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The free-stuff derby is now fully underway, with Democratic presidential contenders offering up just about anything they can think of to buy votes -- guaranteed government jobs with good pay and benefits, Medicare for all, the $15 minimum wage, reparations for slavery, and almost certainly lots more and more outlandish to come.

Just put it on the tab. We'll all be dead in the end anyway, and the important thing is corralling those votes in the here and now.

Elizabeth Warren has proved perhaps the most craven competitor in this grubby competition, with the idea of wiping clean college student debt merely her latest gambit to buy votes with other people's money.

Regarding which, several questions, the most obvious of which is: Through what conception of "social justice" (to use a favorite if seldom defined Warren term) those who didn't go to college should be forced to subsidize those who did? Indeed, most analyses of Warren's plan suggest that most of the benefit would go to well-to-do people who have also acquired that useful market credential called a college diploma that will supposedly make them even more well-to-do in the future.

At the least, this seems to be a peculiar means of winning back those working-class voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that lack sheepskins and that the Democrats lost last time around to Donald Trump.

Second, if the magic wand can be so easily waved to make debts suddenly go away, why limit the method to just college debt? Why not go further, to perhaps forgiving home mortgages, which after all constitute a much higher chunk of the personal debt of more households than college loans and the forgiveness of which would, therefore, in Warren's strange thinking, "free up" even more money for people to "stimulate" the economy by buying other stuff they can't afford? Perhaps by taking out more loans, that could then also be excused by vote-needy politicians?

As National Review's Jim Geraghty puts it, "The arguments in favor of having the government pay for your student-loan debt are every bit as applicable to having the government pay for your mortgage debt. ... Perhaps not everyone wants or needs to go to college, but everyone needs a home."

We could, of course, go further still (as some of Warren's rivals probably will), to argue housing is so crucial that we should not only pay off existing mortgages but, analogous to the free-college idea, henceforth provide everyone with a nice home at government expense. Then, as with college that suddenly becomes free, there would be no need for loans and debt and for anybody to become "house-poor" again.

Transportation is also probably even more important on a daily basis for the typical person than a college diploma, so why not excuse existing car-loan debt and provide free cars to alleviate the burden of monthly car payments (and maybe throw in free auto insurance too, since it's such a nuisance).

We might have contracted those student and home loans and car loans out of our own free will, but why should that matter?

Doesn't compassion mean that people get whatever they want without having to pay for it? And shouldn't it be the duty of high-minded politicians like Warren to alleviate the anxiety that goes with having to make payments for stuff we've bought but shouldn't have?

Of course miserly conservatives might point to an economic concept called "moral hazard" when objecting to all this, which for politics can be defined as public policies that encourage irresponsible behavior by subsidizing it.

Put differently, if we don't have to pay for what we have bought, then why not buy without any concern for what we can pay for, especially when Santa Claus in the form of groveling politicians (like Warren) will eventually arrive on scene to rescue us from our financial folly (which, under such an incentive system, is no longer folly at all)?

And they might wonder what becomes of the poor suckers (the vast majority, at least for now) who have played by the rules and worked hard to pay off their student loans and their home mortgages and cars, as they originally agreed to. Where do they figure in Warren's generosity? And why should they continue to toil under such circumstances to pay both their debts and those of Warren's deadbeats as well?

Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, we have the sheer cynicism of Warren's scheme, with its implicit assumption that the young people whose debts she promises to vacate and whose votes she seeks are so brain dead (despite the college education those student loans paid for) that they would be incapable of recognizing a demagogue (like her) when they saw one; that in their selfishness and shortsightedness they can be so easily bought.

And therein is found the ultimate flaw in welfare-state politics -- that it creates incentives for voters to vote themselves benefits and for politicians like Warren (and Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris) to promise that others will pay for them.

That the lure of the "free lunch" ends up corrupting both elected and electorate alike.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 05/06/2019

Print Headline: The fine art of pandering

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