If you were to judge by the rhetoric, you might think that Paul Ryan’s plan for reducing the federal deficit slashed the government’s budget by 90 percent, and funded the killing of kittens to boot. E. J. Dionne, for instance, calls it “radical,” “irresponsible,” and “extreme,” and asks, is this “the end of progressive government?” The truth is that Ryan actually proposes increasing government spending in the coming years — just at a lower rate than current projections. So why are Ryan’s critics so up in arms?
Because Ryan’s plan dares to touch (albeit, merely to scratch) the untouchable entitlement state. Ryan’s plan would, among other things, trim and reorganize Medicare and Medicaid and reduce federal support for education. To the plan’s critics, this amounts to “reverse-Robin Hood redistribution,” as former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Blinder put it. “[A]bout two-thirds of Mr. Ryan’s so-called courageous budget cuts would come from programs serving low- and moderate-income Americans, while the rich would gain from copious tax cuts.”
The “reverse-Robin Hood” line suggests that Ryan’s plan robs from “the poor” and gives to “the rich.” But cutting entitlements is not robbery — and cutting taxes isn’t a gift.
Entitlements are essentially government handouts: the government takes money from some people in order to finance other people’s retirements, doctor’s visits, and whatever else the government deems worthy. They are unearned benefits. It is shameful that in a civilized society we have to say this, but getting less loot is not the same thing as being robbed.
A tax cut, meanwhile, is not a government handout — it is a reduction of how much of your income the government takes. Whether you’re a millionaire, billionaire, or an ambitious stock boy, a tax cut means you get to keep more of what you earn.
In this context, consider President Obama’s recent budget speech, in which he criticized Ryan’s plan for implying that “even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy.” When Obama speaks of what “we” can afford, he is obviously smuggling in the premise that all wealth rightfully belongs to society and that the government — as society’s representative — will dole out that wealth as it sees fit.
We reject that premise. On our view, you earned your wealth and it belongs to you, and no politician has any business talking about how much of your money he can “afford” to let you keep. What is true is that government is running deficits. It is spending (and has promised to spend) much more than it is taking in through taxes. Much of that spending, Obama admitted, is going toward entitlements.
What, then, did Obama propose as his solution to this spending binge? According to the president, the solution can’t be to stop doling out entitlement checks. That would be “abandon[ing] the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.” Instead, we must raise taxes on productive American citizens. (What about the Founders’ view that America’s “fundamental commitment” was to protect every individual’s inalienable rights, including his right to the fruits of his own labor? Obama didn’t say.)
The message was plain: It is necessary and perhaps noble to deprive a person of what he has earned, but it would be morally monstrous to deprive a person of the unearned. You created wealth? Big deal. You have a need you can’t fulfill? You have a right that nothing on earth can supersede.
It is fitting that those pushing this doctrine should invoke Robin Hood. When people hail the man who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor,” it is normally on the grounds that the need of Robin Hood’s beneficiaries justified the looting of his victims. Stealing is wrong — if you’re serving your own “greed.” But if you’re serving others’ need? Anything goes.
It is also fitting that at the same time the debate over entitlements was going on, Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged was jetting to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. In Rand’s novel, the mysterious Ragnar Danneskjöld declares, “I’m after a man whom I want to destroy. He died many centuries ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. . . . Robin Hood.”
According to Danneskjöld, Robin Hood “is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own . . . . He is the man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don’t have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does.”
This is why, contrary to the rhetoric, the “cuts” proposed by Republicans have been puny to non-existent: the Republicans share the Robin Hood morality. However much they decry taxes, however much they recognize that entitlements are leading us toward bankruptcy à la Greece, they agree that need does entitle people to others’ wealth. And so Paul Ryan and all the other Republicans hasten to assure the world that they would never be so cruel as to cut entitlement redistribution schemes: their only goal is to save them. Their message is: Obama’s goals are noble; only his means are open to criticism.
Instead of ducking charges of “reverse-Robin Hood,” defenders of limited government should follow Danneskjöld’s example — they should fight with full moral confidence against any scheme to take earnings from some in order to lavish others with the unearned.
Robin Hood, rest in peace.