Cash for clunkers guilt


Our family thanks you for your generosity. Following the lead of the U.S. House of Representatives and the prodding of the White House, the Senate approved the "cash for clunkers" program last week. When President Obama signs the legislation, I'll be able to get up to $4,500 from Washington, D.C., to buy a new vehicle at your expense.

Although I am thankful to you, I also feel a bit guilty. Check out Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, which tells us what Congress is allowed to do. I can't find where our founding document gives the folks on Capitol Hill the right to plunder you for my car purchase. If pressed, congressional leaders may try to justify the program under the Commerce Clause ("The Congress shall have the power to . . . regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes . . .") or the preceding Welfare Clause ("The Congress shall have the power to . . . provide for the general welfare of the United States . . ."). Like many scholars who read the Constitution in light of the Founders' thinking, my father was rather straightforward---he'd call cash for clunkers "theft." And I feel guilty because I'd be a party to that theft. My father didn't look kindly on that kind of thing. Moreover, I remember writing out the Ten Commandments on little white cards when I was a kindergartner. I recall the Eighth Commandment has something to say about this kind of thing, too: "Thou shall not steal." And Jesus summed up the entire Bible saying, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind . . . and your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39). And the Golden Rule from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12) is giving me fits, too: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . . ."

In an effort to stimulate the struggling auto industry our elected federal representatives are tempting me by moonlighting as car salesmen. Everyone knows that Detroit is struggling, so Congress is stretching the Constitution to do its part with your money to help me out. They approved $1 billion for people like me who want to trade in their old vehicles for new ones with improved gas mileage. That's enough money for about 250,000 people to trade in their clunkers at your expense.

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Here's my problem (and your problem, too, thanks to Congress): The conversion van I bought a few years ago won't pass inspection because the salt solution used on Pennsylvania's winter roads corroded its frame beyond the point of safety. I love that van because it made trips to Florida with my wife and four children to see their grandparents a lot of fun. The van has been sitting in my driveway and I haven't known what to do with it. And now the cash for clunkers program comes along. Problem solved.

Or is it?

I'm in a real moral bind here. My cherished van may be worth only $1,000. So, I'm having trouble resisting Congress's temptation that could quadruple the value of my clunker. Even though cash for clunkers will be legal when it gets the president's signature, the $4,500 incentive I could get wouldn't be coming from the auto companies. You, my neighbor, would be my financier via government force and dubious congressional authority. Did you want to be in the auto financing business? I didn't think so. Oh well, I'll pass on this deal.

Hey wait, don't go yet! If you'd like to buy my beloved van, I've got a fantastic bargain for you, and I'll throw in the custom floor mats too!

Lee Wishing
Lee Wishing

Lee is the administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


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