Founders believed we had a duty to help

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on March 29, 2017.

From what some politicians are saying you’d think the makers of our nation were a bunch of bare-knuckled libertarians. A nation of hardy individuals and the Founding Fathers, this narrative goes, thought government an evil — the politicians say — because Americans don’t want help and feel no particular obligation to give it to others.

Government help, the argument goes, leads to weakness, making recipients dependent. Read the words of newly minted Kansas Congressman Roger Marshall. “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.” I cannot imagine the Jesus the Congressman is talking about, but I’ll focus first on the words the Founders used when they wrote our constitutions.

Their words reject the view that society is a brutish struggle by all against all. Instead, their words are the words that patriots would use who believe that we as Americans are all in this together. The documents they left to us presume the existence of a communal duty that each of us has to each other — through government — to provide for the basic welfare of all and, in particular, to victims of misfortune who cannot care for themselves.

Public goods, by definition, are the things that everyone, especially the least fortunate, need to live. Public goods are given by all — to all — and paid for by all through general taxation. There are good, practical reasons to recognize the existence of this communal burden, but that is for another day. Suffice it here to say that the legacy of our nation from the plain language of our national and state constitutions recognizes that promotion of the common welfare is a fundamental duty of democratic government.

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to provide for “the general Welfare of the United States.” Seventy years later, when Kansans drafted their constitution, they made clear what “general Welfare” should mean. Public schools certainly, but also a duty to care for people who are “mentally or physically incapacitated or handicapped”; and those entitled to public welfare include people “who, by reason of age, infirmity or other misfortune, may have claims upon the aid of society.”

Recently, when the Supreme Court ordered the Kansas Legislature to make suitable funding for public schools, how did Gov. Sam Brownback respond? He said a better solution would be for Kansans to have more choice and that they could get that choice from a voucher system. But we all know that vouchers siphon money from public into private schools. That makes schools a private, not a public, good.

The recently failed Trumpcare plan played a similar shell game. People would have received tax credits to buy insurance. But, like vouchers for schools, the government dodged its responsibility to provide for the general welfare — particularly for those at the bottom who need it the most. Whether you give people vouchers for education or tax credits for health care, it makes no difference for the poor; it just won’t work. They would never have enough money. The poor can’t supplement vouchers to pay for private schools, and 44 percent of American households don’t pay income taxes so they won’t have any tax credits to use.

They would fall right through to the bottom. Their children would be forced into schools stripped bare by tuition vouchers, and, lacking the money to pay private insurance premiums, by the tens of millions, they’d drop out of health insurance coverage. The Congressional Budget Office predicted 14 million in the first year alone.

Ebeneezer Scrooge said to the philanthropist: “Those who are badly off must go [to the poor house].”

The philanthropist replied, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

And Scrooge said: “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The words of Scrooge and Marshall are not the words of our Founding Fathers. They are not words of faith, and they should not be our words.

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