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Proper Response to Genuine Social Injustice: Reflections on Obama’s Student Loan Proposals

I remember having a long series of conversations with a friend about the moral culpability we might have by purchasing products from outfits like Walmart and other companies that provide cheap goods ‘on the backs’ of poor people in other countries.  I was willing to concede that there might be some culpability, but wondered what on earth we could do about it.  I also submitted that previous ‘good intentioned’ efforts to do ‘something’ about it not only exacerbated the problem, but probably created the problem in the first place.  Eventually he acknowledged that most of us are just ‘stuck,’ powerless to really do anything about the issues, and forced on many levels to participate in a system we acknowledge to be ‘unjust.’

Of course, if we are so forced, we must admit that our moral culpability is in fact less then if we brought about the systemic problem in the first place.

Before launching into the purpose this anecdote was meant to highlight, let me give you one more.

About five years ago I attended the International Academy of Apologetics and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.   This, ironically, is where I met the aforementioned friend.  :)  That was one of the best things about the whole event!  But one thing that I really liked was the association of apologetics with human rights, as I personally believe there is an inseparable connection between Christianity and human rights, and believe that the evidence is near conclusive- when you dispense with Christianity, human rights abuses are right around the corner.

I noted privately to myself at the time that we did an awful lot of talk-talk-talk about human rights, but in my view, that’s ultimately meaningless, unless the talk has some backbone to it.  There are at least four important components to the topic:  1., one must actually have a well thought out notion of what ‘human rights’ really are 2., one must be able to communicate it coherently (so, there is a place for talk-talk-talk), and 3., a well thought out notion of what you can and ought actually do when you see human rights be violated, and finally, 4., the willingness to actually do it.

Most conversations about human rights focus on #2.  It is rare to hear someone talk about the basis for ‘human rights.’  You’ll more likely just hear the term thrown around, “the right to housing” or “the right to an education” etc, without any idea whether or not those ‘rights’ really are ‘rights.’  It is easier to sling buzz words around and incite emotions than ground one’s views in reality.  But the real kicker is that without #1, how you proceed in #3 and #4 is left ambiguous.

In sum, what we didn’t talk about at the academy that I really think we should have talked about is precisely what kinds of responses are justified, on the Christian world view, when confronted with human rights violations.  For clearly, on a Christian world view, one cannot just do anything one likes:  if a tyrant is assassinating people left and right that doesn’t mean it is proper to assassinate him!  If you dispense with the Christian worldview, it will still be acknowledged (though on what basis, I don’t know, unless Christianity be true!) that two wrongs don’t make a right.

So now we turn to systemic social injustices such as the current student loan situation here in the US.  This article on Fox News put it well:

But Obama is now seeking to use that new power to obtain a taxpayer-financed stimulus that Congress won’t approve. The idea is to cap student loan repayment rates at 10 percent of a debtor’s income that goes above the poverty line, and then limiting the life of a loan to 20 years.

 Take this example: If Suzy Creamcheese gets into George Washington University and borrows from the government the requisite $212,000 to obtain an undergraduate degree, her repayment schedule will be based on what she earns. If Suzy opts to heed the president’s call for public service, and takes a job as a city social worker earning $25,000, her payments would be limited to $1,411 a year after the $10,890 of poverty-level income is subtracted from her total exposure.

 Obama’s move comes at a moment when many economists are warning of a college debt bubble that is distorting college tuition rates and threatening to further damage credit markets. The president’s move is intended to make college more affordable for more people, which will, in turn allow universities to jack up their rates.

 As in the housing bubble, cheap credit on easy terms increases the amount of money chasing the product (in this case a diploma) allowing schools to increase prices. This inflation makes it harder for middle-class families to afford paying their own tuitions, driving them into the government financing program, which, you guessed it, drives up costs further still.

 All right.  Absolutely true.  But here’s the problem:  this ‘bubble’ has been years in the making.  That is, people have been paying inflated tuition prices for many, many years.   The government has been giving out money for education for decades.  Colleges have been able to increase their tuition prices, which then required people to take out more loans, which… drove costs up further still.  So here is a problem:  I, like many others, had to pay an inflated price and have been stuck holding the bag.  (You can’t even discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy).

Two wrongs don’t make a right.  It was wrong for society to implement a system long before I was born, or old enough to connect the dots.  But making cycle even more pronounced, by inflating the cost of education even more, putting it even more out of reach of American citizens and driving them even more to the government for help is wrong, too.  Actually, it’s virtually diabolical.

Here is my problem as a conservative thinking about this issue:  hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to pay more for what the product was worth and were then turned out into an economy that cannot easily recoup the cost of that product.  And yet, without that ‘product’, it is difficult to obtain a ‘living wage.’  Thus, people are forced to engage in an unjust system that puts a heavy burden on them.  Does society not have a moral culpability to remedy this situation?

And so we come to the rub.  Per my first anecdote, sometimes our ‘remedy’ actually makes the problem worse, and in fact, as in the case of student loans and many other areas, were initially created by such ‘remedies.’  Per the second anecdote, in the face of this problem, merely identifying it is separate than the question of what we can morally do in response.

It is clear that Obama’s ‘solution’ is wrong.  It is precisely because of such ‘solutions’ that we are in the mess we are in.  So what ought we do?  A national forgiveness of all student loans?  (Though, ironically such a program, and a forgiveness of most mortgage loans, would still only ‘cost’ as much as Obama spent on his ‘stimulus’ ‘programs’).  It seems reasonable that people who took out loans are morally responsible to pay for them, even if they were inflated.  Right?

In the words of my friend, it looks to me like we’re just ‘stuck.’  Or in my own words, screwed.  This is a classic example of what happens when you get the government involved in things it ought not be involved in at a level that is unmanageable without the creation of endless agencies and bureaucracies.  I have no proposed solution, except to say that without a doubt Obama’s is madness.  I can’t help but think of the words of that patriot Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense:

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered; and with this maxim in view I offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England. That it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected, is granted. When the world was overrun with tyranny the least remove therefrom was a glorious rescue. But that it is imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise is easily demonstrated.

Absolute governments, (tho’ the disgrace of human nature) have this advantage with them, they are simple; if the people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs; know likewise the remedy; and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures. But the constitution of England is so exceedingly complex, that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies; some will say in one and some in another, and every political physician will advise a different medicine.

Exactly.

But it would appear that some modern ‘political physicians’ specifically wish to create systems that are ‘so exceedingly complex,’ precisely so that they can go from town to town hawking their own ‘different medicine.’  Keep the patient sick seems to be the order of the day.  Otherwise, he won’t need a doctor.

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