In the past several days I have heard from:
An official of the Neighborhood Legal Services program, who urged me to write something on the importance of legal protections for low-income people;
A California man who fears that the CETA program he runs will shortly go out of business and who believes that a supportive column from me might help;
A widow who wants me to join her fight against an administration proposal to phase out Social Security students' benefits.
Leaving aside the vast overestimation of my influence on the Reagan administration, I'd have no problem defending any of these programs, or any of a host of other Great Society programs similarly under attack. They are, virtually without exception, worthwhile programs.
Neighborhood Legal Services had done for low-income people with civil-law problems what the Public Defender Service has done for low-income criminal defendants. It has protected their rights. If it makes sense that a defendant in a criminal case should not be denied the benefit of a competent defense simply because he had no money to pay a lawyer, doesn't it also make sense that a citizen with a grievance against a public or private institution should not be denied the right to pursue his claim simply because he's broke?
CETA, for all the bad press it has gotten, has managed to get a lot of people trained for useful work and also provided much of that useful work. If the government's position is that "workfare" is preferable to welfare, shouldn't it take some responsibility for seeing to it that people have a chance to obtain the skills that will let them go to work?
Education is a valuable thing, both for individuals and for the society as a whole. Isn't it reasonable, therefore, to insist that the government not abandon a program that makes education possible for children who have lost a wage-earning parent? Furthermore, as the widow pointed out, the government promised her family the college benefits. Indeed, she and her late husband took that promise into account when deciding on how much private insurance to purchase. If it is wrong for a private insurer unilaterally to reduce the coverage spelled out in a policy, isn't it equally wrong for the government to do the same thing?
Equally valid defenses can be made for food stamps, free lunches, housing and farm subsidies, veterans benefits, price supports, fuel allowances or low-cost medical care. Even such things as public support for the arts and humanities or museums, zoos and aquariums are easily defended. They may not be matters of life and death, but doesn't the government have an interest in the cultural life of its citizens?
Take any of these programs one at a time, and their defense is easy. But if you accept as true that the national economy is in desperate shape because of inflation and lagging productivity -- and accept also that both these problems are exacerbated by excessive government spending -- then it makes sense to look for ways to reduce spending.
Obviously, the first thing to look for is waste and fraud. But that doesn't produce enough savings; in fact, it is often the case that efforts to combat waste and fraud cost more than the potential saving. Where to look next?
Some of us would contend that the bloated military budget is the logical place. But the political reality is that military spending won't be cut. What we are stuck with, them, is the necessity of deciding on the least awful of terrible choices.
You can't do that by examining programs one at a time. You have to weigh them one against the others and try to guess which cuts are likely to have the least disastrous long-term effect.
It's a fair guess that the window would opt for saving food stamps for the hungry rather than the Social Security tuition payments for her children, especially if her children would still have access to low-interest government loans for their college education. The staunchest defender of Neighborhood Legal Services might, forced to choose between that program and, say, housing subsidies, elect to defend the housing subsidies.
The hardest thing, of course, is to accept the necessity of such trade-offs. Defenders of the Great Society programs are behaving as though the whole package can be salvaged without jeopardizing the battle against inflation and low productivity.
They may be right, but it is painfully clear that the people in power don't think so. Some time very soon the defenders of programs for the non-rich had better get their heads together to find ways of persuading the administration that the Great Society and a balanced budget are not mutually exclusive or, failing that, to settle on a list of priorities.
Left to their own devices, the administration budget-cutters are likely to take their pound of flesh where it will hurt the most.