The Boundless Beneficence of Big Brother

"Should we let Americans fall off a cliff or should we help them? There shouldn't be a debate as to where the money comes from. I mean, if your brother or your sister needed something, you wouldn't say, 'When are you going to pay me back?'"

That's Jim Chukalas, a car-parts manager who has been unemployed for nearly two years. He's received unemployment benefits for 79 weeks and desperately wants those benefits extended again. He feels so strongly about it, he agreed to be one of the White House's human props on Monday.

"It's time to stop holding workers laid off in this recession hostage to Washington politics," President Obama proclaimed with Chukalas at his side. "It's time to do what is right, not for the next election but for the middle class."

While it's hardly new for Obama to claim that anyone who holds a position different from his own is merely playing partisan politics--that's his default response to all disagreements--it's at least amusing to hear him suggest that budget balancing is now a sign of pandering to popular sentiments.

But I do think this illustrates how fuzzy our thinking is about the role of government. Comparing government to a wealthy brother or sister is simply a category error. Can you get a gift or loan from your relatives by shouting, "Give me my money!"?

Obama already signed an extension of unemployment benefits in November, when the economy was worse. He later bragged that it was "fiscally responsible" and consistent with the "pay-as-you-go" legislation he championed and signed, which says, in Obama's words, "Congress can only spend a dollar if it saves a dollar elsewhere."

Officially, the Republicans do not oppose extending unemployment benefits yet again. Rather, they merely want to observe the rules Obama championed last fall. In other words, Democrats should pay for the spending by finding cuts elsewhere in the budget. What is "fiscally responsible" when Obama is for it, is rank partisanship when he's against it.

But enough with the point scoring. I want to get back to Mr. Chukalas, a father of two and a diligent, decent man for all I know. Again, he says, "If your brother or your sister needed something, you wouldn't say, 'When are you going to pay me back?'"

I don't know about the Chukalas clan, but in my family and my wife's family, and in most families I know, asking, "When are you going to pay me back?" isn't so unimaginable. Sure, in a crisis, kin come to the rescue if they can. But they also usually expect to be repaid once everyone is back on their feet. Does Chukalas have any intention of paying taxpayers back once he gets a job?

"Extending benefits" means paying the unemployed more than they paid into the unemployment system. (The money Chukalas paid into that system--his money--ran out long, long ago.) In other words, this is direct assistance from the federal government, which actually means direct assistance from taxpayers, which means Chukalas is really asking for money from complete strangers. Moreover, he thinks all of the moral equities line up on his side of the argument, and that there shouldn't even be a discussion about where the money comes from or any talk of paying it back.

Chukalas is a moral philosopher compared with many of the C-SPAN callers these days who simply demand "their money." By what math are government benefits their money, I wonder, given that 60 percent of Americans get more from government than they pay in taxes.

Now I know this all sounds terribly harsh, and, truth be told, I do not think the government should consider benefit extensions to be loans. Nor do I think it's a slam-dunk argument that such aid should be cut off. This is not a normal downturn.

But I do think this illustrates how fuzzy our thinking is about the role of government. Comparing government to a wealthy brother or sister is simply a category error. Can you get a gift or loan from your relatives by shouting, "Give me my money!"?

It turns out, perhaps not coincidentally, that President Obama shares Chukalas's outlook.

On countless occasions he has said that his central vision of government is to fulfill the Biblical mandate to be "my brother's keeper, my sister's keeper." Health-care reform, for instance, was an effort to meet this "core moral and ethical obligation."

Leave aside that the Bible does not tell anyone to be their brother's keeper (the phrase appears once, when Cain sarcastically tries to dodge a murder rap from God). It is just plain weird that anyone thinks we should all view government as our Big Brother.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Peter Gerdes/Flickr/Creative Commons

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