COMMENTARY | Now that Mitt Romney has named Paul Ryan as his running mate, it is not only understandable but in a real way legitimate to put the budget plan which bears his name on the table. Although it is doubtful Romney accepts the Ryan plan whole cloth, he did make it clear during their first joint interview that he was in agreement with Ryan’s idea to turn Medicare into a voucher system. In defense of ending Medicare as we know it, supporters of Ryan invariably point out that he would make an exception for those 55 and older . Although this may seem a reasonable strategy, excluding a large group of citizens from the impact of the proposal is a morally reprehensible but sadly unsurprising attack on civic virtue from a party that does not seem to have much use for that concept these days.
How did it come to this? The Republicans used to be big proponents of virtue, including civic virtue. Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, penned a couple of best-selling books on the topic. At the core of civic virtue is the notion of shared sacrifice. If we all benefit when our country prospers, then we should all to some degree endure suffering during times of hardship. At no point in our nation’s history was this embodied more than in World War II. Almost every family had someone in the war effort, while those at home underwent restrictions of material comfort as well as the imposition of financial costs in the form of taxes. This ideal was illustrated as well with President Kennedy’s famous request that we ask ourselves what we can do for our country.
It is hard to pinpoint when the national fabric began to fray. But by giving a tax cut during wartime, most of which went to those with upper incomes , the Bush administration flipped the idea of shared sacrifice at times of national crisis on its head. Instead of an evenly distributed burden, those who had the most would bizarrely be asked to do the least, or rather, nothing at all. Similarly, by making an exception for those already on Medicare or soon to enroll, the Romney-Ryan proposal so clearly violates the notion of shared sacrifice that it cannot be taken morally seriously but must be seen for what it is: a politically motivated attempt to bribe one group to go along with a plan which obviously disadvantages the rest of the population. Driven by a natural self-interest, today’s seniors may well take them up on this offer. Sadly, if they do, this will signal the demise of the one virtue necessary if we are to successfully confront the great fiscal challenges that lie ahead.