Cash for Morality
Should government bail out failing business?
Much has been made the last few days on the Cash for Clunkers program, which provides a rebate to people who trade in a car in order to purchase a more fuel efficient one. Whil
e the program has multiple goals, one central purpose is to help stimulate the struggling auto industry. This raises the obvious question: should government bail out failing businesses or industries?
There seem to be two clusters of opinion on this question. The first camp – I’ll call them the “morality as outcome” camp – would argue that government should act to bail out business if the resulting outcome (say, the distribution of wealth or the aggregate level of freedom) is more just. The second camp – I’ll call them the “morality as process” camp – would claim that government should not intervene in the free market, even if the outcome of such intervention was itself more just.
These two approaches seem to focus on different categories of “contextual morality” that Sam lays out in his post yesterday. The “morality as outcome” camp seems to emphasize the category Sam calls “justice,” which he describes as “ideas of whether and how people should be treated equally, what government should look like, and how we ought to decide major public questions of right and wrong.” Right and wrong here is largely about outcomes and government should act in whatever ways are necessary to maximize justice. People in this camp approach issues of public policy with two questions: normatively, what is the just outcome and, empirically what can government do to achieve this outcome.
The “morality as process” camp, on the other hand, is more focused on “rights.” For this camp, rights are of ultimate value; they are inalienable and any action (by government or individuals) that infringes on these rights is immoral. This camp approaches issues of public policy by asking whether a proposed government action would violate rights and/or prevent the infringement of rights by others. This is not to say that people in the “morality as process” can’t believe that certain outcomes (as defined by, say, the distribution) are more just than others. But, this concern is completely eclipsed by their focus on the protection of rights. Thus, they may think that the resulting distribution produced by the cash for clunkers program is more just that the status quo, but still believe that government should not carryout the program because the intervention in the free market violates rights.
It seems to me that these two camps approach public philosophy in fundamentally different ways – a fact that makes discussion and debate quite difficult. I don’t think the divide is liberalism vs. conservatism (though more liberals may fall on the outcome side and more conservatives on the process side), as much as it between different approaches to philosophy – maybe, consequentialism vs. deontology. I’m going to work on fleshing this out a bit more, but would appreciate any thoughts from our readers.