Bill Murchison

We always get back to the same place, don't we, whenever something goes wrong -- the place known as How Can the Government Help?

Already Democrats, without too much contradiction from nervous Republicans, are sifting ideas to help the subprime mortgage victims keep their homes despite rising mortgage costs. Denunciations of "predatory" lending practices fill the air, though I'm not aware of a single presidential candidate's having fingered specific predators -- or even having attempted to prove that predatory practices are at the bottom of the problem.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton talks of a $1 billion federal fund to help families likely to find themselves sitting on the curb outside their former houses (or, much likelier, moving into apartments or rental houses). The New York Times on Sunday ran a poignant photo of a father and young son about to be ousted from their home.

This stuff hurts. Home ownership is, allegedly, the American dream, notwithstanding that only in recent decades have a majority of Americans actually owned their homes. Americans don't like the idea of other Americans losing homes and hopes. In which attitude there's much to applaud.

Still, the other side of the coin needs a little burnishing. Any economic system -- in particular the free market system, which is risk-based -- presupposes winners and losers. That you don't win isn't necessarily your fault. Bad luck could be responsible -- as when, in a rush of exuberance, one has borrowed a sum hard or impossible to repay, expecting, like Wilkins Micawber, that "something will turn up." But it doesn't. Now what?

Now some hurt. It sounds heartless to talk clinically of other people's hurt, which is one reason politicians come running with the balm and bandages at times like these. We've come to expect it. In a country where everyone votes, or at least can, the call for government aid is inevitable, even proper up to a point. How pleased would we be as a people if standard government practice was to judge victims of various kinds a bunch of worthless losers, unworthy of the winners among us?

The question, really, isn't whether to help; the questions are how much to help, and at what public cost. A protective layer of government "compassion" that insulates citizens from the consequences of bad choices does little for anyone but the politicians -- and in their case, only as long as their little game goes undiscovered.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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