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Shutting Down Reason

The futility of a budget battle fought along moral lines.

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Last week, while the fight over the federal budget was approaching maximum ridiculousness and our stunted Congress was busying itself arguing about which party was more mature, Paul Ryan took the stage at the American Enterprise Institute. The Wisconsin Republican and House Budget Committee chair had just released his lighting-rod budget plan, “The Path to Prosperity,” and the AEI speech was part of his victory lap.

He was introduced by Arthur Brooks, AEI’s president, who commended Ryan for his courage, reminding enraptured attendees that budgets are “moral documents.”

Brooks’s exhortation was well in keeping with conservative House members’ absolutist stance in the budget showdown, a distillation of their furor over the deficit, the reduction of which has been framed as an almost religious imperative. It also represented a deft appropriation by the right of the very notion of the “moral budget.” Until now, the phrase has largely been the hobbyhorse of progressives looking to, say, cut funding to Israel or raise funding for social-safety-net programs. One of its leading champions is Jim Wallis, founder of progressive Christian group Sojourners, who has been asking, not especially helpfully, “What would Jesus cut?” “For a family, church, city, state, or nation,” Wallis has written, “a budget reveals what your fundamental priorities are: who is important and who is not; what is important and what is not.”

It’s a sweet thought. Only that’s not all a budget reveals. First and foremost, a budget, and the process leading up to it, shows whether a country actually works properly, whether the stakeholders are willing to find common ground, however distasteful it may be, in order to do something as simple as keeping on the lights. How an agreement is reached (or not, as the case may be) is as illustrative as the final number. And wow, has this latest budget fracas shown how far we’ve strayed from the democratic ideal. As the Times’ Nicholas Kristof pointed out while the negotiations raged on, a shutdown makes “a powerful argument for autocracy. Chinese television will be all over the story.”

The problem with injecting morality into policy-making is that moralizing is the blood foe of utility. Donning the moral mantle allows you to be right without any of the unpleasantness of having to explain yourself. Morality is also nonnegotiable. Democratic legislators have played this game with health-care reform and energy legislation, and the current batch of Republicans have defined taxes, the national debt, and TARP in similarly stark terms, some of them voting against TARP even though they were warned by one of their own, Hank Paulson, that its failure to pass would be catastrophic (that TARP worked is immaterial; what matters is that it was immoral). Pundits proclaimed that a government shutdown could backfire on the GOP, and economists warned against the ill effects on the fragile recovery—but Republicans who refused any compromise reject such reason-based objections, so deep is their faith that as long as they stand their moral ground, everything will turn out okay.

Of course, in the end, the Republican push for a more moral budget has proved disingenuous, calling to mind Oscar Wilde’s line about how “morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.” The sticking point turned out not to be spending—which Democrats had, in characteristic Charlie Brown fashion, already agreed to cut drastically. It was about spending on something Republicans don’t like: Planned Parenthood. It was all a morality play after all, only not in the way we were led to believe. Meanwhile, ­China indeed must be watching, at least when it has time to look up from the half a dozen state-of-the-art bridges it’s building every day, and sniggering as the competition bickers in the dark over how many angels it can fit onto the head of a pin.

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