Politicians invoke ‘moral duty’ on a selective basis

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 1, 2010

It’s the wrong yardstick.

Listen to politicians when they talk about reforming health care or expanding food programs or even sending aid to help the people of Haiti.

All of those actions are appropriate, noble and commendable. What’s troublesome is the words some politicians use about helping the less fortunate, serving their fellow man, being their brother’s keeper. They talk of a “moral duty.”

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Having morals is great. That individuals have a faith or a conscience that leads them to charity is fundamental to holding society together.

But governments aren’t moral.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

They may engage in actions that have good results, but to say morality is the foundation on which governments function falls way short of accurate.


• Since 1993, Mississippi has banked $4.6 billion from casino developments and local communities have banked hundreds of millions more from casino gambling. If people want to gamble, it’s their money and their business, but I don’t remember any member of the Legislature saying licensing casinos was a “moral duty” of the state. Same for the state’s profits on sales of whisky and beer.

• Today, people who grow tobacco, make cigarettes, ship them and sell them in stores don’t make as much off a pack, combined, as state government. Does that help the less fortunate?

• Today, in a state where joblessness is higher than 10 percent, state and federal taxes on each gallon of gas total 37 cents. With purchases by EBT cards (food stamps) exempted, a struggling family pays 7 percent sales tax on basic commodities — food and clothing. Did the Legislature set those rates because, “we are our brother’s keeper?”

• Government has granted itself authority to take private property, including a family home, for nonpayment of property taxes or maintenance liens. It’s a cumbersome process, but Mississippi doesn’t care how much a home is worth on the open market. Don’t pay your taxes and the tax collector has no choice except to sell your house not for its value — but for what you owe in taxes. Is that charitable?

These examples and many others don’t show government to be mean-spirited or over-reaching or anything. They show it to be functional, using the power of taxation to raise money to spend, in turn, for the common good. That good includes basic services — fire and police operations, streets, bridges and schools — and social programs.

Government is not a bad thing, and government has to have money.

It’s just that when we talk about a person being moral we mean morality drives every decision that person makes. A person who is selectively moral is called a hypocrite.

To do some things that serve the common good, government does other things that are pretty heavy-handed.

Probably not a big deal, but when politicians talk about morality as a reason to pass legislation, it rings rather hollow given that so many other government actions are necessary, but certainly not moral.