Student Debt Relief: An 'Improper, Wicked Project'

In 1787 James Madison wrote Federalist 10, arguing for the value of our Constitution in protecting citizens from the violence of faction.  Madison defined faction as follows.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

The Founders of our country understood the dangers that a reckless and emotional majority could inflict upon the citizenry.  In the penultimate paragraph of the document, Madison listed three worst-case examples of faction to drive home his point.

A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union…

How, in 234 years, did our society go from considering a government abolition of private debt a worst-case example of pandering and a “wicked project,” to judging it a viable foundation for a political platform?  Despite the stunned incredulity suffered by our responsible citizens, student loan forgiveness has successfully made that jump.  What have we forgotten that would allow us to draw such very different conclusions from the same evidence?  Progressives would argue that society has so drastically changed over the last two centuries that the values of the Founders are outdated and useless. Debtors and creditors, however, have existed for millennia,  human nature for eons.  

This rhetorical sleight-of-hand is common amongst ideologues.  Suggesting we are somehow too nuanced or sophisticated for the “outdated,” and “oversimplified” notions of the Founders is appealing to those who lack an understanding of history and to those that use their political positions as opportunities for virtue-signaling.  The notion that the modern need for a college degree is categorically more important than the choices that drove Americans into debt 200 years ago is absurd on its face, even before we consider the watered-down value of so-called, “higher education.”  The argument that the current political dynamic is too sophisticated is an appeal to vanity rather than logic. 

The demand for debt abolition is a symptom of one of the left’s most common, and most irrational, core assumptions, conflating empathy with ethics.  A generation raised on “Mister Rogers” and “Sesame Street” has extended a reasonable social mantra, “Be Kind,” into a litmus test for all social policy.  If it seems like a nice thing to do, it must be the right thing to do.  There seem to be profound psychological differences that make that line of reasoning resonate more strongly with the left, but even for folks not high in the traits of empathy and belonging, the “be kind” argument is easy to accept when it is presented without evidence of the long-term harm that may accompany the immediate “kindness.”

It is not kind to burden one group of citizens for decisions others made and may have benefitted from.  It is not kind to degrade the cultural trust we have in legal contracts.  It is not kind to prioritize an increasingly inefficient and expensive system of higher education over other life choices. It is not kind to reinforce irresponsibility in a generation raised with participation trophies, grade inflation, and a cultish obsession with self-esteem.

Madison also noted in Federalist 10 that the first object of government was the protection of, “different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.” Not protection from different and unequal faculties, protection of.  Our government was not created to protect people from their own bad choices, it was created to protect individuals who make good choices from being overwhelmed and overburdened by those who do not.  Mass debt relief may appear to be a kind solution to a growing problem, but it ignores the root causes of the problem, unfairly burdens those who did not benefit and upon any careful, honest analysis proves itself to be way more of an improper, wicked project than a kind solution.

The inclusion of an idea in historical documents does not guarantee its efficacy or morality, but it does suggest that it resonated with commonly held principles and notions.  Even if you believe debt relief is a good idea there is no doubt that the Democratic party is out of synch with the principles and notions from which our republic emerged.  Whether or not this disconnect is a good thing is certainly debatable. An honest public discussion about how we arrived at such a different attitude may uncover a distinct change in our society’s principles that is at least worthy of note if not being worthy of concern.  I, however, fear that we are far too willing as a society to abolish past principles for the light and transient causes of immediate political profit, and that we will be more disposed to suffer for casting off these forms to which we are accustomed.

Image: Stilfehler

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