I guess I touched a nerve with my letter to the Sun last week, because J.P. Avlon took a few swipes at my position in his column last Thursday:

Mayor La Guardia… saw nothing incompatible with showing compassion for ordinary New Yorkers and mercilessly cutting ineffective bureaucrats–eliminating redundancies, and increasing efficiency….One of the cardinal rules of government leadership is that every crisis contains an opportunity. Slashing the ranks of government workers outright during a time of multi-billion dollar surpluses would have provided a perfect example of E.L. Doctrow’s edged quip that “The philosophical conservative is someone willing to pay the price of other people’s suffering for his principles.” [New York Sun, 5/1/03]

This last quip irked me the most, because it catches people by relying on the unfairness of sacrificing some people for others, when in fact it is defending sacrificing some people for others. I wrote a letter, which I figured wouldn’t be printed as it was several days late–but I wanted to see if I could take on this kind of pragmatism in a compressed space.

Today the Sun printed my letter but omitted my conclusion (which I put in square brackets below):

J.P. Avlon (5/1) argues that the government can live within its means, if only it cuts waste, fraud and abuse. I’ve heard this refrain all my life, yet government has only grown bigger. Waste persists for a reason: If we allow the state to rob Peter to pay Paul, we can hardly be surprised when those doing the job turn out to be dishonest.

Suppose waste magically disappeared and the state conferred unearned benefits only on the “truly needy.” The savings would soon vanish, for important needs would still be going unmet. There is always another vagrant to be fed or housed, another sick person to be cared for, another school to be built, another disease to be cured.

In no era can the state avoid telling needy people that it will not help them, for no budget can ever be big enough to satisfy all needs. [Thus it is absurd to insist, as Mr. Avlon does, that cutting government in good times is impossible. The challenge is the same in good times as in bad: repudiating the irrational “principle” that some must pay the price for the suffering of others–that a need is an entitlement. Philosophical ideas, not “bad times,” are the true cause of budget shortfalls.] [New York Sun, 5/8/03]

The Sun also changed “vagrant” to “person.”

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