Ethics of the Trump Budget: The Social Contract is Dead


Craig Klugman

Publish date

March 17, 2017

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

President Trump released his blueprint for a 2018 federal budget. From an ethical standpoint, the President seems to operates from a Hobbesian standpoint—life is nasty, brutish and short. However, unlike Hobbes who believed that we came together to protect ourselves from this reality, the new budget seems to encourage this idea. The new budget makes deep cuts to all social and scientific programs while boosting the military. In Hobbesian terms, Trumps’ social contract is all about bullying outsiders while leaving insiders in a state of hopeless diffidence.

Since World War II, the United States has invested heavily in science and technology, developing transportation, and building a better world (and winning wars). Since the 1960s, the US has provided a safety net for the poor, support for the arts, and public broadcasting. Since 1970, the U.S. has worked to ensure that people have the opportunity for flourishing by protecting the environment, providing financial aid for college, and strengthening our relationships with international partners—peace through diplomacy.

The 2018 budget undoes 80 years of social progress and support. The new budget defunds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, and most development agencies. Also eliminated are environmental management, research and education; after school programs, clean energy, chemical safety, community services and development, national service programs, clean air, home investment programs, energy assistance programs for low income adults, minority business development, science education, support for the homeless, and peace.

In addition, the budget significantly reduces funding for science (medicine, basic research, NASA, climate science), health care, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, Departments of Labor, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Housing & Urban Development, Transportation and Interior. The NIH alone is scheduled for a 20% cut including elimination of the Fogarty International Center, which funds many of the international research ethics programs. Add to this the proposed $1 billion cut in CDC funding in the new health care plan, and the CDC will not be doing much research, never mind being able to deal with a disease outbreak. The U.S. will become second, third, even tenth in the world in research and innovation. Private companies can do not everything—a society of science requires a commitment to a communal ideal.

The winners in the new budget are the military, which will see a huge increase and the proposed border wall. Rather than talking to other nations and proposing peaceful solutions through diplomacy, we will be saber rattling. For Trump, the sword is mightier than the pen (or the keyboard, though not twitter).

This proposal is a strictly liberalist agenda—a minimal government that provides solely for common defense. For everything else, you are on your own. This budget puts forth an egoist view of the world—that what is good for the world is what each person pursues her or his selfish interests and everyone else be damned, a variation of Ayn Rand’s objectivism. This has been the base philosophy of much of the tea party and the right wing of the Republican party, and now it is our national policy. This budget vision is one where the individual (and corporations which are individuals under the Citizens United decision) are all that matters. The notion of working together to build a more fair, more just society is written off. Views of justice—that there is a certain fairness in helping those less-well off; that equity needs attention when social and economic injustice reigns; and that there are certain things we do together which we cannot do alone (clean air, clean water, general education, supporting the arts and public health)—are the victims of this scorched earth dystopia.

Besides violating the social contract and violating community ethics, the budget is simply bad for the bioethics business. Fogarty International grants have funded several bioethics centers and permitted (forced) sharing (colonizing) our work with other parts of the world. That is gone. NIH funding in ELSI grants led to the development of genethics, and funding for neuroscience and the BRAIN initiative led to neuroethics. That support is gone as well. Although funding for bioethics has never been enormous, what little there was disappears and in the medical and health science institutions where most bioethics works takes place, no funding means no positions. The number of current and near future bioethics jobs just took a nosedive.

The upside is that this budget is highly unlikely to pass as presented. In the federal budget process, the President proposes a budget, but it is up to Congress, specifically the House, to craft the real-world budget and to allocate funding. Already, Republican and Democratic leaders are balking at some aspects of the budget, like cutting nearly a third of the State Department. Other parts, however, fulfill long-held conservative ideals that the best government is one that can be drowned in a bathtub—meaning small, second to states, and not infringing in any way on individual liberty even when it helps everyone.

These are dark days for progressives, scholars, and bioethicists. Our work now is to continue our work—that even without funding we continue to question, to analyze, and to educate. We must advocate with elected officials to fight for those things in which we believe. We must advocate for the importance of science, medical research, the moral imagination and a nation that provides opportunity for all, protection for the 98%, and a vision of hope for the world.

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