Policy: Entitlements

Conservatives, big government and the duty to care for the poor

BY: Timothy P. Carney May 22, 2014 | 11:03 am
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell referred at an AEI panel to our "shared responsibility for the weak." (AP/Susan Walsh)

Conservatives these days are presenting plenty of policy ideas aimed at helping the middle class, the “working class” and even sometimes the poor. Many of these policies are good, but some of what I find most important is some of the rhetorical shifts in conservative circles.

This morning, the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a visiting fellow, co-hosted a conference on “reform conservatism” and on helping the middle class and the poor. Much of the policy discussion this morning has focused on “removing barriers” for entrepreneurs. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, quoted Abraham Lincoln on government's duty to “lift artificial weights” from the shoulders of regular people. This way of talking all points towards good policy.

But the most striking bit of rhetoric came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who referred to our “shared responsibility for the weak.”

Step away from policy debates and think about that phrase. Do you have a responsibility to help the weak? Do you have a responsibility to feed the hungry? To aid the poor?

I think I do. I think everyone does. The Catholic Church teaches us we do.

Conservatives sometimes shy away from this idea, though. One reason is a strong (and overblown) distaste to "helping the lazy." Another reason is that conservatives fear it implies the Left’s answer: big federal programs.

But, in fact, you can grant that you have a duty to the poor and the weak, and then have a really good debate:

Is that duty individual, or some sort of a communal duty?

Does the government have the legitimate right to transfer wealth to satisfy that duty, or is it solely an individual responsibility to fulfill that duty?

If aiding the poor is a legitimate government role, at what level is the aid appropriately delivered — local, state, federal?

Then there’s plenty of very practical debates: Are federal programs inevitably too bloated and inflexibile? Or alternatively, maybe only the federal government has the economies of scale (and ability to make its own money) needed to run a safety net, particularly in economic downturns.

There’s a very good debate to have here. I think conservatives will be well served to grant what McConnell said: We are morally bound to take care of the less fortunate.

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Timothy P. Carney

Senior Political Columnist



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