In light of recent proposed budget cuts in various countries, I feel compelled to mount a defense of the common sense concept of the government being able to “afford” something:
- If we can afford to spend billions of dollars on weapons systems we will almost certainly never use, we can afford to have a system where a dedicated tax stream pays for some bare-bones retirement and disability benefits, with no more overhead than it costs to print and mail the checks.
- If we can afford to endlessly occupy two countries for no apparent reason, surely we can afford to help people get health insurance.
- If we can summon up $700 billion out of thin air to bail out banks, surely we can afford to fill in the state and local budget gaps that would lead to firing people who provide essential services.
- If we can afford high-tech laboratories to do scientific research the results of which we will basically give away to corporate interests for nothing, then we can afford humanities instruction, which requires a teacher, a chalkboard, and enough chairs for all the students.
- Again, if universities can afford to run money-losing athletic programs, then they can afford to provide the minimal research support funds humanities people require — basically time off to focus on research and maybe the occasional plane ticket, since the other resources they need consist of little more than the pre-existing infrastructure of a good library that you’d need for the university anyway.
The pattern is the same again and again and again: the thing that actually costs not too much money is denounced as unaffordable, while the insanely expensive thing is never even questioned. It’s like if I overdrew my checking account and decided I needed to start buying store-brand cereal while never questioning if I can afford that Lexus.
Now, let’s grant that everything I said above is basically true. What would be the reaction if you said this to a politician? At best, you’d get patronized; at worst, you’d just get an icy stare. It’s just like if you point out contradictions in the Bible to a fundamentalist — they’re not going to admit you’re right, because it was never really about the “literal” meaning of the Bible in the first place, it was about some other fight where the authentic truthiness that comes along with adhering “literally” to the Bible seemed like a good method. Similarly, the use of “affordability” as a criteria isn’t literally about affordability, it’s about using rhetorical means to (a) mislead people about the role of government in a modern economy and (b) foreclose certain options by a spurious appeal to common sense.
Both (a) and (b) are served by making people think that the government’s balance sheet is like a household’s — and interestingly, the people who make such appeals are also often the people who are constantly staking a claim to understand “family values” better than their opponents. Engaging with the rhetoric as though it were intended literally simply reinforces the effect of the rhetoric, just as claiming that the Bible can’t and shouldn’t be taken literally shows that you’re a wishy-washy liberal who doesn’t really care about Christianity. These ideological constructions are traps, not arguments — and they’re designed to look like arguments in part because that’s what’s most likely to draw liberals into the trap.
That being said, I don’t know what the solution is.