utilitarianism, political justice, and government cheese

I’m a sucker for good economics, but I’ll admit that there are places where it doesn’t belong. One of these places is often in the mouths of political candidates during election season–for many reasons beyond the singular point of this piece. But the point that I’d like to harp on is the strict divide between economics and political debate– namely, that seven times out of ten it shouldn’t be part of yours just yet.

Economics is the rational study of efficiency: how best to maximize utility, catch a derivative and set it to zero. Government is a study of sometimes irrational fairness. The two work closely together and are necessarily intertwined in practice, but also necessarily unequal in discourse and theory. They are not on par, cannot be used interchangeably in the pursuit of good policy, and do not deserve the same pedestal in a democratic society such as ours for given reasons.

The basis of our government and our culture as a whole favors being fair over being efficient– the spirit of democracy feeds on the idea that there is no number that outweighs justice. It brings to mind a number of things: utilitarianism for one, which with a special calculus quantifies utility in order to reach a balanced equation for the kind of problem seemingly found only in Omelas,. How many people’s marginal happiness is worth a single child’s undeserved torment? Economics claims that this can be a fair amount. Justice says zero, uncompromisingly.

In a rational society we maximize happiness and profit: leaving poor children without textbooks is a justified solution so long as the detriment of their situation is outweighed by the utility that society receives from taxpayers keeping their dollar. In a just society we maximize equality of opportunity– when that equality is breached, when one child grows up with an unequal capability to engage his or her society as an individual, we know that we have failed on a major level. The fact that America is allowed to forget this mantra in favor of economic buzzwords during political open season is intolerably ignoring the foundation of our society.

This revolves back around to debate and good policy. Because our country favors fairness over economics, good debaters can only argue economics once they’ve justified that their policy is fair. And conversely, once you’ve justified that something is fair it’s your duty to justify that it is also maximally economically efficient, given the constraints. But substituting one for the other is building houses of long elaborate assertions on top of a foundation made of sand– and it drives me crazy as an observer.

Which brings me lastly to government cheese– a colloquial term for government handouts provided to the extremely poor, motivated by a program during the Reagan administration that actually, literally, distributed surplus cheese to those on welfare.
I like to keep my opinions moderate and blunt. Furthermore, I don’t believe there’s a binary opinion out there that could reasonably cover as broad an issue as austerity in government spending. But I do have one binary option to present to anyone considering political office: before you consider abusing economics, please either justify first that your platform preserves the foundations of what we consider justice or get off the podium.

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