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December 09, 2013 9:52 AM A Disservice

By Ed Kilgore

If Rand Paul would just come out and say (as his muse Ayn Rand would not have hesitated to do) the long-term unemployed are worthless people the Almighty Market has judged as disposable, I might at least respect his position that unemployment benefits should be denied after 26 weeks, regardless of economic conditions. If he claimed we just can’t afford it, that, too, would be a position worth arguing about.

But his contention that helping people secure food, shelter and other necessities is a “disservice” to the long-term unemployed is really annoying, right up there with Paul Ryan’s perpetual claims that his budget proposals are anti-poverty measures.

The paternalism reflected in these attitudes is obviously breathtaking. If the long-term unemployed actually could go out and get jobs and are simply refusing to do so because they prefer living on next to nothing at public expense, then Paul might well be righteously angry at them, not condescending. If he’s wrong about their motives and their opportunities, then again, he should come right out and say it’s not America’s problem that they can’t find jobs.

Where Paul and Ryan alike go fatally adrift is in identifying economic success with virtue, and lack of success with a lack of virtue. Thus we are to believe that when the housing and financial markets collapsed late in the Bush administration, many millions of people suddenly lost their character along with their financial assets and their jobs. And so many conservatives think using public resources to help them is by definition the subsidization of vice.

If, of course, the Great Recession and the period since is in fact not a passion play about the consequences of national profligacy exemplified by easy credit for those people, and is instead, as the evidence everywhere suggests, a classic demand-side depression, then the long-term unemployed aren’t moral lepers but largely the victims of bad policy, and helping them isn’t a moral hazard but part of an intelligent strategy for boosting consumer demand, as Paul Krugman points out in his latest column.

But either way, conservatives should spare us the false pity for the long-term unemployed they wish to cast adrift from public support. If you think they’re bad people, say so. If you think they’re just unfortunate people, explain in a little more depth why you think cutting off the funds they live on will magically produce a job for them. Anything less is a disservice to the debate.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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