticized this callous approach, so I was glad to see the subject come up during Tuesday night’s debate. Mitt Romney (R) initially made the case that federal disaster programs should be sent to the states or sent “back to the private sector.”

Pressed further about whether such principles should be applied to disaster relief, the former governor added, “We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts.”

So, in the mind of Mitt Romney, it’s morally justifiable for the federal government to ignore American communities ravaged by a natural disaster, because the debt is more important.

Jay Bookman explained that states can’t afford to tackle such a burden on their own — “A state suffering destruction on such a scale cannot be told to suck it up and pull itself up by its own bootstraps,” he said — and that the very idea is at odds with who we are.

After all, it is moments such as these that put the “United” in the United States. We are not self-contained human units each out to maximize individual wealth and consumption; we are Americans, and we help each other out. The notion that disaster relief is among “those things we’ve got to stop doing” is nonsense, and to base that suggestion on grounds of morality, as Romney does, boggles the mind.

[W]e are the richest nation the world has ever known. The concept that “we cannot afford to do those things” — “those things” being assisting our fellow Americans in a time when they have lost everything as a result of natural disaster — is unacceptable.

I’m not sure what Romney was thinking in those remarks. I suspect, however, that this is what happens when a party becomes so trapped in its rhetoric that it no longer recognizes rational bounds or even basic compassion.

I wholeheartedly agree with all of this, but I wanted to stress one other related point. Romney, when asked about disaster responses, immediately stressed, “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

I mention this because it gets to the heart of why we even have a government in the first place. A community devastated by a tornado or a hurricane can’t afford to hire a business to come bring locals rescue equipment, cots, and bottled water. For that matter, it’s the sort of thing the private sector shies away from because there’s no profit in it.

On the list of things Americans can and should expect from the federal government, “disaster relief” should be one of the few responsibilities that the left and right can endorse enthusiastically. It’s something people can’t do for themselves and can’t wait for the invisible hand of the free market to address, not to mention the fact that private enterprise doesn’t even want to enter this “market.”

Romney’s bizarre comments during the debate weren’t just morally bankrupt, they reflect a striking confusion that should call his competence into question forevermore.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.