Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Budget war turns on what freedom means
May 5, 2012
President Barack Obama and House GOP Budget Chairman Paul Ryan butt heads over how cutbacks affect the poor.
Their battle erupts because they view freedom’s dynamics differently.
The president starts with society’s obligation to assist the poor. His freedom agenda is riveted to this conviction.
In contrast, Rep. Ryan begins with the self. He believes the poor gain economic freedom by exercising personal responsibility. Such self-starters escape living on the government’s dole.
Ryan told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his views parallel Roman Catholic teaching on social justice. The pope and Roman Catholic bishops don’t want the poor to become addicted to their plight. Nor, Ryan insists, does the church believe it’s healthy for indigent people to become dependent on government aid.
President Obama has labeled Ryan’s budget a bold exercise in “social Darwinism.” Cutbacks fall harshly on backs of the poor, disproportionate to their ability to pay. The president charged that this way of balancing the budget is “antithetical to our entire history.”
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Obama sees freedom through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr. Ryan doesn’t. King insisted that freedom meant the right of those on the financial fringes to belong, to have opportunity to advance, to trust that the federal government would protect their rights against predators whose wealth fostered economic advantage.
When Obama refers to freedom, he means social responsibility practiced by those with much toward those with less.
King aligned freedom with equality of opportunity. This embraces American virtues, first enunciated in the colonial era, of equal rights and equal protection, along with equality of opportunity and human dignity. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King summed up the makings of this dream in one stirring word – freedom.
Ryan’s budget elicited a strongly worded letter from Georgetown University’s faculty rebutting his assertion that it met the pope’s requirements for social justice.
The faculty wrote: “We … challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – ‘a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.’ Catholic bishops recently wrote that ‘the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.'”
The letter continues, “In short, your budget appears to reflect values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”
Ryan’s notion of American freedom as an exercise of the self-survival of the fittest is also shaped by his devotion to Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian-born British economist. He published a book in 1944, “The Road to Serfdom.” Economic conservatives treat it as their bible. Hayek railed against the new welfare-state liberalism that gave us Social Security. He warned that such programs threatened liberty itself.
Hayek contended: Get rid of governmental economic engineering. Be “free from coercion” that Washington exerts. Hayek complained that when government planned the economy, efficiency dipped compared to market capitalism’s gains. Plus, government social programs to help the poor actually made serfs of those tethered to the welfare state.
He didn’t identify himself as a conservative. Hayek endorsed the government’s regulatory role to protect citizens’ liberties. He believed in a free market checked by antitrust legislation, minimum wages, limits to working hours and programs that guaranteed life’s necessities for all citizens.
Protestant President Obama and Roman Catholic Rep. Ryan are strong, practicing Christians. They read the same Bible, which directs us to “learn to do good. Seek justice. Correct oppression. Defend the fatherless. Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
Their interpretations of this text starkly clash. President Obama believes the national budget must provide social justice to care for the poor. Rep. Ryan’s budget reduces government regulation. The poor are expected to escape their doleful plight and be taxed as they climb the economic ladder.
These competing visions of American freedom surfaced at our nation’s founding. Obama’s vision starts with society’s responsibility to care for the less fortunate. Ryan’s vision begins with self-made citizens who succeed by individual effort, with little government help.
Which path towards freedom do you walk and encourage others to take?
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.