Rand Paul says a lot of stupid things and justifiably often comes under attack from the left (not to mention all the times he comes under attack from fellow Republicans when he is right on some foreign policy issues). This week he is under attack for something which, after some clarification, he has a broader point worth looking at. This has significance as it shows something which applies to anyone, left or right, who desires to talk about difficult issues we face.
Rand Paul has discussed the problem of unwed women receiving government assistance and continuing to have children. While there are legitimate problems faced by the poor which Rand and other Republicans seem oblivious to, in this case it is worth discussing whether government funds have the desired results. This is a tricky issue to talk about, and Paul did later clarify his views, backing away from the idea of supporting any actual policy to cut financial assistance:
The Republican senator from Kentucky said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he didn’t “come up with a policy prescription,” such as limiting government aid, but rather said it’s up to communities to resolve the problem, which he called the No. 1 cause of poverty in the country.
“I mused about how you’d have a government policy, but I actually came down saying it would be very difficult to have a government policy,” the potential 2016 presidential candidate said.
“I mostly concluded by saying it’s a community, it’s a religious, it’s a personal problem, but it is a problem,” Paul said.
While I think it is a typical conservative cop-out to simply say it is something to be handled by the community without saying how, I do have some sympathy for Paul in trying to discuss a real issue where there might be no ideal solution. Potential presidential candidates typically try to avoid such discussion, limiting our political discourse. Efforts at helping the poor cannot be abandoned as many on the right might prefer, but we must also keep in mind that there can be adverse consequences from government actions.
There are often problems where we would like to act but there is no ideal solution. In some cases there might be nothing government can do. For example, I think that the misinformation spread by Fox and the right wing media does pose a serious threat to democracy in America, but government cannot solve this without creating more serious problems by infringing on First Amendment liberties. In this case, government cannot do anything.
In many other cases, government can try to act even if there is no ideal solution. We must do something about gun violence, but efforts are limited both by the need to respect the right bear arms (regardless of whether the Bill of Rights was ever intended to include this as an individual right) and consider the limited efficacy of many policy recommendations. This even applies to recent issues over implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Our health care faced serious problems which simply could not be left unchanged. Obamacare has provided tremendous advantages over the past, including expanding access to health care, providing coverage of preventative studies, getting rid of policies which fail to actually provide health care coverage, and preventing denial of coverage due to developing serious medical problems. There are also some negative consequences as there is no ideal solution, and some adjustments are needed in the law, with the right wing greatly exaggerating the problems and denying the far more significant benefits.
In the end, Paul is right in realizing that there is no simple solution such as cutting off financial assistance, with such attempts in the past failing to have the effects predicted by conservatives. I’m glad Paul didn’t respond with the typical conservative/libertarian bromide that private assistance could totally replace government programs when this is clearly not possible. Perhaps some government programs could be made to work better if we had a serious conservative opposition which does raise real problems with liberal programs, and the two sides could get together to find a solution that works. At present this is not possible because of the knee-jerk opposition to government programs from the right. Many problems are best solved by individual actions and by the market. Other problems can only be solved by the type of organization provided by government, even if the outcome is less than perfect.
Update: I should also clarify that this not intended to agree with Paul that on the whole welfare results in mothers having more babies due to the economic incentive, just that it could happen in individual cases and that government policies do not always work out perfectly, even if beneficial. As is often the case, conservatives greatly exaggerate potential problems. Past attempts at capping benefits has not provided the benefits which conservatives have claimed they would, but at least Paul did back away from advocating this. There have been some edits from the original version which gave more credibility to Paul’s argument than deserved. The post is intended more to be about dealing with the fact that government programs are often necessary even if the results are not perfect than about welfare for unwed mothers.