Obama Stimulus is Paid for by Political Predation

During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama derided John McCain’s tax and spending proposals for not adding up, claiming ethical superiority because his plans were “fully paid for.” Then ram-rodded through the largest unfunded government expansion in history.  The same mantra was used for his trillion-dollar plus health initiative, backed only by carefully timing the phase-in to manipulate Congressional Budget Office rules for scoring fiscal proposals.  And now his latest stimulus plan is “paid for” at his every stop.

            Unfortunately, pushing allegedly “paid for” programs does not justify ethical preening.  Even when true, which is far from being demonstrated in any of these instances, plans whose central feature is taking large amounts from some to give to others violate universally-accepted moral norms (e.g., “you shall not steal’), even if they identify who will be victimized and the extent of that victimization.

            In one sense, spending expansions that lay out how they would be financed are more honest than ones that don’t.  If complete, rather than leaving who will bear the harm ambiguous (as with deficits), they reveal who will be forced to pay and how much.  However, that does not make the coerced imposition of harm—called robbery if done privately–ethical.

            “Paid for” plans can be politically courageous, because they risk disadvantages avoidable through undefined funding.  Notifying “mandated donors” can create more opposition than leaving the burdens vague. But Obama’s plans minimize that risk by going after those who can be demonized—like corporations– or exploited through others’ envy—like “the rich.”

“Paid for” plans to dispense benefits to political constituencies, which clearly characterizes Obama’s latest stimulus plan, are only ethically superior to the extent that announcing the intended victims in advance makes theft less unethical. But slightly more forthcoming thieves are still thieves.  Naming who will be plundered does not justify plunder.  The ethical emphasis on “paid for” plans, which turn out not to be, merely contrasts the ethical high ground claimed with the ethical low ground actually pursued.

             Obama’s plans are only “paid for” by assumption.  He cannot actually know what will happen under yet-to-be-implemented plans, because he cannot anticipate all the responses to the many incentives that will change.  His administration’s seldom-analyzed underlying assumptions are also frequently preposterous.  And hyping plans as solutions, when one cannot actually know their effects, is also ethically questionable.  That infirmity is expanded by the fact that by the time his proposals are to be fully implemented, it might be all but impossible to undo the damage from misguided centralization.

            Political posturing aside, whether a proposed expansion of government benefits for some is “paid for” is not the primary question.  That question, made clear by the Preamble to the Constitution, is: Will it advance Americans’ General Welfare?  When income redistribution is the primary result, that test cannot be met.  Some citizens’ benefit by imposing harm on others.

            If President Obama really believed that “paid for” was the touchstone of successful policy, he would not be ballooning the scope of the federal government everywhere he turns.  Further, he would not run roughshod over so many voluntary market arrangements, for the simple reason that there, absent fraud (whose prevention is a legitimate government job it routinely fails at, as recent experience amply demonstrates), benefits are always paid for.  No one can force harm on others when exchanges must be voluntary.  All parties gain, which cannot be said plans that intentionally take from his “targets” to give to those he favors.  And ethically, paid for without theft trumps paid for by political predation.  Over and over, President Obama’s policies reveal not ethics, but ethical violations, reminding me of Will Rogers’ quip that “I can remember way back when a liberal was generous with his own money.”


(Gary Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University)