In his New York Times column this morning, David Brooks begins his attack on the proposed government program to slow the foreclosure rate by observing:
"Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible."
What he means is that the market determines what people deserve. And that (believe it or not) is what he calls justice. So the people losing their homes are getting what they deserve, and the people who got rich on hedge funds got what they deserve. And CEO’s deserve to be paid 300 times as much as their workers. And the Wall Street folks who got $18 Million in bonuses (partly subsidized by the bailout) got what they deserved. If we upset all this fairness by helping people who are about to lose their homes, then the sky will fall. And we will all be poorer (morally) for it.
My first reaction was to wonder whether Mr. Brooks is as familiar with Reinhold Niebuhr as he claims to be. That’s about as anti-Niebuhrian (can that be a word?) as a statement could possibly be. Unfortunately, as Niebuhr pointed out, people tend to get what they can, unless they are restrained by countervailing social (including moral and religious) or political forces.
Once when Ohio State was way ahead of their arch rival, Michigan, Woody Hayes had his team go for a two point conversion after another touchdown. When reporters asked why he would go for two points when he was already so far ahead, Woody said, “Because I couldn’t go for three!” Why did the Wall Street traders get $18 Million? Because they couldn’t get nineteen.
In football, it may be amusing and add to the rivalry. But in economics, it is unjust. That’s not the biblical vision of Amos and Micah and Isaiah. And it’s not the vision of Jesus. When the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that’s not a biblical vision of justice. When those who have more than enough won’t share with those who don’t have enough, that’s not justice.
In the mortgage bailout, some undeserving people will be helped. And inevitably, some deserving people will be left out. But if we can slow the losses and keep a significant number of families in their homes, that will be a very good thing.