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It's about the moral economy, stupid

Thinking it Through

James Carville was no poet, but the Clinton campaign manager coined a phrase that has been useful ever since. As the nation heads towards the “fiscal cliff,” I propose a new application of the now-trite phrase to invoke what Abraham Lincoln called the “moral economy.”

Democrats appear to be trying to invoke Steven Spielberg’s otherwise praiseworthy movie “Lincoln” to further their aims. Consider this recent report:“Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has invited Steven Spielberg to screen Lincoln on December 12th [today]... offering to provide the U.S. Senate to Spielberg as the theatre... Now it remains to be seen if Reid’s invite will be politicized — and if the attendance during this lame duck session will be bipartisan. ‘The irony is that what’s happening with the fiscal cliff isn’t that different from what’s going on in the movie,’ said one of the film’s insiders.”

Recall that President Obama took his oath of office on the same Bible used by the famed predecessor he claims to admire, a man who knew a thing or two about “economics.” But unlike the current president, the 16th president understood our nation’s issues in terms of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”

There is a superficial resemblance between the two, for Obama often frames questions of political economy in moral terms, as in “the rich should pay their fair share.” But whipping up hatred of the productive classes is not moral at all for, as Lincoln often said, no government has a right to deprive our citizens of the fruits of their labor. He summed up this pernicious doctrine thus: “You work and I’ll eat.”

More broadly, Lincoln believed that there is a moral economy in the universe, meaning that actions have consequences. In the most powerful example of his thinking, consider his denunciation of slavery in his Second Inaugural:

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Obama says he is determined to “transform America.” We must judge him by his actions. When he had a Democrat Congress, he rammed through bailouts for big government, big corporations, health care, home and auto buyers, and lawyers under the guise of stimulating commerce, saving jobs, protecting health, saving mortgages, recycling cars and regulating investment.

To finance these policies, he overspent annual revenues by more than one trillion dollars, adding six trillion dollars to the already staggering national debt. Now, as he professes to be concerned about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year, he demands that Congress agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest citizens, end any limits on government borrowing, and postpone any spending cuts.

That is an irresponsible agenda, unless his goal is not to exercise economy but to redistribute income, make millions dependent on government support and cement Democrat majorities far into the future.

I have argued in this space for understanding the word “economy” as a virtue rather than an all-encompassing label for the countless transactions that occur every day among our largely free-trading people. If we understand “economy” in terms of the prudent management of limited resources, then we can appreciate the value of limited government, reasonable tax rates and controlled spending.

Instead, Democrats treat our citizens as if their earnings were owned by the government, to be spent and allocated in any way that the Congress and the President determine. Rather than adopting policies that encourage enterprise and saving, Democrats pit one class of citizens against another for the purpose of extracting as much money as possible to reward their rich patrons and their unsuspecting dependents and followers.

There is nothing moral about despoiling the fruits of our citizens’ labors. Confiscation is not justice. Only policies which treat citizens as equals to be respected rather than as victims to be robbed can truly be called just. Otherwise, the virtue of economy ceases to have meaning and our hopes and dreams collapse in a society in which we all have a “fair share” of poverty.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause”  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at

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