Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 1999 /11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
Who are the real friends of the poor?
AN IMPORTANT VICTORY for democracy and for liberal values occurred in
Alabama last week. But you could not be expected to know that.
Here's what happened: In 1998 Democratic challenger Don Siegelman
defeated the increasingly embarrassing Republican governor of Alabama,
Fob James, largely on the strength of a promise to make Alabama the 38th
state to sponsor a lottery. As have other governors before him, Siegelman
sold the lottery on the lure of free lunch: The gambling proceeds would
provide money for education, without an increase in taxes. "The people of
Alabama demand the right to vote on an education lottery," Gov.-elect
The resultant referendum was expected to result in approval for a lottery.
But anti-lottery activists mounted a grass-roots campaign, arguing that it
was morally wrong for the state to raise revenues through gambling that
preyed on the poor. Although the gambling interests outspent the
champions of the poor by 4 to 1, the anti-lottery campaign triumphed. On
Oct. 12, to the immense surprise of Gov. Siegelman, the voters rejected a
state lottery, by a solid margin.
No one questions whether state lotteries exploit and penalize the most
vulnerable members of society. A lottery is the most regressive of taxes.
As anyone knows who has watched the line of sad saps betting their
paychecks, the poor spend a much higher (and much more desperately
needed) percentage of their income gambling than do the rich. As anyone
knows who has seen a state lottery commercial, the marketers aggressively
target the poor, endlessly selling the nearly nonexistent chance that a $1 bet
may be the ticket out of the bleak life.
Arguably, government should not exercise itself too extravagantly in the
suppression of private gambling. The pursuit of self-destruction is for many
people the pursuit of happiness. But for a government to actively
encourage, and profit by, such self-destruction -- for a government to
engage in the gulling and the looting of the governed -- is a profound
betrayal of every liberal value there ever was.
The liberal social contract is a simple and great thing. If a people submit to
governance, the governors will govern in the interests of the people. If a
people submit to taxation, the taxers will spend the money to build and
maintain an ordered society that protects the vulnerable and offers a decent
life for the non-rich. This is the American promise: that a person who
works and pays taxes may expect to live in a reasonably safe and sanitary
environment in a reasonably functioning community with reasonably good
In Alabama, as in many places, that contract has been broken for a long,
long time. In particular, the public schools have failed; Alabama routinely
ranks among the last of the states in student achievement. One thing the
schools need is money. Siegelman could have chosen to raise that money
through taxes. But Siegelman had suggested raising taxes once before, and
it had helped cost him an election. No, no new taxes. Better to destroy the
liberal social contract entirely. You want better schools but you don't want
to pay for them? No problem, we'll get the poor folk to pay your freight.
|"Here, wanna take a chance on |
the liberal social contract?"
After his lottery bid was defeated, Siegelman swore he would try again. "I
didn't get my black belt in karate by being a wuss," he said. Really?
Governor, you didn't have the courage to raise taxes to do the right thing
by poor kids, so you bravely decided to rob their parents instead. Wuss.
But, happily, the good activists of Alabama decided to stiffen Gov.
Siegelman's spine for him. "We simply believe that government should not
fund itself with money from the people who can least afford it," said
anti-lottery leader Michael Anderson.
What a splendid thought, and what a splendid victory. But, as mentioned,
you may not have heard much about this victory. The forces of good
government in Alabama, you see, were the armies of the church. Christian
preachers led the drive against the lottery and organized the coalition that
swept the state. So a great victory for liberal values was presented in the
media, to the degree that it was presented at all, as a great victory for the
dogmatists of the Christian Right.
In the new liberalism, and in the new Democratic Party, there is not a lot of
concern for the old notions--clean government, protecting the poor, etc.
There is a lot of concern that politically minded religious Christians pose a
danger to liberal values. In Alabama, a Democratic governor stood strong
for exploiting the poor, so the better-off wouldn't have to pay more taxes,
for a service that government should have been providing in the first place.
The preachers stood for stopping that. Who is the threat
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
10/14/99: Gore's 'courage'!?
10/08/99: Republican Stunts
09/23/99: Buchanan's folly
09/16/99: Beatty and Buchanan: That's Entertainment!
09/09/99: Puerto Rico Surprise (Cont'd)
09/02/99: Puerto Rico Surprise
08/12/99:The Age of No Class
08/05/99: Assessing Welfare Reform
07/29/99: On the Wrong Side
07/21/99: Mass Sentimentality
07/15/99: Blame Hillary
07/08/99: Guide to the Arts: For Your Summer Reading . . .
06/30/99: A Perfectly Clintonian Doctrine
06/25/99:Smorgasbord by the Sea
06/16/99: A National Calamity
06/09/99: Stumbling Forward
06/02/99: Commencement '90s-Style
05/26/99: Will we ever learn? Clintochio is a lying ...
05/19/99: Comforting Milosevic
05/13/99: Short-Order Strategists
05/06/99: Four Revolting Spectacles
©1999, Washington Post Co.