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Michael Gerson: Austerity and morality

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: December 2, 2012

The courage to take on large interests. If the largest voting bloc or the most organized pressure group always prevails, then public benefits and burdens become a function of political influence, not need or merit. So politicians, at various points, will be required to resist AARP and Americans for Tax Reform, public employee unions and tea party activists.

A sense of humanity. Cuts that are equally applied are not equally felt. Across-the-board cuts are an attempt to avoid political choices, but they do not avoid human consequences.

These leadership attributes came to mind with the approach of World AIDS Day. Foreign assistance is an illuminating example of the challenging politics of austerity. It is particularly easy to highlight the division between citizens and noncitizens and impose burdens on those who do not vote in American elections. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has made the most of this argument — opposing not only security assistance in troubled regions but all foreign aid.

Paul's crusade against aid is most notable as a failure of leadership. It lacks proportion, since the total of humanitarian assistance amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget — an expenditure irrelevant to America's long-term, structural fiscal challenge. Paul is appealing to a narrow element of the conservative coalition rather than encouraging serious conservative reflection on public problems. And he is targeting some of the most vulnerable people in the world for ideological rather than fiscal reasons — attempting to undermine bipartisan, humanitarian achievements on AIDS, malaria and other issues that have saved millions of lives.

This is the ultimate challenge of austerity politics: to reduce the size of the government without dishonoring the values of the nation.